The Trouble with Steam Greenlight

“If everyday were Christmas, Christmas would be pretty boring.” I’m not sure where I first heard that saying, but I’ve always liked it. It’s a simple reminder that some things are best left in moderation, and some occurrences lose their significance if they’re constantly happening.

It’s a good saying, and a pretty good summary of my feelings towards the Steam Greenlight system at the moment as well.

Steam Greenlight, in theory, is an incredible idea. It gives developers much needed exposure, it gives fans the ability to choose what games they want to see, and it gives indies in general the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with Triple-A games in a retail setting. So everyone wins right?

Yes they do, and that’s a big part of the problem. Unlike a site like Kickstarter or Indigogo, there is no financial obligation required on the part of the user when it comes to backing or supporting a game. What usually happens then is many of these games will describe itself in some near comically over the top fashion (“It combines elements of ‘Mario’ and ‘Starcraft’ while utilizing an ‘Unreal Tournament’ multiplayer system in a rouge-like universe!”) and people will vote for it out of sheer amusement for the concept, or out of simple intrigue for the possibilities of the idea fully realized. After all, what do they have to lose by doing so?

As a result of this system, hundreds of new games are being accepted on Steam at a time, as Valve approves as many eligible games games as the bandwith will allow for. The games themselves may not release on Steam right away, and the studios and developers may not receive immediate compensation for being greenlit, but it does guarantee them a spot on Steam somewhere down the road.

That’s an issue because there isn’t really that much prime space available on Steam. Just take a look at the average layout of the Steam homepage.

While this image doesn’t fully take into account the rotating banners and multiple tabs available, it does show that that the majority of Steam’s static layout is either blank space, or advertisements for Steam programs, statistics, and merchandise. The actual space set aside for individual games is extremely limited, as is the information available on those games at just a glance.

If you’re a Greenlight game (or any game to be honest) you had better hope to be on the “Top Sellers” tab for awhile, have the resources available to sufficiently advertise your game through outside channels, or get a good banner ad. Otherwise your chance at true exposure is all too often limited to your time on the top of the new release section. That is, of course, unless your game becomes an overnight viral sensation, which occurs a statistically irrelevant amount of the time.

Steam’s navigation system doesn’t help things either. Let’s say you want to browse Greenlight games that are available. First, you have to go to the Greenlight section. Then you have to find and click on the “released” button. From there you do get the available games, but clicking on them doesn’t actually take you to their store page directly. That takes an intrusive pop up, and yet another button to accomplish. There’s also the troubling lack of basic personal filter features available, meaning extremely limited appeal items like software aren’t easily removed from said limited space should you desire them to be.

These may sound like trivial issues, but combined they lead to a thinning and cheapening of the available Steam “shelf space,” so to speak, in a manner similar to the mass influx of inferior quality titles that led to the great gaming crash of 83′. Now I don’t want to suggest that the situation here is as dire, or that the games being let through are on the same quality level of the shovelware of that time period, but it does raise the question “Is enough quality control being implemented to keep the Greenlight system in check, and keep Steam from becoming overburdened with more games than it can possibly handle and fairly support?”

Besides improving the site layout and navigation, though, what’s the solution to this problem? After all, many would oppose giving Valve some kind of ultimate say in what actually gets through as that raises a host of ethical questions. I suppose you could set some kind of strict time limit from the time of approval to the time that you have to actually put your game on Steam, but there’s already a pretty quick turnaround as is, and it still often leads to mass influxes of new titles at once.

Instead the solution may lie in overhauling the voting system. You need to force users to have some sort of commitment to the game beyond just clicking an approval button. To do that, perhaps Valve could explore the possibility of implementing a native download demo button on every Greenlight submission page. Then before a user can vote on a project, Steam will have to verify that they have downloaded and played the demo similar to how their review system confirms the review has the game, and displays their time spent on it.

That way you are at least asking voters to pay with personal time before being able to give their extremely valuable votes to a game. This also lets users get a far better idea of the game they are about to vote for, and if it has true value beyond the catchy description. Sure many Greenlight games have downloads and demos available on their personal sites, but in reality the further you ask users to go away from a game’s Steam page for relevant material, the fewer users will actually do so.

Now understand that I’m in no way insinuating that is the one and only solution to this problem, or that there is a simple be all end all fix that even exists. For instance, the above scenario is tricky for multiplayer only games and certain genres. Not to mention it would require a substantial amount of work on Valve’s part to fully implement such a system in a fair and functional way.

However, the overall issue with the current Greenlight system’s extreme generosity does exist, and if Valve doesn’t take steps to tweak and improve the system based on the knowledge they gather from it in these early stages, they run the risk of watering down, or even undoing, all of the good things that are possible through it.