Well, that was quick. Steam Greenlight launched last week, and a horde of jokers and spammers took that to mean "open the floodgates on vaporware and oh-so-original cracks about the fact that Half-Life 3's not out yet." But now, without missing a beat, Valve's moved to put a stop to all the shenanigans. In short, submitting a game to Greenlight requires an initial $100 fee - with all of the proceeds going straight to the Child's Play charity. So it's about "cutting down the noise in the system," not creating the most hilariously diabolical money-making scheme the gaming world's ever seen. But will it work? And does it alienate the folks who need Greenlight the most? I discussed Valve's rather sudden decision with a few especially smart (and attractive) developers to get a clearer view of the situation.
First, let's start with the easy knee-jerk reactions. By and large, we're looking at two camps: either 1) "Pfft, only $100? That's nothing. It'll keep out the riff-raff, but leave the door wide open for legitimate projects" or 2) "$100?! And that's only for the slight chance that my game might eventually appear on Steam's storefront? I have bills to pay and 17 cats to provide for. No deal." As per usual with these things, however, the reality of the matter falls somewhere in the middle.
"$100 is a lot for me right now, because I've released all of my games [thus far] for free, and I'm supporting myself on freelance work and contracts till I get my first 'real' game done," said Dames Making Games founder and It's Not Okay, Cupid developer Zoe Quinn. "That's eating for a month."
But, on the flipside, Steam Greenlight's hardly the only option for smaller independent developers. And amidst cries that Valve's hammering nails into the coffins of game dev dreams the world over, it's important to keep things in perspective. "I don't think Steam would probably publish things that can't make $100 on their own," Quinn noted, referring to overall quality and ability to attract players. Dungeons of Dredmor executive producer and Breadbros Games developer Ben McGraw agreed.
"I know many [who live from paycheck-to-paycheck] in the indie community," he explained. "However, I've never seen a living-on-the-edge team who couldn't scrounge up the $100 or so for an iOS license or the Xbox Live Indie Games license, etc."
Antichamber creator Alexander Bruce, meanwhile, took it one step further: this, he noted, might actually be better for small-time developers in the long run.
"Release the game on something other than Steam - your website or any other distribution service - make $100 in sales, then submit to Greenlight. There is nothing that says that you need to launch on Steam. Releasing on other platforms can also be a good way to drive people to your Greenlight page, as they already enjoy the game and want to help see it succeed.
"If the $100 is going to seriously fuck you over, you're basically saying that without Steam, you're dead. That seems like a terrible plan in the first place."
That said, it's certainly not all sunshine, roses, and firm, approving handshakes from Gabe Newell that tell you, yes, everything really is going to be alright. Greenlight's got problems, and $100 submission fees are just the beginning.
"I think 100 bucks is a bit much, personally," said Quinn. "$20 -$50 would probably keep out the people who seem to be the 'this is why we can't have nice things' horde. And I think the move was a little bit hasty considering it was the first thing Valve tried. I think a good step would be for Steam to be clearer about what its standards are and what they're looking for."
Steam Greenlight, after all, isn't a golden ticket into Valve's magical videogame factory. It's an opportunity to have a game curated - and maybe even turned down - by Valve. Steam's still not as open as, say, Desura - nor, in all likelihood, will it ever be. That's not the point. Is it fair to charge $100 for that? The jury's still out. But, for better or worse, developers shouldn't go in expecting something entirely different.
"The thing about Greenlight versus, like, iOS is that it's not a 'Pay this, then you're direct to sale and just need to make the money back' type of setup," said Bruce. "It's 'Pay this to have your game looked at, where it's still probable that it won't get selected. They're quite different scenarios, because in one instance you're just fooling the public [with a bad game], and in another, Valve are going to look at your thing and go 'This doesn't fit our audience' if you submit something shit."
"It really just seems like an error in communication," Quinn added. "Which, again, is one of the reasons I didn't make a page for It's Not Okay, Cupid yet. It's clearly not Steam quality at this point [in development]. And if I don't have a gameplay demo or video that shows that it should be up there, I don't know why I'd put it on Greenlight."
Granted, the presences of, say, Rogue Warrior, FlatOut 3, and Bad Rats on Steam proper lend credence to the idea that even Valve's selection process is far from perfect. Further, even beyond basic communication. Valve's actions also aren't doing the greatest job of bringing Greenlight's main purpose into, well, light.
"I would've liked to see them trying closer moderation and searchable filters before charging so much," said Quinn. "Or at least requiring a playable demo. Maybe Steam should stop accepting stuff in the probably-vaporware stages and require a prototype. That seems like a more on-point way of dealing with it. And if that doesn't work,then start charging more than the iOS App Store and the Google store."
So Greenlight's a bit of a mess at the moment. But this is largely uncharted territory, and Valve seems pretty open to both tweaking (today's update, for instance, also brought a new user-specific window full of popular and new Greenlight games) and radically revamping its process. Developers, meanwhile, are coping in their own ways. For instance, many are following the example of this Dejobaan post, wherein the developer promised to loan $100 to promising indies (on the condition that they eventually return it) and encouraged others to do the same.
It is, in other words, a brave new world. Is it what Valve or developers expected? Certainly not. Will it ultimately succeed? Who knows. But the wheels are definitely in motion. Here's hoping that, in this case, green really does mean "go."