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Indies On Steam Greenlight, Part One: The Present

Tell Them When Their Light Turns Green

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Steam’s light has turned green, which means indie games which are not already available on Valve’s market-ruling online PC gaming store can now petition users to vote for them, in the hope that the eye of benign Sauron will turn to their game and grant it a coveted spot on Steam. I could all too easily hold forth about the pros and cons of the Greenlight system, enthuse about the potential democracy it might mean, muse about whether it’s an attempt to prevent Kickstarter stealing Steam’s thunder, wonder why a company so boundlessly rich can’t just employ a huge team of experts to assess every game submitted to them, why the blue blazes they’d include the troll-gift that is a downvote option, and offer hope that it means a bright new age of bold games finding larger audiences.

But I’m just some shmoe. So, far better to talk to the people Greenlight actually affects – the indie developers who are (or are considering) using it as a way to attain profile+profit for their projects. Specifically, developers who’ve worked on games including Gratuitous Tank Battles, Time Gentlemen Please, Waking Mars, Revenge of the Titans, Kairo, Kenshi, Leave Home, Redshirt and InFlux. In part one of this feature, read on for their thoughts on the joys of Greenlight in concept – but the possible problems in practice.
The big thing to bear in mind with Greenlight is that it’s only just launched. There aren’t too many Valve products which are the same today as they were upon initial release, so let’s not start thinking what we’ve got right now is the be all and end all of what is inherently an experimental system, both in concept and in execution. The point of this piece is to raise the major talking points around Greenlight and offer hopes for what it might evolve, not to pillory it for launch-week flaws.

Let’s start with the concept of Greenlight – an answer to the oft-asked question ‘why isn’t game x on Steam?’ Valve have decided to put at least part of the decision-making on this front in the hands of their customers, rather than expanding the team they use to assess submissions. “I think it’s a much-needed leap forwards” says Size Five Games‘ Dan Marshall, whose next game The Swindle isn’t ready yet, but he’s been watching Greenlight closely. “The old, closed off, blind system was bad for devs, bad for Steam and ultimately bad for customers who wanted a favourite game available but couldn’t do anything about it. It’s arguably not a perfect system, and obviously in these early days it’s all a bit hectic, but I have faith it’ll calm down and be a force for good.”

Former Ion Storm Austin dev Randy Smith of Tiger Style, whose highly-regarded action-puzzle-botany iPad title Waking Mars has taken its impending PC version to Greenlight, is pleased to see it happen too. “Giving Steam regulars a voice in what indie games get created seems promising conceptually, or at the very least a worthwhile experiment, and I applaud Valve for trying a new approach. They can be very nimble for a huge company!”

Richard Perrin, aka Locked Door Puzzle, whose exploration-based first-person puzzler Kairo is one of the first wave of games on Greenlight, feels similarly. “Steam has historically been this bizarre black box to those on the outside. Getting games on there seemed to be three parts quality, two parts luck and one part witchcraft. So actually having some visibility over the process and essentially being given the chance to fight for your game in the court of public opinion seems like a step forward.” There is, however, a concern that Greenlight might achieve the opposite of what it intends. “I fear super niche or under marketed games are now going to be completely sidelined when before they had some sliver of hope.”

Everyone I spoke to was onboard though, at least with the concept. “It’s no secret that the process for getting smaller games onto Steam has been broken for a long time,” offers Luke Dicken of Robot Overlord Games, who are working on Easy Money and contributed to Redshirts. “If you can get your game in front of the right person at the right time, maybe you’ll have some success, but it’s been a very loose, informal hit-and-miss process.” He also raises a point I’ve wondered about myself- is this Valve trying to improve things for indie gaming, or is it them striving to keep up with the crowdsourced Joneses? “The rise of Kickstarter, IndieGoGo etc and even Reddit means that users want the power to have their say. On paper, Greenlight looks like it ticks all the right boxes.”

So that’s the theory – what about the practice, mere days on from Greenlight’s launch? The wheezing state of the ever-overburdened RPS inbox, now also carrying the weight of dozens of emails with ‘Greenlight’ in the title, suggests indies aren’t dragging their heels about using Valve’s new system – which means, as with Kickstarter, we now face the issue of how to democratically report on games that do this. But more on that soon – if for no other reason than the fair amount of discord about Greenlight’s current state of play. “In practice it’s a bit messy so far,” thinks Joe Wintergreen-Arthur of Impromptu Games, who has ‘meditative exploration and puzzle platforming’ game InFlux up on Greenlight. “The submission process is super easy, but it’s hard to find what you’re looking for without a direct link, so discoverability is an issue. Nobody seems to have any idea how the games on the front page are sorted, there’re no stats on exactly how many thumbsups you’ve got, and nobody’s passed 5% of the mysterious ‘necessary positive ratings.”

Then there’s the fact that anyone can upload anything to Greenlight, regardless of whether they’re a) involved in it b) it exists. Which is why you might have found the likes of Battlefield 3 up there. Oh, what japes – but there are more serious perversions of the system. “My old freeware game the white chamber was uploaded by someone who claimed we’d somehow lost the rights to it and now they were repackaging it,” reveals Kairo dev Richard Perrin. “Thankfully by the time I found out it had already been reported and removed but the system is awash with such fakes and jokes.” Fortunately, it appears Valve are starting ban Steam users who submit fake Greenlight projects, so hopefully the hoaxes will start to be few and far between. The lulz squad won’t be happy, but hopefully the ultimate outcome – more indie games on Steams – will be worth the cost.

Still, even if the fakes are removed, Perrin worries that “the discovery process on the site itself is horrific. Just showing a totally random selection of all submissions with no filtering options is a nightmare. Essentially as a developer it now seems up to us to become spammers to get people to our page, since they’re not really likely to find it amidst the jumble.”

The same issue apparently applies even to more famous names. “We’re established indie devs with a strong background (having worked on titles like Thief and Deus Ex and our own Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor)” says Tiger Style’s Randy Smith. “We made a custom professional video to demonstrate our game on PC, our game already exists and has heaps of glowing press quotes with a very strong metacritic rating, and yet we’re buried alongside flash game prototypes made by hobbyists. I’m glad hobbyists get to share their game ideas; the coolest promise of Greenlight is that it may help rising stars with awesome ideas get recognized. But at the moment, there are very few reliable means by which the higher quality material can rise to separate from the chaff.

“Greenlight is supposed to help with selection, but in the meantime it’s become a discovery problem. There are already over 500 games up there with more coming in all the time. How do you keep up and look through all of them? If you can’t keep up, then how do you direct your attention? In that sense, Greenlight seems poised to inherit the App Store problem of “just too many games,” which Apple solved with lots of hands-on curation, but since Greenlight is about community curation, that can’t be the solution.”

Community creation – or mob rule? There’s an inherent risk of the rich getting richer, in that games with large communities will be far more likely to reach the requisite number of votes – but then you could argue games of that kind of profile should be on Steam anyway, so no harm done. In theory.

Cliff Harris of Positech, whose Gratuitous Tank Battles is already available on Steam-proper, fears there’s a broader wisdom-of-the-crowds issue. “Games that appeal to reddit readers will get upvoted, but games appealing to the time-poor 30+ gamer (who may be more likely to buy the game, but less likely to partake in online forums and voting) do not.” Such demographic factors might prove to the favour of those developers who are that much more adept at social media and the fine art of self-promotion. “The danger is that indie devs take some of the time they currently spend coding, designing and testing, and become professional schmoozers and socialisers in order to persuade enough people to click a thumbs up button. The devs with the widest range of Facebook friends will get most upvotes, but it doesn’t mean they have the best game.”

Greg Lobanov of Dumb and Fat Games, whose haunted-suburbs RPG Phantamurbia put up its Greenlight page yesterday, wrote to RPS to say he’s apparently been on the receiving end of narrow-minded crowds. “It seems like they’re expecting AAA gunporn, and they’ve been quick to “downvote” many games that look a little too indie, or, in their words, “like a Flash game.” My game’s not even Flash, but the ratings on my game send a pretty harsh message. It’s also frustrating that the comments and private ratings on my game paint a very different picture of the community reaction.”

We’ll get to downvoting in a minute. An underlying question, perhaps, is whether a game that’s able to whisk up a big community will get onto Steam at the expense of a game that can’t. With no money involved in the Greenlight voting process, in theory a more ‘successful’ game won’t actually be taking anything away from from smaller, quieter ones. If Valve decide to run Greenlight as a straight alternative to the more traditional submission process, then things do perhaps get more worrisome. The right man in the right place can make all the difference in the world, to coin a phrase – let’s hope Valvian ears can still be won by those with great names but small voices.

Another potential dilemma is whether games that don’t deserve support and profile can end up Greenlit, while worthier titles struggle to be noticed. “There’s gonna be a million non-existing projects with nothing to show but ideas and a couple of models of an AK47,” believes Chris Hunt of Lo-Fi Games, whose squad-based, sandbox RPG Kenshi is on Greenlight. “90% of starting out indie projects don’t go anywhere, and they’re gonna clutter the place and make it difficult to find the real projects.”

Adds Luke Dicken of Robot Overlord, “[it puts] ‘that thing we were talking about in the pub last night’ on the same pegging as teams that have been working on a project for upwards of a year and are now trying to get some attention for their game and find a route to distribution on Steam. I can think of two great examples of this: “Rekoil” which is exhibiting at PAX right now and got a great reception at E3. “Merchant” is another that’s being developed by a dedicated group of students and already has execution to back up its ideas, but trying to find the wee gems like this in amongst the noise of undeliverable projects, Minecraft clones, ‘request posts’ for Half-Life 3 and so on is really difficult.”

Then there’s the aspect of Greenlight that’s got a great many people confused, and upset – the downvote system. If you find yourself on a game’s Greenlight page, you can either vote for it, or against it. It’s a system that’s overwhelmingly reminiscent of Reddit, but we’re talking about something that could change people’s livelihoods here, not just affect website traffic. Why does downvoting exist? Is it Valve simply trying to be like Reddit, is at an attempt at introducing a counter to mob rule, or is it troll bait with no discernible purpose and whose only outcome might be to make devs feel bad about themselves?

“A downvote button? Seriously?” offers Puppy Games‘ Caspian Prince, whose Revenge of the Titans and Titan Attacks are already on Steam. “In a medium reknowned for griefers, spite, haters, 4channers, and internet-anonymity-fucktards in general? And also: comment moderation is reactive rather than proactive – meaning the same nasty negative people who like to downvote things can also leave their nasty griefing, spiteful, hating, ugly, profane, lying, exaggerated, bullshitting, thoughtless vitriol for all to see long before any developer gets a chance to delete it. It’s bad enough having to read this stuff in private, let alone know that everyone else has read it too.”

Rather less profanely, Thomas Hopper of TACSgames, whose puzzle platformer Super Skull Smash GO! can be found on Greenlight here, asks “If we have enough positive feedback to get the game on Steam does it matter if the same number of people again didn’t care for the game?” Indeed – and capitalism, which Greenlight might not be as such but is certainly on the road thereto, is not about the people who don’t buy a product, only those that do.

Even beyond the sheer pointlessness of the downvote, it can be actively dispiriting for developers. Hermit Games’ Matt James, who put ‘algorithmic, generative and metaphorical arcade game’ qrth-phyl on Greenlight yesterday, noticed that “53% of the votes for the game have been thumbs down which is depressing. There have been some troll comments too but not as bad as something like Youtube.” Troll bait is the only purpose anyone I spoke to could imagine for the downvote, and I’m very much inclined to agree that it can only be harmful, but perhaps Valve have a smarter purpose for it yet to be revealed. Matt James also notes that Steam apparently isn’t yet driving traffic to his game – “rather I’ve driven traffic to my [Greenlight] page through twitter etcetera.” James previously had his game Leave Home flat-out rejected for Steam release, but “I’m not yet sure if this is any better for me.”

The Greenlight process has proven to be curiously opaque, too. There’s confusion around exactly how many votes will trigger acceptance (the official line is “it’s going to change during the first few days/weeks since we don’t know what kind of traffic to expect”) and indeed what happens beyond that. “There’s a real lack of detail about what “acceptance” through Greenlight entails, or what it actually provides,” thinks Robot Overlord’s Luke Dicken. “I suspect that this vagueness is partly to try to avoid being obliged to carry some nonsense game that managed to get a lot of attention, but as a developer, they’re wanting me to put myself out there as part of their popularity contest, but they’re not being particularly forthcoming with why I should other than “OMGSTEAM!”.

Not that it’s all bad news, however. “We’re getting a huge amount of positive feedback,” claims Joe Wintergreen-Arthur of Impromptu games. “Everyone seems super excited about the game, which is great, because it’s easy to get to a point with a project where you can’t tell whether it’s even a good idea anymore. I think once these – really pretty obvious – issues get sorted out this is going to be an amazing thing for indie devs.”

Chris Hunt of Lo-Fi Games, meanwhile, reckons that ” I’ve gotten a months worth of traffic overnight,” and adds that “game listing order seems relatively random, which gives fair exposure all round, although it does also seem to have favorites that always appear at the top for no reason.”

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the submission process is quick and easy, and flexible. “You’ve got complete control over the assets (vids, screenies, blurb) you put up there,” points out Puppy Games’ Caspian Prince. “You don’t need a finished game, or even an alpha, maybe just an amazing idea.” Again, the potential price paid for this is fakes and dodgy wares slipping through, but even so this system must be a breath of fresh air to anyone who’s ever spent weeks or months waiting for App Store or XBLA approval – or, indeed, for an email from Valve.

In part two of this look at what Greenlight means, or might mean, for developers, we’ll discuss its future – what changes it might need, and how democratic a system like this can ultimately be.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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