6 September, 2012
With much fanfare and enthusiasm, Steam announced Greenlight a way for the community to give feedback on what they would like to see. If you've been following the news lately, you might have learned that things didn't go over as well as might be hoped. To the point that Valve has been scrambling to control the damage.
But, I see this as a sign of failure. Perhaps not terminal failure, but let's take a look at what this rocky start means at least in the short term.
Let's take a look at a bit of background to see why this has been a larger issue than some business making a small misstep.
The importance of Steam
Let me say first and foremost that I really like Steam. It's been a tremendous boon to me as a gamer, because I have a library of games I have acquired for not much money. Steam sales make me feel like a kid in a candy store with a pocket full of cash. As a PC gamer (and game developer), I appreciate what Steam has done to keep PC games going when the traditional retail stores shifted their focus away from stocking PC boxes. So, this isn't some anti-Valve hate letter.
Steam has taken on a lot more importance as indie gaming has become a dominant force in the industry. Getting your game on Steam is one route toward a lot more attention for your game. This isn't to say it's a guaranteed thing; a co-worker and friend of mine has his game Eversion on Steam, but last I checked he didn't own anything gold-plated for the sake of gold plating. (Definitely check the game out, I quite liked it.) So, a lot of people put a lot of effort into getting their game on Steam because it is perceived as being a good way of attaining success.
Steam is also a gatekeeper of content. As you probably know, Sturgeon's law says that "90% of everything is crud" and that applies to games as well. For people without a lot of time to go hunting through a ton of games to find the gems, a gatekeeper is useful to separate out the stuff that they will probably enjoy from the stuff that shouldn't be talked about in polite company.
The problems with Steam
For all the good points of Steam, there are also a few problems. First, since Steam is so dominant it has a position that, intentionally or not, dictates how people react to games. Don't have your game on Steam? Some people will say it's obviously not very good, then. Others will simply refuse to buy any game not on Steam. I think it is a large part of what motivates people to try to get their game on Steam, because it lends some legitimacy to the game in the eyes of the players if it's accepted by Steam.
As I said, Steam is a gatekeeper, but it's important to remember the prior gatekeepers of games. Publishers, retail stores, and game portals. All these gatekeepers usually tried to restrict access to favor their own bottom lines. Here's that Pyrogon postmortem I love to link, where Brian Hook talks about how the business shifted in the casual game business as the portals started to exploit their position as gatekeeper.
So, remember that Valve is a business, which means they will do what is profitable for them. Since they are still a private company, they have some latitude in what they can do, but a businesses will generally pursue policies and projects that create the best return on investment. I'm not quite willing to go so far as Sophie Houlden did (warning: salty language and an amusing but rather NSFW animated picture on the page) and tell people to write off Steam, but it's important to understand how Steam's position relates to the feelings going around.
The purpose of Greenlight
The problem, as was communicated in the games press, was to open up the process for getting accepted to Steam. One has to assume that Valve got a lot of and requests for games to be made available on the service. Instead of paying people to weed through the submissions, this would Valve "crowdsource" the work to the community. Seems like a brilliant idea, as you can just as the people who would pay for the game directly if they would, you know, pay for the game instead of having people in the company making educated guesses about what will sell.
So, here we have one of the most popular downloadable game platforms which is asking for open submissions to put in front of a huge audience of game players. What could possibly go wrong.
What went wrong
Turns out, quite a bit. Of course, anyone who deals with online communities could have probably seen these issues coming a mile away. Not surprisingly, the open approvals process brought out a lot of trolls and idiots who couldn't resist being idiots in front of a huge audience. You got people posting up games that were basically wishes (such as one for Half-Life 3), rip-offs of existing games, political messages, and all sorts of other cruft like you expect from an unrestricted general community.
Of course, the people who were trying to actually find good games in Greenlight weren't amused. The spam became epidemic, and Valve scrambled for some way to restrict who could post games to Greenlight. They implemented a $100 fee (which they say will be donated to the Child's Play charity) to try to stop the flood of garbage. Which, of course, created a whole new round of controversy.
So, let's take a look at the layers of failure surrounding this.
Valve doesn't understand community
Let's start with the biggest problem first: I take this as Valve pretty much not understanding what community is really about. I don't think they're entirely clueless, but their knowledge of community is still rooted in the clan-focused world of FPS games. I've never found the "community" tab to be that useful for me, probably because I don't play a lot of multiplayer games that aren't MMOs. If I want to chat about how cool the Legend of Grimrock is, the Steam community page isn't the first place I go visit. I kinda get the feeling that the Steam community pages are mostly there because at Valve heard that community engagement can increase sales and retention. So, it feels like an appendage rather than something vital to the service.
As I said, the whole point of Greenlight was to offload the approval process to the community. But, it seems Valve either didn't anticipate this would be prime troll territory, or didn't anticipate that the community wouldn't have the patience to wade through the trolls to find the gems. Not anticipating either of these shows a woeful lack of understand about how internet communities work. To me, this is a huge failure on the part of Valve.
The $100 problem
The issue of the $100 fee for submitting a game has been making the rounds. One side pointing out that this is can be a sizable amount of money for some people. Others scoffing at this, making all sorts of claims about how $100 is easy to raise, how if you're not willing to risk $100 then it shows you have no confidence you your game, etc. Of course, we need to take a look at the people discussing this: most of them are the type that has the comfortable middle-class life that allows them to spend $60 on a game; not everyone is in that situation. Also consider that in Poland and Brazil, two countries with reasonable active independent game development communities, $100 is a sizable amount of money. Another of my co-workers discusses some of the problems with the $100 fee.
But, the discussion of if $100 is a lot of money or not is a bit of a distraction. The bigger problem is that it serves as another hurdle in a process that was supposed to be about removing the hurdles. Greenlight was supposed to be a way for people who didn't have enough clout to submit the game formally to Valve to have a shot. But, now there's just another obstacle put in the road to getting on Steam. Worse, it's a financial obstacle that affects different people in different ways depending on their means; as shown in the discussion around the 'net, $100 is nothing to some people and a large investment for others. This feels like a hasty change to try to address the problem Valve didn't anticipate.
Worse, in my opinion, it rewards people who threw up a hasty page quickly. People who already have a game posted won't be charged the fee. But, if you didn't join the gold rush and wanted to actually organize your campaign, then you will be levied the fee. Seems unfair to punish people who really did want to do the right thing and didn't jump on the bandwagon without planning.
The issues of discovery
The last issue I'll cover is one that has been mentioned in many places: the terrible organization of the Greenlight system itself. This is probably one of the reasons why the trolls were such a huge issue, because the organization made it hard to weed through the crap to find the useful stuff. People have said it's overly difficult to find stuff. This means that people who actually want to do a good job have a hard time dealing with it.
The best way to get positive votes, it seems, is to have an established base that you can mobilize to go vote for your project. Of course, if you have a sizable following already you probably need Steam's support a bit less than someone else starting from scratch. This also means that the Greenlight system is more about advertising than having a good game. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but people using the service need to understand that going in. This isn't a "meritocracy" where a project will necessarily succeed or fail entirely on it's own merits. Given that advertising and getting attention for your game is already a challenge for most indies, Greenlight is not the solution we need to make sure that great games don't get overlooked.
What I would do
Okay, now for the bit of positive discussion, where I'm helpful for a change. Let's pretend that I'm in charge of saving Greenlight from it's current failings. What would I do?
Hire a community manager. Fast. As I said, it's pretty obvious that Valve wants a community and wants to use it, but has no idea how to do so. MMOs have been using community managers for a long time with great success.
Take responsibility for moderation. This would be the first job for that new community manager. Valve has had quite a bit of success, so hiring a few hourly people to manually review and approve submissions seems reasonable. If they have moderators for their communities, then these people should be easily able to tell a legitimate game from a troll or fake.
Restrict posting meaningfully. Want to know the best way to restrict people from posting garbage? Require them to have an account and have either had an account for a minimum amount of time or have purchased a certain minimum number of games. Let's face it, most of the legitimate developers will have purchased games on Steam. Maybe after a while, allow an account with some activity but in good standing to post after a cooldown period. Limit accounts to a number of simultaneous postings based on account type. Ban people who post trolls so that they at least have to go through the account process again.
Give better tools to the community. I just checked, and there's a way to flag games. Use that. If a game gets too many flags, take it down for manual review. Watch for abuses in the flagging system, though, because people will eagerly abuse negative karma systems. Also create a ton of tags for people to use to identify their games. Let me search for 2D stealth action RPGs if that's what I want, rather than wading through alphabetical lists, whatever ends up in my "queue", or a few generic genre types.
Do NOT sort by popularity. I've seen people suggest sorting by popularity. Show things to people that have already gotten upvoted. That way lies madness, and encourages people to get an army of friends to upvote them initially, rather than letting the game's quality do the talking. This is especially important for divisive genres, like sports or visual novels, where some people have an unreasoning hate no matter how good the game really is.
Mine your data. Valve has to be sitting on a ton of data about how their existing community operates. Use that to identify important people. The trend-setters, the hubs of activity, the connections between different hubs. Identify these key people and involve them. A social "hub" person voting for a game should carry a lot more weight than a random account. Hell, look at the purchase history and see if someone is likely to actually buy a game, or just upvote a friend.
What would you do?
What do you think of Greenlight? Do you agree its a failure? If so, do you think it can recover? If so, what would you do?