I’m a huge fan of both Valve and Steam. I think Gabe Newell and many of the other employees at the company are some of the smartest in gaming and that almost every segment of this industry (and many others for that matter) can learn some valuable lessons from how they do business. That said, like anyone, they aren’t perfect. I’ve taken the piss out of them for their hypocrisy towards Windows 8 but while that’s still very true and relevant, it’s minor in the grand scheme of things. What I’m going to take this piss out of this time around is their Greenlight system, a fantastic idea that I think Valve is messing up and eroding good will from with double standards and creating an uneven playing field.
For those unfamiliar, Valve operates as a company with no titles or staff hierarchy. Boiled down to basics, no one can force you to do one particular job there. The story goes that the team at the company who handles submissions and approvals for new games on Steam was a small group that was overwhelmed with demand from developers and publishers. They didn’t want to grow the team too large for fear of diluting the work they were doing so someone invented Greenlight. The idea was to democratise indie games submissions to the site. Developers and publishers with a track record and relationships with the company would still go through the normal approval process but others who didn’t have this means would submit their projects to Greenlight, each submission getting a place for videos, screenshots and discussion. Almost like a Kickstarter for Steam approval, members of the community would vote on the games they liked and the ones that achieved an undisclosed number of votes would get approved and gain entry into a batch of 10 titles per month admitted onto the service.
It all sounds pretty cool but in a very non-Valve like fashion, the service has had many problems since launch and its value to many players is starting to be questioned.
First, it launched with the ability to both vote for and against a game, except no one understood what the negative votes meant. It also launched with no fee for developers which makes sense on paper but which quickly led to a torrent of spam and scam projects. Both of these were quickly corrected, the downvote function was removed and a $100 submission fee (donated in full to Child’s Play) was instituted within days. What has not yet been addressed is why Valve can arbitrarily decide that existing Steam partners need to be pushed back down to Greenlight. Or why certain games which are clearly of inferior quality and value to consumers can sail right through the service’s internal approval process while better titles from established developers (some of which are already in release on other platforms) set in Greenlight limbo indefinitely. This isn’t good for Steam and it certainly isn’t good for gamers.
To demonstrate the first example, I offer up Wadjet Eye Games’ Promordia. Wadjet Eye publishes point and click adventure games made in a very old school, 16-bitish graphics style. A super tight niche but one they’ve thrived in. I’ve played several of their games and enjoyed them. They also had a publisher agreement for Steam and had a number of titles released through there already. When they submitted Primordia for approval, they were told by Valve that the title “seemed like a Greenlight project”. Why? No one appears to know as no explanation was provided. Wadjet Eye had a relationship with Valve, several titles on Steam and presumably had made a number of sales, thus making both themselves and Valve money. Yet, the Valve team decided to kick Primordia back down to Greenlight for some reason. Thankfully, Wadjet Eye’s community may be small but they are very devoted so when Dave Gilbert asked his fans to go vote for the game, they immediately showed up and got it the required number within a day. Some would say this shows that the system works but to me, it shows that its unbalanced and easily rigged. I think Wadjet Eye makes great games and think Primordia deserves a place on Steam but it should have gotten that without Greenlight. Since Valve made them go there, they easily utilised an existing fan base to grab a slot in a group of 10 that could have–should have–been given to another indie title from someone else. That’s not fair to anyone.
The greater threat to Greenlight’s relevance as a community measurement of game quality is also what titles Valve does let through their internal processes without forcing them to undergo a vote. For this, I offer up Revelations 2012 and The War Z. The reason I link to TotalBiscuit videos of them will become apparent after you watch a few minutes of both. These games are without question, scam products. They were made by developers who wanted to jump on a craze and grab a quick buck from gullible, ignorant gamers for the least amount of development investment possible. They’re broken, terribly designed, bad games in every respect and yet, both sailed right through Valve’s approval process and were allowed on Steam. Revelations 2012 actually used Valve’s Source which is even grosser because apparently paying to license their now dated engine gives you guaranteed access to a coveted Steam slot, regardless of whether the game is of good quality or not. After community outrage over The War Z (which released in an incomplete state), Valve pulled that title and offered refunds to any who wanted them. Revelations 2012 is still available for purchase however. Those are only two examples but there are many more games of similarly questionable quality on Steam, all given the stamp of approval by Valve’s team.
Make no mistake, these games being on Steam after having to undergo an approval is an endorsement from Valve that they meet a certain minimum standard of quality. Sure, taste is subjective and it’s not Valve’s job to determine that but both of these games are flat out broken in many respects and offering them for sale turns a blind eye to that. Would these games have made it through a Greenlight vote? It’s possible they would have but at least in that case, the community would have said they wanted them. By approving them without Greenlight, Valve indicated they thought the games measured up and that’s not right. Meanwhile, titles like The Pinball Arcade and Incredipede have languished in Greenlight limbo for months now and will likely never get approved. These are titles that are already on sale and doing well both critically and commercially in other places, yet they remain unavailable on Steam while Revelations 2012 and many other piles of hot garbage are still there for purchase. One could argue that there clearly isn’t enough community interest since neither game was greenlit. There’s merit to that but only if the playing field is level.
I love the idea of Greenlight. Giving the power to the people to determine what games they want to see is a great thing and something that few others but Valve could manage to make work at all. However, if Valve are going to let some titles through while others are forced into Greenlight without an explanation, the playing field is not level and that removes a substantial amount of the value to the community. There’s a fine line to balance here but in my opinion, it’s also not hard. If you have previously put out a game on Steam, released it in a good functional condition and supported it, I don’t think you should necessarily have to go through Greenlight for every future title you release. But I also don’t think you should be allowed to jump the line simply because you licensed Source or because you apparently knew the right people to call to make sure you could get immediate approval, even if your game is clearly unfinished. This can all be easily resolved with clear internal policies that lay out the criteria and apply it universally. Established indies like Wadjet Eye wouldn’t be forced to Greenlight certain future games and scam artists like Dark Artz Entertainment would be forced to justify their endeavours, regardless of their engine choice. Such strict policies are somewhat contrary to the way Valve’s flat corporate structure operates though and I’m not sure how you deal with that.
Greenlight is a great thing and has great potential to offer PC gamers but every new scam title that skips it and every established indie that gets stuck in it further diminishes the community’s view of it and thus, its relevance. After some initial tweaks, Valve has done little to change Greenlight’s policies, indicating to me that they’ve either lost interest or think all is tickety boo. It isn’t and some changes are needed soon if they want to keep momentum going. Make the rules clearer, make them universal and make sure everyone has an equal chance to complete. Until then, Greenlight is better as an idea than a practice.