September 7, 2012 by Chris Whitman
The Greenlight debacle this week has prompted a lot of debate in the independent developer community, most of it healthy I think, over people’s rights of equal access to markets, etc.
Much of the focus has been on how arbitrary fees impact the poor, given how much of the community exists in various states of poverty. Jonas Kyratzes’ The One Hundred Dollar Question tackles the class issue and the international issue, while Rob Remakes’ (does anyone know his actual name? I feel weird typing that) Inconceivable discusses the fine line most of us who are relatively well off tread between our comfortable lives and a situation where we literally cannot risk a $100 expenditure.
In the face of criticism that this can’t possibly seriously affect any legitimate developers, both are experienced independent developers with acclaimed work and most definitely not 14-year-old kids making their first games. So hopefully we’ll have no more of that particular chestnut (although of course we will, as regrettably there will always be people who take a more DIY approach to facts).
But that said, Greenlight does feature people’s first games, it does feature unpolished work, and it actually also has its share of 14-year-old-kids. I’d like to cement my status as having the least popular opinions in the entire world by defending that aspect.
“But Christopher,” you are already asking, “don’t these people have to pay their dues? Won’t the discoverability of good games suffer if Greenlight fills up with shitty games?” Whoa, slow down there, Turbo! Let’s take a look at those questions.
I don’t think it’s good or healthy to name someone CEO of Games on their first day. Not only is it probably personally damaging to receive accolades without doing very much (that tends to produce entitled, egotistical people who never grow), it’s obviously physically unfeasible to make every single person who tries into an instant success.
So yes, paying your dues is important, but let’s get one thing straight—regardless of what you or I do, no one is going to be a success on their first try. Not even in the halcyon days of 2007 when it seemed like indie games were fast becoming a viable profession did most people have much commercial success on their very first attempts. Admitting someone into the market is not granting them million dollar cheques on a silver platter. Rather, it is simply allowing their work to succeed or fail commercially on its own terms, on an equal footing to everyone else.
Greenlight isn’t even admitting people into the market. It’s allowing them to try out to be admitted into the market. The suggestion here appears to be that even that requires its gatekeepers, that the majority of developers should be neither seen nor heard, should not have the opportunity to present their work publicly in any form*.
When you don’t let someone participate in what is ostensibly an open platform, when we don’t have open platforms to allow people to show their work, you risk a very serious problem. Instead of enabling people to try and fail and grow on their own terms on open terrain, you leave them to dedicate their efforts to placating a series of gatekeepers, each of whom possesses a vested commercial interest in what is or is not made available to the public.
How do I know this will happen? Because actually within a day of the announcement it was already happening. Dejobaan announced they were organizing developers to raise money to pay the Greenlight fees for aspiring developers. The catch was that someone else in the development community fronting the money had to sponsor you. A noble sentiment, for sure, but in the long run, letting the people on the inside decide who the next insiders are creates a stale community of nepotistic lineages; I don’t care how good the intentions behind it are. (See basically every other artistic discipline that has ever existed.)
Which brings us to the next issue, of discoverability and shitty games, etc.
I am of the habit of asking people what constitutes a bad game. Is it that you don’t like it? Is it that The People don’t like it? And who are these people? The Greenlight audience? OK, great. Can you name all of them?
This is sort of a Big Other notion of The People. It gets dragged out in all sorts of contexts, and the one shared factor is that generally whoever I am The People agree with me. Coincidentally, if I look at a game and think I don’t like it, The People probably don’t like it either. If I wouldn’t vote something onto Steam, well The People don’t want it there either, so why are we even looking at it?
Of course, the people—small p, the actually human beings with lives and tastes and names you don’t know—like all kinds of things. You have no qualifications to take a stance on what they like and do not like before they even see it, nor has anyone ever given you permission to do this. People find value in all kinds of things. Games that have really blown up in the past seem like sure things now, but at the time there was no indication that Dwarf Fortress, say, was going to be such a hit and an influence.
What you do have, as an independent game developer, is a clear conflict of interest which renders you less than objective on these matters. This affects the discoverability issue, too. The whole thing is an arbitrary split between deserving and undeserving work, which seems to pivot around your personal preferences. You are standing in for people who don’t know you and who may not even like you, and assuming a potentially biased position on decisions they should be entitled to make for themselves.
You are not special. You do not have any particular insight or objectivity on what is good or bad, what people other than yourself do or don’t like. There is nothing magical about a market that rewards hard work, growth or discipline, it is the result of careful management with a commitment to equal access and a fair shot for everybody. Are there a lot of entries on Greenlight? Yes. But cutting it down to people whose work you like (the people you consider to be ”legitimate” developers) will not cut it. You’re endorsing a show democracy that keeps new producers on the outside, shielding them from failure and experience, for the benefit of a few who have no special right to be there.
Just don’t. I know the vast majority of you are well-meaning people and you aren’t out to kill anyone’s career, so hopefully you’ll take some of this to heart. We don’t need more gatekeepers.
* Publicly means a lot more than dumping it on a web site somewhere and running away. Public space is a space occupied by the public where things can be noticed by them. Hidden on a corner of the internet and showing up last in the Google searches is not public. I understand this contradicts our contemporary notion that eyeballs are an asset you can own and sell, but one does not light a candle to put it under a bushel.
P.S. Don’t come at me with “Valve can do whatever they want!” Questions of what one can or can’t do have absolutely zero relevance to a discussion on fairness and moral obligations. And if you believe everything the government doesn’t prevent you from doing with violence is automagically moral, you’ve got much bigger problems than this whole debate.
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