Wednesday, 5 September 2012


You've probably heard of Steam.  It's Valve's digital content delivery system and it has taken over the PC gaming market, quickly becoming the largest gaming download "portal" in the world.  There are lots of reasons for this - the legendary Steam sales where they sell off everything for low, low prices, the perception of Valve themselves as "one of the good guys" and probably lots of other reasons which people in marketing would be happy to talk about for hours and hours.

But that isn't really important.  What's important is that Steam recently announced "Greenlight" - a new way for people to get their games into what is, essentially, a massively lucrative marketplace.  Developers could submit their creations and Steam users voted on which ones they thought were worthy of being put onto the main site.  Finally Indie developers had a way of hitting the big time - if they could get their games through the selection process.

Now, anybody who knows anything about the human condition can probably guess what happened next.  Overload.  A sea of dross in which anything worthwhile was lost.  Obviously this wasn't Steam's intention, but it was pretty predictable.

So, Steam have tried to clean things up.   Each developer is now asked to pay $100 (about £60) as a one-off fee, with all proceeds going to the Child's Play charity.  That's a one-off fee and it allows people to submit and edit all their current and future games once they have paid it.  Steam say this will cut out the timewasters.

And this has caused uproar.

Accusations of class divides, references to "the money middle-class people have" and lots of people saying that they flat out cannot afford to pay the fee and that this means that the game that they have put hundreds of hours into is worthless.

There is certainly an element of truth to this.  University fees make university education less likely for children from poor backgrounds, they perpetuate the gap between rich and poor and make that harder to overcome.  This is similar isn't it?  This means that rich people can still access something which has the potential to make them even better off, whilst the truly poor are excluded.  No matter if the fee is £60 or £9000, the principle is the same.

And Valve could have achieved their aim through different methods.  A lower fee (although this would fall foul of the same principle), an admissions panel (but who watches the watchmen, and this goes against the whole point of Greenlight), an easier way of viewing submissions (now implemented) or a cut off where the game is removed if it receives an overwhelmingly negative reaction.

However, not being able to afford to register with Steam does not mean that all is lost.  Greenlight is less than a week old.  Indie developers were able to sell their games before it came along.  None of those options are now closed.  Everything else is still the same.  If I was developing an Indie game that I had faith in, that I loved and that I had sacrificed a lot of time and effort to develop then I would try to sell enough copies of my game (typically less than ten) in order to afford the submission fee to something which has the potential to expose my work to about 40 million people.

People make the point that it's a gamble.  That you're not paying to get on to Steam itself, but to have the chance to be voted on to Steam.  OK.  But you're also paying for the chance to have anything you make in the future also get on to Steam.  What's marketing if it isn't a gamble?  How do you expect to sell something if people don't even know about it?  And how do you get that word out there without spending some money?  (The answer is that I'll promote it on here if you contact me, but I don't have an audience of 40 million.  Do it anyway.  Can't hurt.)

Ultimately Steam gives small developers the chance to make it big.  To sell enough and make enough money not to have to worry about $100 fees again.  The cost vs. reward equation seems pretty clear here.  Maybe it's time that people stopped wishing things were the way they want them to be and faced up to the way they are?

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