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Indie future is unclear as Greenlight goes dark

Shuttering Greenlight was long overdue - but its replacement, Direct, is no panacea for problems facing digital storefronts

Never more than a stopgap that was hugely inadequate to the gap in question, Steam Greenlight is finally set to disappear entirely later this Spring. The service has been around for almost five years, and while it was largely greeted with enthusiasm, the reality has never justified that optimism. The amassing of community votes for game approval turned out to be no barrier to all manner of grafters who launched unfinished, amateurish games (even using stolen assets in some cases) on the service, but enough of a barrier to be frustrating and annoying for many genuine indie developers. As an attempt to figure out how to prevent a storefront from drowning in the torrent of rubbish that has flooded the likes of the App Store and Google Play, it was a worthy experiment, but not one that ought to have persisted for five years, really.

Moreover, Greenlight isn't disappearing because Valve has solved this problem to its satisfaction. The replacement, Direct, is in some regards a step backwards; it'll see developers being able to publish directly on the system simply by confirming their identity (company or personal) through submission of business documents and paying a fee for each game they submit. The fee in question hasn't been decided yet, but Valve says it's thinking about everything from $100 to $5000.

"In replacing publishers with a storefront through which creators can directly launch products to consumers, Valve and other store operators have asserted the value of pure market forces over curation"

The impact of Direct is going to depend heavily on what that fee ends up being. It's worth noting that developers for iOS, for example, already pay around $100 a year to be part of Apple's developer programme, and trawling through the oceans of unloved and unwanted apps released on the App Store every day shows just how little that $100 price does to dissuade the worst kind of shovelware. At $5000, meanwhile, quite a lot of indie developers will find themselves priced out of Steam, especially those at the more arthouse end of the scene, or new creators getting started out. Ironically, though, the chances are that many of the cynical types behind borderline-scam games with ripped off assets and design will calculate that $5000 is a small price to pay for a shot at sales on Steam, especially if the high fees are thinning out the number of titles launching.

It's worth noting that, for the majority of Steam's consumers, the loss of arthouse indie games and fringe titles from new creators won't be of huge concern. Steam, like all storefronts, sells huge numbers at the top end and that falls off rapidly as you come down the charts; the number of consumers who are actively engaging with smaller niche titles on the service is pretty small. However, that doesn't mean that locking out those creators wouldn't be damaging - both creatively and commercially.

Plenty of creators are actually making a living at the low end of the market; they're not making fortunes or buying gigantic mansions to hang around being miserable in, but they're making enough money from their games to sustain themselves and keep up their output. Often, they're working in niches that have small audiences of devoted fans, and locking them out of Steam with high submission costs would both rob them of their income (there are quite a few creators out there for whom $5000 represents a large proportion of their average revenue from a game) and rob audiences of their output, or at least force them to look elsewhere.

Sometimes, a game from a creator like that becomes a break-out hit, the game the whole world is talking about for months on end - sometimes, but not very often. It's tempting to argue that Steam should be careful about its "low-end" indies (a term I use in the commercial sense, not as any judgement of quality; there's great, great stuff lurking around the bottom of the charts) because otherwise it risks missing the Next Big Thing, but that's not really a good reason. Steam is just about too big to ignore, and the Next Big Thing will almost certainly end up on the platform anyway.

Rather, the question is over what Valve wants Steam to be. If it's a platform for distributing big games to mainstream consumers, okay; it is what it is. If they're serious about it being a broad church, though, an all-encompassing platform where you can flick seamlessly between AAA titles with budgets in the tens of millions and arthouse, niche games made as a labour of love by part-timers or indie dreamers, then Direct as described still doesn't solve the essential conflict in that vision.

"A new breed of publisher may be the only answer to the problems created by storefronts we were once told were going to make publishers extinct"

In replacing publishers with a storefront through which creators can directly launch products to consumers, Valve and other store operators have asserted the value of pure market forces over curation - the fine but flawed notion of greatness rising to the top while bad quality products sink to the bottom simply through the actions of consumers making buying choices. This, of course, doesn't work in practice, partially because in the real world free markets are enormously constrained and distorted by factors like the paucity of information (a handful of screenshots and a trailer video doth not a perfectly informed and rational purchasing decision make), and more importantly because free markets can't actually make effective assessments of something as subjective as the quality of a game.

Thus, even as their stores have become more and more inundated with tides of low quality titles - perhaps even to the extent of snuffing out genuinely good quality games - store operators have tried to apply algorithmic wizardry to shore up marketplaces they've created. Users can vote, and rate things; elements of old-fashioned curation have even been attempted, with rather limited success. Tweaks have been applied to the submission process at one end and the discovery process at the other. Nothing, as yet, presents a very satisfying solution.

One interesting possibility is that we're going to see the pendulum start to swing back a little - from the extreme position of believing that Steam and its ilk would make publishers obsolete, to the as yet untested notion that digital storefronts will ultimately do a better job of democratising publishing than they have done of democratising development. We've already seen the rise of a handful of "boutique" publishers who specialise in working with indie developers to get their games onto digital platforms with the appropriate degree of PR and marketing support; if platforms like Steam start to put up barriers to entry, we can expect a lot more companies like that to spring up to act as middlemen.

Like the indie developers themselves, some will cater to specific niches, while others will be more mainstream, but ultimately they will all serve a kind of curation role; their value will lie not just in PR, marketing and finance, but also in the ability to say to platforms and consumers that somewhere along the line, a human being has looked at a game in depth and said "yes, this is a good game and we're willing to take a risk on it." There's a value to that simple function that's been all too readily dismissed in the excitement over Steam, the App Store and so on, and as issues of discovery and quality continue to plague those storefronts, that value is only becoming greater.

Whatever Valve ultimately decides to do with Direct - whether it sets a low price that essentially opens the floodgates, or a high one that leaves some developers unable to afford the cost of entry - it will not provide a panacea to Steam's issues. It might, however, lay the ground for a fresh restructuring of the industry, one that returns emphasis to the publishing functions that were trampled underfoot in the initial indie gold-rush and, into the bargain, helps to provide consumers with clearer assurances of quality. A new breed of publisher may be the only answer to the problems created by storefronts we were once told were going to make publishers extinct.

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Latest comments (12)

Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd10 days ago
The main problem as I see it is the idea of a 'per title' fee: this distorts the market unnecessarily. When iTunes et al supplanted physical CD sales, the focus shifted to selling individual songs over albums. This fee sends the message that Steam releases should be monolithic, discrete entities.

Sure it will discourage flooding (although WHY this needs to be discouraged is unclear - every successful platform has lots of shovelware, but it doesn't make a dent in the sales of good quality games), but it will also discourage iteration and experimenting with tailoring a base game structure to different audiences.

You also have to question what Valve's ultimate goal is for Steam. There's really no reason that you shouldn't be able to buy every game (for which an open source emulator exists and for which the IP rights are clearly known) from the past several decades via Steam eventually. Are publishers with back catalogues of thousands of titles going to be expected to pay the full fee every time?

Farming out all the games from non-cash-rich indies to itch.io and elsewhere isn't much of a solution. We'll just see the sort of ghettoisation that plagued XBLIG.

I really hope that Steam listen to a wide spectrum of developer feedback before charging ahead.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 10 days ago
@Robin Clarke. Yes, it's true that flooding doesn't affect the biggest of the big* games but there are plenty of good quality games that get overlooked because discoverability goes through the floor... you** also find it more difficult to tell the wheat from the chaff (so to speak) as the number of titles goes up. I get this problem on Netflix a lot whereby there's so much crap it's difficult to tell whether a title will be good or not. Luckily, the cost of trying a title on Netflix is just a few short minutes of time as opposed to having to go through a refunds process...

Which I'd argue is the MAJOR downside of all that shovelware on the Google and Apple app stores (and it's getting just as bad on Steam too).

I agree with your point about segregating the poorer development houses, though...

*Big as in marketing, budget etc.

**As in the average consumer.
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Jonah Falcon Writer 10 days ago
It's over-reliance on automatic systems. Valve is drowning in income - just hire people to curate. Problem solved. Open your wallet and SPEND money.
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Show all comments (12)
Ruben Monteiro Engineer 10 days ago
@Robin Clarke: "This fee sends the message that Steam releases should be monolithic, discrete entities"

I certainly hope so. The sooner we get rid of the pay-to-win crap the better.

"Sure it will discourage flooding (although WHY this needs to be discouraged is unclear - every successful platform has lots of shovelware, but it doesn't make a dent in the sales of good quality games),"

I'm going to assume that you're equating quality games with the one's who's publisher has enough marketing muscle to pull above the crowd and capture attention, because shovelware is the Number 1 reason why so many quality indie games aren't getting the exposure they deserve.

"Are publishers with back catalogues of thousands of titles going to be expected to pay the full fee every time?"

Again, I hope so, because thousands of crappy old games made for outdated mobile platforms is the last thing I want to crawl through when all I want is a quality PC game.

"Farming out all the games from non-cash-rich indies to itch.io and elsewhere isn't much of a solution"

Why not? Anyone browsing itch.io already has a mindset of looking for niche indie stuff and student projects, whereas on Steam, people look for polished, quality productions. It all comes down to matching the proper site to the proper audience.
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just hire people to curate. Problem solved. Open your wallet and SPEND money.
--------------------------
I tend to agree this is the answer. It's not that hard to play a game for an hour or two and see if it has enough polish, content, and production to merit inclusion in the site. Simply set a standard that needs to be met, and actually look and test the product you put in your store. Its not rocket science.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 17th February 2017 11:52pm

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Keldon Alleyne Developer, leader, writer, Avasopht Ltd9 days ago
Think: 100 million MAU on Steam with, I'm guessing, 100,000 developers but only 20 top spots to be presented to users at any given time.

The way new games are presented to users needs to be addressed to create a more balanced economy.

It causes too much uncertainty among developers. Should I invest in years of development at the risk of not being discovered because of a sea of games that only took a month to make?

Is it worth polishing the game and tweaking the mechanic if it might not even get into the hands of gamers to enjoy it in the first place? A fear of failure at high costs likely contributes to the volume of shovelware, since people with more confidence in success would put in much more effort.

The major problem is though, that the people who would benefit most from discovery are those without the influence and reach to improve discovery (since they are undiscovered themselves).

Gamers already have enough good games to play without discovery.
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I think the problem with all these stores is that unless a developer gets on the chart they fail.

It may be an idea to do away with the charts altogether. All it does is reward already "successful" games and many of those are only successful due to their external marketing reach to first get them to that point. If there was no chart and no pot of gold waiting for those that pay to get there then it would probably change the dynamics of the store.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University9 days ago
Maybe they can do 2 stores.

One with the fee and one without.

The one with the fee is the mainstream store (in theory.) Presumably developers that are more serious are found here.

The 2nd store is a "flea market" where there is little to no charge and little to no guarantees from Valve etc as to quality. This is the buyer beware store.
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Boris Piker indie dev 8 days ago
A mix of human checking the game and pricing.

Charge 50 bucks to submit your game.
That pays for testing and then some.

If your game is accepted GREAT.
if not you get no money back.

This will make asset flipper think twice before submitting their garbage

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Boris Piker on 20th February 2017 6:43am

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@Keldon Alleyne: We don't get a prize just for taking part. If we don't believe in making the best game we can irrespective of any external factor, we have zero right to expect the money of any player. Those devs that are doing better than most don't think this way.

I take your point generally of course, yes it is extremely hard to have a hit. But the the bottom 100,000 games nobody plays have less effect on your relative success than the top 100 that everyone is playing.

We have to try our best, always, under every circumstance, to even hope to make a return. Anything less underestimates the task.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd7 days ago
@Ruben Monteiro

I've not said anything about monetisation models. My point there is that developers are going to be dissuaded from making anything that doesn't target the broadest, safest audience.

The fact that I don't equate quality with marketing muscle is the very reason I'm arguing against further gatekeeping.

And who said anything about "outdated mobile platforms"? I'm talking about PC, console and arcade games that have been proven to have commercial life left in them.

This idea that the having thousands of games (or books, or songs, or movies) on a platform that a given customer isn't interested in makes it harder to find the things they are interested in is demonstrably nonsense. Making it harder to put games on Steam won't fix the discoverability issues that already exist.
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Garry Williams Licensing Director, Sold Out Sales and Marketing Ltd6 days ago
Rob Fahey, what an extremely good read, and in my humble view spot on the money. Last year I saw what I believe was the year of the publisher, Rob has described their likely shape and scale under the new Steam workings. "It might, lay the ground for a fresh restructuring of the industry, one that returns emphasis to the publishing functions that were trampled underfoot in the initial indie gold-rush and, into the bargain, helps to provide consumers with clearer assurances of quality. A new breed of publisher may be the only answer to the problems created by storefronts we were once told were going to make publishers extinct."
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