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Steam Greenlight Is Still Broken

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In an ideal world, Steam Greenlight would've opened the floodgates on an endless cascade of great games. In reality, it's led to a service stuffed with trash. Game makers scramble to get noticed, sometimes with underhanded tactics. Valve's introduced a new rule to curb this, but it doesn't solve the underlying problem.

It's become a relatively common practice for developers to promise free copies of their games in exchange for thumbs-up votes on Steam Greenlight. Valve, however, isn't a big fan of people gaming their system, as they explained in a dev-only post uncovered by Steam Database:

"When you give away copies of your game in exchange for votes, you put us in a really uncomfortable position. We do not think these votes accurately reflect customer interest and it makes our job harder in deciding which games customers would actually buy and play on Steam."

"Additionally, when you give away copies of your game for votes, then every other developer on Greenlight thinks that is now the thing they need to do in order to get noticed. We don't think that is healthy for the system or really what customers want."


They go on to say that they understand free copies can be used for competitions and other marketing/community building events, but Greenlight votes should not be tied up in that.

It's an understandable stance to take, but it's yet another example of Valve reacting not to what Greenlight's clearly become, but to this idealized rainbow unicorn democracy dream that the service will never be. It echoes what happened with that (also ill-advised) Facebook group of developers who were upvoting each others' Greenlight attempts. "Don't do that!" Valve may as well have bellowed. "You're missing the point." But then... crickets. No solution to Greenlight's underlying issues.


Once upon a time, the point of Greenlight was to gauge people's interest in games, to democratize the process of Steam game selection. In practice, though, it never worked out that way. There were too many games, too many community members saying too many things, too few Valve employees to sift through it all. So Valve tore down their stoplight and tossed their traffic officer into a fire. They started approving games not in trickles, but in truckloads—in part, honestly, because that's what everyone thought they wanted at the time. But that didn't work either. As a result, these days the truth is that nobody knows what the exact point of Greenlight is—especially not Valve.

These attempts at gaming the system are symptomatic of an illness—one Valve continues to leave untreated, unchecked. People can't figure out what to do with Greenlight—how to be successful on it or if it even does much for a game's success anymore. As a result, the disease creeps and crawls through the service's veins, leaving it more delirious and directionless with each passing month. At this point the service is the sickness, yet Valve continues to treat it like it's a-okay. They refuse to put it down or change it despite the fact that everybody's suffering.

These attempts at gaming the system are symptomatic of an illness—one Valve continues to leave untreated, unchecked.

Except, of course, when someone games the system or tries to break away from the pack because, frankly, how the fuck else are they gonna get noticed? Then it's a problem. Then it's something Valve needs to address.


Sure, Gabe Newell said (two goddamn years ago, I might add) that Greenlight is a bottleneck in what should be a more efficient process, but he and the rest of Valve haven't done anything about it. They haven't even taken any major incremental steps in a long time. Eventually it will get better, they claim, but in the meantime gamers and developers alike are left to sit here and watch as trash floats to the top while many good games sink. (It doesn't help, I might add, that much of the Greenlight process is entirely arcane—not reliant solely on community votes or Valve's discretion—and Valve refuses to elucidate exactly how.) High-profile voices have spoken out against this. Some have even given up hope and packed their bags.


I think this is hurting everyone, even Valve. Rot is already setting in on the weeping wound that is Greenlight, even if Valve hasn't noticed yet. I've been checking Greenlight every day for more than a year, and while the volume of games on it has remained more or less the same, the quality's gone way down. I've noticed that many interesting, provocative (or even silly) indie games have migrated to services like itch dot io, which does a better job of spotlighting unique endeavors, lets developers personalize their game pages in a big way, and is cheaper. Admittedly, that one is also beginning to suffer from overcrowding, but between Greenlight's brokenness and the dwindling prestige of a spot on Steam's front page, it's still preferable for many.

Checking Greenlight never felt like laying a finger against the pulse of the non-big-budget game creation world, but it at least felt like a snapshot. Now it feels disconnected, inessential, like it's circling the drain of irrelevance.


If Valve has, as they suggested two years ago, accepted Greenlight's fate as a vestigial organ, I hope they start doing something about it soon. On the upside, all Steam developers now have access to Steam marketplace and item tools, which suggests that Valve is continuing its trudge toward a more open store—a place where, theoretically, everyone is welcome and Greenlight no longer needs to exist. On the downside, I'm still not convinced that Valve's plan for a fully open Steam is a good thing. Greenlight was supposed to be a step in that direction, and in many ways it's failed miserably.


The bottom line, though, is that Valve said change was on the way eons ago, and it still hasn't materialized. They pop their heads up to penalize people for pushing back against a broken system and then dive back underneath their cone of silence without offering a solution. Worse, they do all of this in Valve Time when time is of the essence for everybody else. Gamers and developers alike are tired and frustrated. This isn't working. Can we try something else already?

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