Let Curators curate for Steam Direct

Valve recently said that it will replace Greenlight with Steam Direct, a method by which developers pay per game to get it on Steam, and (presumably) get the money back if the game sells well.

The idea of payment that’s refunded for games that sell well should work for reducing the number of throwaway games, or at least those which don’t sell well. Developers with successful games will spend less than those with many games that don’t sell. Successful games will get the developers back their money, while developers with many failed games will have to pay more.

The problem is that making a decent game isn’t enough to get sales, and that developers with little up-front money could have a hard time getting in if the fee is high.

Valve is asking the public’s opinion about the fee (a range of $100 to $5000 was mentioned), and already there’s reponse of people willing to pay for other devs. This, in my opinion, is the right way to go: put a high monetary barrier, and allow others to function as curators. This means that games liked by others get in, and those without fans will have a tougher time getting in.

But why not have Valve integrate this ability into the process? Why not keep something like Greenlight and allow it to be used in a sense like crowdfunding, allowing others on Steam to pay for the game to enter the store? Having this as part of Steam is better for Valve and for Steam than having it all happen outside of Steam, because the path for developers will be clear, Steam users get involved, on Valve’s turf, and Valve helps make a contribution towards indie development.

In particular, curators could be made into editors and publishers, putting their money where their mouth is and helping get the games they’re interested in onto steam.

Read on for more analysis and details.

Our goal

Players want Steam to have good games they would like to play (and to be able to find them easily). Developers want to get their game on Steam and have people buy and play them. Valve wants people to buy games on Steam.

Valve’s goal would be achieved by satisfying the other two, so let’s put it aside for the moment. Our goal remains to get good games onto Steam, and help people find them. (We also want to filter out bad games, but that’s not the goal, so shouldn’t be the focus. It should just be a criterion to evaluate solutions.)

Greenlight is a form of promotion and community building, and a way to get feedback. Feedback can help games become better, and promotion helps people find games they like. Greenlight also does filtering, but its current implementation has some flaws and easy exploits.

Steam Direct has no benefit at all when it comes to improving games or promoting them. It offers a different form of filtering, one which I can’t say up front is better or not for the goal of bringing good games to Steam. (It will probably filter out the purely throwaway games, but if that also ends up reducing the good entries, that’s a bad direction to move, in my opinion.)

Putting a monetary barrier up is a fine idea, but it would be even better if Valve kept the promotion and the feedback aspects, and at the same time made sure that games which are liked will have an easier time getting in. A high barrier ($1000 or more; I’ll discuss regional pricing later) would serve to put more power into the hands of those who want the games, but only if the people who are interested in the games can do something to help get the game onto Steam.

It can be Steam users at large who contribute to a game’s publishing fee, but in this post I want to concentrate on curators. I might post some other ideas in a later post (though based on past experience, I might not do that and make my next post years from now).

Enter the curators

Curators are by definition people who have a certain taste in games and are interested in sharing that taste. They judge games and select them, many of them review them and discuss them. Curators would likely enjoy helping games they want to enter the Steam store.

Assuming that the publishing fee is refunded if the game sells enough, curators with a bit of money who think a game is good and would sell wouldn’t be risking too much if they pay its publishing fee. They’d also contribute to promotion, to make sure the game does sell. If the system allows them to make extra money if the game is very successful, that would give them even more incentive to participate.

The way I envision this working is somewhat like submitting fiction to editors at publishing houses or fiction magazines. A developer would submit games to curators, and the curators would either decide to pay for the game (possibly only part of the sum) or reject the game and offer some feedback.

The process could work something like this:

  • A developer puts up a Greenlight page, which may be private (only curators the game is submitted to can see it) or public (everyone can see it).
  • The developer uploads the game to that page. (This will not be available to the public even if the page is public.)
  • The developer submits the page to a curator (using a suitable web interface).
  • The curator gets notified of the submission.
  • The curator has a queue of Greenlight pages, with submission time. There could be a time limit after which the game is automatically rejected, but it’s better to make responding easy, so the curator can quickly reject games of no interest.
  • The page allows the curator to add the game to his or her library. The curator can then install the game and play it.
  • The curator can respond to the developer. The response page should have detailed options of what the curator liked and didn’t like (this provides the curator with a guideline of what kind of info to provide the developer, and an easy way to provide it): a basic ‘not my type of game’, ‘didn’t like’, ‘needs more work’ etc. selection, plus more details about control, graphics, music and so on. The curator would also be able to add custom text.
  • If the curator likes the game enough, he can put some money towards the publishing fee (in multiples of $100 sounds reasonable). That money will be returned over time, as would have happened if the developer paid the fee.
  • As an extra incentive, the curator might get extra money, for example 2x or 5x of the original. This will be taken from the dev’s cut (for example, 65% to the dev, 5% to the curators, 30% to Valve, until the sum is reached). The choice of how much extra to take (up to a limit) may be up to the curator.
  • If the curator doesn’t like the game enough to pay, he can mark whether the game can be submitted again in the future, and perhaps how far in the future. The system would automatically handle this. This would allow a developer to re-send the game after further development, but only if the curator allows it. (Should probably default to ‘not interested in seeing the game again”.)
  • In addition a curator may endorse the game, even if he didn’t choose to pay (he could choose ‘liked but not enough to pay’). The endorsement would then appear on the Greenlight page, unless the developer chooses not to have it there. The curator’s name on that page will link to the curator. (For example: ‘That’s the way an asset flip should be done.’ Jim Sterling)
  • Once the curator responds, the developer gets a message, and can see the response, including seeing if the curator installed and played the game, and for how long.
  • Once the total sum paid by curators reaches the submission fee, the game enters the store.
  • At any point the developer can add the fee difference, and enter the game into the store.
  • (The implementation should give the curators a way to disallow submissions altogether or cut submissions from specific developers, and report abuse if it happened. It should also show the developer what games the same developer submitted previously.)

Having Greenlight function this way would build an ecosystem where curators have a real meaning and games are entered on merit. Unlike curation by a limited staff of a company, it would open the door to every type of game, as long as there’s someone with money who likes that type of game.

It’s also possible to have curators look for games and provide feedback for them, but I think that the process of developers finding suitable curators will be better for building the curation ecosystem.

A note on regional fees

In the western world a fee of $100 will be affordable by most devs, even indies with little money. A fee of $1000 may be a more difficult, but not out of the question. In other countries $1000 may be a yearly salary for some.

I’d suggest that developers in regions where games are priced low will also need to pay a lower fee. To prevent abuse, such games will only be sold to regions with similar prices or lower. This way curators from that region will be able to cover the cost in a reasonable manner. If the devs ever want the game to sell in high priced regions, they could do that after earning some money in other regions, or by submitting the game to curators in the regions they want to sell to.

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