Steam Greenlight: Why the $100 buy-in charge is just an expensive cherry on an already slightly messy problem cake

Valve has announced a tweak to its Steam Greenlight service, the system intended to democratise Steam’s submissions process by allowing users to vote on which projects make it to the publishing stage. That tweak? A $100 submission fee.

The new policy, rather than being some manner of eldritch Victorian indie tax to swell Valve’s coffers by feeding on the blood of little-guy developers, is apparently a deterrent against the abuse the Greenlight system has seen from joke and troll submitters since launch. And the money doesn’t even go to Valve, instead being donated to the Child’s Play charity. That’s fine in principle. The inherent point of Greenlight is to allow promising talent to rise majestically to the surface, so anything that stops the misanthropic holidaying redneck gobshites at the side of the pond from throwing in tyres and drunkenly firing air-rifles at the ducks is something I can get behind.

In principle.

And the system will work. A forced $100 investment in one's joke submission will ensure that any prospective troll will either a) make sure that their fictional ‘Penis Hammer 17: The Cockening’ pitch is really, really funny, or else b) not bother. But I can’t help but worry that the system is akin to using a shotgun to open a particularly sticky jam jar lid. Moreover, it typifies what seems to me a holistic clumsiness that has plagued the implementation of Greenlight overall. But I skip haphazardly ahead of myself. First, the case of the sugary exit wound and the delicious strawberry spatter-pattern analysis.

$100 (or around £60 in the money of the tea-sipping motherland) is not a vast sum in the great scheme of things. To a burgeoning indie games studio, it could quite easily be seen as just one of the many niggly little costs that any new company’s stumbly newborn deer period must absorb. An investment in future success if you will, and one that no-one will even remember in the years to come, except to scoff at smugly while gesturing for a slave-child to ignite a fifty to light their cigars with as they float merrily around their brandy-filled swimming pool. But the thing is, not everyone is in a position to absorb $100 into an already-accepted start-up budget. Because not every great new game idea comes from someone with any kind of a budget.

Above: Prince of Persia spawned some of the best games of the last couple of generations and an oily-chested Jake Gyllenhaal blockbuster. But it started with two boys twatting around with sheets at home

Dating right back to the ‘80s, some of the best games have come from one man with an idea, coding away on his home computer in his bedroom in his spare time. Some brilliant, historically important games – whole companies, even - have started with one guy, a crazy notion, and many long experimental hours spent burning through his evenings in front of a monitor.

Those guys are surely the people something like Greenlight can theoretically be most useful to. Those are the guys who can best benefit from an instant impression of whether their untested experimental idea is cool or not. Those are the guys whose inexperience in systems and aesthetic design can be immediately off-set by a vast focus group of players throwing in pointers from the prototype stage. But those uncertain tinkering experimenters are also the folk least likely to want to commit $100 to an uncertain process they’re only just getting into. It maybe doesn’t sound a lot for a potential key to the lucrative Steam sales party, but for micro-devs juggling the perils of day-to-day survival with trying to get their game made, such as Dames Making Games founder Zoe Quinn, “That's eating for a month”.

Above: Food. Important

And that’s assuming that Greenlight even works as intended of course. But now you also have to layer in all of the other elements that I’m uneasy about. Like the fact that its structure currently makes it feel like less of a creative workshop-cum-talent promotion service and more like a TV talent show, albeit one in which the participants have to pay to be judged on sight before they’ve even sung a note.

The glaring error of a downvote button alone fills me with visions of vested-interest abuse and the uneducated knee-jerk burying of certain projects. You only need to look at the argument that’s already broken out in the comments section for Slenderman Stories: The Orphanage for an early superficial example. A quick click over there reveals a whole groundswell of instinctive condemnation for any Slenderman-related project, rife with accusations of tiredness and idea-theft based on the barest whisps of gameplay description, despite the public-domain Slender mythos having been invented as part of a crowd-sourced online community horror project in the first place.

Now consider how easily the internet can and does group together to e-bully someone down over a tangentially related beef, and how often up and down-voting systems are abused as a result of personal and professional bias. You’ve got the potential for political derailment at every turn if the wrong people get organised. 

Of course Steam isn’t the only online marketplace charging for exposure. There are buy-in costs for Apple’s App Store of course, as well as the likes of Xbox Live and the PSN. But there’s a key difference. The development license costs there pay for a direct line to the real submission evaluation process. In Greenlight, your $100 is basically a really expensive lottery ticket, buying you a chance to be judged by a community who – at the time of writing at least – stumble across submissions through a system which leaves a lot to be desired in terms of search and filtering.

And then if you’re really lucky, and your game does attain the currently ill-defined approval requirements, then it will be passed up to Valve for its real judgement. And then there’s every chance it will be turned down anyway. Valve’s own approval criteria for Steam are a bit inconsistent, to say the very least. 

Above: Flatout 3. One of the worst things to happen to humanity. Got accepted onto Steam. Plenty of good games don't

Yes, there’s every chance that I’m over-romanticising the plight of the bedroom developer here, looking upon it through the same eye-misting idiot-tunnel through which I view everything related to the Amiga and the Spectrum. And yes, I’m fully aware that if you don’t have faith in your game's ability to sell $100 worth of copies then there’s a chance it shouldn’t be on Steam anyway. But the assumption that every Greenlight fee will be made back in sales is one hell of an inaccurate assumption when you factor in everything at play here. When you consider what developers are really getting for their $100 (ie. not a lot really, given that decent Greenlight support will probably still require the sort of grass-roots promotion that a smart Steam-courting indie would cultivate for their game anyway), that throwaway nominal fee suddenly becomes a whole lot heftier.

Don't get me wrong. In principle Greenlight is a definite improvement over the curtained-off arcanery of Valve's traditional submission process. But it currently feels in need of a good deal more ironing out before it's really ready to achieve its theoretical purpose. The quick addition of the admission fee does at least prove that Valve is willing to be dynamic and adaptable in honing the system though, which can only be a good thing. But I personally can't help feeling that the necessary honing has only just begun.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.


  • Vordhosbn - September 7, 2012 3:02 a.m.

    I always love these cynical Dave H articles. Whether you agree with it or not, it's good to have a journalist casting a critical eye over things and not shying away from pointing out problems. I don't think it's a terrible idea, but maybe the fee could have been a little smaller to keep from deterring real entries. If someone was willing to pay, for example, £40 to submit a "joke entry", what's to stop them spending £60?
  • azureguy - September 6, 2012 4:49 p.m.

    My guess is that this fee is only temporarly. It's more of a shock threatment to make clear that Greenlight is not a place to publish your game without so0me effort. Aside from scaring away all the trolls, it will (hopefully) prevent the app store syndrom where there are too many games to choose from to make a profit as a small startup. Steam had the right balance of new releases and promotion so far, and note that Greenlight is not a gurantee not get into the store, only a possible first step. It's a filtering system and developers still must advertise their game and build up their game outside of that just like before.
  • Travia220 - September 6, 2012 3:40 p.m.

    They removed the the "Downvote" Option just recently and replaced it with "Not Interested." Even when downvote was there it had no affect on the results on a game or whether it makes it to Steam. All Valve cares about is the "Yes" votes. Perhaps the article needs to be a bit updated in this regard. The fact is the internet is full of ignorant scum and Steam's community is no different. People who downvote basically believe it will change the overall score in the end, when it doesn't. Although that doesn't excuse Gameradar from posting about downvotes that are no longer there. I think Greenlight needs quite a bit of work but eventually it will be ironed out. It's not like Valve has instantly abandoned it. Everything from a personalized queue to better sorting options have been added. Now you only see games you've voted "yes" on to make sure you can keep track of them.
  • RedHarlow - September 6, 2012 3:33 p.m.

    If you don't have $100 of disposable income (be it serious or troll), you've got bigger problems on your plate.
  • D0CCON - September 6, 2012 3:33 p.m.

    The other problems are valid, but as for the $100, I think that trolls and jokesters would be put off by a $20 or even a $10 submission price. I know I create any fake projects if it cost me even that relatively small amount.
  • D0CCON - September 7, 2012 9:33 p.m.

    *would not create an fake projects if it cost me even that relatively small amount.
  • Redeater - September 6, 2012 10:23 a.m.

    I'm just surprised that Valve didn't see this coming. They are usually one of the smartest companies out there when it comes to envisioning future problems. I mean, the internet just sent Pitbull to Alaska and now wants to send Taylor Swift to play a concert at a school for the deaf. How did they not see this coming?
  • xx_CaPTiiN_SpAiiN_zz - September 6, 2012 9:49 a.m.

    at least this means yogventures will be on steam and thats good enough for me. open your minds a bit before insulting everything steam does.
  • KidKatana - September 6, 2012 8:26 a.m.

    Come on Hooters, you could have used a pound or euro sign for that Gr£€nlight graphic, considering they both look more like the letter E than a dollar sign. You'll be spelling Dishonoured without the U next.
  • GR_DavidHoughton - September 6, 2012 9:06 a.m.

    You are entirely correct. I am a disgrace to the motherland and will be spending the entire evening washing down bangers and mash with tea while watching Doctor Who to make up for it.
  • bebl09 - September 8, 2012 3:41 p.m.

    I hope you actually did that while watching Doctor Who today.
  • Scuffles - September 6, 2012 8:23 a.m.

    I think I'd be more against it if Steam was the only way to get your game onto the PC..... except it isn't. It's just a storefront and anyone can set up a PayPal account and sell their games. Mind you they might not get as much instant attention as it would if it was brought out on Steam from the get go. However there are plenty of games online that go it alone and do just fine. Bottom line is if your game is good not being on Steam isn't going to break your game. If your game is bad, being on Steam certainly isn't going to make your game.
  • KnowYourPokemon - September 6, 2012 8:32 a.m.

    Actually there have been plenty of good indie games that don't do well but once they get on Steam they're able to become successful. When you have 4million+ people using your service getting your game on there can make a huge difference given the sheer number of people who only buy their games on Steam or through a retailer.
  • Scuffles - September 6, 2012 8:56 a.m.

    Up until recently the gist I was getting was Steam wouldn't even look at an indie game unless it was either doing fairly well on its own (not necessarily phenomenal sales but sales) or was quite well put together. Of course once a game reaches a populated market place like Steam its going to do better than it would have without any advertising save some word of mouth. The problem is what you are seeing with Greenlight, people are throwing up their concepts without even having a working game or completed games that (at least in my opinion) aren't even candidates to be free flash titles. Leaving you with a very few select diamonds in the rough. I will give you that there are a few games that I don't think will make it through the Greenlight Process. Games that I will probably be buying regardless directly from the developers and otherwise would not have heard about. Along with games that weren't even put up on Greenlight that through the comments about other games I am now keeping a watchful eye on (tho I probably would have heard about them later but still before release) like Starbound. For me Steam really isn't a deciding factor unless its a super impulse steam sale purchase. Otherwise I'm just as generally happy buying from the devs.
  • Mooshon - September 6, 2012 8:21 a.m.

    Saw a retweet from @notch the other day, which while being from a parody account kind of summed things up: "Please support my KickStarter so you can support my Greenlight so you can support my Beta Testing so you can buy my game." The process from indie to industry has gotten pretty convoluted. Talk about jumping through hoops. Oh for the days of Sensible Software & Codemasters when a couple of skint lads could knock out their fantastic game to the world.
  • KnowYourPokemon - September 6, 2012 8:12 a.m.

    I want to know why they have a dislike button. I mean... I don't like certain games but the fact that others and I won't buy it doesn't change the fact 100,000 other people or whatever number actually want to.

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