As of several weeks ago, Steam Greenlight is no longer an entity, with Steam Direct – its replacement – taking over the formers duties on June 13; but one has to ask if this is the right move, not just for Valve, but for the developers looking to get their games onto Steam, and for the players looking for high quality games to spend their hard earned money on.
When the decision to eradicate Steam Greenlight in favour of the new Steam Direct, Valve’s Alden Kroll made the announcement that many of the games currently in Greenlight would be looked through and approved or rejected on a case by case basis, with those being rejected still getting a chance with Steam Direct. As Mr. Kroll said last week:
“Our goal is to Greenlight as many of the remaining games as we have confidence in. There are some titles that will not be Greenlit, due to insufficient voter data or concerns about the game reported by voters. Titles that are not ultimately Greenlit may still be brought to Steam via Steam Direct, provided they meet our basic criteria of legality and appropriateness.”
Under Steam Direct, developers will simply have to fill out some forms and pay a nominal fee — just $100 per game, which Valve will return as long as the title in question tops $1,000 in sales — before submitting a project. (Those who are new to Steam will have an additional hurdle: a 30-day waiting period after paying the fee, during which Valve will verify that the person or company in question is on the level.)
That $100 isn’t exactly spare change, but it’s pretty affordable for most Indie Developers to get their foot in the door. After that, it seems like the only quality controls that Steam Direct has in place are to ensure that there’s no malware in the game, and that the game is what it says it is. As Mr. Kroll notes:
“As we have been doing for the past year, there is a short process prior to release where our review team installs each game to check that it is configured correctly, matches the description provided on the store page, and doesn’t contain malicious content.”
And that’s where the water starts to get a little muddled; sure, Greenlight may have devolved into a bit of a popularity contest, but it helped cut out the weeds and ensure that the games that did reach Steam proper were high-quality. There were games that were lost in the maze – the whole ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ adage rings true – but overall, that was the price that players had to make in order to ensure that Indie Games that did make it were of a high enough quality to satisfy players.
Steam Direct doesn’t seem to have those sets of barriers in place; as long as you can pay $100, your store page is accurate, and there’s no malware, then you’re good to sell on Steam; there’s little to suggest that games need to be of a certain quality in order to be purchasable on the digital storefront. Once on the digital storefront, it seems as if players will still have to trudge through low-quality games in order to find something that might actually be playable – so, nothing’s changed there from Steam Greenlight.
As much as it might have been a popularity contest, Greenlight really hasn’t turned Steam into the iOS App Store, anyway. There are some truly awful games lurking in the bowels of Steam’s discovery tools, but for the most part my experience with the store has been positive. It’s much more vibrant than it was five years ago, when it was only publisher-supported games and a few indie darlings. Through all of this, Steam Greenlight was able to ensure that pretty much the only games that reached Steam proper were games that people actually wanted to play, with only a small few falling through the cracks.
As a side-note about the subject of games falling through the cracks, there’s still the topic of games that were mid-way through their Greenlight campaigns when the news broke and it was shut down. And what was to happen to them? Well:
“If you are a game developer with a game in Greenlight that hasn’t been Greenlit yet, please be patient as we review the 3,400+ pending submissions. If you bought the Greenlight Submission fee, but haven’t had a chance to post a submission, or if your submission has not been Greenlit by the end of this process, you can use the Steam support site to request a refund of your submission fee.”
At least Valve doesn’t have too much of a problem refunding developers. An argument against Steam Direct, or at least a low fee for it, is that more isn’t necessarily better. A common criticism of Steam, or just general anxiety about it, is that its rapidly growing library is burying good work that might have sold well on the platform five or more years ago. Steam Direct may exacerbate that issue, but I don’t support gating out developers who have less capital so that a smaller group of better-off developers have a greater shot at success. The question of how much an independent developer should expect to make from their game—and whether the huge number of competing indie projects is dooming good work to obscurity—is separate from the question of who deserves access to a popular platform.
If Valve are really trying to weed out the weak, then they need to go about it differently; with Steam Greenlight, developers paid a flat fee and entered into what some might call a popularity contest, but that contest was able to ensure that high-quality games were the ones that made it to the digital storefront. Now, developers pay the exact same flat fee and get directly onto the storefront, with very minimal quality control. At most, the quality control will still be in the hands of players, except they’ll be voting with their wallets, and not with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. At least this way, Valve will be able to line their pockets with a little bit more money.
I really hope I’m wrong in this, but Steam Direct isn’t looking too great. Hopefully time will prove me wrong on this one.