Steam Greenlight

While I was out at PAX and Seattle, Valve released the new Steam Greenlight initiative.

The problem Greenlight is trying to solve is approving titles for sale on Steam. Previously (and currently), titles would have to be manually vetted and approved by Valve in order to be distributed on Steam. This is OK for more established outfits, but there’s an increasing volume of titles that aren’t represented by established publishers/developers, flooding the system. Some titles were rejected even when released on console platforms.

Greenlight gives a different avenue for vetting title submissions. A developer/publisher posts information about a title they want to release on Steam. If enough unique registered users of Steam vote up the title, Valve will release the game on Steam. This allows Valve to process more submissions with smaller effort on their part. Ultimately reducing the risk of a title slipping though the cracks.

At release, the barrier of submission was simply to fill out the submission with a valid Steam account. This created a flood of fake, copied, or obscene submissions. As an attempt to create enough of a hurdle for submissions, Valve now requires a $100 submission fee for enabling an account to submit. To be clear, it’s a fee for any number of submissions from one account and not reoccurring. This fee will go directly to Child’s Play (which I also have a connection with via Ümloud!). For the sake of this discussion, how the money is used is irrelevant.

Ben Kuchera of The PA Report wrote an editorial about the $100 fee as exclusionary and wrong. It’s the value amount that he expressed his concerns:

If the fee were lowered to $10, the effect of weeding out the trolls would continue, and the amount of people that could participate in the process would be exponentially widened. It’s still a long shot, and you still have to muster community support and have a good game. In fact someone emailed me to suggest a mandatory playable demo would do much to help remove the trolls, share more information about games, and remove the financial barrier. Even if they could raise the $100 fee, it would be better spent on rent or equipment.

The $100 price point is pretty common across other gaming platforms, but Steam is actually cheaper in the long run. Apple requires a $99/year fee for iOS, another $99/year for Mac Store. Xbox ‘Creators Club’ charges $99/year. Steam is $100 period. As far as platforms to sell games on, Steam pretty accessible and inexpensive. The real trick is the cut you get per sale, which I don’t have all the numbers available on Steam. Though it’s hard to argue with a one-time fee vs. an annual fee. Can this fee be lower? Sure. I would also think that Valve used the metics from banning players of multiplayer games and recreating accounts.

The question posed to users is “Would you buy this game if it were available in Steam?” The “Yes” button figuratively would be a buy button. Greenlight is not Kickstarter and no money is transfered. A developer would do better to present later in their schedule to have screenshots and the important video for the submission. Greenlight is geared towards the later end of a production schedule. After you figured out a budget, even if that budget consists of an game engine licensee.

A developer using Greenlight developer is asking to sell a product, regardless of your background. With all due respect, this isn’t Submitting to Greenlight is during your work into a commercial product. Of all the venues out there, Steam Greenlight is the least expensive storefront to place commercial games. The $100 may have been a quick fix for the over-flooding problem — and I hope it’s continued to be re-evaluated as time goes on. What I can say is that Steam Greenlight is lowest bar of entry for commercial game stores. And that makes me happy for the state of independent development.

The Role of IGF

The Independent Games Festival started in 1999 to bring light to independent development of games. It was one of a few avenues in which Indy games could get exposure, which at that time meant being picked up by a major publisher for distribution. Basically taking the film festival route in order to make the best indy project get the exposure they need. This is directly stated in the current about page:

We wanted to create a similar event to Sundance for independent game developers – and that’s just what we’ve succeeded in doing with the Independent Games Festival, which has awarded hundred of thousands of dollars in cash prizes (and brought major exposure and a much higher profile) to a multitude of indie and student game developers who enter.

Fast forward a decade later and the landscape of independent game development is vastly changed. While it’s by no means a small feat to create a game, it is also very possible to release a title on your own. Sure, not for all platforms, but there are many distribution models with a low bar of entry and numerous funding options as well. And if a title is good enough to be nomitated for an award, wouldn’t the attention brought to them give enough exposure to get titles sold?

So I ask: Do we really need exposure for publishers to pick up a title? Could IGF do better by focusing on bringing attention to completed titles for audiences to obtain/purchase? Where do indy developers get rewarded for completing and releasing a title?

This drives to the heart of my uncomfortable feelings towards the IGF lately. IGF should be a celebration of the work being done and I trust the organizers do have that in mind.

I did a bit of research with the nomination list for the 2012 awards for all categories EXCEPT audience and student. I defined released as available to the public in the platform submitted for. Splunky was released as PC in 2008, but was submitted this year as an unreleased XBLA title, thus it’s unreleased. Dear Ester was released before, but signifiant enough changes occurred for a new release.

  • Released in 2011:
    • 12 nominated titles
    • None won an award
  • Released in 2012 but before the ceremony on March 4, 2012:
    • 4 nominated titles
    • 2 of them won an award
  • Released after the ceremony:
    • 3 nominated titles
    • 2 of them won an award
  • Unreleased as of May 18, 2012:
    • 9 nominated titles
    • 3 of them won an award

I’m sorry I don’t have the time to look into the previous years, but by design it’s similar to that. But again I pose the question, what value does one have in an awards ceremony where your rewarded on not shipping before submissions are due? I think the Indy game ecosystem would do better to reward accomplishments, rather than a vehical for promotions.

I would like the IGF to be a celebration of independent developers whom after going though the trials of final release, still are able to preserve the high quality to warent a nomination or award.

To be clear, I’m not blaming the developers for the way things are. That’s the rules of the current game and I can’t blame them for it. What I’m asking for is to change the rules of the game. To that end, I would propose is a modist but significant change in the rules.

Currently there’s this line in the 2012 IGF Rules that state:

  • State of Development: All Entered Games must be in a “beta” state or better (i.e., Entered Games must be feature-complete). At least one (1) level of each Entered Game must be complete and fully playable.

I would propose changing this to something like:

  • State of Development: All Entered Games must be in a “released” state and publicly available by the end of the Entry Deadline period. Entered Game must be complete and fully playable.
  • Submission Limit: All Entered Games can be submitted only once, regardless of platform, and cannot be submitted in future Independent Game Festival submissions.

This way your submission must count and be available to the public. Thus the notoriety gained from the awards ceremony returns to renewed interest in the title, rather than a release marketing ploy. Or worse, the feedback loop of a title winning more than once as the rules don’t prohibit the practice outright. Yes, this is the case with Fez, but frankly I can’t blame a developer for doing that. There’s nothing in the rules against the practice. My problem is that it shouldn’t be that way in the first place.

The nature of Independent development has changed with less dependence on traditional publisher models, and for the better! I feel that the IGF needs to reflect these changes and make adjustments accordingly.

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