Steam recently announced that they will be phasing out their Steam Greenlight program, the service that allowed creators to find a home on the PC’s largest gaming platform for a one-time $100 fee, if their game was approved by a community vote.
In its place, Valve is launching Steam Direct, a similar service primarily targeted at small creators but with one critical difference. Instead of relying on Greenlight’s process of community curation, Direct will filter developers via paywall. To enroll a game in Direct, developers will need to submit some paperwork and a recoupable fee, which Valve has said will range anywhere from $200 to $5,000.
What does this mean for indie developers? Is this a suitable replacement for Greenlight? Let’s dive deeper into some of the critical issues.
The inventory cost argument
It’s been argued that the up-front fee associated with Direct is the equivalent of a brick and mortar retailer/creator having to maintain a stock of physical goods to match demand. And in many ways this is a fair comparison, as the world of digital goods affords developers the luxury of always having an essentially unlimited supply of their product, a huge advantage over anyone selling a physical commodity.
This argument falls apart a bit, however, when you consider the stated purpose of Direct and its predecessor. Valve has stated that the idea of transitioning to Direct is to get out of the way of developers who want to get their games on the PC’s largest storefront, that they didn’t have the resources to onboard as many games as fans were expressing interest in under the Greenlight program.
But Direct will automatically and summarily eliminate any developer that can’t pay the enrollment fee.
Since so many independent creators run shoestring operations, often barely scraping by from week to week, a paywall can represent an insurmountable barrier; and since Steam is approaching the status of monopoly where PC games are concerned, not being able to showcase your game there can be it’s death knell.
Obviously, the severity of this issue will depend to some extent on how high Valve finally sets the enrollment fee. There’s a world of difference between $200 and $5,000, and while $200 isn’t an insignificant amount of money it would be a much more manageable expense, especially for individual creators or students, than $5,000.
Curation by paywall
On the other hand, because the number of games flooding Direct will depend in part on how high the entry fee is, a higher fee might look like it would actually be a boon for the creators that can afford it. Fewer games means fewer competition, of course, but it also means that your game is less likely to get drowned in a sea of clones, mobile ports and other low-quality also-rans.
The problem with using a static paywall as a curator, however, is that companies that can afford it have the opportunity to exploit that system. There’s nothing to stop a prolific publisher from dumping huge numbers of low quality or hastily produced games onto Direct, knowing that only one of them really needs to hit to fund tens or hundreds of others. And since games that do sell will apparently recoup the initial investment, the stakes around this kind of gambling are even lower.
A happy medium
Overall, the changeover looks positioned to serve creators and publishers that already enjoy a certain level of success, or have looser purse strings, at the expense of first-time or struggling developers. It’s a recipe for stagnation and an overall degradation in quality of Steam’s offerings.
Valve has said that with Greenlight, they might have 400 quality games that had been forwarded them through the program, quality games that rightfully belonged on Steam, but because of resource restrictions they could only onboard ten.
But Direct is a blunt, imprecise response to a problem that requires a deft touch. Instead of abolishing community curation, if Valve truly wants to get out of the way and remove itself from the process as they’ve claimed, a better solution would be automating that curation.
Allow any game that hits a certain threshold of community interest to be automatically hosted on Steam. That way, Valve isn’t an obstacle but the process retains some semblance of equality, and preserves community feedback as part of the curation process. This would inevitably mean more high quality games that will better serve their intended audience.