Steam Greenlight: Valve’s crowd-funding scheme arrives

Valve is certainly putting a lot of plans into motion when it comes to its gaming platform, Steam, from pushing forward with a version of Steam for Linux, to developing the service along crowdsourcing lines. Crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, which is due to come to the UK at some point this autumn, has gained loads of momentum in recent times, and Valve has just unleashed its own crowdsourcing initiative for gamers: Steam Greenlight.

There are lots of reasons to cheer this decision, but first and foremost is that Valve isn’t interested in separating you from your money – not directly, at any rate. The entire purpose of Greenlight is for players to help Valve decide which games should next appear on the Steam download service. But the company isn’t asking gamers for cash up front, which means you don’t have to worry about being out of pocket if the creators can’t deliver. Not that that’s likely to be much of a problem anyway – Greenlight is more about bringing new attention to finished products than it is nurturing new titles from the embryonic state.

The process, as described on Greenlight’s “About” page, is simple: “Developers post information, screenshots, and videos for their game, and seek a critical mass of community support in order to get selected for distribution.”

Then Steam members vote, and if there’s sufficient interest, the game will be made available. When it is, and only when it is, you pay for the title and download it – assuming, that is, you still want it.

This is exciting for two key reasons. First, the encouragement it will provide developers: Knowing that there’s a less arcane and more publicly visible method of getting your work viewed, or at least considered, by an enormous audience will hopefully inspire creators to put even more esoteric titles out there. After all, you never know what will catch on…

The second reason is the ease with which users will be able to discover new games. One of the things I’ve long loved about Steam is that you can locate something to satisfy almost every whim (my fondness for eighties-style arcade games has never entirely faded). But you often have to sift through tons of titles to find exactly what you’re looking for when you don’t know what you’re looking for, with many of the ones you pass by either old or not to your taste.

Greenlight lets you feel better about exploring and experimenting, and gives you just as much upfront data about what you’re doing. You can see what your friends on Steam are voting for, which is hugely helpful for steering you in the right direction. And if you just want to browse, you can easily do that, too – that’s more challenging in the actual Steam Store.

There is, however, one major problem right now. Although Greenlight is apparently incredibly popular (with 2.3 million votes reportedly cast the first day alone), as of writing this piece it’s been, uh, lit for less than a week, and no games have yet been accepted. Until some are, it will be difficult to get a really good grasp on how – or, perhaps, if – things work as Valve intended.

Nearly 700 games so far

But of the nearly 700 games that have already been submitted for consideration, some look to me like they could have real promise. Some of the more intriguing I unearthed include:

  • Dark Ocean: A survival horror game set on a cruise ship.
  • Icebound: A steampunk-themed “visual novel” set in a new Ice Age.
  • Main Sequence: A hard-science-fiction look at how an asteroid becomes a star.
  • Positron: A fast-paced racing game apparently inspired by the light cycles from the movie Tron.
  • Shadows of the Vatican: An intensely detailed mystery story, with Dan Brown overtones, set in Rome.

You can also find side-scrolling platformers, old-school shooters, 8-bit retro-kitsch diversions, puzzle games, even text adventures! Just browsing through the “stacks,” I was astonished at the diversity on offer. Granted, some of the games appeared mighty amateurish, and I’ll be shocked if some of the ones I skimmed past have a long life (or any at all). But the majority have apparently received a tremendous amount of time, work, and even love – and in a number of cases looked as good as, or even superior to, what you see from more established designers and studios.

Will any of these games make the big time? Who knows… but they’re getting the chance at an airing most of them have never had before, and an opportunity their creators probably thought they’d never have. If even just a couple of truly memorable games come out of Greenlight, it will have been worth it – and with this many submissions already, and far more still to come in the weeks and months ahead, the chances are good that we’ll get quite a few more than that. And because games don’t disappear unless they’re accepted or removed by their developers, one that doesn’t catch fire today just might tomorrow.

All this makes Greenlight fascinating as not just a game discovery system and a social experiment, but also as an expression of gaming freedom. Don’t care for the games Valve employees have decided on? Vote for ones you like instead. Think you can do better yourself? Prove it, and let the people decide if you’re right. Either way, everyone benefits and Steam gets just a bit hotter – and a lot more fun.