The gaming world was abuzz recently with the news that Steam would be killing its controversial Greenlight program in favor of Steam Direct, where developers would pay a one-time fee to just get their app on Greenlight. But that fee has been discussed as being up for debate – and it could be as high as $5,000. This is horrifying to me, as it has the potential to scare away a lot of developers who have more talent than resources. And crazily, I’ve seen people say that they want a similar system on the App Store to help with the problems that come with shovelware plaguing the stores. But I don’t think shovelware is quite the crisis other people say that it is, and I fear any move to curtail it by making it harder to access stores will have negative consequences. Plus, I think there’s a moral objection to the idea of being an even stricter gatekeeper.
First off, I am skeptical that making it more expensive to submit apps/games will help quality at all. It’s not like every scammer is a broke jerk. Seriously, you’re telling me that there’s not some rich jerk kids out there who are producing bad games or copyright scams? Or people with more money than ethics or sense? Maybe higher fees for submission, or a per-app submission fee will catch a few more bad actors, but do not assume that access to funds and quality products are directly correlated.
Second, higher prices will have the unintended consequence of chasing out independent creators who aren’t making a lot of money. There are developers on the App Store who make decent apps that sometimes don’t make the $100 per year back. Their work deserves to be on the App Store, they’re not low-effort junk. Increasing the developer fee or introducing draconian submission fees would chase out more people who would just simply say that it’s not worth it to even try and break the lowest threshold for what could at some point be considered breaking even. Raising per-app submission fees would hurt prolific creators of smaller apps and games. Steam and Google could at least use the excuse that they’re not the only distribution option on their platforms. Apple would have no excuse, it would just be an incredibly toxic move.
Third, is low-effort shovelware really that bad of a problem? Yeah, all the digital distribution stores are full of it. You know what they’re also full of? Fun, high-quality games that were not feasible to make when tools and distribution were harder to come by. And with the major distribution stores having easier refund policies, all that a bad game could cost is just some time. And with the wealth of coverage and YouTube footage for games, it’s far easier to tell what looks unacceptable and what doesn’t than in days of old, where there were fewer games and information on them was more tightly controlled. Yeah, there’s a lot of shovelware out there, but the costs to players are often just a few wasted minutes instead of being stuck with a bad game on a cartridge that you can’t return.
Fourth, this is some no-good exclusionary crap. I’m fine with nominal fees to get onto marketplaces, if only as an idiot tax. There are some people who shouldn’t have unfettered access to the App Store or Google Play. I’m fine for very baseline gateways because I may be idealistic, but I’m not an idiot. And if Steam Direct isn’t too expensive for developers, especially if smaller ones get access to the store, then that’s an acceptable set of circumstances. There are bad actors out there and a simple screen door like a nominal fee helps out a lot. But if these fees increase to even greater amounts, then what happens is that more and more legitimate developers will get caught in the net.
Yeah, there’s people that are putting up low-effort content. But are you willing to trade off shutting out some of these low-effort titles in exchange for all the genuine content that you’re shutting out from creators that might struggle to pay more than the current fees? Students can make quality games, and if there’s anything you should know about students, it’s that they don’t generally have a lot of money. Even just as a PR move, if submission fees get to be prohibitively expensive, then it’s going to look terrible when some low-effort garbage gets through and a genuine quality game from a developer living paycheck to paycheck just trying to pursue their dream can’t get on to the major stores in the first place. I have a severe moral objection to the idea that we should make it more expensive to distribute games on the platforms that people are using. Open digital distribution is a very, very good thing.
What is really the issue with access to current distribution models, anyway? Greenlight’s complaints seem rooted in 2012’s problems, when it was tough to get through Greenlight. But that was as much a byproduct of the early rush onto the Steam marketplace. Considering the current batch of games you see on Steam, I think And honestly, if a developer can’t scrounge the votes together for Greenlight, then the number one reason to be on that store in the first place, finances, kind of disappears. At least PC gaming has platforms like itch.io and self-distribution so nobody’s truly shut out. Google Play’s limited approvals means that unless your app is undercutting Google’s business model, such as ad blockers, then pretty much any developer can get on. For better or for worse. And some developers prefer Google Play to iOS because of the platform’s greater freedoms.
Yeah, discovery sucks right now, but it also seems like an impossible problem when quality can be so subjective and there’s so much to recommend, too. And considering that we live in an era where part-time creators can make games and apps that belong on these stores, I don’t know if it’s getting better. It’s tough out there if you’re trying to make a living in any form of media when you have thousands of worthy competitors.
So let’s at least look at it from a question of shovelware. The answer might be for multibillion dollar corporations to start putting more effort into curation and approvals. Curation can be tough: working with knowledgeable influencers and media can be helpful. You, as a reader, should try to support the influencers, media, and curators that you trust in whatever way you can, whether that be us, a YouTuber, streamer, whoever. But as far as quality policing goes, there’s part of me that empathizes with the difficulty of sorting out the terrible from the at least acceptable. I could see where, especially on the App Store, it can be a difficult problem to figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t. But when I see preventable mistakes get through with shovelware, and I see Apple’s not exactly a struggling startup, nor is Google, nor Valve. They have the resources to figure things out in order to improve consumer confidence, possibly drive more business, and make their stores better. And if you think I’m wrong on Valve and Steam, I’m not the only one saying they have the resources to fix Steam: John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun makes this point.
I get that it’s not easy, but I think there are methods to get rid of some of the absolutely unacceptable titles: the copyright infringement, the offensive beyond being worthy of being even on the fringes of public discourse, and the extremely low-effort titles. There have to be ways to do all this without raising the barrier to entry for game developers. Lowering them created a world where we have countless great games. Niche genres and fresh takes on existing ones appear on a regular basis. We cannot harm that part of the gaming world.
I know the status quo for games and discovery feels suboptimal. But maybe it’s the best we have right now. Every form of media is dealing with the issue of having colossal amounts of content, especially on the music and television sides of the industry to go along with games.