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What does Steam Direct mean for indie developers?

It’s been announced that you will no longer have any say on what makes it on to Steam and what doesn’t, following a blog post by Alden Kroll, UI Designer for Steam.

In the post, Kroll described that while Steam Greenlight (Steam’s current curation method) has allowed a surge of games to enter the marketplace, it has also taught them some key lessons, which they are eager to instil in their new delivery service, Steam Direct.

“Greenlight also exposed two key problems we still needed to address: improving the entire pipeline for bringing new content to Steam and finding more ways to connect customers with the types of content they wanted” writes Kroll.

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Steam Direct, which is expected in the coming months “will ask new developers to complete a set of digital paperwork, personal or company verification, and tax documents similar to the process of applying for a bank account. Once set up, developers will pay a recoupable application fee for each new title they wish to distribute, which is intended to decrease the noise in the submission pipeline.”

The first sentence in that quote appears straightforward. In light of issues raised with Valve recently regarding right to refunds, as well as concerns that some games posted don’t represent genuine content-creation, something that a bored community will often jump on as a gaff. It’s once set up however, that things become a little more vague.

Discussion around exactly what is meant by ‘recoupable application fee’ and how much that fee is likely to be has set developers and commentators into a frenzy of debate. Kroll reports that consultation has yielded responses from between $100 and $5000, with issues at either extreme. Presumably these number come from $100 being the current (one-off) Steam Greenlight developer fee, where $5000 is reported to be the price of submitting an Xbox Live indie game. But what does this actually mean in context?

In order to understand how these changes will affect us, the gaming public, as well as those budding developers looking to get their game out into the world, we need to understand exactly how Steam Greenlight worked. In it’s simplest explanation, Valve, in looking to expand the range of titles available through Steam, sought to crowd-source the vetting process for new games, allowing the community to vote on titles they would like to see made available. Developers, upon paying a one-off $100 fee (primarily imposed to avoid fake and nonsense submissions) could begin submitting as many games or game concepts to Valve and the Steam Greenlight community as they had assets.

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Creating a page similar to a proper Steam store page, developers could post images, video clips and a game description, beginning the campaign of winning the affections of the PC gaming public. But it wasn’t just individual votes, nor unique visitors to your page, nor number of votes over a period of time that defined the success of Greenlight titles. Instead the process appeared to take in quite a number of factors despite the appearance of being completely community driven. Social media buzz, crowdfunding attempts, awards, meta-data analysis and competition from within Greenlight at the time all factored in to whether a game would receive the tick of approval, contingent on copyright and the ever-vague and region specific ‘inappropriate material’ checks. The length of this process varied largely between projects, with some reporting success off as little as 300 votes in 2 weeks, where as others took months if they saw success at all. Understandably this caused much uncertainty for developers, unsure if and when they would be able to move forward via the platform. As this had now become the sole product submission process for developers not already established on the platform, that uncertainty became ingrained in PC game development.

Bringing it back to now, and the announcement of Steam Direct, the first thing we can see is that there will be a relatively steep increase in the fee for new developers. Where previously developers only had to pay a one-off fee, even at the lowest end of the new spectrum developers will be paying that fee for each game they list. Have three concept demos? You’ll need to decide if you’ll pay the extra $200 and see which gets taken up, or Sophie’s Choice your development offspring and just hope you pick the winner.  This may appear nominal to those of us known to spend around that much on a AAA title per month (maybe two with some bargain shopping), but this fee is in place for all titles, be they budget, AAA, or free-to-play; and for student developers, developers from developing countries and those working with a tight budget across an often protracted and unpaid development period, every dollar counts. As it also appears unlikely that the final submission fee will be at that lower end of the potential price spectrum, this amount grows exponentially.

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The second element that has been received with much confusion is the phrase ‘recoupable application fee’, and exactly how that will be recouped. It could be argued that being on Steam and able to sell your product to a wider audience allows developers to recoup that fee, in that their sales will be higher than they would be otherwise. What is more likely however is a system in which this amount will factor into the revenue split with Valve on new titles, the specific detail on which they refuse to discuss publicly.

What is interesting to see is that most discussion online appears to be around these two financial factors, rather than the removal of the community voting system, which people seemingly acknowledge has it’s faults. It may well be that in factoring in all the elements mentioned above, that community votes simply don’t represent the key factor in the approval process, or that people see that a game’s value is deeper than the popularity contest that Greenlight quickly became. In the new system, once accepted by Steam, your title will be available to the public doing away with much of the uncertainty in getting a game onto the store. Steam employees have been reported to say that, given the responsibility of being king-makers, they have no intention of being ‘tastemakers’ and will deny titles that infringe copyright, break laws regarding pornography or inappropriate material within the specific region, or that simply do not work as advertised; but otherwise reserve judgement.

It is also worth asking whether having less games approved on Steam is a bad thing. Shovelware is a known issue on Steam, and according to Steam Spy, a third-party Steam analysis group, over a third of the games on Steam were released in 2016, primarily via Greenlight (excl. developers who were registered on Steam pre-2012) and indeed over half the entire Steam library was released in the past two years, demonstrating the huge growth in the platform; the majority of titles barely known by the wider user base.

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So what’s the alternative? In the case of Steam, known for changing and tweaking policies and systems in-line with community feedback, it is unlikely this will be the last we will hear of Steam Direct before its release. While this new system would undoubtedly benefit mid-price titles and above, for free-to-play and non-shovelware budget titles, some form of Greenlight voting  system in unison with Steam Direct could provide equity, albeit in a ‘separate but equal’ fashion. The other alternative is that we will see a fracturing of the current almost-ubiquitous market power of Steam, with smaller and first time indie developers moving to services such as itch.io, designed specifically for independent game development and already taking off as an alternative prior to this announcement, as well as services like GOG (Good Old Games) which initially began as a DRM-free distribution service for older titles, but has since expanded to a broad range of games.

So what you do you think? Happy to see the back of Steam Greenlight, or think that Steam Direct sounds overly punishing to student developers? Let us know below, and stay with Checkpoint for all the latest gaming news!