Valve's Steam Greenlight service, designed as a community-driven way to gauge support for an indie game in development and thus clear them for release on the Steam service proper, has been back in the news this week for all the wrong reasons. LA-based developer Randall Herman used the service to post what he claimed was a mini-game from a more ambitious upcoming open-world game project; a game titled "Kill the Faggot" which awarded players with points for killing gay and transgendered characters (rendered, predictably, as unimaginative stereotypes), subtracted them for killing heterosexual characters and featured such charming lines of "kill confirmed" dialogue as "AIDS-carrier eliminated." All of this delectable stuff was right there on Steam's Greenlight system for the world to see. Needless to say, a lot of people were pretty unhappy about this state of affairs.
Let's get the obvious out of the way; this is plumbing some pretty grim depths of human awfulness. Herman claimed that his game was a protest against political correctness, a flag raised in defence of all those viciously persecuted individuals who get criticised just for expressing discriminatory viewpoints about LGBT people. Herman, who lives on a planet where people are murdered every day simply for their sexuality or gender identity, is very clear that the real victims with whom we should be concerned are people who are told off on the Internet for saying awful things, the poor lambs. From his embattled standpoint in a US state which only last year banned murder suspects from getting off scot-free by using the defence that they had "panicked" upon meeting a gay or transgendered person and thus beaten them to death in justifiable self-defence, Herman bravely chose to display the true violence inherent in the system by releasing his game as a "sociological experiment."
I can speak with a little authority on sociological experiments, being involved with a faculty that is active in the development of experimental methods in sociology. In those academic circles, there's a technical term for the kind of experiment Herman was conducting here; it's called "that's not an experiment, that's just you being a massive asshole."
"Is this not, as many commentators would have it, a ringing condemnation of how Valve is operating its service?"
Randall Herman, his damaged mind and his blackened, twisted soul aren't really our concern here, though. We're concerned with Greenlight; with what the presence of a game like this on the "feeder" service of the industry's most prestigious and successful digital retail channel says about its management and its policies. Is this not, as many commentators would have it, a ringing condemnation of how Valve is operating its service?
I'm going to depart from the chorus here, if I may, and say that I don't actually think this is a dreadful Valve-is-evil event. In fact, I think Valve handled the whole thing swiftly and correctly. The game was only on Greenlight for about two hours before being pulled. In terms of a response to complaints from a company the size of Valve, that's lightning-fast; if anything, one could argue that it proves that the system works. Someone puts a dreadful thing on Greenlight; people complain; Valve rapidly assesses those complaints, makes a decision that no reasonable person could disagree with, and takes action. Honestly, under the circumstances, well done Valve.
Of course, that praise is essentially saying "Valve did the best they could under the existing system"; as praise goes, it's somewhat less glowing when you consider that Valve actually created that system in the first place. It was Valve who chose to allow anyone at all to pay $100 and upload whatever they like onto Greenlight; Valve who decided that there should be no pre-screening, no attempt to filter what ends up being available for votes. There's a fervent ideological belief at work here, one which says that the most open system is the best system; kill the gatekeepers and haul open the portcullis, let everyone flood in and then allow a combination of the marketplace and algorithmic wizardry to sort the wheat from the chaff. Sure, it needs a bit of tending when some of the chaff turns out to be downright poisonous, but by and large the item of faith writ large by Greenlight's policies is that the cacophonous roar of the community can be filtered through market logic and algorithms to become a clear, pure voice expressing the wisdom of the crowd.
"There's a fervent ideological belief at work here, one which says that the most open system is the best system"
If that were true, though, why does Greenlight exist at all? What is Greenlight, after all, if not a holding pen designed to keep the vast tsunami of games - many if not most of them absolutely terrible - off the hallowed Steam service itself? If Valve truly believes in openness, in the intelligence of crowds mediated through the mechanisms of markets, then why doesn't it just let everyone release whatever they want on Steam, subject to rudimentary technical checks to make sure they're not actually distributing viruses or malware? In fact, that's Valve's stated long-term goal; an open Steam, with Greenlight gone and new games pouring onto the platform constantly, to sink or swim according to the pure will of the market.
It's a very pure vision. It's also not one that works very well on either iOS' App Store or Google Play right now, as any developer struggling with visibility on those services can tell you. The sheer flood of titles, many of them miserably bad, has created a few isolated success stories - but it has also twisted the market itself to the point where consumers burned by rubbish and by cynical scammers generally won't look beyond the top-10 charts or the latest fad game, and certainly won't pay up front for anything at all. Is that where Steam wants to end up? I'd imagine that most Steam developers would look at the situation on a store like Google Play now and shudder in horror; the damage that opening up Steam to that kind of market behaviour would do to their livelihoods would be severe.
From that angle, it's easy to see why Valve wants to maintain Greenlight (albeit with regular reminders that they view it as a temporary stopgap); as a holding pen for the torrent of games that would otherwise swamp Steam, it's very useful. It really just moves the same set of problems one step down the chain, though. Developers on Greenlight find visibility increasingly hard as the system becomes inundated with clones, knockoffs, low-quality shovel ware and, apparently, "sociological experiments." The mantra of an open store curated only by algorithms that react to community ratings makes simply being on Greenlight meaningless; as long as that's true, discoverability on that store will be disastrous. Without Greenlight, the disaster would move downstream to the Steam store itself - at least now, getting promoted off Greenlight to Steam remains a useful holy grail for developers to chase, however awful the visibility problems they must surmount first may be.
"The mantra of an open store curated only by algorithms that react to community ratings makes simply being on Greenlight meaningless; as long as that's true, discoverability on that store will be disastrous"
One way to improve this, however ideologically impure, would be to drop the slain gatekeepers in a Lazarus Pit and get them back on the job - albeit in some reduced capacity. Sure, Valve doesn't want to be the arbiter of taste; but it wouldn't be unreasonable for them to erect a reasonably low fence that games have to jump before they get in. Basic technical competence, actually functioning as a game, not being a cheeky rip-off of someone else's game, oh - and not being grossly offensive. Such things can be checked and filtered without really getting into the realms of "curation" or "gatekeeping." There would still be a lot of games on Greenlight, because there are a lot of talented indie devs out there; visibility wouldn't be fixed overnight, but at least the community wouldn't have to wade through a ceaseless torrent of excrement just in order to find things worth voting on.
I think that for all that it clings to the ideology of the free, open and automated store, Valve understands that there's still a need for control to be exercised over content. By and large, Steam remains a carefully curated store - although it has slipped up a few times, most notably when the unfinished and decidedly scammy The War Z was released on the service. Sometimes it doesn't really seem to know what it thinks about content curation - as with the pulling and subsequent reinstatement of that other noted "oh look we're so clever and edgy with our sociological experiment" game, Hatred. (I'm not sure how often a sociological experiment proving that "humans get upset over genuinely terrible, distressing stuff" needs to be repeated, but damn, it seems that there's a weird community out there that really needs to test that point.) Whether Hatred should have been pulled or not is really neither here nor there; it just needs to have been done in line with a consistent and solid set of guidelines which are properly enforced up-front.
Right now we have the worst of both worlds - no clarity, no solid guidelines, a Greenlight system clogged with rubbish and equally lacking transparency in its systems, and viciously bigoted trolling content (which I should note, perhaps redundantly, was also clearly a terribly made and amateurishly animated game) uploaded and not removed until complaints roll in. Whatever system Valve puts in place must be better than this, simply by merit of being a system at all - and given the huge and growing importance of Steam to games as a whole, it truly deserves better than what it's got right now.