(Almost) everyone wins if Steam does self-publishing right

Valve have been pretty open about the idea of reducing manual curation, eventually killing off Greenlight and opening up access to their distribution platform. Recent comments only confirm it – Gabe says self-publishing on Steam is something they want to allow. There’s always lots of gnashing of teeth when it comes to ‘app stores’, discoverability and quality. Indies want their product to be been seen, purchased and played, customers want to find the stuff they like without wading through the stuff they don’t. Quality varies widely, but it’s not as simple as crap games and good games, since one man’s “Walking Simulator” is another man’s life changing experience. No single service has convincingly cracked the problem of exploiting the “long tail” of video games, efficiently finding the niche for each particular game and accurately getting the right games to the right customers (where in the extreme, some products probably have ‘no right customers’). Here’s one idea of how I see Steam self-publishing working such that Valve can exploit the long tail without losing the trust of their existing customer base: let’s call it Amber-light (“the ghetto”), followed by being Greenlit.

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Amber-light would be the self-publishing part of Steam, with a clear indication to customers that any game in that section hasn’t been ‘blessed’ by Valve beyond the fact that it essentially runs and isn’t malware. Amber-light games are unlikely to appear on the front page, and may even be filtered by default in searches (requiring an advanced search option, or good download & rating metrics to appear), with the goal of ensuring that games that don’t meet Valves quality filter won’t erode the reputation of Steam as a platform for (mostly) polished products. The recent addition of community curated tags to Steam will no doubt benefit unblessed games through improved discoverability, with increasingly nuanced tags allowing them to find their niche. Allowing users to add tags is a really really powerful feature, and it’s hard to understate how useful this will become for discovering games with very specific attributes. Valve should probably maintain the slightly controversial ‘entry fee’ to help reduce the flood of the very worst rubbish (sneaky malware or slavishly produced IP infringing stuff). The $100 Greenlight fee seems a little steep for some indies, given that there are no guarantees of being Greenlit, but $100 to immediately access the huge customer base of Steam seems worth the risk, even for niche games. They do donate it to a charity (Childs Play), which is nice I guess.

This type of two-tiered system, if executed well, would seem like one where (almost) everyone wins compared with the current Greenlight system. Valve captures sales that would otherwise have gone to other platforms, while carefully limiting the visibility of self-published games enough to prevent alienating their existing customer base. Indie developers could potentially get more immediate sales by directly promoting their game (rather than a Greenlight page), since some customers will only ever buy through Steam. Much like mobile app stores, they’d have to be careful to self-police their own quality so as to not have a buggy initial release become buried in negative ratings, never to return, but such is the risk of being your own publisher. Customers win by getting a game they want on Steam immediately rather than waiting for it to be Greenlit, presumably being well aware that they are buying a self-published game unblessed by Valve with all the risks that entails. Once a game hits certain metrics (sales, ratings), Valve can let it escape the ghetto and benefit from greater visibility, much like getting Greenlit. For Valve, this turns the hypothetical question “Would you buy this game if it was on Steam ?” into a real metric – “Are people buying this game on Steam ?”. Hopefully this way the cream will still rise to the top, while niche games will have a better way of finding their audience even if they remain at Amber-light status forever.

Note the “almost” in the title. The losers from a well executed self-publishing system on Steam are likely to be smaller PC game delivery platforms – Desura, GOG, Humble Store, itch.io, Indievania, IndieGameStand, IndieCity, Green Man Gaming, The Pirate Bay and maybe even crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter / IndieGogo (that sometimes act as avenues for pre-sales). These are platforms that currently offer products not available on Steam. Many customers are likely to preferentially buy those products through Steam, if they had the choice. Some of these platforms, or their associated game ‘bundle’ initiatives, also benefit from Valve’s liberal policy with Steam keys, which are often provided once a game is Greenlit and rely on Valve (who didn’t make the original sale) to fund the cloud hosting and bandwidth costs in the long term. It would seem to be in Valve’s interest to make the original sale since they are providing the infrastructure to deliver the product.

In conclusion: I look forward to self-publishing some of my games on Steam in the future – search for tags “neon, retro, scifi, wtf, indie, minimalist, tower defence, bacon croquembouche” :)

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