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What is the point of Steam Greenlight?


Ever since I first heard this story around a week ago, I knew I would need to write something about it eventually. After all, much of my work here at Gameverse has been promoting indie games languishing in Steam Greenlight limbo. I’ve had some time to really gather my thoughts on the whole Paranautical Activity issue, and now I think it’s time I finally wrote a piece about it.

For those who haven’t heard the story yet, Paranautical Activity by Code Avarice was denied a Steam release for what seems like arbitrary and rather petty reasons. Code Avarice started a Greenlight campaign for their game some time back, however they were then approached by Adult Swim and offered a publishing deal. Adult Swim has already published two games on Steam, so this deal should have allowed Paranautical Activity to bypass Greenlight. Then, for unknown reasons, Valve stopped the release because they “didn’t want to send the message that indies can seek out publishers to bypass Greenlight.” One of members of Code Avarice even said on Twitter that he “hasn’t touched a line of code in days” after the deal fell through, because now all their efforts have been shifted away from development and towards promoting an old, abandoned Greenlight page.

I think this whole mess illustrates one thing: Valve has no clue how to make Greenlight work the way it was intended, and are just making crap up as they go. I’ve criticized Greenlight before in my Greenlight Spotlight series here on Gameverse. Valve’s approach to getting indie games on Steam is like a Cerberus, where each head has a different idea of how things should work. Greenlight was created because many quality indie games were arbitrarily denied the chance to release on Steam, with no explanation as to why. Unepic and Space Pirates and Zombies are two of the most-cited examples of this.

Greenlight has actually made the process significantly worse because of how inconsistent Valve has been. Just looking at the top 20 new release on Steam, nearly half of them are indie games that didn’t need to go through Greenlight. So…why is that? Who chooses what indie games have to go through Greenlight, and which ones get on Steam automatically? There have even been examples of games by companies who have already released successful games on Steam needing to go through Greenlight for their newest titles. Why did Mode 7 have to push Frozen Endzone through Greenlight after the success that Frozen Synapse has seen on Steam? Wadjet Eye had previously released seven games on Steam, but Primordia had to go through Greenlight for some unknown reason.

Moreover, why does it even matter that Paranautical Activity was trying to bypass Greenlight with a publisher? Isn’t the whole point of a publisher to get your game distributed and released? The whole issue just seems petty to me. Valve has hinted before that their policies are in place to keep terrible games off Steam, but bad games get on Steam all the time. I’m sure everyone remembers the War Z scandal, and even Greenlight has allowed questionable games to slip through because of the very nature of the system. Towns made it through Greenlight and is still being sold on Steam as a complete game, despite being an alpha full of bugs and unfinished content. There is no disclaimer anywhere on the Steam page about it being a paid alpha, and it hasn’t even been moved to the Early Access section yet.

According to YouTuber Jesse Cox on the latest TGS Podcast, the whole Greenlight process is even more screwed up than Valve tells. Jesse, along with Josh from IndieStatik, has a video series called The Greenlight where they highlight games struggling on Greenlight. Jesse pointed out on the podcast that indie developers waiting on Greenlight have the ability to see where they stand in the current rankings, something that is hidden to the average user. It seems that, instead of just releasing the top however many games on Greenlight, Valve picks and chooses whenever determining the next wave of Greenlit titles. This leads to situations where a game that has been sitting in the top 5 on Greenlight is passed up in favor of games further down the list. If this is indeed the case (again, we can’t be sure because of Valve’s lack of transparency) then what is the point in us voting for games on Greenlight? Just what arcane rituals does an indie developer need to perform to get the chance to be on Steam?

What this whole situation proves is that Valve is far from perfect. They clearly have no idea how Greenlight should work. Valve’s lack of transparency and inconsistent decisions can be infuriating, both for indie developers and gamers who want to see unique, good games get the attention they deserve. I’ll still continue to highlight games with my Greenlight Spotlight series. Indeed, this whole series exists because of how screwed up Greenlight is and how difficult it can be to get noticed among the sea of…not so great games waiting for votes. I may not have the same amount of influence as others that have spoken up about the subject, but I’ll continue to do what I can. Remember to go give Paranautical Activity a vote on Greenlight, if you haven’t already.