What Is Steam’s Greenlight Service And Why Do Indie Developers Hate It So Much?

Posted by on May 8, 2013 at 12:04 pm
Lots of buzz about Steam's indie release service, good and bad.

Lots of buzz about Steam’s indie release service, good and bad.

Self-publishing your work is hard. I should know. After spending months or years of your life forming something the public can consume from the deepest pits of your brain, you not only have to learn the technical ropes to make it happen, but the art of promotion and juggle all these hats in the hopes that it’ll pay off. If you’re writing a book, you’ll want to make sure it’s on Kindle; a movie: Amazon or Netflix, but if you’re making a game, Steam is the promised land. Sure, there are other platforms that will distribute your game digitally with fewer barriers to meddle with, but none compare to the clout that comes with being carried on Steam, a previously near-impossible task. With Steam’s Greenlight service, more developers are closer to realizing their dreams, but why are the same independent developers it’s designed to help passionately railing against the service?

What Is Greenlight?

We all love Steam. Between its easy-to-use interface, incredible back-end, robust community, massive and frequent sales, galaxy of titles to purchase and backing by the guys who made Half-Life, there’s little doubt why the service looms over the PC digital distribution landscape. Few of us realize, however, that getting a game onto the service isn’t an easy task. Unlike Apple’s approach to accepting apps – where they verify that your game doesn’t crash phones or load up porn – and similar to how Microsoft handles Xbox Live Arcade, finding yourself amongst the ranks of Steam’s releases usually requires publisher backing. If you aren’t already successful with a wildfire presence amongst the indie game developer scene, the keys to the Steam kingdom are locked away.

Last August, Valve introduced Greenlight, a way for ambitious game makers working alone out of their garage to have a fighting chance to get into the system without representation. With Greenlight, developers create a “pitch” page for their game, finished or unfinished, then load it up with screenshots and movies. Steam users can then vote whether they want a game to appear on the service. Greenlight was initially free for anyone to submit pitches to, but after an influx of rip-off artists and spammers bloated its ranks, Valve introduced a one-time $100 fee that goes to the Child’s Play charity. Developers can modify their pitch at any time, add blog-style articles and respond to questions and if the pitch is truly undercooked, they can toss the whole thing out and start over without needing to repay the fee, although they’ll lose all their original supporters.

A game with a pitch page is “on Greenlight”, but once Valve approves of the game, the game is then “Greenlit” and developers can release their title when it’s ready. As of this writing, 87 games have been Greenlit through the service, including City of Steam, Kentucky Route Zero, and Evoland.

So What’s The Problem?

All of this sounds well and good, but stories that have rolled out that Greenlight is not the service it’s cracked up to be. Valve is actively working to improve it, but even Gabe Newell hinted back in February that they’ve thought of throwing the Greenlight service out entirely. So what’s wrong?

Despite a plethora of tools to track their game’s progress, no one really knows how games are selected and Valve’s opaqueness on the matter is irksome. In a recent chat with developers, Valve stated that there are “no hard and fast rules” regarding whether or not your game would be Greenlit. All of their data, including how many people actually clicked the Yes button on your game’s page, serves as a reference, not a guarantee. Developers have access to an internal top 100 listing of the most popular games, but again, success there doesn’t lead to a Greenlit status. Games that do appear to make the cut are often by established or funded developers, are titles that have already seen success on other platforms, or cut real close to genre conventions. There’s a genuine concern that developers with legitimately unique games are being shut out as Valve appears to only be drafting games that are “marketable”. It’s understandable that Valve doesn’t want garbage on their service, but this is pretty extreme.

There’s also a concern that games that aren’t Greenlit aren’t able to integrate any of Valve’s Steamworks features which enabling Steam-powered cloud saves, anti-cheat technology for multiplayer modes, or voice chat, among others. This becomes a particularly big issue among games with Kickstarter campaigns that can’t guarantee Steamworks support because, well, they’re still waiting for Valve to fish their game out of the tank by whatever clandestine means they do so. Valve says they’re working on this.

Then there’s the issue that Valve doesn’t appear to be Greenlighting many games. The company has said that their Greenlight personnel are few and far between, so the entry gate is a small one with less than ten games per month reaching Steam’s inner sanctum, on average. Self-publishers trying their hardest to promote their game may wind up dumping a lot of resources into their Greenlight campaigns only to get stuck with a middling spot in the top 100 and no way forward.

What Can We Do?

As far as the service goes: nothing. This is entirely in Valve’s court now. As FleshEatingZipper though, we’re more than happy to read Greenlight pitches and if your game looks cool, we’ll be sure to cover it. If you’re a developer, send your pitch with link to If you’re just a fan of the indie game experience, well, you’ll have to wait, just like us.

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