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[Gamesbriefers] Is Steam unfair to indies?

By on June 4, 2013
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Steam recently refused to let Adult Swim bring a game called Paranautical Activity to Steam. Its reason? The developers had started out on Greenlight before switching to a publisher relationship with Adult Swim and Steam did not want to start a precedent that developers could bypass Greenlight by working with a publisher.

Is this a sensible reaction from Steam and what does it say about the dangers of Steam killing the dreams of indie developers through the application of arbitrary rules?


pecorellaAnthony Pecorella Director of Production for Virtual Goods Games at Kongregate

Speaking from the perspective of an indie developer who, after months of attempts, was eventually able to get onto Steam, acceptance by Valve for the Steam platform is a huge turning point that can determine the success or failure of your project. That’s no surprise to anyone, but if Valve wants to continue to be a champion of indies they need to not forget how essential they are to an indie’s viability when throwing around such decisions.

Frankly, I fail to see how this is a good move by Valve. The fact that they seem to be “making an example” of Paranautical Activity (at least the way the article is written has Valve talking about “sending a message to indies”) should worry indie developers of how flippant Valve can be willing to be with your success. But beyond that, how is this even a message that makes sense to send? Why punish a developer who has a game that is so strong that a publisher got excited and was willing to stick its neck out for it? Greenlight is an interesting experiment but not one that I think is universally acclaimed for its accuracy or efficiency. If we can have a publisher vet a game, and the developer is willing to split their rev share for it, why not let it continue through the normal publishing channels?

I mean this with the utmost respect for Valve – they’ve done some great things and have made successes out of a lot of indie developers. It’s great that, unlike XBL Arcade, an indie developer isn’t forced to find a publisher to appear on the platform. But it definitely is concerning to know that they are willing to throw around arbitrary rulings like this. Hopefully there’s something else going on that isn’t clear, but the public message at the moment is a very confusing one for indie developers.

Bernard ChenBernard Chen Director of Product Management at KIXEYE

I’m thinking about this as if I were solving a murder. What are the motivations?

The Indie Dev wants as much exposure and help as possible. I understand how Code Avarice feels burned by their success.

From Valve’s perspective, it seems reasonable that they’re not interested in allowing Greenlight to become a vetting tool for publishers. Valve has built the platform, however imperfect it is, that reduces a large field of candidates to a small field of actual contenders. From Valve’s point of view, by the time a game makes it through the Greenlight process, Steam should reap the rewards and be the publisher. There’s also a lot of value in keeping Greenlight as a community-driven discovery tool and not letting it drift into a publisher-driven channel like the Steam store.

Looks like Valve didn’t set expectations properly. Maybe they’ll let Code Avarice + Adult Swim into the store this time after they’ve made their message.

pecorellaAnthony Pecorella Director of Production for Virtual Goods Games at Kongregate 

So what is the message to the indie developer then?  Don’t go to Greenlight unless you’re out of options?  This makes it so that developers are going to be much more hesitant about joining Greenlight since it represents a removal of their other choices without providing any guarantee.  And while Greenlight could use some pruning in general, this is going to be pruning the very best games, those that have a legitimate shot at getting a publisher.  Also, why would Valve care if a publisher is on board?  Valve gets the same revenue share either way, to my knowledge they get no benefit by being the official publisher of the Steam version.  What rewards are there for Valve to reap?  Or am I missing something fundamental about the digital retail model here?

nicholasbwNicholas Lovell Director of Gamesbrief

I like Bernard’s idea of not assuming Valve are being stupid. I argued last year that few people make stupid decisions. They either make decisions that are sensible for them personally, or we don’t understand the full picture.

But in this case, it seems misguided to me. I can see that Steam wants to avoid the model of people “paying” to bypass Steam, but in the process they do appear to have made Greenlight much weaker. So the question is: has Valve actually been stupid, which does seem unlikely to me, or is there another agenda. And if so, what is it?

Bernard ChenBernard Chen Director of Product Management at KIXEYE

I don’t think Valve is worried that devs will bypass Steam. They have that clause where you owe them 30% for any F2P player you acquired through Steam for the life of the game. It’s likely a broader version of that clause applies to Greenlight games.

My guess is that Valve is trying to preserve the distinction between traditionally published and independent games. They have a huge advantage building UGC-filtering systems and can filter the torrential flow of indie games better than anyone (e.g. App Store recommendations = tears). There’s a lot of value in creating a brand that represents Indie Publishing.

If they let other publishers skim the good games out of Greenlight, the average quality of Greenlight goes down. If they let other publishers publish in Greenlight, the indie brand of Greenlight gets diluted.

They should enforce and communicate that games that enter Greenlight have to finish Greenlight (but allow devs to use publishers on subsequent games).

Of course, I could be 100% wrong about all of this. 🙂 Still, it’s an engaging thing to think about.

Oscar ClarkOscar Clark Evangelist for Applifier

I suspect you are right about this. Of course don’t know what else might have been going on in this relationship that might have meant this turned sour. Perhaps Valve see the Code Avarice’s agreement with Adult Swim as a ‘betrayal’ of that process. Frankly its impossible to know what goes on behind the headlines.

Greenlight seems to be to be still evolving. Its a brave effort to democratise an editorial process and to create an initial hype around the best indie content. But its still unclear if this will be a better process than the wild-west of the App Store.

Whilst I get the point that publishers skimming from the Valve Greenlight pool, might have an impact on the output of the Greenlight process. I’m not sure I accept that it needs have a negative impact on the overall value to Valve. If a publisher brings needed resources, expertise and budget to a promising game, its highly likely that this increase the market opportunity for that game. In fact I suspect that if Valve were to formalise a process for publishers to take on Greenlight games, they could create a new way to engage with publishers which could raise the quality bar and market value for everyone. But that’s not an easy thing to pull off.

Lets also not ignore the fact that not embracing publishers in this process is already having an impact. Indie [developers] now know that once they submit to Greenlight they cannot go to a publisher. This will already be negatively affect the process; after all, that’s why we are discussing it.

There may not be any stupid decisions, but every decision has unforeseen consequences.

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  • Tom Thumb

    It’s simply a quality issue. Lets be honest the Green light is not a shit filter. It’s the sewer. It’s just a way of Valve giving the rejected Indies some false hope and a sense of community involvement. They should go to a publisher before they are dumped in the sewer, not after. Valve are completely correct on this.

  • ChrisBateman

    Nice set of reactions (it may help that I know a lot of the faces!). I see two basic problems here: Valve did not inform applicants to Greenlight that once applying they were locked into that process. This is a failure on Valve’s part, and it’s not clear that their chosen response is the best way of dealing with this failure.

    Secondly, Greenlight is Valve’s bottomless chum bucket, it’s their way of palming off their originally undertaken responsibility to curate their content because they finally realised that they *couldn’t* curate the volume of content this implied. Greenlight is a reasonable response to that problem, however much I dislike it, but Valve can’t then pretend that Greenlight is anything other than a last resort.

    To suggest – without warning – that their last resort option is mandatory when undertaken borders on hypocrisy. The official message, after all, is that ‘you are welcome on Steam with a publisher (under certain conditions) and if you don’t have one, you must pursue the last resort’. If the last resort leads to a publisher, there is no prima facie reason that this should not suffice as adequate gatekeeping. After all, Greenlight’s purpose is to see if a game is worth publishing- and Valve have *already* set having a publisher as one valid test of this!

    The *only* reason this would be not so would be if Valve had clearly and specifically said that once you go through the gate of doom you may only return if you pass our trial-by-geek. They did not do this. And now they’re closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. That’s bad business practice right there, even if Valve’s reason for acting are sound. Ethics is not just about how you act, but about how you communicate about your intentions.


  • Sik

    Am I the only one who thinks that expecting Valve to support indies doesn’t make sense at all? After all, Steam has always been the platform of the big games (or at least games that could pass for such), and the kind of games that get approved only goes to show that.

    Yes, there are a few indie games that break the model, but those are the exception, not the rule. And they generally make their way in only if they already had some momentum behind them for starters (making it impossible for Valve to ignore).

  • Sik

    If you can’t do marketing you’re going to be screwed either way. Let’s suppose we have a platform where discovery is good enough that marketing wouldn’t be needed… except that then somebody who wants more attention will do marketing to beat the rest, and that extra attention will skew the discovery process (especially when potential players hear about the game from outside the platform’s own discovery system, e.g. word of mouth or advertisements).

    Either you do marketing or you don’t have much hope no matter what route you take. You can’t expect the platform to do the marketing for you.

  • Xander MacLeod

    I suppose you could say though that the answer to that traffic issue is exactly the thing in question. Allow publishers to take the risk and market the game to give you that traffic. ….so either way, its bad news for the indie dev I guess.

  • Xander Macleod

    The moment that valve allow publishers to be part of the greenlight process, is the moment that small-time indies like me get ‘boned’ because alone I cant create the kind of ‘pezaz’ that a publisher can inject into a project they are willing to get behind. I don’t want to give away everything to a publisher, and valve is trying to safeguard people like me in that sense. Mind you, I still worry that greenlight is fundamentally flawed because it isn’t so much a question of “is the game good?” as much as it is “how much traffic can you direct to your greenlight page?”. Democratic it may be, but it always comes back to the marketing – and I for one cant afford to compete. 🙁