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Are you the keymaster?


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.


  1. (I believe Rob Fearon is the name you were grappling for.)

    My favourite piece of this essay is: “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.”

    It’s interesting that the Greenlight discussion is all about control. Who has it, who is subjected to it, who has too much and who has too little.

  2. Cyborg771 says:

    I have a few counterpoints to offer. First of all Steam is not the entire PC games market. It takes up a very large percentage of it, yes, but it does not stand alone. Putting your game on your own obscure site and running away is not the alternative to Greenlight and implying otherwise is a false dichotomy. There are forums like NeoGAF and TIGSource, communities like reddit, and great bloggers out there who like to focus on lesser known games. It’s not fun or pretty but self promotion is an important part of success in this business. The guys like Notch who blow up without trying are the exception, not the rule. So you can’t afford $100 to get on Greenlight. If you can’t build the buzz to get sponsored on your own then you can’t get the ridiculous numbers of votes necessary to fill that bar on Greenlight anyways. Secondly, in your rant against “The People” it sounds like you’re saying “it doesn’t matter what the majority wants, nobody can dictate quality” which, while a nice idea, doesn’t really hold up in a financial sense. Valve is in the business of selling games, so if the public perception of something is that it’s subjectively bad then it won’t sell well, regardless of where it’s for sale. Finally, at one point you said “If we don’t let people participate in open platforms then we don’t have open platforms.” This is true, but once again, Steam is not an open platform, nor has it ever pretended to be. PC gaming is however open, and it’s as open as it was the day before Greenlight launched. I want to be clear when I say that nothing has changed. I would even argue that a higher percentage of indie devs now have a good chance of getting on Steam than before.

    Anyways, I recently wrote my own blog post where I said a lot of the same stuff but also conceded readily that the $100 fee isn’t the best solution to the spam problem and offered a number of alternatives. I won’t advocate for the idea of the fee, but I find it hard to swallow a lot of the specific arguments against it. You can check it out here if you’re interested.

    • Chris Whitman says:

      I feel like I’ve answered all these already about a hundred times—the fallacy I see here is moralizing the legal obligations of a private company, refusing to see beyond the horizon of “[company] doesn’t have to do anything they don’t want to do, full stop.”

      It’s a lazy way of looking at the situation that does nothing more than perpetually shore up the broken status quo. You’re taking situations created by humans and pretending they’re immutable facts about nature.

      I see this as a refusal to ask hard questions. Like the moment a business tells us, “Actually it isn’t profitable to have equitable markets,” we just throw up our hands and say, “Oh well, I guess no one has any choice in the matter!”

  3. Alan says:

    Steam isn’t nearly the only way to sell games online. Why do you think the discussion centers on reducing Valve’s influence on their Steam marketplace instead of on reducing Steam’s dominant influence in the PC gaming marketplace?

    Or, if Valve says it’s not profitable to make their market equitable, why do we compel them to *make* their service equitable instead of seeking a healthier balance across the PC landscape? Low-hanging fruit?

  4. I feel a bit weird reading this, because as well as making my own games, I also run the Wild Rumpus, an indie games night.

    One part of our role there is explicitly to be curators. To explicitly look out and say “these are games we’re gonna show”. And while curatordom isn’t the hardest thing in the world, it definitely is something you can do better or worse.

    “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.”

    Yep! We do that. Explicitly. But they shouldn’t be entitled to make the decision themselves. For the obvious, facile reason that it’s our night. But also because we put it on in order to show people indie games. To expose them to stuff they haven’t seen. To say “Hey! This is maybe worth paying attention to”

    But — yeah, even in our case it’s problematic. I’m acutely aware that being friends with us is a good way to get your stuff shown. Which is kinda sucky. We’ve talked about doing open submissions, but several of us are judges in the IGF (to which your entire post could easily apply) and that is an enormous time-sink. Which we’re not being paid for, and also it’s our night, etc.

    But then, we’re not Valve. We don’t have a commanding share of the PC marketplace. We don’t even have a commanding share of the “indie game parties” marketplace (though we’re coming to take you down, Babycastles). But we are explicitly “a space occupied by the public where things can be noticed by them.” So is it that aspect that’s troubling?

    Because really, we need gatekeepers/curators. There’s too much stuff! Most people improvise one out of their friends and the media they consume. Which is fine. The “collections” feature of Greenlight is explicitly that, and it’s great! Should Valve should be an independent marketplace, free from all that?

    But — I do agree with you that $100 is the wrong bar to have to pass to get on Greenlight. I agree it ought to have the 14-year old kids games on there. There’s no less legitimacy for those games, in my eyes, nor should there be. And I agree that it’s not fair that being part of the indie in-crowd should give you such a tremendous advantage – though it does. (Fun fact: BAFTA games submissions cost £500. But they’ll sometimes waive that fee if you can’t afford it. They don’t advertise this fact. So only people with money, or who know people who have dealt with BAFTA get to submit. So fair!). But just decrying gatekeepers and curators is too easy. It’s the difficult middle ground we need. Which I don’t really have any answers for.

    • Chris Whitman says:

      Actually, I tend to look at curators vs. gatekeepers as kind of a lightside/darkside thing.

      I’m all for curated exhibitions, etc., in general. I think the issue you’re talking about is the fine line of “at what point am I a person who likes things and enables the people whose things I like versus an institution who controls things and disables the people I ignore?”

      My ideal situation is again sort of a rhizome. Lots of curation, lots of shows, lots of involvement for everyone. Unfortunately things are always threatening to aggregate as a scene where everyone hops on the bandwagon for a handful of games and the rest struggle in obscurity.

      This is an institutional problem in basically every arts community, because strong curation from the perspective of a small collective tends to give you success, success makes you a brand, and then strong curation from the perspective of a brand then makes you someone artists have to fight to placate.

      I think we know we have a problem when people are throwing around the phrase “AAA Indie” without a trace of irony.

      So that is me taking a very long time to say that I agree. But I think the lack of easy answers is because it’s mostly a political problem. There is no system; it’s all about context and lots of small, unsexy decisions. I think we will probably always have big institutions, and creators especially need to start leaning on them to be more equitable. I hope we can also sustain a vibrant arts community with lots of shows and events, without constantly policing ourselves.

      And, let’s face it, I’d still like to see artists get the accolades they deserve, and I don’t mind if new people have to fight a bit to get where they’re going (like I mentioned above, no gold medals on day one). It’s just a question of balance—eating ramen for five years to get established is fine, being homeless for five years to languish in obscurity for twenty, give up and find yourself trying to prepare for a new career at 45 is not.

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