Greenlight

A month or so back, Eurogamer asked me if I’d consider writing up what’s going on with Valve’s Greenlight system. Like a lot of sites, they hear from a few developers here and there that it’s maybe a bit wonky so could I explain what’s with that. Obviously, as you can gather from the existence of an article there, I said yes.

It was a fairly difficult piece for me to write if I’m honest and I’m very grateful for all the help I had from folks who sent me numbers and their experience. Whilst a lot of finer details aren’t included in the piece, every mail, tweet and detail went towards shaping not just where the piece ended up but the tone as well. With my only real guidance being ‘be as angry as you need to be’, well, that was a thing I had to work out. Exactly how angry do I need to be about this stuff?

That depends, right? And that’s where all the info folks sent was pretty vital. I’d gone into writing this piece originally with a less than generous reading of a lot of situations. Whilst not entirely off the mark, it was neither fair nor really representative of a lot of folks experience. By the time I’d sat there with a few pages of notes covering numbers of games greenlit, how many bundled, ran through four years of occasional interviews and rewatched an old lecture from Doug Lombardi on marketing that touched on some Greenlight stuff, it was fairly clear that yeah, my less generous reading of the situation needed to be much more generous.

Don’t you just hate it when you find out you’re wrong?

Yes, Greenlight is fundamentally broken. Yes, the fee is still obnoxious – paying for just the consideration of getting on the store is a terrible exchange. As detailed in the piece, it’s also paying to throw yourself to the sharks if you’re not 100% up to speed on business and that’s a large reason behind it needing pretty swift reform. All that is absolutely the case.

But it is working in a lot of ways and a lot more good has come from it than what I first believed. Thousands of games are now on the store that wouldn’t have been. Some folks are able to use Greenlight to find an audience where some eyeballs is an improvement on no eyeballs. Lots of people are able to make some money instead of none. There’s been around 400 games greenlit this past month alone so things are moving on. I think it’s important to take this stuff into account whilst acknowledging the service is flawed at the core. Things are much, much better than they were under the old black box system and I’m not going to turn my nose up at that. I want people to have the best shot they can and I’m chuffed for all those that have managed to get a win from all this.

It’s not much solace for those stuck in the system for months or years on end but very little short of a substantial change could be.

So there was that and also the small matter of having to talk about this stuff to a more general audience. When I write here I can afford to be a bit more freewheeling, I can generally assume a certain level of ‘knowing what I’m on about’ and I can take huge shortcuts. Not so there. Thankfully, just as I was banging my head against the desk trying to get the tone right, a Rich Stanton piece went up. Now, I always hold that if you’re going to steal, steal from the best and all that. I jest, of course. I didn’t steal a thing (did you see how I resisted an obvious punchline there? I’m getting good in my old age) but it did help me get on track with the tone.

I couldn’t write an angry piece because, well, I’m not angry about Greenlight. I’m concerned and understand it needs tending to but not angry. And besides, I needed to make a case here for what amounts to a way more systemic issue, I needed clarity not hot air. I also needed to spend way too much time working through what is and isn’t industry bullshit. We have a lot of bullshit in games in case you didn’t know. Sometimes we do a really good job of convincing ourselves that the bullshit is an important part of things. This is rarely the case but it at least keeps everyone occupied on Twitter as we go round in circles again.

Greenlight is one of those things that has extra layers of bullshit too. I went through a few drafts cutting out the bits that hinged around the bullshit. Stay on target, yeah? It was very tempting to address some of the truthiness stuff that spreads around but I’m more interested in the problems that do exist than the problems that sort of aren’t really all that much of a problem at all. You know, too many games, asset flips, pixel art – all stuff that’s not a problem with Greenlight.

It is frustrating though that a lot of the conversation around Greenlight does hinge on this stuff. I know a number of prominent folks around games have made their views very clear that These Things Are Problems for a number of years now and yeah, it’s disappointing that these have become our talking points. Once you spend five or so minutes looking at numbers, looking at how the store does/doesn’t work, what sells, how people react to a lot of things on Steam outside of comments sections complaining about Steam, it becomes really apparent just how not a problem these things are. But they’re ingrained now, almost lore. And I’ll admit, being able to write about, even briefly, actual issues people face with the service rather than having to address the we must protect consumers from indies who sell games that aren’t very good or who knows what madness will befall us crowd was a large part of the reason for taking the job in the first place.

I do find it annoying that this is truthiness in games, there’s an idea that it all must be true because something something mumble mumble it is bad, repeat for four years. It makes discussing Greenlight hard because before you can talk about the problems, you’re expected to address these not problems that a couple of prominent commentators have got bees in their bonnets over. There is a pervasive idea floating round that Valve should do something about some games that aren’t very good and when they don’t, Valve clearly don’t care.

If Valve didn’t care about Greenlight, they would have shut Greenlight down years ago. Having seen the backend stuff for developers, there’s a lot to untangle to improve anything so I get why progress is slow. But they definitely do care, that’s why we have the last major update where the store got entirely rejigged around more ways to find things. They just don’t care about a flood of low quality games stealing eyeball space. Or rather, they know that the Something Must Be Done is not the Something Must Be Done our commentators want. As long as games are surfaced that people want, as long as they avoid the Google Play Is An App Toilet problem, as long as big games can still make money (and more games *are* making more money right now), it’s OK for these games to be on the store.

They also know that most people will never, ever see most of these games that are supposed to be ruining Steam. They’re not dragging the service down as only a handful of people ever know about them. Without Defenders Of The Consumerverse pointing at them, they’d sink unknown. Big games are not suffering for them. They don’t need to do something about their existence, it’s just folk winding themselves up into a tizzy. Now you can get a refund, the risk to the consumer if they buy one of these games they somehow need saving from is absolute zero. If you find yourself with a broken thing or a game you dislike, you just get your money back, make a mental note to be more careful of buying things from such and such without a bit of investigation in future and move on. In the rare case of genuine scams (asking for money for a game that’s not great is absolutely not a scam), flagging it to Valve with proof is (for the moment) going to see action taken.

No need to get in a big huffy mess and all that.

Look, there we go. I still ended up talking about it. I’m sorry. It is really hard not to when the truthiness has got so embedded. I dearly wish I could wave a wand and make it go away because selling on Steam is now something people do with their early works, rough works or whatever and they’re gonna have a tough enough time as it is without his sort of bullshit.

But I can’t, as Orville once famously said. So in the meantime, you’ll just have to make do with me talking about Greenlight on Eurogamer. Once again, with massive thanks to everyone who helped chuck in. I really appreciate it. Thank you.