What Is Steam Direct, and How Is It Different from Greenlight?

By Michael Crider on June 16th, 2017

Steam Greenlight was a grand experiment in support for independent PC game developers: a cheap and easy way for creators to get access to the world’s biggest game distribution platform. Unfortunately, it was also a grand failure—for every successfully “greenlit” game that would go on to be a hit, like Stardew Valley or Broforce, it seemed like dozens and dozens of poorly-made and generally undesirable titles got through, many of which were incomplete or cobbled-together from pre-bought assets.

As a result, Valve has introducedĀ a complete replacement for Greenlight, now dubbed “Steam Direct.” What’s changed? What hasn’t? How likely is the new system to introduce some much-needed quality control? Let’s take a look.

The Submission Fee Is the Same, But Now It’s for Each Game

Valve has added a more serious financial barrier to entry for Steam Direct. Greenlight required only a $100 donation (which went to charity, not Valve itself) in order to put a small hurdle in the way of would-be spammers and shovelware developers. The fee for Steam Direct is also $100, but instead of opening up a mostly restriction-free developer account, it will allow developers to submit only one game or app to Steam with a single unique application ID. Additional game submissions, each of which will go through the same vetting process (see below), will also be $100.

It’s an important distinction. While a small team toiling away on a one-game passion project won’t have any real change in their fortunes, someone simply buying a ton of pre-made Unity game assets and hoping to flip them over to for some quick cash on Steam’s platform will suddenly be looking at a serious investment. It helps that the fee (or fees) will be recoverable on projects that earn at least $1000 in game sales or micropayments, so developers who are serious and depending on game sales for livable income will have at least a chance of making that small investment back on each title.

Steam Is Getting Serious About Vetting

The community-policed aspect of Steam Greenlight meant that Valve thought a wide-open approach was best, relying on Steam users themselves to filter the gold from the dross of the massive Greenlight catalog. That proved to be easily manipulated, as unscrupulous developers would generate fake votes or make money off of the nascent Steam trading card economy. With the new Direct system, Steam’s barrier to entry is getting a little more serious.

In addition to the new $100 fee for each individual game, developers will need to submit personal and/or company identification, including verifiable tax info. That probably means social security numbers for American developers and local equivalents in other countries—the same kind of thing you’d need to submit to a new employer in order to have the local tax authority verify your pay. That’s a step too far for many less committed users, and a good way of differentiating Steam Direct from more open platforms like Itch.io or the Google Play Store.

Manual Reviews for Each Game

While Greenlight initially only allowed a select few games to enter the Play Store proper as full titles or Early Access candidates, that net was eventually spread wide open after the user voting process was given more influence. That resulted in quite a lot of, to put it delicately, crap getting onto Early Access with no obvious intention of ever being completed. According to the introductory document for Steam Direct, that’s no longer going to be the case: the cursory examination of Greenlight will be shelved for a more serious system in which each and every game that gets onto the Steam store will be manually played by a Valve employee.

Low-quality shovelware developers, like the infamous Digital Homicide, should find it harder going on Steam Direct.

That doesn’t mean that low-quality games won’t ever make it through the newer, tougher filter, but it should institute a bare minimum level of quality that the flood of new titles in the last few years has lacked. As noted earlier this year, the total Steam catalog grew by 40% in a single year in 2016, largely thanks to a huge volume of Greenlight titles. With Steam Direct, that volume should decrease dramatically, hopefully with a commensurate shift up in relative quality.

What Does This Mean for Players?

Game developers will have some serious changes coming in the way that Steam works, but unless you were heavily invested in the Greenlight voting system, players like you probably won’t see a lot of immediate changes on the Steam storefront. A smaller number of finished and Early Access games will likely be hitting the “new releases” section for at least the next few months, and we can but hope that those fewer releases will be more worthy of actual playtime. Even if they’re not, Steam’s refund policy—which wasn’t in place when Greenlight began its steady descent into a pit of shovelware—should help alleviate any teething troubles.

That being said, Greenlight was a failure because it was easy for unscrupulous developers to manipulate. Valve seems to be trying to keep that vulnerability to a minimum with Steam Direct, but we’re going to have to give it time to see if developers find cracks in the new system.

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.

  • Published 06/16/17
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