Steam’s new Greenlight feature has been fraught with controversy since its launch. First, too many fake games and pranks were posted to the service. Then, a little over a week ago, Valve decided to add a $100 submission fee to stem the flow of joke submissions. This caused an uproar from indie developers who protested that such a fee was too steep. Now, just two days ago, Steam revealed the first ten games to be approved through the service. The list reveals an interesting fact: Greenlight is working exactly as intended. And that’s not a good thing.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the games on that list, shall we?

  • Black Mesa: A highly publicized and anticipated Source Engine remake of the original Half-Life.
  • McPixel: A successful iOS and Android game.
  • Heroes & Generals: A WWII shooter that has received some coverage from the gaming press (here and here, for example).
  • Routine: A first-person survival horror title that has also received some coverage from the gaming press (here and here, for example).

If these titles have something in common, it’s that they all sound like games that would have been approved by Valve anyway, with or without Greenlight. And that’s exactly what Valve wants. See, Valve isn’t in the business of discovering the next big thing or helping out indie devs. It’s in the business of making money, and instead of wasting money on approving games themselves, they decided to outsource the approval process to the Steam community at large. The games that received the most approval (i.e. the most thumbs up) were the ones that had already received some publicity in the blogosphere. Gamers had already expressed an interest in them, and Valve wants to put games that it thinks gamers will buy on Steam.1 Thus, Greenlight works exactly as it was intended: the games that show the most potential to yield financial success are the ones that Valve wants on its Steam service.

But just because it’s working as intended doesn’t mean it’s working well. For one, Steam needs to recalibrate the metrics it’s using for approval. In fact none of the games approved this week had reached 100% of the votes required for approval; they had at most a percentage in the mid-twenties. The presence of a “thumbs down” button is also perplexing. I can see why a company would want to know how many people wouldn’t buy a certain game, but it’s not clear if a down vote reduces a game’s approval rating. It doesn’t make sense to make definite no-buys count against potential purchases; they’re not lost sales.

Valve has also failed to realize that making money and helping indie devs aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The $100 fee is a prohibitively high barrier to entry, and it’s simply unaffordable for developers who aren’t in fortunate financial situations.2 People aren’t going to pay to carry out pranks; a $15 to $20 fee would be a far more reasonable deterrent. But with this fee in place, Greenlight has effectively shut itself off to games made by the economically disadvantaged, and while this is regrettable for those developers, it’s also not a smart move by Valve. With this fee, Steam could miss out on a relatively unknown game that gains popularity by word of mouth. It could miss out on the next big thing.

Most importantly for Valve, though, I don’t see how Greenlight saves them any work. Presumably, they still have to test the games that get approved through Greenlight and make sure that they won’t set anybody’s hard drive on fire. Moreover, Valve has to do the additional work of maintaining and moderating the service, labour that could be better put to use improving other aspects of the Steam user experience (such as making offline mode work properly3 or patching the myriad bugs that plague the program).

In the end, Greenlight just doesn’t make sense from a business perspective. I know that Steam is so popular that it allows Valve to basically print money, so they have a lot of cash that they can throw away on experiments like this. Still, I don’t know what Valve was hoping to gain or find out with this service. All they’ve succeeded in doing is confirming that popular games will get votes, and in the process they’ve pissed off a bunch of indie developers. Here’s hoping that Valve improves Greenlight so that it can be beneficial for all.

1 Yes, I’m aware that Black Mesa will be free. That being said, it’s a remake of one of Valve’s own games, and putting it on Steam is positive PR. ^

2 I’m not just talking about developers who are “poor” in the traditional sense. Rob Fearon has a blog post criticizing the fee and explaining how economic misfortune can befall almost anyone. ^

3 Seriously, I shouldn’t have to connect to Steam first and then go offline. I should be able to access offline mode without being able to connect to the Internet. People have been complaining about this for ages, and I don’t think Valve has even acknowledged the problem. ^