Steam Greenlight Turns Yellow: Slow Down, Pay $100

Steam Greenlight launched late last week and was quickly flooded with a myriad of bogus submissions. The signal to noise ratio was far too low, and wading through the garbage to find the gems was proving to be just as arduous of a task for users as it had been for Valve (which prompted this whole community-driven selection business).

In response, Valve instituted a one-time $100 fee for submitting games to Greenlight. The funds collected (minus taxes) will be donated to Child’s Play. The fee grants your account submission access to Greenlight, so one fee will allow you to post and update any number of games to the service.

This new rule has proven surprisingly divisive. Many like the notion of eliminating spam while supporting charity, while others balk at the idea of a fee or its amount.

The Problem:

Greenlight has an identity problem. It has replaced the old direct-submission webform that Valve used to use, and thus is the only way for new developers to establish a relationship with Valve, short of meeting them in person or being contacted by them. (Yeah, you could leverage other contacts too, but it’s the official way to submit games for consideration on Steam).

So Greenlight is a replacement for the submission form. This sounds great: get users to publicly demonstrate their support for a product in order to gauge its popularity. Developers create a page on Greenlight for their project and then send their fans to it directly. The traffic they can generate is a good sign of the game’s popularity. Valve can monitor the projects with a lot of traffic and skim the cream of the crop. Problem solved.

But then Valve added a project listing and the ability to browse through submitted titles. This put *all* submissions into the public eye. This was never necessary to solve their problem of gauging the popularity of games; developers could have just directly linked to their projects. If there was no directory, then spam entries would be unseen and harmless.

Instead, Valve’s approach, paired with a lacklustre interface, thrust every joke, spam, malicious and simply naive project to the forefront. Every user saw when Half-Life 3 was posted for the fifth time. Discoverability was sabotaged by the huge amount of cruft and the fact that the system made no attempt to hide it.

The $100 Solution:

The quick answer of a $100 fee will likely solve the spam problem. And it probably won’t stop even the most mildly serious of game developers. But it’s still a knee-jerk reaction that a lot of people are opposed to.

To me, the amount is a non-issue. It should be enough to discourage invalid submissions and its low enough that any indie developer can scrounge for it.

What matters is that Greenlight is still evolving and has yet to prove itself. No game has been promoted to Steam proper yet. No game has even earned an audience with Valve. Heck, there’s no guarantee that reaching 100% “calculated positive ratings” will earn you anything.

And thus, you’re paying for… a web page really. A chance at Steam – sort of, maybe. It’s all a bit nebulous, and that’s the frustrating part. The old submission form was free, and that usually garnered an eventual response from a human at Valve. It was unsustainable, but why not just cut out Greenlight altogether and add the fee to the submission form?

Comparisons with the App Store, XBLIG, WP7, etc:

Many people are quick to point out that other App Stores charge a similar amount for no promises. However, in each of those cases developers are given clear guidelines for publication. Yes, there are rules, but if you adhere to them then your projects are accepted for sale on the store. There are no such guarantees with Greenlight. Some might argue further that acceptance on an App Store doesn’t guarantee you will have any sales, but that’s really beside the point (and would apply to Steam anyway). Getting on the store is what’s at stake. Your performance once there is up to you.

What Could Valve Have Done:

Close Greenlight submissions. It’s not even that radical a suggestion – Steam submissions were closed for all of August leading up to Greenlight’s launch. Then take the time to reevaluate whether or not Greenlight should be a “discoverability platform”. If so, look around for how other systems handle spam. Reddit’s “new” queue would be a good way of keeping invalid submissions away from anyone who didn’t want to play moderator. You could even just limit the number of brand new submissions on the front page when a user visits.

The Bottom Line:

The fee solution is probably going to be effective at weeding out spam. It probably won’t stop many legitimate developers (and some indies have even pledged to help out those in need). And all the money goes to a good cause. There’s not *that* much you can really be upset about. And if Valve continues to develop Greenlight as a browsable directory where Steam users can discover new games, then just being on Greenlight has value thanks to the sheer number of users.

I’m a bit annoyed that Valve jumped to this solution. I’m anxious that Greenlight keeps changing and has yet to prove itself. I would have preferred if Valve had solidified how Greenlight worked and proven it out before adding on a fee. But at the end of the day, I’ll be paying it without hesitation.

Say, did you know DLC Quest is on Greenlight right now?

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Do Indies Crunch?

I happen to have a convenient two week block of spare time and a game that needs finishing. I plan on crunching.

But wait you say! Crunching is bad! Yes, I’ve heard that too – here’s a good article detailing why. I’ve also experienced the fun that crunching for a big publisher isn’t.  And yet, free of the shackles, I’ve got my Red Bull on my desk ready to go.

As an independent developer, you basically get to control your own destiny. You pick what game you make, the genre, the platform, the price point and even the release date. You don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck threatening to take away funding. On the other hand, you don’t have that funding to begin with. And you need to eat, so shipping isn’t really an optional part of the job. Crunching to get there is up to you.

My reason for crunching is obviously to accomplish more in a shorter period of time. But I also know that I can afford to take it relatively easy after this stretch. I figure that if I’m following agile methodology and sprinting all the time, shouldn’t I jog at some point? Maybe the interval training analogy is flimsier than I thought.

So indie developers, do you crunch? Why?

So, this #ims211 thing

It all started so innocently when Sean C. Duncan (@scd) tweeted:

Hey, if you work in games, can you tweet hi to my class (#ims211)? I wanna make a point about Twitter and the game dev world.”

Game developers around the world responded in droves. From indies to AAA, programmers to artists to musicians, the hashtag was flooded with tweets from around the world. It seems like every group has been represented, with incredible speed and friendliness. It’s become a gathering point for people in the industry in just over 24 hours.

  • Twitter is a good way to reach other developers? Check.
  • The game dev world is made up of more than just coders and artists? Check.
  • The game dev community is alive, vibrant, and, above all, friendly? Check.

Whatever @scd was hoping to prove, I think it’s safe to say the game dev world came through.

Point proven, where does #ims211 go from here? It’s taken on a life of its own now, with people using it as a way to connect to other developers, query a wide group of industry folk, recruit for jobs and more.

In the end, @scd sums it up best:

If #ims211 hasn’t proven that *all* game students need to get on Twitter, I really dunno what else will.”

Oh and since you’re here, why not follow me @benkane? </shameless plug>

CUSEC 2009

I spent this past weekend in Montreal attending CUSEC 2009. Aside from being in Montreal and ridiculously affordable, it was also a great conference – well-run with a lot of great speakers. I had previously attended CUSEC in 2007 and found it to be hugely motivating – so much so that I had moved to Vancouver for a co-op job by the time CUSEC 2008 rolled around and thus skipped a year. This year’s conference had that effect once more.

CUSEC features a collection of speakers from the corporate and academic world, as well as keynotes known for their research, accomplishments or just plain awesomeness. This year’s list was no slouch, featuring some very entertaining talks, some cool tech demos and even Richard Stallman.

The conference opened with a keynote by Leah Culver, one of the founders of (the now-defunct) pownce.com. While it might seem to send the wrong message with pownce having closed down just last month, it was pretty clear that Leah and the rest of the crew had moved on to greener pastures at SixApart. We actually missed the very beginning of Leah’s talk but for what we saw, she described the life of a sucessful software engineering in a lively and motivating way. Success doesn’t necessarily equate to money and I think she made it clear that you can be successful doing what you love, if you keep your eyes open, head up and just keep coding for fun.

The next keynote was Dan Ingalls, who demoed the Lively Kernel. The abstract claimed “an entire computing environment can be built from scratch entirely in JavaScript”, something we found somewhat curious and borderline laughable. One theme that ran through the entire conference was that JavaScript was on its way back in thanks to the advent of more powerful engines. The Lively Kernel ended up being pretty interesting, if not convincingly useful beyond an educational tool. It definitely impressed with its live code editing and universal treatment of GUI objects. I was particularly surprised that it managed to “run” on my iPod touch (though only conceptually; it was unusable). The coolest part? You can go try it right now.

The Lively Kernel

The next day brought Avi Bryant who delivered “Good Hackers Copy, Great Hackers Steal”. Aside from talking about the resurgence of SmallTalk, including his web framework built using it (called SeaSide), Avi’s main point was about ‘stealing’ research from papers that haven’t been tapped for their end user potential. It was a pretty inspiring talk about the benefits to actually knuckling down and doing some research when faced with a problem. He also demoed a few things, including a small web app that would apply a theme to a page based on a pallette pulled from a logo you provide. In his words, “I really enjoy taking really simple little features and overdoing them.”.

Next up was Giles Bowkett. Giles had a MIDI generator written in Ruby to demo, which was actually pretty sweet and I don’t think the crowd gave him enough credit for it. Music generation is on my list of things to tinker with. Aside from that, Giles didn’t so much have a message to share or an opinion to express so much as he had an entertaining story to tell. I liked it, and the crowd liked it, and it was motivating if nothing else.

Following  Giles was Joey DeVilla, also known as the accordion guy. Joey is one hell of a storyteller. He’s a tech evangelist for Microsoft and he opened his talk by playing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” on his accordion, which alone should tell you he’s a pretty interesting guy. He reminded me of my calculus prof who told us nearly unbelievable stories of his youth during class, which always came as this huge juxtaposition to the subject at hand. Joey’s talk was excellent and the audience ate it up. He made an appearance later on by winning an auction to buy a stuffed gnu from Richard Stallman (see it unfold on his blog).

Joey DeVilla wins a stuffed gnu from Richard Stallman


I’ve stuck to just mentioning the keynotes so far, but the final day of the conference brought on Caitlin Kelleher, an academic speaker from Washington University. She spoke about Storytelling Alice, a programming environment aimed mainly at middle school girls. It can clumsily be described (by me) as a sort of 3D Sims-like machinma maker that focuses on scripting. The scripts are input with a GUI to enforce syntax but in doing so, they also expose students to programming concepts like functions, parameters and loops. I was pretty interested in the whole thing, partly because of the technology involved and partly because of the problem it’s attempting to address (namely, increasing enrollment in computer science from a broader group of people). Its effectiveness in studies is admirable. Yes, the Alice engine is no longer much to look at, but there is apparently a deal in the works to use Sims 2 characters for the next version. I have too many thoughts on the topic to explore them now – perhaps a future post.

Storytelling Alice

Storytelling Alice

The second-last keynote was Francis Hwang. This was another talk about engineering as a profession and how it related to other professional areas. It was different largely because of Francis’ take that software engineering was not at all like art, it didn’t have to be, and it doesn’t suffer for it. He was challenged on this but held his position quite well. A memorable line: “Q: How is a brain surgeon like an artist? A: Why would I want to be an artist? I’m a fucking brain surgeon!”. If nothing else, it seemed like people took from his talk that you should challenge things you disagree with.

Last of all was Richard Stallman. His talk was on “Copyright vs. Community in the Age of Computer Networks”. I’d write a synopsis, but Joey DeVilla has a virtual play-by-play on his blog of another time Stallman gave the speech. This is another topic that I could probably write a lot on, and one I don’t actually want to go near without due diligence and reading Stallman’s essays. You can probably guess that I don’t completely buy Stallman’s arguments. It was a very interesting talk nonetheless, in terms of content rather than delivery.

Phew! So that was CUSEC (well, the conference side of things anyway; Montreal itself breeds adventures). So what did I take away from all of this? Well, few more people to follow on blogs and twitter, and a renewed interest to look into web development that I have avoided up to now with the blanket statement “I don’t know web stuff“. I’m going to be looking into Django and Ruby to see what’s going there. Oh, and I’m going to blog about the things I find out and create. So really, the most valuable thing about CUSEC? Motivation.