Greenlight

I started writing about this a few days ago, when it was still somewhat relevant. Then other priorities intervened. Even though everybody’s already said their piece, I’ve still got opinions, dammit. And somebody has to speak out in defense of those of us who have a hundred dollars.

Here’s the context: In an attempt to open up the process of submitting games to be sold on Steam, Valve devoted a section of the “Community” section of Steam to a system called Greenlight. The idea was to use crowd-sourcing to bring games to Valve’s attention — any Steam user could submit a game, and if enough other users expressed interest in the concept by giving it an up-vote, Valve would consider it for distribution.

What happened next was what happens to anything that’s made free on the internet: a bunch of people came in and ruined everything. In response, Valve instituted a $100 fee for submitting games to Greenlight. It was intended to stop parody submissions or vague malformed projects that haven’t made it past the concept stage, in an effort to reduce noise in the system. The money is strictly a filter and an indication of commitment; the money is donated to the Child’s Play charity and not used for profit, or even to fund the Greenlight site itself.

This should in no way have been a controversial decision. But of course, since the internet can turn anything and anyone into a controversy, it created a storm of discussions and editorials complaining about the decision, borne either out of ignorance or downright belligerence.

It’s perfectly understandable that people could misunderstand or misinterpret Valve’s intentions with Greenlight. It’s grouped under the “Community” section of Steam, which instantly connotes “indie game development.” It’s built off their Steam Workshop tech, which is something designed to help content creators release their stuff to a wider audience. The concept sounds a lot like crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, designed to help developers get the money or resources they need to develop a concept to completion. And in general, Valve has a history of being indie friendly, seeking out promising independent games to feature on Steam, and of course seeking out independent and student game developers to acquire and incorporate their concepts into its own games.

But where the reaction turned from understandable mistakes into outright offensiveness is when people took their misinterpretation of Greenlight, wrapped it in college-sophomore-level revolutionary speak about the evils of corporate America, and used it as an opportunity to call everyone who disagreed with them an elitist. They took a perfectly good bit of common sense, and they twisted it to sound downright Republican.

No Taxation Without Gamification

Ben Kuchera wrote an editorial for the Penny Arcade Report called “The $100 Fee for Steam Greenlight Submissions is Exclusionary, and Wrong”. He acknowledges that he initially didn’t see any problem with the fee, but changed his mind once people made convincing arguments about the democratization of software development. As far as I can tell, what actually happened is that a bunch of loudmouths on Twitter kept shouting him down, calling him “classist”.

Kuchera writes:

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.

I suspect that Kuchera actually meant to write “poll tax” instead of “voter ID laws,” but regardless, it’s a specious argument. There’s no fee for opening a Steam account and voting on Greenlight submissions; if you want to keep the political analogy going, the submission fee would be the equivalent of a fee for running for office. And still, the only thing they have in common is this: a candidate who can’t generate $100 worth of interest in his campaign is going to lose.

Also, I know very few independent developers for whom $100 is “meaningless.” That’s why it works as a filter. Someone who can justify spending $100 on advertising for his product isn’t going to be driving around laughing hysterically as he tosses benjamins out the window. It’s an investment.

And as for its being “not necessary to the continued existence of the platform,” Valve’s claim is that it is exactly that. The system was getting so overloaded with noise that it wasn’t useful.

In a guest post on the Nitrobeard.com site, developer Andi McClure fails to see the connection between her [I can see no indication of McClure’s gender anywhere, so I’m using “her” as gender-neutral] spouse’s brick-and-mortar business and her own game development “hobby,” makes a patently bullshit dismissal of the Child’s Play charity on account of a grudge against the Penny Arcade guys, and tells a ridiculous story of some other game developers who had to sit and sadly watch her eat a $7 cheeseburger because they were too poor to buy their own.

It’s not ridiculous in the sense that I don’t believe it, and I’m not mocking the poor. What I’m mocking is the ridiculous idea that this has anything whatsoever to do with Greenlight. Apparently it’s understood that the restaurant is not obligated to give away its food for free. And McClure found it more appropriate to have her friends sit sadly and watch her eat — I’m hoping she paused after every bite to say, “Oh man, you guys, I am so going to blog about this when I get home” — instead of saying, “Hey, why I don’t I pick up the tab this time?” But it is beyond the pale that Valve isn’t give these developers free advertising.

And in a separate blog post titled The One Hundred Dollar Question, developer Jonas Kyratzes says he was made “very, very angry” by the discussion and what it says about the state of independent game development — and the global economy — in general.

To some people, $100 is not a lot of money. […] To others, it’s a month’s wages. Do we have absolutely no understanding of the fact that the internet is a global phenomenon and so is indie game development? […] Hell, have you read the statistics on poverty in the United States? Do you think these people want to be poor? Do you think they deserve to be poor?

Maybe that’s the heart of the argument. People have so internalized the ideological myths of capitalism that they believe the poor deserve to be poor. […] Platitude followed upon platitude in the debate, in a way that sadly resembled every other similar debate about poverty and class. If you’re unemployed, why don’t you get a job? If your audience isn’t big enough, why don’t you get a bigger audience? If you don’t like being a janitor, why don’t you become a lawyer? Hilariously, some touted the possibility of loans as a solution – the history of capitalism repeating itself as farce.

Hang on there, chief. I’ve bought quite a few games from Steam, and it’s asked for a credit card number each time. It’s pretty clear that there’s a whole lotta capitalism goin’ on.

Maybe that’s the heart of the argument: people have gotten so wrapped up in this idea of advocating games as an essential medium of expression that they’ve forgotten how stores work.

Making Games Is Not The Same As Selling Them

Kuchera writes: “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.” Game developers already have a voice. It’s called the internet. The working poor don’t need a voice; they need a paying audience.

Democratize the game development process: of course. It’d be stupid to argue that only wealthy people deserve to make games, or that there should be a minimum bar to entry. That’s why a few loudmouths are trying to turn that into the argument, because it’s so easy to refute. Just yell “elitist” enough times, and you’ve turned bullshit into an impassioned editorial.

It’s also a pointless argument, since it’s never been easier or cheaper to make a game. There are plenty of free development tools, SDKs, modeling tools, documentation, and even free content.

But it’s nonsense to say that being entitled to make a game equates to an entitlement to sell that game. That’s not how business works. And make no mistake: the people complaining about not being able to get their games onto Steam aren’t complaining about being shut out of making games; they’re complaining about not being able to profit from their games.

Kuchera writes: “If the fee were lowered to $10, the effect of weeding out the trolls would continue, and the [number] 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.” I’m not even going to get into the number of cheeseburgers you’d be snatching out of game developers’ mouths with this callous scheme. To anyone who says that 10 bucks would be as effective a deterrent to trolls, parody submissions, and just plain incomplete submissions, try this experiment: Choose just about any random word or phrase x, and type “fuckyeahx.com” into your web browser. Domain name registration isn’t as expensive as it used to be, but it’s not cheap.

A hundred bucks is as much a psychological number as much as anything else. It’s an indication of commitment. I know I balk at paying the $100 for the iOS developer program every year, but I can justify it as an investment.

And if you can’t justify, raise, borrow, Kickstart, or otherwise scrounge up $100 worth of commitment to a game, you shouldn’t be trying to sell it on the leading storefront for downloadable video games for the PC (and Mac). Seriously, what exactly is the thought process here? Why should Steam be interested in selling a game that hasn’t demonstrated it’s worth a hundred bucks? How does a developer expect to live off sales of a game that can’t earn a hundred bucks?

Valve isn’t a hostile audience. Not only are they big on independent game development, they’re big on making money from selling your game. If you want to see a hostile audience, look at the temperamental, over-critical, and notoriously prone to an exaggerated sense of entitlement people who buy games. They’re the ones you’re going to be asking for money. And there have to be enough people to say they’d be interested in paying for a game, and then enough people to actually pay for the game. A hundred dollars would be insignificant compared to that.

Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that the difference between poverty and being able to make a living off of sales of a game is simple: volume, volume, volume.

Kuchera writes: “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.” I hate to break it to you guys, but everyone making video games is operating from a position of privilege. Unless anyone wants to argue for the concept of subsistence game development.

And Here’s Where I Get Really Annoyed

In case it sounds like I’m saying get a job, you fucking hippie, let me make one thing absolutely clear: that’s exactly what I’m saying.

All the people shouting “classism” are trying to make it sound as if anyone willing to invest $100 into a game development business are part of the 1%. And Kuchera’s nonsensical account of “nerdy guys born with a silver Apple ][ in their mouth” makes it sound as if it’s nothing but fortune and privilege. That’s not just dense, it’s insulting.

I came about as close to stumbling backwards into game development as is possible: I sent a cold application to my favorite game company and got hired to work on a sequel to my favorite game. And now, I’m fortunate enough to have a job that supports me and gives me time to work on my own projects (or more accurately, write overly long blog posts while my own projects are stalled). And still, anyone who suggests that I’m just speaking from privilege or luck will be told to go screw himself. It took 15 years of working in games before I was in a position to become an (ostensible) independent game developer. That’s a decade and a half of working on other people’s games.

The most talented independent game developer I know still — to the best of my knowledge — has a day job. In a just universe, he’d be splitting his days between swimming in a Scrooge McDuck-sized money vault and developing more of his own cool ideas. The suggestion that it’s some kind of onerous burden to raise money to invest in a money-making business is patently offensive.

What’s heartbreaking about this is that Valve will likely respond to this nonsense as if it’s a valid complaint. Even if they weren’t one of the only large companies in game development that could realistically be described as being genuinely interested in making things better for developers and players. They’ve already announced that they’re working on the system and responding to feedback. What won’t change is a game retailer suddenly making all of its decisions based on altruism. And what won’t change is that there still won’t be a damn thing wrong with that.

Maybe the folks demanding that we remember the plight of the less fortunate will get what they’re asking for, and Valve will stop asking people who want to make a profit from video games to donate to a charity first.

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Chuck Jordan

Writer, Programmer, and Designer of Videogames and Videogame Like Entertainment Products

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