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From Greenlight to Direct: The Past and Future of Steam Publishing

Posted by on June 29, 2017.

Steam Greenlight: History and Positive Influences

On June 13th 2017, Valve shut down the Greenlight service of its digital games distribution platform, Steam, replacing it with a new service dubbed Steam Direct. Launched at the end of August 2012, Steam Greenlight did achieve many things which ushered in positive change for the gaming industry over its life-cycle, but in its latter days it was plagued with controversy, abuse and increasingly widespread derision from users and journalists.

At its inception, Greenlight was an unprecedented concept in large-scale games distribution. Attempting to catch the wave of indie gaming’s rising momentum, Valve opened a new section of its digital storefront, with input from independent developers being used in its design. Whereas all games sold on steam prior to that point had gone through the usual channels of game publishing – a ‘behind closed doors’, direct-contact arrangement between publisher and distributor – Greenlight set out to offer a way for smaller studios to access Steam’s far-reaching sales platform without needing the resources of large game publishers.

Using a similar system of user feedback to Steam’s already successful ‘Workshop’ functionality for player-made mods and addons, Greenlight allowed hopeful developers, after a one-time fee of $100, to post trailers, images and gameplay videos of finished games or works-in-progress. This allowed the games to be marketed with the same material as fully-published games already on the Steam store. Based on this information, Greenlight users could vote up games that looked interesting and which, in theory, they would want to buy. A game receiving sufficient votes would be published fully onto the Steam store.

Although at the end of its lifespan, Steam Greenlight is regarded as a broken and corrupted system, it has certainly played a prominent role in changing the gaming industry, and certainly not all the changes it has brought have been bad. Many critically lauded and commercially successful games have been released through Greenlight, and arguably achieved much greater success than they could have otherwise. Such titles as the Stanley Parable, Papers Please and Rogue Legacy, made by small, independent developers, were given a much larger platform than had been available to most studios of their size, and those games’ success helped raise the profile of independently developed games.

Since the turn of the millennium, independent game developers and studios have been steadily growing in popularity and visibility, and the gaming industry has been slowly opening up to new ideas of distribution and financing. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Patreon allow small studios and individual developers to get financial backing for their projects without having to depend on big publishers. Greenlight offered another option for smaller developers – the $100 registration fee greatly lowered the barrier to entry for designers and studios seeking to sell their game on a widely-accessed storefront.

There were both positive and negative factors of the relationship between Greenlight and crowdfunding; since backing a game on Kickstarter often effectively counts as a pre-order, developers couldn’t guarantee that there would be enough of a market left for their game once it had passed Greenlight, since the backers would already have a copy. However, a successful crowdfunding campaign would be a very good indication of Greenlight success, as the exposure would already be there, and games that were both Greenlit and Kickstarted were usually well-promoted by Valve, who could be assured of the product’s marketability.

An Abused System

Despite all that Greenlight helped to achieve, it eventually became synonymous with unethical practices and attempted scams from malicious users. Greenlight’s design cannot take the whole blame for this; a great deal lies with the increasing accessibility of game development tools and resources, such as the Unity engine. Unity offers an ‘Asset Store’ which allows its users to purchase such things as 3D models, characters, objects and animations, to help people who may have coding abilities but no means to create visual assets themselves. It’s not infrequent to see these assets sold in packs, taking the form of a basic, usable game to give the developer a framework to use. Unfortunately, this has given rise to the practice of buying these packs and compiling them without modification, uploading them to Greenlight with hopes of making a quick profit from unwary users. Jim Sterling has the most widespread and well-known coverage of this practice, having coined the term “asset flip” for it.

This was exacerbated when, in an attempt to circumvent Greenlight’s voting system, some developers began offering download codes for their games for free in exchange for Greenlight votes. Valve appealed for developers to stop, since this made it harder to know where genuine consumer interest lay, but rather than dying down it got even worse. Groups of so-called ‘Greenlight boosters’ or ‘Steam distributors’ started to spring up, offering a paid service to use these and other methods to push games through Greenlight on behalf of developers. Yolo Army was the most notorious of these, and while none of their methods were overtly illegal they would often promote games on Greenlight with free giveaways of popular AAA titles which would normally cost upwards of $40.

Valve inadvertently added more incentive for developers to force through asset flips or otherwise deceitful games when they introduced Steam Trading Cards in 2013. This move by Valve created an artificial economy from which most players would not stand to gain huge sums, but which provided an opportunity for unscrupulous groups to game the Greenlight system even further. Using fake, automated accounts or ‘forum farms’, some groups attempted to force asset flips or content-free games through the Greenlight process, generate Steam Trading Cards through the bot accounts, and then sell them on Steam’s marketplace. Most trading cards sell for only a few pennies each, but when this sort of bot farm is able to generate multiple thousands of cards repeatedly, it can become a profitable exploit.

A Direct Solution

Valve has been very reticent on their official reason for bringing an end to Greenlight, although it is known that company founder Gabe Newell did not feel that it was as successful a feature as it could be. The company’s stance is far more focused on the new service, Steam Direct, and building on what was successful about Greenlight rather than problems they aim to solve.

However, it is very clear that the scope and direction of Steam Direct is aimed at closing off the avenues of abuse with which Greenlight became associated, as well as some inherent flaws with Greenlight’s system. An announcement by Valve did acknowledge that there were still some problems with helping users to find content they were more likely to enjoy, and some inefficiencies to address in the process for bringing content onto Steam. What it did not make mention of were the widespread asset flips, trading-card scams or illegal games – but without a voting system, shady developers can no longer find means to force such games through Steam Direct, at least until they find new ways of exploiting the system.

Many flaws with Greenlight’s vote-based system will certainly be solved under direct curation, but it certainly won’t be the perfect system that some have been hoping for. While a lot depends on how Valve implements it, one of the biggest Greenlight complaints – that a game could get plenty of positive votes and feedback from users, but that this would often not result in any sales – is not addressed by the new policies. While the manual curation of Steam Direct and the scrapping of the voting system will mean games can’t be forced through fraudulently, it will be much harder for developers to get an idea of whether there’s enough market interest to make selling their game worthwhile. This is true of any business venture, but since the fee is now $100 per game, rather than Greenlight’s one-time $100 registration, the element of risk is that much higher.
That one-time fee, one of the few elements of Greenlight which, on paper, still seems preferable to Direct, would have allowed a small developer to learn from their mistakes after a failed project, with no additional cost to trying again. Direct offers less player feedback than Greenlight, meaning a developer risks sinking $100 into a failed project multiple times, with less information on how to make their games more successful.

Valve’s track record with Greenlight, Steam Trading Cards and the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive weapon skins controversy shows that they are not good at planning economic safeguards in advance. Simply from past experience, it can be expected that Steam Direct will face unforeseen problems at some point down the line; however, Greenlight definitely did its work in bringing indie gaming to the forefront of the industry alongside AAA gaming. Steam Direct’s personal curation of new titles will undoubtedly be more successful than it would have been before the advent of Greenlight; whether Direct will usher in more changes to the gaming industry or whether it provides a permanent, stable, yet less ground-breaking option for smaller developers will start to emerge over the next few months. Valve has been almost disturbingly permissive with some of the abusive practices across its platforms, and now control of quality and legitimacy of products being sold in Steam is directly in the company’s hands. The first wave of games from Steam Direct will undoubtedly show how committed they are to preserving the integrity of their platform.

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Submitted in: Expert Views, Josh Townsend |