Steam Greenlight’s Major Flaw: Votes Do Not Result in Sales

Greenlight doesn't work the way you want it to, and the internet being the internet is a big reason why.
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It’s been some time since gamers around the world realized that the mandatory DRM platform required to play games like Counter-Strike 1.6 and Half-Life 2 was more than just another anti-piracy hoop to jump through. It took a little longer for us to realize that Steam would evolve into the biggest online digital distribution channel the internet had to offer.

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While Valve refuses to release official sales data, Steam was estimated in 2011 to own between 50-70% of the US market for downloaded PC games. 

It is unfortunate then that the star success of Steam compared to other similar platforms like Origin, UPlay, and Desura has not managed to translate across to some of its newer implementations – namely several of Steam’s community-building efforts such as:

  1. The tagging system: Steam techs have been frantically chasing down stupid, useless, and hurtful user-created tags for Steam games since its release with minimal real community benefit. While in recent months the majority of shock factor trolling has managed to calm down somewhat, there will still be a great deal of time before the tagging system can be used very effectively (if at all).

  2. The Marketplace: the buy-sell-and-trade of community items is kept relatively tame since the items listed are hardly ever scarce enough to be worth breaking the bank. This is the only thing keeping the Marketplace self-regulated however, as Valve had to learn the hard way earlier last year when big items like DOTA 2 International tickets made it onto the Marketplace for over quadruple their price. (see Steam Community Scalping of International Dota 2 Tournament Tickets)

  3. Steam Greenlight: While Valve retains final say on which games (and unfinished game concepts) finally make the cut, Steam’s current curating process for indie games puts the power of the vote in the hands of the gamers. Used to gauge community interest, the platform gives indie developers a chance to get their game up on Steam, raking in the exposure and Valve’s support.

In this respect, Steam Greenlight has the biggest effect on everyone – from the gamers to the developers – and not always in a positive way. While a large number of indie games have (deservedly) made it through the Greenlight system, for every one of these recognized indie gems, there comes a plethora of ugly, uninspired rehashes of played-out 8-bit sidescrollers, zombie shooters, and ridiculous simulators.

This is in part due to the fact that the process to get started on Steam Greenlight is not a terribly difficult one – and developers are usually more than happy to pay $100 to Valve to get situated on it. 

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, the expectation has emerged that Greenlight votes equate to actual sales.

And this is simply not the case.

One of the most recent examples is Cult of the Wind – a Greenlight darling that pits gamers against each other in imaginary multiplayer battles by running with arms outstretched making airplane noises and smacking into each other. Fueled by the rose-colored glasses of childhood memories, the game raced through Greenlight and Early Access… and now no one is playing it.

Occasionally a single official server(!) will populate enough for a game to get started, but generally any player unlucky enough to miss these times is stuck staring at a screen in the lobby, willing other people to jump on and notice that they’re there. 

Since there are no bots in Cult of the Wind, players are unable to play even on their own – and so it’s unlikely that anyone new will like the game enough to encourage their friends to buy it.

The game’s creator, Alex Allen, was shocked by the outcome. According to PC Gamer

“Greenlight, surprisingly, wasn’t challenging,” writes Allen. “Maybe that’s the problem—it’s too easy. In fact, Cult of the Wind was well on its way to the top five and was, briefly, the fastest Greenlit game of all time at 72 hours. I spoke with my Valve rep and he said they had their eye on it, and that it seemed ‘really solid.’ The trailer has 120,000 views on YouTube, and before being Greenlit over a dozen articles were written about the game.

It was a surprise when all that hype amounted to nothing, especially considering my last game, Omegalodon, had a very slow-trickle release and little publicity yet saw considerably more success thanks to a single YouTube video by NerdCubed. Maybe people viewed CotW as a trailer-worthy novelty, but not much more. Many comments contain sentiments that it ‘doesn’t seem’ like something you could play for long, but those who have actually tried it are begging for more people to join them. I designed it for a community and it can certainly support one long-term.”

Cult of the Wind is hardly the first game to have made it through Steam Greenlight only to be found lacking in the eyes of the players holding the pocketbooks. 

A quick look at the list of Greenlit games will net you an astonishing number of games that seem as though they should have taken off… but haven’t really quite managed it. For example:

  • Overcast – Walden and the Werewolf; aside from the exposure given by passing through Steam Greenlight, the game was also played and reviewed by several popular YouTubers including Markiplier and Pewdiepie.

    Unfortunately for Microblast Games, the general consensus from Steam users has still been generally negative, and the only leeway given in positive reviews comes from giving allowances to the developer for being a one-man operation. Sticking a price tag on a product that the folks over at GameJolt hand out for free has not done this game any favors.

  • Probably Archery; riding on the coattails of Greenlight success stories like Surgeon Simulator and Goat Simulator came a number of mind-numbingly stupid simulator games hoping to cash in on the popularity of buggy games doing funny things.

    This game managed to skirt that particular can of worms by trying to be a serious simulator in the vein of realistic driving sims. Unfortunately, clunky controls and a distinct lack of fun set it aside into a category of simulation ‘games’ that are often reserved for university IT projects, not paying customers out for entertainment’s sake. 

According to YouTuber and online entertainer Totalbiscuit, all of this is definitive proof of the failure of the Greenlight system:

Gabe Newell, the head of Valve, appears to agree with this sentiment and has consistently announced that Greenlight is going away although he has been leary as to when exactly this will happen – and what might be released to take its place.

Letting the internet decide what it wants is a bad idea.

The Greenlight premise is predicated on the idea that big name corporations cannot understand nor predict the wants and needs of an average gamer – and what better source material than that average gamer themself?

Unfortunately for most developers, and evidently those minds behind Cult of the Wind, those that choose to run this gauntlet learn very quickly that in trying to reach the average gamer, it faces the internet as a whole – and even broken down into a single gamer population, the hive-mind of the internet is a fractured, easily distracted, and fickle beast

It’s way too easy to offer your support with the click of a button, even when you have no intention of paying their sticker price. Unfortunately for Steam, forcing people to put their money where their mouth can only lead to the Kickstarter conundrum… and we already know how that’s going, don’t we?

(Aee Neal Stephenson’s CLANG Kickstarter Grinds to a Halt and Shadow of the Eternals on Kickstarter… Again… for more on gaming Kickstarter woes you may not know about.)

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Stephanie Tang
Avid PC gamer, long-time console lover. I enjoy shooting things in the face and am dangerously addicted to pretty. I'm also a cat.