$100 Does Not Buy Quality

This article was written in September of last year when Steam’s Greenlight service was still new. It was posted elsewhere and is being reproduced here for easy access. Edits have been made in order to make it flow better without the external context that the original had. Note that some of the criticisms here are no longer fully valid because of the changes of time, but all-in-all I still think it’s worth a read.

When Steam’s new Greenlight feature went live, I didn’t feel like posting one of my normal long-winded rants that nobody reads anyway, so for the most part I was content to let it pass without further comment. But since everybody else keeps talking about it–and because I’m ticked off at the general state of the world–I feel I have to rage on something, so I’ll throw my two cents into the ring.

Before I go any further, I think I should begin with this: Valve is not an indie developer. Valve thinks they are an indie developer. They say they are an indie developer. But they’re not. They’re a mainstream, rather well-sized development studio that owns and operates the single most successful online game store in existence. Their general argument as to why they are an indie studio usually boils down to “well, we publish our own games”, but then by that definition EA is an indie developer but, say, Jonathon Blow is not. One could argue that they started out as an indie studio, but I’d even argue against that. Founded by a couple Microsoft millionaires with plans to sell through traditional channels, I’d say they very much a mainstream start-up studio.

Why is this important to the discussion? Because Valve has a tendency to think they understand indies and, while they certainly understand them better than the vast majority of mainstream publishers and studios, they don’t have that same indie perspective. So when they first announced Greenlight, even though I thought it was a good idea on the surface, I was highly skeptical. And, I’ll be honest, the whole $100 thing is just one issue I have with the platform, but it’s what I’m going to focus the most on today. Let’s get this rant started, shall we?

“You’re just mad because you’re an indie developer and you don’t want to have to pay $100!”

Okay, discloser time everybody! This imaginary question refers to Junction, the perpetually in-development adventure game I’ve been working off and on for two-and-a-half years now. [Most people currently would recognize me for Another Star, which did not exist at the time this article was written. At the time of this posting, Junction is not in active development.] First off, I never describe myself as an “indie developer”, or even a “game developer” or “game designer”. I don’t identity that way. For what it’s worth, when people ask what I do I say I’m a “freelance artist” or an “illustrator”. I don’t even mention games. [This has changed slightly over the year since this was first written, but my go-to answer for “what is your job” is still “freelance artist”.]

Now if Junction was successful and I could keep on making indie games, that would be great. But I don’t expect that to happen, and in fact would rather not be in the video game industry if I could help it–I’ve actively avoided it since I graduated with an animation degree. The history of Junction and Vision Riders is too long and off-topic to explain here, but the game exists to pad my portfolio and fill space on my resume so that people realize I’ve actually been doing career-relevant things for the past three years and not just sitting on my butt writing internet rants like these. I don’t keep working on the game because I want to get rich, I work on it because without finishing the game my career as an artist is dead (and in fact may already be dead, but that’s another discussion for another day).

That’s obviously not to say Junction can’t be a commercial success, or that I don’t believe in it. I have a love/hate relationship with the game to be sure, and it’s a niche title so it’s a hard sell, but it is a commercial venture and has been from the beginning. Here, let’s take a quick look at some hypothetical numbers. It would take somewhere in the ballpark of $5,000 to $7,000 to make back all the money I’ve spent directly on the game’s production in one way or another (never mind the cost of just living during that time). But for a mere $50,000 or so worth of sales, I could easily pay off some of my debts and be able to coast long enough to consider working on a second game. That would require 10,000 sales at $5 a copy, or 5,000 sales at $10 a copy. Obviously that’s not taking into account PayPal charges or storefront charges, depending on how it’s distributed, but you get the idea. Yes it’s an uphill battle, but it’s well within the realm of possibility if things hit a stride once I get to the point where I can start really pushing the game. Other indies have done it, even in this same niche.

As for the $100, I can afford $100. I don’t have to ask around for $100, I can just rack it up on my credit card with everything else that’s piled up on there thanks to Vision Riders. But it’s not that I don’t have confidence in my game, it’s that I don’t have confidence in Greenlight and that I think my $100 is better spent elsewhere.

Now that that long-winded strawman is out of the way, let’s get to the heart of the issue.

“Okay fine, so what do you think the real problem was?”

The (biggest) problem with Greenlight was not the crap, it was navigation and findablility. When Greenlight launched it was a unhinged mess of epic proportions. There was no real search function, and what little search ability there was happened to be fairly buggy. Just browsing was a chore as the list of games would rearrange itself randomly, so you’d usually pass up the same stupid game multiple times on different pages as you advanced through the list. Imagine if browsing Amazon.com was like browsing Steam Greenlight: if you were looking a specific genre of book, you’d have to look through the entire hardback section, and each time you went to the next page the list would be resorted so you’d never make any progress. And then after two hours of futile scrolling and clicking you’d realize you hadn’t even touched the paperback section yet.

It’s not like this problem hasn’t already been solved. Anyone can upload absolute junk to YouTube. And they do. Oh god, do they ever. There’s no fee involved, no barrier to entry. But it’s still pretty easy to find something worth watching. Videos can be tagged and rated and sorted and it’s easy to link whatever you find to all your friends. But instead of looking at how other people solved this same problem over a decade ago, Valve decided to reinvent the wheel for the umpteenth time and released a sloppy, unfinished feature to the community.

And then instead of fixing it, they took the laziest possible way out and slapped a $100 fee on top of it. Hooray!

“But the fee will keep the crap out!”

Uh, no. The fee will keep people who don’t want to pay $100 out. At best it’ll cut down on the trolls, but a $10 fee or even a $5 would have accomplished that just as well.

Thing is, there are plenty of people with crappy games who are more than willing to pay $100 because they think their crappy game is the greatest game of all time and that everyone will love it. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that people with crappy games are more likely to spend $100 for that very reason. A lot of them don’t realize just how bad their game is, so they’re more than happy to throw away $100 to “become rich and famous”. The $100 fee achieves nothing.

“The fee should be higher. $500! $1,000 even!”

And that would accomplish… what, exactly? You’re cutting down on the number of entries without cutting down the ratio of good-to-bad games. Again, bad and first-time indie devs are probably going to be more likely to throw money around. The higher you go the harder it becomes for actual indies to apply, which defeats the entire purpose of the feature anyway. Already small-time publishers who’ve had trouble getting on to Steam are starting to put up their goods. Ubisoft and Activision they are not, but $1,000 is chump change to them. If you raise the cost of entry, you’re locking out actual indie devs in favor of small publishers and mainstream developers looking for alternate retail channels.

“But Dale, there were too many games!”

Too many? How much is too many? 100? 1,000? 10,000? 5? You do realize that you don’t have to look at every single submission, don’t you? Look at what catches your interest, vote, favorite if you want to keep an eye on it, and then move on. Granted, this would be easier if Valve had fixed their brain dead platform and let you do an actual search, but even going through the list of 500 or so games on launch day, other than the issue of random resorting previously mentioned I didn’t have a problem going through the entire list several times and seeing what there was because I didn’t click on things that didn’t catch my interest.

There are something like 120 billion videos on YouTube. If you want to watch a video of cute kittens, do you go through every single one of those 120 billion and watch them beginning to end? No, that’s retarded. You type “cute kittens” into the search field, press enter, and then scroll down until you find the picture of the cutest kittens and then watch that.

“It was going to ruin Steam if left unchecked!”

Greenlight is a separate matter from Steam proper. You might as well argue that everyone having a screenshot gallery on their Steam user page is deteriorating sales.

Greenlight is not a store. You can’t buy anything on Greenlight. And Valve had the ultimate veto anyway. If The Crappiest Game in the World™ got 100% of the needed upvotes, Valve made it clear they had absolutely zero obligation to do anything about it. If they don’t want it in the actual store, they don’t have to put it there.

Nobody has to look at Greenlight if all they care about is the latest Call of Duty. They can just buy their game and be done with it. All the better, in fact. If all you care about is Call of Duty you probably shouldn’t be on Greenlight anyway because you’ll downvote everything that doesn’t look AAA. [That’s not to say everyone who likes Call of Duty is a horrible person and hates indie games. The two are not mutually exclusive. I’m talking about the people who ONLY care about that kind of game.]

“I don’t see what the problem is. Microsoft and Apple already charge fees for the same thing. And their fees are recurring!”

People are quick to point this out, but the comparison is moot. For $100 my game will be on the App Store, or Xbox Live Indie Games. All I have to do is pass certification, which (unless you trigger Apple’s prudish side) is not a big deal. On Steam, for $100 I get the “privilege” of having the faceless masses vote on my game with a chance of maybe going on sale. And then, even if I manage that, there’s still no guarantee Valve will put it up. The $100 to Microsoft and Apple is by far a better buy.

And I can’t speak for Apple, but I know when you pay your dues to Microsoft you’re getting more than access to their storefront, you’re getting access to additional tools and resources that non-paying members do not have. Valve has nothing like that. You can’t even look at the Steam API to plan on how to implement it until after you’ve signed your contract. [My understanding is that this has changed since this article was written. Kudos to Valve if that’s true, even if it still doesn’t address the central problems with the service.]

“Nobody has trouble raising $100. It’s a business investment anyway.”

I notice this tends to come from those indies that have already “made it”, or those who don’t even really follow the indie scene. For some indie devs $100 is a fair amount of money that is better left to food and rent, or better tools to make a better game. A lot of indie devs with multiple games to their credit live on the cheap in order to practice the craft that they love. Most indie games are not hits like Braid or Limbo.

Sure, in the case of poorer indie devs, there’s other devs willing to pay the fee for them. But if your fee is shutting out actual devs then what is the point of the fee? It’s akin to those who say going to see a doctor should be expensive so that only sick people bother to do so. Instead what happens is that people who really do need it put it off until they get worse, while those who don’t need it but have lots of money go anyway. Obviously, this comparison is hardly 1:1 because people don’t die if they don’t get on Steam, but it illustrates what I’m trying to say: that imposing a fee does not automatically generate quality.

The bigger problem, though, are small devs outside the United States and Europe. People don’t realize that there’s a lot of indies in developing countries, and for them $100 is a lot more to cough up.

And it’s not a business investment. It’s a lottery ticket. Indie devs aren’t like startup companies with investors and five year plans. To quote the words of Paul Eres (designer of Immortal Defense): “I’m pretty sure there are games on Steam that were made for fun, without a business plan. You know what type of games always have a business plan? Casual iphone games.”

“But without the $100 fee, Greenlight will turn into the Xbox Live Indie Games channel!”

Bullcrap. The Xbox Live Indie Games channel has a recurring $100, and look at all the good it’s done! Oh, wait.

And again, the comparison between the two is moot. Greenlight is not the store where you buy the game. Greenlight could have a billion games on it and it wouldn’t really matter diddly-squat to the actual Steam storefront.

“At least Valve isn’t taking the money, so it’s not like they’re trying to profit off it. It’s going to a good charity.”

Personally, I don’t have a problem with Child’s Play, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make. The point $100 fee is unnecessary and accomplishes nothing regardless of where it goes.

And there are actually a few people who do have an issue with the choice of charity because they feel it basically serves to take money from indies and give it to large mainstream publishers. Way to help the indies, Valve!

“It’s Valve’s platform, they can do whatever they want to.”

Thank you, Ayn Rand, but I’m not even arguing that Valve shouldn’t be allowed to do what they want in this regard. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with it or think that it’s a good thing, or be inclined to think it will accomplish what it sets out to do.

“You just feel entitled to have your game on Steam!”

This is an awfully silly and petty argument, but it keeps popping up everywhere so I suppose it must be addressed. Look, I don’t feel entitled to anything. Should Junction–or any other game–be on Steam just because? I’ve never argued that. For better or for worse, Valve is a business that wants to make money.

But what I am arguing is that if Valve is really serious about Greenlight (I get the sneaking suspicious that they’re not) then they’d work to actually make it something that benefits the indie community. They haven’t. Having such an arbitrary barrier to be voted on is counterproductive. And again, for the umpteenth time, Greenlight is not the store.

“There are other places to sell your game. Just do that.”

This would be less of an issue if Steam was not such a monopoly. There’s a huge contingent of people that will actively avoid even mainstream games if they can’t be bought on Steam.

It’s also largely a non-issue. Of course there are other places to sell games. Indie developers are not so stupid that they’re going to suddenly forget that they can continue selling their games the way they always have. And regardless, developers are always going to have to work hard to push their game and get it noticed. But that’s still besides my point.

Greenlight is a horrible, broken system with no content filters that can’t be bothered to implement decade-old solutions to problems that should have been obvious before the beta, let alone release. But instead of fixing it they just tweaked a couple things, slapped a frivolous $100 fee that accomplishes nothing, and went back to making TF2 hats. And, of course, the community applauds them for it.

Ugh. I haven’t touched on a number of other issues with Greenlight, not the least of which is the fact Valve itself can’t seem to decide what they want the service to accomplish.

As for myself, will I pay the $100? Too soon to say. I honestly wasn’t sure I would submit to Greenlight before the fee because–for the reasons I’ve already listed and numerous others–the system is so fundamentally broken that bothering with it, especially with the narrow chance of getting enough upvotes for such a niche title, seems largely to be a waste of time better exerted elsewhere. If the service doesn’t drastically improve, there is absolutely no reason to waste my money on it. Valve is going to have to go a long way to convince me that Greenlight is more than just another one of their ideas, introduced with fanfare and gusto, that they got tired of and discarded along the wayside like so many others. It’s only been a couple weeks and they’ve already started burying it.

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