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July 21, 2019
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Steam Greenlight vs. Steam Direct: What indies need to know

by Sheena Perez on 07/10/17 10:26:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Sheena Perez is co-founder of Albino Moose Games

With the arrival of Steam Direct a lot of questions have yet to be answered, so speculation and concern (among consumers and developers) is rising. As a developer who’s very familiar with the Greenlight process since 2015 and gone through it successfully twice with Spooky's Jump Scare Mansion and the more recent HD Renovation -- which combined have over 1 million players -- I wanted to talk about it and give my first impressions of it. There’s a lot of stuff to cover -- including changes to avoid Steam Trading Card abuse, prices, and what this means for us as developers and consumers.

The old way: Steam Greenlight

Let us start by talking about Steam Greenlight. This is more for reference; I’ll try and make this brief. Steam Greenlight was a feature of Steam implemented by Valve to help indie developers sell their games on Steam. How the old process works is that a developer would pay USD$100 to Valve to participate in the Greenlight process. As a developer, you only needed to pay this fee once and you were welcome to upload as many titles onto Steam Greenlight as you wanted. You did not get that money back.

After you pay the fee, you were brought to the Steam Greenlight portal where you could create a Greenlight page with information about the game (title and description), upload video footage, trailers and screenshots, useful links like demos for the game, and social media links. You also needed to add contributors, if you had more than one, to the page, and then you are ready to set your page live on Greenlight.

Now for how the "greenlighting" process actually worked -- once your page is live your title is now on Steam Greenlight where users vote “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” to express interest. Additionally they can follow or share the page, leave comments, and read blog posts and announcements by the creator of the page. All the games on Greenlight are ranked by the number of “Yes” votes and once your game breaks into the top 100 on Steam Greenlight you were considered an eventual success. After battling your way to the very top of the popularity contest (top 5 spots) your game would get “Greenlit by the community.” Congrats! What you do after this isn’t very important to this blog so I will stop here.

The new way: Steam Direct

Now, onto Steam Direct and what we know about the process. Remember that $100 fee I mentioned with Steam Greenlight? The one that let you upload whatever you wanted? Well, now you have to pay $100 per game. It’s no longer a one-time fee. The upside to that, if you can call it that, is that once your game makes over $1,000 on Steam itself, then you get that $100 back.

Once you submit that fee, you are now prompted to fill out information about yourself like your name, social security number, etc…to make sure you are the person you claim to be. Valve has you fill out a form for tax info and bank info also. You’ll need to sign some non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in this process. After all that paperwork is settled and they confirm you as a real person, you now get to fill out your marketplace info -- your game’s name, description, how much it’ll cost, etc. -- you know, the usual marketplace info. In the Greenlight process you wouldn’t have to do that until you were setting up your store page after being greenlit.

Once that’s squared away you’ll get invited into Steam’s developer portal. Here you’ll be able to submit your game’s files, achievements, Steam Trading Cards, and other things like that. You must submit an almost finished version of your game to Valve for testing, because they want to make sure you aren’t putting malware or something on their platform. This usually takes a few days. Same with approving the Steam Trading Cards and the rest of those other extra things for your game. Valve suggests you do all of this at least 30 days before your planned release so that everything can be approved within a reasonable timeframe and nobody’s panicking. There aren't rigorous definitions of a "game", but Valve is going to spend a few days checking that your game matches what you described on your store page. Once you’re approved by Valve, you’re good to go and you can release on Steam. Congrats!

The price of accessibility

Well, here’s the issue with that. With a lot of that for that matter: before, you had to go through some kind of gauged interest with Steam Greenlight. Now with Steam Direct, all you need to do is basically pay a fee and boom, you’re in. The issue with that is that essentially Steam is turning into the PC version of Google Play Store.

That is very concerning to me as a developer and a consumer because now there’s going to be even more more games on the platform. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing, right? Well, it is, because Steam was already starting to get difficult to find games that were actually worth playing -- 40% of the games on Steam were released in 2016. With Steam Direct that process of finding new games that pique your interest has become even more difficult, and as a developer, you now have to compete with a bunch of not so great games potentially taking up front page space that your game should have had.

While Steam Direct adds new and continuous strings of games at a more rapid pace, finding games is also difficult because of Steam’s user submitted tags. Basically any person, troll or not, can go onto a Steam store page and add tags to a store page. A very common one that I see is people using a “horror” or “scary” tag when talking about a very poorly developed game, horror or not. It could be a 2D side scrolling platformer with a unicorn collecting Pop Tarts, but if it’s poorly developed trolls will use the “horror” tag. If you want to browse the newly released “horror” tag, you’ll find some horror or scary games for sure, but also some games that clearly don’t belong. This is an existing problem but the more poorly developed games we see on Steam due to the constant addition of new games, the more this tagging system will be abused by the user base.

Another thing which may be an unpopular opinion. I’ve spoken with a few other developers and they, like I, think the price of submitting your game on Steam Direct should have been a little higher than the $100 they ask for. In my personal opinion it should have been at least $500; especially if you get that money back once you sell $1,000 worth in units. With Patreon, developer streams on Twitch, and just flat out donations taken on a website, it’s easy for a good developer and a good game to get that amount of money.

Speaking of payments…what about those devs that put their game for sale for 99 cents or even free? Those developers won’t get their money back, and if they do, well, at 99 cents, that’s a lot of units that you need to sell. Free has it worse because in-game transactions do not count towards that recoupable amount. One could argue, “Well, why do you need the money back? You got some EXPOSURE!” Or “Why do you want that money back?? Are you only making games for the money!?” To both of these statements I say, game development isn’t cheap, not for anyone. It’s nice to make back what you put in, and it helps you work on the next thing.

It’ll be interesting (to say the least) when it comes to what developers do when they want to release free games. I have sympathy for those who want to put a game on Steam and make it free and not get anything back with this new system -- it’s not very fair to them. The developers who are in that small margin don’t get their money back at all. My first title on Steam was a free game. So, I get it; I didn’t get the money back because 1.) I couldn’t and 2.) No dev got their money back. If Steam Direct were the process back when I released my free game, I would have been angry that people got their money back and I didn’t. Hopefully there will be some kind of system that helps those free game developers out. Maybe if they get "X" downloads, they get their money back, just like if a paid game made $1,000 sold.

That other thing: Steam Trading Card abuse

One major fault of Steam Greenlight was the fact that Steam Trading Card abuse was a thing. By that I mean developers would generate thousands of keys and distribute said keys to bots that were running Steam games to farm card drops. They would then put the cards up at a high price and reap their percentage of the sale on the marketplace.

This is an issue on several levels including our favorite two words -- Steam’s algorithm. If you didn’t know, the more playtime on a game, the more Steam’s algorithm thinks the game is popular and gives said game more exposure with the front page, recommended for you, etc. As you can imagine that truly is a big problem. Steam showing us unpopular and broken games because bots are farming for Steam Cards breaks the entire system that Steam has in place.

With Steam Direct, Valve has changed it so that a game with cards has to reach a certain amount of total playtime among all players, and meet some other quota that we aren’t even sure of yet because Valve won’t tell us. Once that game meets said quota, the the cards will start to drop. All players that have playtime already in said game will now start to see card drops. Sounds cool, right? Well, not exactly. Considering we don’t even know the quota a game has to meet before they can qualify. Not to mention, Steam Trading Cards are a serious deal breaker for majority of Steam consumers -- if they can’t get their cards immediately, it may become an issue. Even with the current system consumers complain that cards aren’t dropping. This affects the marketplace, the achievement hunters, and the collectors, only to combat a small portion of people farming cards for money. Even so, these card farmers can still find ways to continue their ways, I’m sure.

Hey! That's my game!

The last issue that I can think of with this new system is probably the most serious of all points I've made thus far; that issue is stolen work and DMCA takedowns. During the Steam Greenlight process, sometimes malicious users on Steam would copy an already existing Greenlight page to the exact dot of its content and push it to Greenlight. The scary part, and why I say "malicious," is that there's an extra piece of info; a link telling the users on the page that the link goes to a "demo" of the game. Well, it's not actually a demo - it's malware. You have fake Greenlight pages to try and trick unsuspecting users into downloading malcious software.

This happened at least once to the original Spooky's Jump Scare Mansion Greenlight. What's a dev to do when you see this? Well, with Steam Greenlight, you and the community were able to report said Greenlight page, if you owned the game that this was copying from, you could file a DMCA takedown and with enough reports, it gets taken down. The same goes for fan games and asset-flipped games. Well, what about Steam Direct? How extensive will the search be to make sure someone didn't steal your work, maybe add an asset flip or two and call it their own. You can't file DMCA takedowns of fan games or asset-flipped clones of your game anymore with Steam Direct until after the game is live and accepting payments, which can be rather scary if you ask me.

In the worst case scenario a game using someone else's hard work could have the malicious developer take the money and run. They could also pillage free game outlets (like itch.io or gamejolt) and pretend to be the original developer. Hopefully the research Valve does to make sure this doesn't become a problem is very extensive or else we are going to see a lot of that same content.

Where to from here?

That’s all the info we have so far and some of my thoughts. We’ll just have to wait for more details to make a more educated analysis on whether this is a good idea or not. I understand where Valve is coming from with the changes that they're making, trying to create the path of least resistence for people who make games to get their games in the hands of people who play games -- however I'm not sure that the system is well-defended from people who are trying to abuse it for a quick buck.


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