Steam Greenlight and the problem of crowds

28 Sep 2012

I meant to post about this earlier, but the whole controversy surrounding Steam Greenlight’s $100 fee took the attention away from what I consider to be the core issue with the service. Greenlight allows the gaming community to vote on which developer-submitted titles they wish to see on Steam, but I’m not sure it’s as successful as Valve is hoping. The reason (and I’m still working on the phrasing of this) is: people are stupid. Individuals may be smart but you get a large enough group of people together and you’ll see some pretty dumb things happening.

The race to the top of Steam Greenlight is effectively a race to the bottom, by diluting games down to appeal to the lowest common denominator, ensuring the most possible votes are received. This means we end up with more games that are as similar as possible to previously successful games, that don’t dare to try something significantly different or controversial, that tread the safest path to ensure that everyone likes it just enough to vote it up. What we risk doing is taking an indie scene that (one would hope) thrives on new and unusual ideas and turning it into something that ends up promoting whatever the indie equivalent of Madden and Call of Duty are (Minecraft clones and games with zombies?)

What is needed is a careful curator, which is effectively what Valve used to do with indie titles on Steam. This same behaviour can be seen in online discussion communities, and the best example of this is Reddit. Pick a popular topic to talk about, like video games, and the most popular related subreddit be unmoderated crap. Meme posts, mediocre ‘hah’ images, and way too many ‘does anyone remember this old game’ posts to mention. You can find the same thing in /r/politics, /r/funny, even /r/science. On the surface Reddit seems like a pretty vapid place to hang out until you start delving into more heavily moderated subreddits - like /r/truegaming or /r/games.

So, give power to everyone and you end up with some pretty mediocre content, and only by giving dictatorial power to a few can you reach some semblance of quality. I’m not entirely comfortable with the implications of this on a larger scale, so I’m not going to talk (or think) about that. Instead, I hope that in addition to seeing what’s popular via Steam Greenlight, Valve uses their own eyes to pick out the innovative, interesting, but perhaps not so wide-appealing titles that may have been overlooked.

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