As Valve celebrates the first birthday of Steam Greenlight's launch, company founder Gabe Newell keeps his eye on when such an approval process will cease to exist.
Launched a year ago tomorrow, Greenlight was initially met with broad fanfare – this was a new feature of Valve's powerhouse Steam distribution platform that would allow its audience to have a say in what games were released on the 50 million-user-strong storefront. It purpose was to -- and remains -- to help break down walls between developers and players.
But even the term "Greenlight" itself implies a gatekeeper – that someone, or some group, holds the authority to give you the go-ahead. That gatekeeper mentality goes directly against what Valve has in mind for Steam. For Valve, the endgame is to remove all bottlenecks, including Greenlight, and give game developers a platform to reach their audiences directly.
"The immediate goal [of Greenlight] was to give us more data in the selection process as we ramp up the tools needed to get us to our longer term goal of improving the overall throughput of the system," Valve founder Gabe Newell tells us.
"Before Greenlight, folks would send mail to us mail or fill out the posted submission form, hope that someone saw it and liked it, and waited in the dark for a reply. While it is not perfect, Greenlight helped us pull that process out of the dark and help with the selection process."
Valve has recognized for a while now that the Steam approval processes are a blockade. Newell has expressed that Steam's future is as a web API that any developer can call, and allowing anyone to create a Steam storefront page.
Breaking down those walls is tricky, to say the least. Valve announced yesterday that it approved 100 titles via its Greenlight program, which is a big jump in volume, and the biggest batch of approvals yet.
That signals progress in Greenlight's efficiency. But at its most efficient, the Greenlight approval process will completely disappear.
"Ultimately, we hope to increase our throughput so significantly that the conversation about selection becomes antiquated," says Newell. "Then we can debate our ability or inability to properly aggregate and display the increased volume of titles being offered."
The Greenlight reality
Greenlight's initial vision was totally in line with one of Valve's pillars of success: Putting the community first and giving players and game developers a voice.
But when the service launched, and the flood of games poured in, reality hit: Developers weren't ready to game the popularity contest, the selection process has become confusing, good games were getting buried, and perhaps worst of all, it was still a considerable bottleneck between developers and the people who wanted to play their games.
What was at first going to be something that would give the community full say in what came to Steam became a situation where Valve had to come in and play gatekeeper once again – Greenlighted games are decided by both the community and by Valve nowadays. That initial vision combined with the current reality tends to lead to confusion about what games are Greenlighted, and why.
"Votes on Greenlight provide a useful point of data in gauging community interest, but we’re aware that votes alone may be an inexact form of gauging customer interest," Newell explains. "So we also try to incorporate additional information we have about factors such as press reviews, crowd-funding successes, performance on other similar platforms, and awards and contests to help form a more complete picture of community interest in each title."
The solution to the bottleneck
In other words, Valve still does have the final say, a fact that Newell, an always-self-aware businessman, can readily acknowledge. As Valve continues to chip away at its own self-imposed bottleneck, the company is coming to grips with the daunting challenge of game discoverability.
"Much of the evolution of Steam and Greenlight is driven by what the community of gamers and developers tell us they want to see made possible," says Newell. "Right now, we’re focused on expanding the depth and breadth of our catalog. That expansion and addition of content is going to come with a need to innovate and iterate on how customers browse for games and evaluate potential purchases."
"Evolving our tools to allow us to publish more titles more frequently is the solution for the bottleneck," he adds. "We’re working on it, and the 100 [Greenlighted games batch] was a big step towards the long term goal. This latest batch is both a celebration and a stress test of our systems. Future batches may not be as large but, if everything goes smoothly, we should be able to continue increasing the throughput of games from Greenlight to the store."