Guest Thoughts : Steam Greenlight

When Valve made the announcement of a charitable fee for any entries into their Greenlight service- there was quite an outpouring of voices. Some mad, some agreeing, some offering to pay for any independent developers wanting to enter a game but unable to afford the fee.

Our good friend Andi McClure weighs in.

Yesterday, Valve announced that their new Steam Greenlight service, after less than a week of being online, apparently had too much content of a type they didn't like and something needed to be changed. They decided to institute a $100 fee to enter a game, with the money to be forwarded to the Child's Play charity.

I have some opinions about this.

I'm a solo game developer. I have a day job writing software (not games); in the evenings I write little indie games, and then I post them for free on the internet. I've been doing this for about four and a half years. I do it because I really enjoy it; I look at it as artistic expression. I'm not really all that concerned with whether anyone in the world likes my games other than me. It does seem there are people who like my games anyhow. I released one game, called "Jumpman" (get it, like Mario, ha ha), which got a pretty fair amount of indie and blog attention. That was my first game-- I spent about a year making it, then spent some more time porting that to iPhone, and since then I've been working on scattered, mostly smaller projects. Since I do this stuff in my spare time only, there's a limit on the scope of projects I can take on.

Sometimes I think about larger scale projects that I might someday be able to sell or try to make a living off of. The problem with these projects is they would be a huge amount of investment and risk for very, very little chance of a monetary return. One of the biggest things holding me back from such projects is I'm not even sure-- even if I made what I knew was a fantastic game-- that at the end of the process I'd even be able to sell my game. If I got to the end of the process and I knew that success or failure was all about whether I promoted right, or whether the game was good, that would be one thing. But it's very hard to start on a project like this if you know you might get to the end and get nothing because some random suit at Valve or Sony or just decided your game shouldn't be sold. There are some ways of selling games now that didn't exist five years ago that don't have these problems, things like the "mac app store" or Desura, but on the other hand some of these have structural or technical problems that make it difficult for even quality content to find success there. The best chances for someone like me to actually sell something that I see on the horizon are either the Humble Store (a really cool project from the Humble Indie Bundle team that, unfortunately, isn't available for actual use yet) or Steam.

Steam is the way that a lot of people I know buy games-- the only way. They won't bother buying games from even AAA developers if it isn't on Steam. Have to sign up for Origin or whatever? Screw that. Aside from the enormous amount of consumer lock-in Steam has, Steam is also the only online store to get certain basic things right. They're the only online store with a working content discovery model. There's rumors they'll be releasing a Linux version soon; if this happens, they'll basically be the only viable way to deploy a game on Linux ('cuz holy hell, right now deploying on Linux is a disaster). Etc.

When I heard about Greenlight, I was really excited. It seemed like a huge improvement on the old submission model for Steam (which was pretty close to, "you have to know someone"). I thought, well, I don't know for a fact I can get something through Greenlight, but at least under *this* system (as opposed to the old one) I had a chance. Besides being excited about submitting my own games, Greenlight, as initially presented, meant projects I really wanted to *play* would see the light of day which otherwise wouldn't have even existed. There's an XBLIG game called Crosstown; it's looking like it's getting ported to PC to be sold on Steam, and if the dev hadn't had the Greenlight guarantee that they would be able to sell the game when they were done I don't think they would have bothered even attempting the port.

My original plan-- I'd hoped to do this day one, but then the Greenlight "ship date" snuck up on me so I hadn't done it yet as of this morning-- was to take Jumpman and put that on Greenlight with a promise to put in achievements and some of the features the iPhone version had but the PC version didn't; and also, experimentally, make a Greenlight page for a game of mine called Angels, a really promising prototype that I spent about a year on but which stalled out on after a certain point. With Angels, I was almost less interested in actually achieving the Steam brass ring than just putting the thing out there to gauge whether people found the project interesting enough to justify completing it. In both these cases, I'd be doing something I am not altogether suited to do. I think I'm pretty good at the game making stuff; I find the PR stuff much harder, I find it difficult to sell games and hunt down bloggers to talk about stuff. Making trailer videos is not my core competency. In order to go and get something promoted, I have to expend valuable time that I could have spent working on games. But I figured, I could get on Greenlight and make that a long term project. If I don't have time to do a blog blitz now, I could do it next month. It was more than worth what I was being asked to put into it.

Okay so then today Steam announces the $100 thing.

On the face of it, this is bullshit. To enter my two potentially Greenlight-able projects, I'm paying $200 for... what, exactly? To enter a big MMO where I am expected to go and hype my project all over the internet, and then *maybe* at the end I will be one of the minority of projects which is allowed to *begin* selling a game, at which point I must start the promo cycle all over again.

I feel like this is a song I've heard before. The indie community already offers a series of festivals, or awards ceremonies or whatever, where you can pay $100-- the IGF, Indiecade, whatever-- for the hope of some kind of fabulous prize that, technically, only really equates to increased exposure for your game. In most of these cases, your game goes into a black hole and you never hear anything back about it. These kinda feel to me like scams. I entered Jumpman-- my original game, probably the best thing I've made-- into the "PAX 10" after it was finished. I felt really stupid about this later, and I haven't entered any of these festivals since. Other than time investment, Jumpman had a budget of exactly $30. I spent about $75 to put it into PAX 10. I could have also submitted to the IGF ($95) or Indiecade ($50) or the Indie Game Challenge ($100). Assume I actually entered Greenlight on top of those. I have now spent $420, fourteen times as much on all these random challenges and promotion opportunities as I did on creating an actual game.

I do have a day job, and I can afford some of this. The question is why I should bother. I do have other expenses; is $100 to enter Steam's little MMO worth displacing one of those other expenses over? It sure would be neat to own a 3DS, or fix that cracked window. My spouse is currently in the process of starting a small business; she opened a store last month selling fish and lizards. I *could* direct money toward my crazy game making hobby, but it sure would make more sense to direct that money toward supporting her store, since in that case we have a much clearer idea of how and whether that money is ever going to be made back. And if I *were* directing money toward my game making hobby-- why Greenlight? If I was in a place to budget $100 for my games I'd rather spend that on hiring a sprite artist or something to make the actual games better. Whether I can spare a hundred dollars for indie game development or or not, $100 to Greenlight is $100 taken out of the rest of my game's budget. (Awhile back I did make that iPhone port, and that required a $100/year upfront investment plus some hardware upgrades. But again, in that case, I knew how I was going to make the money *back*-- and I did make the money back-- because in that case, $100 to Apple means you get to put something on the store and sell it. $100 to Greenlight comes with no guarantees.)

Some people can't spare $100. I drove up to the city over the weekend to hang out with some people I know from the indie game community. They do this for a living-- no day job like I have. These are fairly successful indie devs, more successful at it than me certainly, people with published games. They regularly have trouble affording things like rent and food. At one point in the afternoon, we decided to stop by a cheeseburger stand and grab something. Not everyone present was able to afford a cheeseburger. They sat and watched the people who could eat. I was sitting there, feeling super guilty that I can afford $7 for a sandwich when these other people in my community can't. Three days later, I'm sitting reading Twitter, and Ben Kuchera-- who as I understand has a steady job working for Penny Arcade, the exact people who are receiving the Greenlight money-- is saying that these people who can't afford a $7 cheeseburger just plain don't deserve to have anyone play their games if they can't pony up $100 on a whim to buy what amounts to a classified ad on Greenlight.

The Child's Play thing, incidentally, is a hilarious little flourish-- you may or may not be aware of this, but there's a pretty nasty backlash against Penny Arcade in some corners that's been coming to a head over the last few months. There was a little boycott of PAX and such. These are the people Steam selected to receive the Greenlight money. Personally, honestly, I'd actually have a much easier time stomaching the $100 Greenlight fee if the money were going to almost any other charity in the world other than Child's Play. There are charities I'd donate to on my own-- Child's Play is not one of them. Why this is the case isn't really important. The thing that is important is, the choice of Child's Play means Valve is not paying enough attention to the indie community to have the slightest idea that the exact set of people most likely to already have a problem with the $100 entry fee for Greenlight are the exact set of people most likely to be currently boycotting the products and projects of Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. That says something strong about the extent to which Valve cares about or is actually engaged with the exact community that Greenlight was pitched as building a bridge to.

Anyway, I'm not really interested in Greenlight anymore now that the $100 fee is in place. I'm not currently planning to submit my games to it. I'm not... well, I guess at some point I'll probably go on and rate some games, but I'm much less interested in browsing it post-fee, because I expect the $100 fee to let through every piece of shovelware from cell phone game startups (to whom $100 is not really anything) while screening out the exact set of people I was most interested in seeing the games of-- experimental concepts, unfunded developers to whom $100 is an amount of money that if it gets spent on Greenlight it's getting cut from somewhere else. But if the $100 per *submission* (!) fee for Greenlight does anything, it discourages experiments. And I feel like a lot of those people whose games I'm most interested in might make the choice I'm leaning toward and figure, well, if it's $100 just to *apply* maybe I'll find some other approach. I've already heard on Twitter from one solo dev today who said after the Greenlight fee announcement that they're glad they got their game on Steam under the old system, because they think they would have just been plain scared off by the new one. There's apparently stuff the old system let through that the newest version of the system wouldn't.

- Andi McClure