Industry darling Valve Software released their Greenlight service recently, a system that empowers players to help decide what new games make it to Steam. Developers post a summary of their game on the Greenlight service accompanied by screenshots, videos, and occasionally a demo. Community members are then free to leaf through these projects, voting “yay” or “nay” at their discretion. If a project garners enough positive feedback, it ascends to the glorious Valhalla of the Steam store.
It’s a great system on paper. The methodology Valve currently uses to adjudicate what games are added to their digital distribution platform is murky at best. Quality titles such as Offspring Fling have been inexplicably rejected, while atrocities such as Revelations 2012 have squeaked their way into the limelight. The democracy afforded by Greenlight supposedly acts as a corrective measure, giving fans the final say over what makes the cut.
Unfortunately, things are never that simply when you hand over the reins to the masses.
During its first week, Greenlight was dominated by three types of games:
1) Russian bootlegs. I don’t think anyone saw this one coming. One of the first games I encountered on Greenlight was a tile-for-tile knockoff of Super Mario Bros decorated with poorly ripped Minecraft graphics. Smatterings of broken English and arcane Russian characters served as the only justification for the hackneyed project. Further browsing revealed unapologetic clones of other major franchises, akin to what you’d find packaged with counterfeit consoles at your local flea market.
2) Major titles from non-consenting developers. Apparently some users were under the impression that Greenlight could be used to miraculously vote any game on to Steam, regardless of the desires of the original developer. I blame record-low literacy rates in North America for this misinterpretation. During that first week, behemoth titles such as Guild Wars 2 and League of Legends were plugged on Greenlight by fans eager for Steam community integration.
3) Plain ol’ garbage and shovelware.
Thankfully, Valve extinguished this fire by establishing a $100 fee for posting a game on their service. This figure is steep enough to discourage hooligans, but easy enough for any legitimate indie developer to afford. As a gesture of good faith, all proceeds from these fees are being funneled into Penny Arcade’s fabulous Child’s Play charity. So is all forgiven? Not quite yet. Since Greenlight went live, only a handful of games have received an approval rating of higher than 2 or 3%. One could attribute this to an absence of quality titles, but even well-received and well-recognized projects seem to be hovering in limbo. The real culprit is down-voting. When appraising a game on Greenlight, a user is presented with two options: they can either approve of the game (thumbs up) or disapprove of the game (thumbs down). A project needs to aggregate a high average rating before it’s deemed suitable for distribution on Steam. However, the binary nature of the rating system makes this a troublesome goal to achieve. In order to remove a game from your queue and progress to the next candidate, you are forced to choose one of the two options. This requirement has transformed the disapprove button into a catchall “skip” or “ignore” option rather than a genuine means to flag subpar content. Average ratings are skewing downwards as a result. The simple solution would be to remove the disapprove button entirely. The merits of disapproving a game are questionable to begin with, especially considering the quality control afforded by the new entry fee. This change has the added bonus of preventing projects from being trolled with hundreds of disapproving votes – a tactic that is bound to be adopted by some nefarious faction of the internet. Players should instead have to choose between approving of a project or harmlessly ignoring it. I have a lot of faith in Steam’s ability to fix Greenlight. If they tweak the rating system and iron out the other wrinkles in their fledging service, I can see myself become a very active community member. In the meantime, I’ll keep my eye out for the Russians.