Was Steam Greenlight Really That Bad?

By Benjamin Burns on 29/04/2024 21:52 UTC

Steam Greenlight was announced back in July 2012 as a service for indie developers to get their games onto Valve’s PC platform. It was subsequently retired almost five years later in June 2017 and replaced by Steam Direct. In that time, it received almost constant criticism for a multitude of reasons. At first it was flooded with fake and profane game ideas making it difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Valve’s reaction to this was to issue a standard $100 charge for game submission, which then alienated those developers who were working to a tight budget. Over time it came to be known less for the egalitarian nature by which it was conceived and more as a wasteland for poorly designed games and unfinished projects, long-since abandoned by their developers. But does it really deserve the reputation it had, or are we perhaps overlooking just how positive its impact has been on the gaming landscape?

Looking at the hundreds upon hundreds of games in my Steam Library, many of which I have yet to play, it’s all too easy to forget that there was once a time when almost every decent PC game that came out in a month could be reviewed by a handful of magazines. Game development, even for PC, was once an unequivocally complex, expensive, multifaceted task and to expect more than 15 or 20 new games to be released each month was just unreasonable. According to Steam Spy, in 2006, just 71 new games were released on the Steam Store. By 2012 (the year of Steam Greenlight’s release) that figure had risen to 379. Comparatively, 2014 saw the release of 1771 games.

The implication here is obvious. Greenlight had a huge hand in creating the current PC gaming culture. The level of depth and variety that we currently enjoy is a direct result of Greenlight’s existence. It’s also reasonable to assume that other stores, particularly those such as Humble Bundle, which rely quite heavily on selling batches of indie games, would be non-existent, or at least very different, had this innovation not happened.

Greenlight also held the door open for our current crowdfunding culture. Of course, crowdfunding existed long before Greenlight, with Kickstarter opening up their service as early as 2008, but Greenlight’s influence on the platform is plain to see. In July 2012, Kickstarter took $276 million in funding. By June 2013 that figure had risen to $661 million. That’s an increase of nearly 240%.

With Greenlight spearheading the existence of early access, the once exclusive and often privileged role of being a beta tester has now become readily available for fans of many games. Say what you will about the ethical issues that may arise from selling a product before it's finished, but this practice has had a huge impact on how we market games today. A whole culture, that of the livestreamer and the YouTube gaming celebrity, has been transformed from a collection of armchair fanboys to an extremely lucrative bunch of potential sponsors. Guys like John Bain AKA TotalBiscuit with his ‘WTF Is’ series have found success by almost exclusively discussing indie projects, many of which made their way through Steam Greenlight.

Some of Steam’s best features would not exist without Greenlight. It’s curators and user reviews are a direct descendant of their earlier experimentation with diplomacy and voting. Furthermore, the store’s discovery algorithms, game suggestions and general UI has been heavily influenced by their experiences with Greenlight. Valve themselves even confirmed this in a blog post, stating that “Greenlight exposed two key problems we still needed to address: improving the entire pipeline for bringing new content to Steam and finding more ways to connect customers with the types of content they wanted.” The post goes on to explain that “to solve these problems a lot of work was done behind the scenes, where we overhauled the developer publishing tools in Steamworks to help developers get closer to their customers. Other work has been much more visible, such as the Discovery Updates and the introduction of features like user reviews, discovery queues, user tags, streamlined refunds, and Steam Curators.”

Furthermore, Greenlight has had a profound influence on how we, as consumers, view the indie dev community. In a sense, it shows many of the characteristics of the indie music scene of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, where guys like Tony Wilson were breaking established norms by allowing musicians to retain the rights to their material and encouraging them to write and perform whatever the hell they wanted to. It’s no coincidence that 2012, the year Greenlight launched, was also the year a whole bunch of popular documentaries about indie studios were made or released. Indie Game: The Movie came out, Us and the Game Industry began filming and Tim Schafer's Double Fine Adventure (which would eventually become Broken Age) was conceptualized almost solely for the purpose of documenting an indie development cycle.

You might argue that Tim’s studio isn’t exactly a small establishment. You may also point out that indie games had a following long before Steam Greenlight came about. And you’d be quite correct on both points. But what Greenlight did was to take the indie scene and place it squarely in the line of sight for every serious PC Gamer on the planet. Steam has that Kingmaker capability, where it is able to say ‘this is legitimate, this is worth paying attention to’ and gamers will take notice. That’s exactly what they did to indie games when they introduced Greenlight. A bunch of people who previously only cared about playing AAA releases suddenly second-guessed their decision and before long, these devs were no longer merely guys coding games in their bedrooms at night. They were lone rangers on the wild frontier of gaming, creating experiences that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Greenlight was the right thing at the right time, acting as the catalyst for what was already a bubbling cauldron of indie devs and bored gamers.

Steam Direct, Greenlight’s replacement, has yet to be tested. Having said that, it certainly seems like a step in the right direction. Over at the Steam blog, Valve have outlined the changes to be made to their process of accepting games and one of these changes involves each project being physically played and tested by a Valve employee. This is designed to satisfy obvious concerns about malicious or incompetently coded games from messing up a user’s computer. But it will also enable the company to avoid some of the early access drama that has surrounded many of the unfinished or dishonest titles that have plagued the platform for some time. While Steam Direct is definitely the future, let us not forget how we got there.

R.I.P Steam Greenlight.