Oh wow. This came out of nowhere, and it seems basically brilliant. Valve just tossed up a webpage for Steam Greenlight, wherein "developers post information, screenshots, and videos for their game and seek a critical mass of community support in order to get selected for distribution." So basically, it's Steam Workshop for entire games, and - in theory - it gives a wartime-battlecry-like voice to smaller developers who felt they weren't being heard by Valve. Further details and thoughts after the break.
So, for the uninitiated, the big problem for smaller developers attempting to get on Steam was that they'd send off a product to Valve, wait, and then get a "yes" or "no." And that was it. No "whys" or "hows." Greenlight, meanwhile, looks pretty clear cut. Developers submit screenshots, videos, demos, etc, and the community discusses and votes accordingly. So it sounds equal parts simple and ingenious, though Valve's not entirely done working out the kinks. The official Greenlight page explains:
"[Number of votes needed to gain full approval] is going to change during the first few days/weeks since we don't know what kind of traffic to expect. Part of the drive for this system is the need for customers to help us prioritize which games they want to see made available on Steam. So the specific number of votes doesn't matter as much as relative interest in a game compared with other games in Steam Greenlight."
"We're going to be reaching out to developers as we see their games getting traction regardless of whether they have achieved a specific number of votes or are sitting 1st or 2nd place at any given time. We are most interested in finding the games that people want, not requiring them to always hit a specific number of votes."
Also interesting: Valve's highly encouraging developers to continuously update, submit early builds of their game, and actively engage with the community to grease the wheels on voters' rusty metallic hearts. So Greenlight could very well standardize Minecraft-style open development even more so than it's already standardized itself. By the same token, however, copyrighted violations and "offensive material" are banned, so it's not quite a lawless game development frontier.
Of course, there are still all sorts of potential drawbacks. At the end of the day, this will probably result in a flood of new content for Steam, so it could become significantly more difficult to find what you're actually looking for. And sure, some smaller games might be able to establish enough of a community to get listed, but will they be able to gain enough visibility to actually make money? Could Greenlight even take away from the explosive boost smaller developers get by adding their games to Steam? And, if so, what will smaller developers do about marketing?
To Valve's credit, however, it's constantly adapting and tweaking, so a few of these problems may get hammered back down moments after they spring up. For now, though, all we can do is wait until the end of August, when Gabe Newell trots out his pair of comedically over-sized ribbon-cutting scissors and officially christens Greenlight for active duty. And then a billion joke listings for Half-Life 2: Episode 3 will instantaneously appear, and Valve will take away Greenlight forever and tell us this is why we can't have nice things.