It’s no secret that Steam Greenlight has a bad reputation.
Not that Joan Jett brand of cool, rock and roll bad reputation either, but more the kind of bad reputation ascribed to those charged on multiple counts of public masturbation.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been some Greenlight success stories, but they’re heavily outweighed by an inexorable slurry of horrors. Go and have a look at the ‘Most Recent’ queue, or better yet have a gander at Jim Sterling’s extensive coverage on the subject – the results aren’t pretty.
Before discussing its upheaval, let’s consider what Greenlight is actually for. Its established ideal, one which I wholeheartedly support, is to set up a democratic process which knocks down the barrier between developer and player. That would have been a fine achievement, had that been what actually happened. Instead we’re left with a system that leaves many developers stranded while flooding Steam with a plethora of low-effort, asset-flipping, soulless releases born of the cynical mantra that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
In such dire straits have certain indies found themselves, they’ve resorted to setting up Facebook groups with the intention of devs upvoting one another’s games on Greenlight, with some even offering up Steam keys for votes in a move upon which Valve have since clamped down. I’m not for a second blaming the developers who feel the need to go to those lengths; what I am blaming is the system that makes those lengths seem necessary.
Thankfully, a solution has been found to deter those posting games that aren’t games, or are largely stolen, or are just generally god-awful. That solution was a $100 fee introduced back in 2012 with the intention of ‘increasing the signal-to-noise ratio’. Unfortunately, as anyone who has recently visited Greenlight four years after the fee’s introduction can attest, the current signal-to-noise ratio is about the same as you’d get by putting a few ham radio hobbyists inside a fission reactor.
One developer got into a particularly public lather over what he thought were gross injustices in the system. Please note the ‘shitshell’ in parentheses, in case the faecal analogy had gone over anyone’s head.
The fee demonstrably hasn’t worked, and there are those who suggest it may even deter genuine indies. This includes David Johnson of Smudged Cat Games, who has said that “Just a $10 fee would stop people submitting rubbish, and $100 is a lot to some people”. On the latter point he’s absolutely correct, the former is debatable considering the $100 fee hasn’t managed to filter out the rubbish. Nonetheless, it’s a not inconsiderable price to pay in order to get your work into the public eye. Many have even deemed the process a ‘lottery’, but aren’t lotteries supposed to be somehow rewarding? And what, pray tell, does this particular lottery have as its grand prize if you’re able to somehow get through the pernicious slalom of the entire damn process? That’s right, it’s a spot on Steam’s store! Yay…?
Is there really any kind of allure to being included in that store any more? Any residual scrap of the illustriousness of which that position could previously boast? Frankly, the Steam storefront is beginning to look more and more like the window-dressing for one of those disturbingly cheap supermarkets, displaying orangeade, several different kinds of paté, and a box of tins that are labelled simply ‘fish’.
Even Gabe Newell has taken a kick at Greenlight, calling it a “bad example of an election process” and adding “We came to the conclusion pretty quickly that we could just do away with Greenlight completely, because it was a bottleneck rather than a way for people to communicate choice”. In 2014 we got unambiguous clarification on the matter: “Or goal is to make Greenlight go away”, Newell told a room of developers in the manner of a Mafia boss euphemistically instructing his henchman to take care of a loose end.
Since then, the only substantial change seems to be the introduction of Steam Early Access, allowing games to be put on Steam unfinished and allowing players to fund the ongoing development. It’s been plagued by problems of its own, indeed some developers have avoided it altogether, but it does at least give developers a little more power than the broken alternative. That’s not to say that Early Access doesn’t need a thorough re-evaluation itself, although the introduction of refunds was a welcome start.
In Greenlight, we have an outdated, fatuous system of indie devs purchasing a raffle ticket and hoping they can get even a slither of the attention of Punch The Innocuous Ungulate 3, or something of that ilk. A system which has been given a hearty kicking by those responsible for its creation, and which makes something as flawed as Steam Early Access seem just fabulous in comparison.
What can be used to replace Greenlight for good? How can we find an infallible way to give indies the exposure they deserve? I don’t have the answers. I’m not sure what can be done in order to make things better, but this much I know, as aghast I watch the trailer for The Slaughtering Grounds once more: it can’t get any worse than this.