Steam Greenlight is kind of a mess. It's a system for bringing lesser-known games onto Valve's store that doesn't really help people who play games or make them. Two years ago, Valve said the plan was to kill it and replace it with something less broken. And yet, here it remains. So, what's next?
First, the good news: Steam Greenlight still has an expiration date. Unfortunately, right now it reads, "...someday." The plan is to pull the plug on Greenlight (and hopefully throw it into a dark, mysterious ravine that is said to feed on people's collective hatred for a thing, such that it will never return) and replace it with a system that's entirely user-driven. Theoretically, anyone will be able to put a game on Steam with no pesky gatekeepers standing in their way. Valve business development authority Erik Johnson explained it to me during an interview at GDC:
"[Greenlight] is our first step," he said. "User-generated stores is the goal. We learned the lesson from back in the publisher days that we're bad at picking games. It's hard. If you sat us down in a pitch meeting and told us to pick the next ten big games, we'd almost certainly get it wrong. Everything we're doing now is heading in the direction of being more out of the way, just providing people tools and letting that take care of itself."
And while it doesn't seem like much progress has been made in that transition, Johnson said that Greenlight devs regularly tweak it (in admittedly small ways) to make it shine ever so slightly brighter. Moreover, he noted that important changes are happening elsewhere in order to clear the path to an entirely open Steam storefront. For instance, user-created maps and items in games like DOTA 2 and Team Fortress 2 — which can be sold for real cash, netting some players thousands of dollars per year — offer a glimpse into the future of Steam.
It's an ambitious plan, for sure, but it's tough not to want more, you know, direct progress after two years. I asked Johnson why we're still waiting, and he put it to me like this:
"Our goal is that users can self-publish their products on Steam. The realities of the world intervene on that. It becomes difficult. It's not just something where we're like, 'Now we can do it.' There are technical issues and stupid legal issues and all of that."
"You don't get there overnight, but we need to keep pointing in that direction. I think the most recent big Steam update is [indicative of that]. We're trying to ship more games. Greenlight was created at a point where we literally could not ship games fast enough. People were making games too fast. Games that were good just weren't getting shipped. Our customers have every right to be pissed about that. Content needs to get in their hands as quickly and efficiently as possible."
Which is all well and good, but the great Greenlight gameflood of 2013 (and onward) led to a new problem: too many games, some of which are, to put it lightly, crap. Boom quickly went bust. Solving one problem, as is often the case, revealed another. And while Valve has tried to cut down on the chaos — boost the signal, reduce the noise — by implementing systems like Steam reviews, Steam curators, and broadcasts, many users still don't feel like that's enough. Tons of games wash up on Steam's fabled shores every day, and people don't know which ones are worth their time. Johnson admitted that's still a work in progress:
"I don't think that fundamentally customers have problems with a huge range of content on Steam," he said. "Whether that's genre specific or age-appropriate specific or whatever. I don't think users care that there are all these games on Steam. I think the question is, 'Is Steam doing a good job of putting me in contact with things I care about?' We're not there yet. We're not at the point where we're doing that efficiently. We're a long ways off from where we want to be. Complaints are valid, and they're useful data for us. We'll try to fix it."
That, however, brings us to the big problem: Greenlight is still around right now, and it's busted, sparking like a frayed wire plugged into a socket. These aren't small issues, either. As I've discussed previously, it's broken as a system, and it will continue to cause unintended problems until things change in a big way. Once again, Johnson didn't hesitate to agree that the system is in need of major improvements, especially in light of recent incidents involving developers giving away free games for Greenlight votes or signing with publishers to get them through Greenlight faster. But, also again, Johnson didn't give me much of a picture of what an overhauled, pre-open-storefront Steam Greenlight will look like.
"There's definitely drag," he said. "There's totally a drag right now. I've heard from developers [about issues]. The thing that made us really nervous is some developers are signing with publishers that will get them through Greenlight more quickly. That is not how we want content to flow to customers. That's something we take very seriously and we're gonna be very careful about as we get to the other side."
"We need to improve. We need to improve everything all the time. I think Greenlight as it is right now exists as a stopgap between where we were in self-publishing [and where we want to end up]. The guys who are really close to Greenlight are always making changes to make it work as efficiently as it can. The reality is, us continuing to be involved with games before they can ship on Steam is the problem that's worth attacking. Greenlight is one of those transitional things that, when we're on the other side of it, we think things will be really great."
Here's hoping. For now, though, we still don't have a timeframe for The Future's arrival, or even an idea of what it will be like. Valve's working behind-the-scenes, and I'm sure the technical and legal issues they're coming up against are immense, but Greenlight has evolved from temporary solution to problem in its own right. Fingers crossed that Valve is able to combine all the pieces into something much, much better sooner rather than later.