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.