The $100 fee for Steam Greenlight submissions is exclusionary, and wrong
Steam has a problem with discovery. Too many games are being made, trying to get through all the submissions to the service is a time-consuming, inexact process, and good games often slip through the cracks. Greenlight was supposed to fix this, offering a way for anyone to submit their game to be voted on by the community. The popular games will be rewarded with a golden ticket: The game will be sold on the Steam platform.
The system had problems in its first days. My first visit to the Greenlight front page revealed the upcoming games Wolfenstein on the PS3, a Russian version of Sims 3, and a game called Jews Did 9-11.
Valve reacted with a blog post, and an update to the program. “Two things we’ve noticed so far. First, there are a ton of legitimate submissions that people want to see. Second, there is unfortunately a significant amount of noise and clutter being submitted, either as a joke or by fans not fully understanding the purpose of Greenlight,” the post stated. “The first update is a $100 fee for someone to post to Steam Greenlight. The proceeds will be donated to Child’s Play. We have no interest in making money from this, but we do need to cut down the noise in the system.” It proved to be a controversial decision.
(A quick note for disclosure: Penny Arcade runs the Child’s Play charity, and I work for Penny Arcade, but there was no contact from Valve during the planning of this initiative. “It’s really no different than other donations - most places don’t ask permission from us to donate or hold a fundraiser,” Robert Khoo told me. “We certainly appreciate the support, but yes, we didn’t coordinate with Valve beforehand on the program.”)
Why $100 is too much money
The $100 fee was greeted with ambivalence from many developers. “I don’t see the big deal to Greenlight’s $100 fee. I’ve already spent thousands of dollars on hardware and software and have no expectation of recovering that in the short term. One more $100 cost is no big deal, especially since, if I understand correctly, it’s a onetime fee that doesn’t recur,” one developer told me.
When I was younger we often talked about the idea of an “indie gaming” scene the same way we were enjoying the indie music scene, but there was a thought that the tools needed to create games were too expensive, and would always be too expensive. That is no longer the case. I see people creating games at every show I visit, and everyone seems to be prototyping something, or just messing around with game creation tools. With a little up-front investment it can be as easy to make a simple game as it is to write a poem.
Now, just as writing a good poem is hard, creating a fun, unique game that people will pay for will never be easy. But we’re all welcome to join in the attempt. “In an era when the Internet makes it easy to transmit and disseminate media, there’s not reason for people to accept that their only contribution to the growth of an art form is as a consumer, supporting ‘elite’ creators with money,” game designer Anna Anthropy wrote in her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. I had raised the ire of Anthropy’s partner when I had tweeted in support of the $100, saying that anyone with an idea and a copy of Game Maker felt entitled to a free Steam slot. She called me classist.
She was right. The $100 fee may keep out the trolls, but it’s no different mechanically than a $5 fee in that regard. Any amount of money would keep the casual trolls from submitting offensive games as a goof and, although I’m never going to be against donations to Child’s Play, the fact that the money goes to a charity proves that Valve doesn’t need it. The fee is there as a gesture, a way to make sure the developers are serious. It may not seem like much when it comes to the budgets of most games, even indie games, but for struggling developers it must feel punitive. No one is asking for a free slot on steam, they’re merely demanding a level playing field so they have the opportunity to earn one.
The money isn’t needed, and it’s keeping people out
These “small” fees also add up in the world of smaller games. “Worth mentioning in light of recent events: I paid the [Independent Games Festival] fee for FREAKING DYS4IA because the creator couldn’t afford to,” game designer and Pirate Kart organizer Mike Meyer said in a tweet. “If that’s the kind of game you want to keep out, about all I got left is to say ‘fuck you’ over and over.” (A quick note, the link in that tweet was added by us to help share the story, and was not included in the original communication)
If you can’t find the $100 to submit your game to Greenlight, it’s going to be hard to support the game after launch, promote it in the hopes of finding a wide audience, or even doing something like buying business cards to give out to contacts. It’s hard, but not impossible, and it’s not crazy to think the next great thing might be made by someone with a hand-me-down laptop and a good idea, cramming code in between two jobs and barely making enough money to eat. The more I speak with developers, the more common I find that situation. As the space between the classes expands in the United States, it’s important to allow the working poor a larger voice, not a smaller one. Valve is in the unique position to shift this policy to allow that to happen on a grand scale.
Those of us with gaming contacts and a history in the industry may laugh off the $100 fee, but we’re also operating with a position of privilege, of having the money to travel and promote games and build the connections to get them in the right hands for festivals, awards, and recognition. No one who has a successful game had an easy path, but there are certainly situations where some get to start on the third spot on the board, where others begin at negative five. Even small fees at that level can widen that gap.
The indie games that dominate the scene and are frequently shown at events will be fine. The creator who suffers from the $100 entry fee is the person on the fringe without the support of a larger community, or even friends and family who may have the money to help pay the fee. For them $100 isn’t just a lot of money, it could be the difference between paying rent and being homeless. We’ve heard the stories the nerdy guys who grew up with a silver Apple II in their mouth can tell, why create an arbitrary road block to keep out the people who are trying to tell the stories and create the games we don’t know, and haven’t seen before? When you have a monetary structure that is meaningless to one group of people, exclusionary to another, and not necessary to the continued existence of platform, you don’t have a level playing field. What you have is the indie gaming equivalent to voter ID laws.
If the fee were lowered to $10, the effect of weeding out the trolls would continue, and the amount of people that could participate in the process would be exponentially widened. It’s still a long shot, and you still have to muster community support and have a good game. In fact someone emailed me to suggest a mandatory playable demo would do much to help remove the trolls, share more information about games, and remove the financial barrier. Even if they could raise the $100 fee, it would be better spent on rent or equipment.
Will most games submitted to Greenlight find popular support? It’s doubtful. Will there always be way too many for most people to go through? Sure. But the money isn’t necessary to Valve, the fee isn’t going directly to curation or system fees, and it’s effectively keeping out developers who deserve the same consideration as everyone else. If the service continues to evolve, let’s consider this experiment in for-pay inclusion a curious dead end, and find a better, more welcoming way to make Greenlight work.