My Journey and Reactions to Steam Greenlight: A Bold but Flawed Experiment

Steam Greenlight has been around for quite a while now, and in that time it’s been hailed both as a great resource for indie game developers and deeply flawed experiment — more notoriously, the latter. As a big proponent of indie games and the developers behind them, I’ve always been very fond of the idea of Steam Greenlight, and how it gives lesser known and resources limited developers a fair chance at getting their game ideas out there to the market.

What is Steam Greenlight?

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with what Steam Greenlight is, here is the summary from Valve, the owners and creators of Steam:

“Steam Greenlight is a system that enlists the community’s help in picking some of the new games to be released on Steam. Developers post information, screenshots, and video for their game and seek a critical mass of community support in order to get selected for distribution. Steam Greenlight also helps developers get feedback from potential customers and start creating an active community around their game during the development process.”

Sounds pretty great, right? That’s what most people seemed to think, at least initially. And in fact, that’s how I thought about it until fairly recently. I haven’t really ever taken the time to fully explore Steam Greenlight — a short visit to the website every once in awhile to satisfy my curiosity — so as far as I knew it was going well.

Listening to the community and doing some quick research suggested otherwise. Apparently not everyone is satisfied with Steam Greenlight, saying it lowers the quality bar for games allowed on Steam, is too easy for veteran developers to take advantage of, and is plagued by constantly changing policies, among other things.

I decided to see for myself what all the fuss was about, and to chronicle my findings here on the Volcano Bakemeat blog. So without further ado, here is my journey into Steam Greenlight!

Part 1: The First Impression

Entry 1: Upon entering the Home page of Steam Greenlight, one of the first games I see being promoted is a game called “Memes.” So far we’re off to a good start.

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Entry 2: Memes appears to be a competitive multiplayer remix of Pac-Man, with little characters with meme-inspired faces winding through a make-like level, collecting stars and using multipliers, boosts, and traps to take out your opponents. It actually sounds quite fun in theory, but in actuality… it looks like a Flash game played in a web browser, with unappealing UI and graphics. On top of that, the video they embedded to show gameplay is a recording of an already existing video from YouTube, including on-screen ads for Hearthstone and a “Subscribe” link that is not clickable…

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I also fail to see what this game has to do with memes at all — as do many of the commenters on this page. Many downvotes would appear to be on the way for Memes.

This would seems to be a prime example of the “low quality” games that gamers complain about appearing too often on Steam greenlight. While a lot of work might have gone into making this game, the harsh reality is that many users on Steam expect a certain level of quality — especially if they’re expected to pay for it. I will admit that, sadly… I would not pay for this game. So I understand where those complaints are coming from.

Part 2: The Voting Queue

Entry 3: Aha, it appears Steam Greenlight has a game queue similar to Steam! This might be the best way for me to get exposed to the games being offered here on greenlight. Let’s try it out.

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Entry 4: First up, Bomb Chicken. Looks like a mix between Bomber-Man and Shovel Knight or other side-scrolling puzzle-platformer games like Castlevania. Rad.

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The graphics are good, and the gameplay actually looks really fun! Plenty of nice comments and even a few discussions about how this developer can try other ways to get their game noticed or added to Steam. Lots of support. This game looks great!

I’m guessing in this case the developer may just not have had the ability to promote their game, hence their entry into Steam Greenlight. But, I’ve also heard claims of more successful developers taking advantage of Steam Greenlight to promote their games, or getting placed in Greenlight despite their prior success on other platforms. I decided to do a little digging here…

Entry 5: Looks like the user who posted Bomb Chicken has been an Active Steam user for 4 years, and hasn’t really done much on Steam outside of participating in the Greenlight Developers community. Makes me wonder… but also not that surprising if their main priority was to submit their game and hopefully get it published.

Entry 6: A preliminary Google search for “bomb chicken” yields no results about the game — but plenty of recipes online for something called “chicken bombs,” which appears to involve chicken, buffalo sauce, and/or guacamole. Nice. Not relevant, but saving this for later.

Entry 7: After going back and looking at the user who posted the entry on Greenlight, I realized it linked to a website: www.nitrome.com. Whoops. After visiting the website it’s clear that Nitrome is the developer, and that they have also made plenty of similar games for mobile platforms. IN fact, some of their games are available to play for free in a web browser via the Unity web plugin.

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After doing some exploring, I found that Bomb Chicken was not listed here, or anywhere else aside from Steam Greenlight. I also found another game from Nitrome, Flightless, which was also only available on Steam Greenlight. You can play a demo of Flightless in a web browser, and according to a detailed FAQ shared by Nitrome on the same page, the game is planned to be much larger than many of their other games currently available on mobile platforms and their web site, which means production costs would outpace their web advertising revenues — hence the use of Steam Greenlight.

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Looks like Bomb Chicken and Flightless are great examples of who Greenlight was designed for! Plus, it seems Flightless has already been Greenlit — nice!

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Entry 8: Next up is a horror game called Wounded. My first impression is that it was definitely done by a developer with limitation in some form, as it looks a little rough around the edges when it comes to graphics, gameplay, and story. However, the more I read about it and watched their promo videos, it was clear that the developers cared about this game and wanted to bring their vision to life. Despite the rough edges I mentioned, the game still seems interesting because of this, and I was curious to know more. Other users seemed to agree, echoing such curiosity and encouragement in the comments, plus the votes. I like this — if the community wants to give it a chance, then it should get a chance.

Entry 9: I realized that logging my reactions to every game I found might be a bit tiring for both me and anyone reading this, so I started to simply explore and summarize my thoughts overall.

Entry 10: As I perused the other games in my queue, I found that it was a pretty fair mix of games. There were high quality products, low quality products, games that were unique and interesting, games that were clear carbon-copies of other successful games, and more.

The key things that stood out to me were the reactions in the comments sections. Based on what most of the comments said, it seems like people who play games on Steam feel this way:

They like and want to see games that:

  • Show originality and uniqueness.
  • Don’t have low quality graphics (think MS Paint or early 2000’s Flash games).
  • Won’t get boring or repetitive after an hour or so.

They strongly dislike games that:

  • Are too similar in gameplay and design to other more well-known, successful games.
  • Seem overly simplistic in concept (i.e. “walking simulators,” easy puzzles, etc).
  • Are submitted by developers who are either seen as spammers or already have the means and/or reputation to publish their games independently.

Part 3: Conclusion

Overall, I’m not sure how I feel about Steam Greenlight. I agree with a lot of common sentiment about it, in that it seems to contain a whole lot of “crap,” in the form of games that are blatant ripoffs or low-effort attempts at a quick payoff. Even after the initial fun of seeing so many game ideas and concepts, I must admit after a while I got pretty tired of seeing recycled ideas or poor quality games showing up in my queue. But this is also the nature of competitive market environments with low barriers to entry: more developers competing for attention and success means that you’ll see a lot of copycats and people trying to see how far they can get with as little effort as possible.

That being said, I also feel like many of the games I saw were unique and the products of a passionate developer, who may not have had the fully developed skills or resources to produce a high quality video game through normal means. And I think games like that deserve a chance.

The bottom line though, from what I’ve seen in my research, is that Steam Greenlight has not been a satisfying experience — and I can kind of see why. The platform itself doesn’t seem to do much to demand certain standards be met, like the unofficial ones I mentioned above, which frustrates a lot of gamers who don’t want shoddy products.

However, this service is designed to let indie devs get their ideas out there and see what sticks — implementing a set of “standards” to limit the amount of content that gets promoted to the end users seems contradictory in that respect. If your game doesn’t succeed, and if gamers downvote it into oblivion, too bad. That’s the nature of economics. But if that happens too often, is this platform really working as intended?

That a tough question to answer without quite a bit of debate from both sides, I would reckon, but it also might be irrelevant at this point.

In Spring 2017, Valve is allegedly going to replace Steam Greenlight with “Steam Direct,” a direct sign-up system for game developers that will “ask new developers to complete a set of digital paperwork, personal or company verification, and tax documents similar to the process of applying for a bank account. Once set up, developers will pay a recoupable application fee for each new title they wish to distribute, which is intended to decrease the noise in the submission pipeline.”

Here’s some more of what Valve had to say about this change:

“After the launch of Steam Greenlight, we realized that it was a useful stepping stone for moving to a more direct distribution system, but it still left us short of that goal. Along the way, it helped us lower the barrier to publishing for many developers while delivering many great new games to Steam. There are now over 100 Greenlight titles that have made at least $1 Million each, and many of those would likely not have been published in the old, heavily curated Steam store.”

“…Greenlight also exposed two key problems we still needed to address: improving the entire pipeline for bringing new content to Steam and finding more ways to connect customers with the types of content they wanted.”

Will this new system provide a better game delivery process on Steam? Will it “kill” indie developers who are limited in resources but want to release their games? Will this truly benefit everyone?

Based on what I’ve seen of Steam Greenlight, I’m really not sure. The horrible truth is: you can’t please everyone all of time, so at some point I feel that Valve needs to draw a line and say “that’s they way it is, like it or leave it.” But I have hope that after Steam greenlight, they have a good enough idea of what worked and what didn’t to make something truly beneficial for both parties, so I’m excited to see more once it’s released!

What are your thoughts on Steam Greenlight, or Indie Game publishing in general? Let us know in the comments and on Twitter!

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