I try not to be reactionary to things I read on the internet, and I know I've posted comments to some articles being just that. I usually sit down and read through articles multiple times, do some research, contemplate my thoughts, and then if I feel that my voice would add to the conversation I will go ahead and make a post. After reading the recent article here on Gamasutra about Gabe Newell's talk at the University of Texas and his vision of where Steam will be heading in relation to content submissions I immediately went into reactionary mode. I whispered many profanities under my breath and saw my dreams of launching on Steam evaporating in front of me.
I have a lot of love for Steam. I've been an avid user of the service long before I decided to get into game development. Since I've been a developer I've always longed to get a game approved for sale on their service because, like many indie's, I have faith that that would mean selling more of my games than on any other distribution service. Steam holds one of the largest user bases on the net so getting a game on there puts that game in front of a massive audience. The idea of making a living off of the game doesn't hurt either.
As my team was getting closer to Alpha with our game I started researching the Steam submission process really heavily. Obviously there wasn't much information out there. Steam has always been pretty tight lipped about the process, which I can understand completely. What I did find were a lot of postings from developers that submitted their projects and received silence in return or extremely vague emails refusing the project. Many people complained about the lack of communication, but I understood it. I was in a few bands when I was younger; a few of which were looking like they might "get somewhere." Delusion would be an understatement. Submitting a demo tape to a record label 999 times out of 1000 will result in no reply what so ever. The reason is really just the sheer volume of submission that they receive. There is no possible way for a few individuals to go through the mountains of submissions they receive on a daily basis. So to expect a personalized reply to every submission is just completely unrealistic. Add to that the legal issues of telling a developer what they need to do in order to be distributed and we can begin to understand the way things were. I'm not the first person to come up with this, but still the masses complained.
In steps Greenlight. A way for Valve to push off the selection liability to the community as well as give developers a look into what the submission process looks like. What a cluster F* it turned out to be originally. I was extremely hesitant about Greenlight because I could foresee by the pre-released information what was going to happen. Shortly after launch the platform would be flooded with sub-par content that would drown out most of the decent stuff. The community that would basically become the pre-selection committee would tear most of the developers a new hole. When a couple of games were selected it would create controversy over why one game was selected over another. It didn't take long to see most of this come true. The one thing I have to say that I thought was a good move by Steam was the $100 submission fee imposed shortly after launch. Yes it has its problems, but overall it was a good tool to hold off some of the shovelware. Yet still the platform is flooded with sub-par material.
When I initially read the said article it sounded like Valve had basically given up the fight. The hopes of making a living making video games was dead. Yes there are alternative services, but nothing with the power of Steam. Now every Joe Blow that makes a fart game can release on Steam. It’s the App Store and XBLIG all over again. It was time to turn my game development dreams into some other development dream.
After this initial freak out I sat down and re-read the article, had a cigarette and thought about the situation and what I believe Gabe actually said. The reality is not as bleak as I imagined, though there are some serious issues with the ideology.
Basically Greenlight will go away. It was an interesting experiment and they learned that it was a pretty terrible idea. The community hated it. They hated the mass of terrible games on the platform that mucked up their idea of good games. Not all of the community members want to be the gatekeepers. That is part of the reason that they trust Valve to do it for them. The community isn't made up of well-mannered intellectual people that are willing to try things out, but rather lots of trolls and people with little tolerance to iffy graphics or bad pitches. This is an issue on both sides of things really. We can't put the blame on the developers or the community. When the first round of approved games went through lots of people cried about how they were too similar to each other and didn't cover the range of titles on Greenlight. Personally I thought it was great. Developers heard from the potential buyers of their games what they actually thought. Yet still the blame was put on Steam. Guess what, you can't make them happy.
So instead of Greenlight Steam will give everyone access to the Network API. It took me some time to figure out exactly what this could mean. Essentially developers can get all of the features of Steam, even create their own Steam store, without their games actually being on Steam itself. Once Steam has decided that a game is selling well on an auxiliary storefront site they may put it onto the Steam storefront. Sounds like a good idea but it doesn't solve the major complaint of the developers.
Developers want onto the Steam storefront on day one. They want the user base and all the rewards that involves as well as the cool tools, though this part is secondary to most. Giving them access to their own Steam based store doesn't really mean anything other than some cool networking tools, and maybe even purchase processing tools (which would be an extremely good idea). Maybe even an icon saying "Powered by Steam" or something they can place on their site and load screen. It does create some good things for developers to help them get their game in front of players, but I still see developers screaming about not being on the actual Steam storefront. Even with pulling some games onto the storefront unless there are clear guidelines as to what needs to be done to get onto the storefront people are still going to complain about Valve being too selective and gatekeepers to the user base. We’re still at square one.
I also see the idea watering down the Steam name. Yes people will still go to Steam to buy their AAA titles, but the Lower and Indie tiers will suffer as the user base begins to distrust the platform. Part of the curated nature of the platform instills credibility to the user base. If a game has somehow amazingly passed Valve's strict approval process then it might be worth playing/buying. As soon as you lose that credibility you become XBLIG. It’s part of why most developers want to get onto Steam in the first place. We want that credibility. If the platform loses that credibility, which in turn drops the sales totals for those tiers of games, why would we as developers strive to release there?
Valve is in a crappy spot and I feel for them. They really don't have any good options to go to. Personally I think going back to the old submission process, while adding many more submission handlers to the team is the best idea, but I don’t see anyone taking a step backward here. There have been many comments about the downfall of the games industry and I hate to add to it, but I fear this is a nail in Indie coffin to some degree. If there are no credible options for mass release, and the prospect of decent returns, we will lose a lot of the talent that exists here. I'll leave things there. I look forward to other people's comments.