The One Hundred Dollar Question

[When I originally wrote this, I was not fully aware of the way in which the term “privilege” was being used in the context of contemporary identity politics; people in the “scene” were using it, and I used it because I was trying to communicate. In retrospect I realize that was a massive error, as the term is used as a personal attack that you can’t defend yourself against and has nothing to do with an economic analysis of society. I still think the main points of this critique apply, but if I could rewrite it, I would phrase it very differently now.]

The last two days have been most enlightening, in ways I had not anticipated.

It all began when Valve announced that Greenlight, the vote-based submission system for Steam, would now come with a $100 price tag for developers. The money wouldn’t go to Valve, but to a popular (with gamers) charity called Child’s Play; the point of the fee was not to enrich Valve, but to stop all the bogus and unprofessional submissions that were flooding the system.

A few developers said “$100 is a lot for some people.” Then all hell broke lose, and my understanding of the indie scene was permanently altered.

My first thought after I filled out the Greenlight submission form for The Sea Will Claim Everything and clicked “publish” was wait, there’s no approval queue? That struck me as very peculiar. This is the internet. Any submissions system is likely to be abused within seconds. It’s entirely normal for blogs to keep comments for moderator approval to make sure they’re legit. Why was Greenlight allowing any submission to go through?

It was also peculiar that Greenlight was being advertised on Steam without any mention of the word “indie”. It made the service sound more like GOG’s Request Games feature than like a replacement for Steam’s old submissions procedure. But here were all these other games by my indie colleagues, so clearly I wasn’t in the wrong place.

There was more that struck me as odd. Games could be downvoted as well as upvoted, which didn’t seem to serve any purpose except to create negativity. (Why would Valve care how many people didn’t want to buy something? That doesn’t answer the question of whether there is a market for said something.) And, well, the whole system itself was kind of scary. Would it really be possible for games to be discovered here?

Maybe it was silly to worry about all these issues. Maybe I was just tired. It was four in the morning, after all. I’d been so excited to finally be able to submit my game through this much-hyped system that I stayed up all night. I knew my chances weren’t huge, especially because TSWCE doesn’t really fit into recognizable categories very well, but with the amazing reviews it had gotten and the support of the people who loved it, this was worth a shot, right? It would almost certainly not get a million upvotes, but maybe it would get enough attention and support for Valve to be interested. They had picked some “weird” indie games before, after all. That games like The Dream Machine and Analogue: A Hate Story were on Steam gave me hope.

Predictably enough, Greenlight was soon full of absurd submissions. Some were joke submissions by trolls, some were submissions of mainstream games by people who thought this was a request-a-game service. Some were just fakes that existed for no good reason. And then there were tons of submissions that were not games, but just concepts for games. These, however, were considered legit; apparently Greenlight was taking inspiration from Kickstarter. Except this made absolutely no sense, because a nonexistent game getting Steam approval doesn’t benefit anyone. It’s still nonexistent.

For the people browsing for games to vote for, it was almost impossible to discover a new game. The list of games re-ordered itself at random as you went from page to page, so you kept seeing the same games over and over, while other games never appeared. There were no good sorting options. It was a mess. The only games that were getting massive numbers of views were the ones that were already hugely popular, i.e. Project Zomboid. The sort of games, that is, that wouldn’t really have needed Greenlight all that much in the first place.

Other developers were getting really nasty comments from adolescent (physically and/or mentally) users who either didn’t understand Greenlight or simply hated indie games for not being Call of Duty. Games weren’t being judged by Steam’s massive international audience – those folks are there to buy games, not trade insults. Games were being judged by a subset of users that was not necessarily representative.

I got relatively lucky – after a few unpleasant comments in the beginning, it was all very positive, even from people who had never heard of my work before. But comments aren’t votes. Last time I saw the statistics for my game, before Valve removed users’ ability to see them, they were at 44% positive. And, as with most games, 0% towards getting on Steam. No wonder – other games had more than ten times as many views, and they were at 2%.

It was becoming obvious that Valve hadn’t thought this through properly, a fact which surprised most of us in the indie scene. Valve is normally pretty good about this sort of thing; if nothing else, they tend to be very professional. But by allowing game ideas (of which everyone famously has one – or a million) and not moderating the submissions process directly, they’d demonstrated a surprising lack of knowledge about the world of indie game development.

Then came the announcement about the $100 fee.

I wasn’t angry at Valve. I thought and still think that it’s a massive mistake for everyone involved, and I am in no way comfortable with Steam’s monopoly on the games market, but I don’t think this behaviour by Valve was meant to be malicious. They didn’t think “ha, screw the poor!” That the fee goes to charity shows that this isn’t about greed. The methods are misguided, but the intent is fine. So I didn’t get angry at them, and I’m still not angry at them.

But I did get very, very angry.

I wish the discussion that followed could’ve been about what would be a better system of keeping out the nonsense. I wish we, the developers, could have gotten together and written a letter to Valve that would go something like this:

Dear Valve,

We appreciate your attempts to make the process of submitting to Steam a better one. Even though many of us wish that the selling of games worked a little differently, the truth is that Steam is a very important market for a lot of indies, and can make a huge difference in our lives. But we’re sorry to say that you’ve gone off in the wrong direction. The $100 fee does not cut out the nonsense (at least judging from our experience with other platforms), but it does exclude many of us indies who come from economic backgrounds that simply do not allow them to spend $100 on the mere possibility of being judged by a subset of the Steam community that is generally not very friendly to indie games.

Thus, to make it possible for the cooperation between indies and Steam to continue and to be as pleasant and efficient as possible, please implement the following measures:

  • Hold submissions in a moderation queue.
  • Do not allow game ideas – only actual projects.
  • Require each entry to have a functioning demo.
  • Add better sorting options.
  • Remove the downvote option.
  • Reword descriptions to clarify that Greenlight is about indie games.
  • If necessary, require a nominal fee. Instead of $100, just $5 or even $1 would be enough to deter most trolls. Even a very high fee will not deter those who are delusionally convinced that their game is perfect.
  • (various other suggestions by people with better ideas than myself)

In this way, those of us from non-privileged backgrounds will still be able to participate in the Greenlight process, while a large percentage of unserious submissions will be eliminated.


The Indie Game Development Scene

Wouldn’t that have been nice? Wouldn’t it have been nice if it was obvious to all these people that $100 is a lot of money to some of us? I mean, sure, people aren’t always aware of the ways in which they are privileged, but surely independent developers of all people would get that some of us have very, very low budgets? Surely independent developers, who have chosen to work outside the traditional system, should be those who know best that those with the most money are not always the most deserving? Having had to balance budgets and figure out ways of making games without the resources of a corporation, shouldn’t it be easy for most game developers to imagine that others, with a worse starting situation than their own, could find it impossible to spend this much money on what is essentially a gamble?

No, apparently not.

I have never seen the division of society along lines of economic class show itself so suddenly and so clearly. You’d think things would be a little more complicated than that. It’s bizarre and depressing that they are not.

A disappointingly large number of developers and journalists could not even imagine that some people don’t have this amount of money. I found this genuinely shocking. It’s not that they hadn’t experienced it themselves, but that they could not even conceive of it. That’s a disconnection from reality so fundamental that it is quite frightening. Ever wonder why there aren’t more political games? This is why. Not only are the majority of developers (those who have a voice, anyway) white heterosexual middle-class males from the US or the UK, but a scary amount of them have absolutely no understanding of the existence of anything outside their own experience, and are in fact offended by the very suggestion that anything else exists.

It began with statements like “$100 isn’t that much.” Some even added examples, like having spent $100 at a bar recently – as perfect an illustration of privilege as I can imagine. Then people were saying “if your game can’t earn $100 on its own, you have bigger problems.” Finally it was “if you don’t have $100 to spend, you’re not a real game developer.”

The sheer blindness that can cause people to say these things is staggering. How do you even explain something so fundamental, so obvious?

Some of us are poor. Poor isn’t like when you spent $100 at a bar  last night and you decide to only spend $50 next time you go drinking. Poor isn’t when you can only afford to go to one convention this year instead of three. Poor isn’t when you can’t afford to get the newest iPad because you’ve been investing in your business. Poor is when you don’t know how you’ll pay the rent. Poor is when you stand in the supermarket trying not to have a nervous breakdown because all you can afford is the same shitty pasta you had yesterday and the day before. Poor is when you’ve got crushing debt because your parents never had the money to help you, because they worked their whole lives and got nothing for it.

Poor is when every cent you earn goes to buying you another day under a roof, not to a gamble disguised as an investment. Why don’t we have a hundred dollars from selling ten games? Because we need to live.

It is particularly offensive when this is seen as some kind of insufficient desire to struggle – or even as entitlement. We struggle more than you can imagine just to be here. That we have, despite our poverty, managed to make these games, is a fucking miracle. We started with less than nothing, and we have the entire system sitting on our backs. “Oh, do you think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth?” comes the response. Yes. Yes you were. Compared to some of us, to many of us in fact. And it’s OK, everyone should live like you do, or even better. I don’t want you to feel guilty. But at least be aware of it. Don’t be the guy in the middle who keeps everyone else down so the elites can stay where they are. Or at least don’t be an asshole.

To some people, $100 is not a lot of money. To me and my wife (who works two jobs), it’s a week’s worth of food or more. To others, it’s a month’s wages. Do we have absolutely no understanding of the fact that the internet is a global phenomenon and so is indie game development? Even ignoring the fact that developing games requires a great deal of time and effort, platitudes like “why don’t you get a job to finance your game development” don’t help much in countries where there are no jobs, or jobs pay next to nothing. Hell, have you read the statistics on poverty in the United States? Do you think these people want to be poor? Do you think they deserve to be poor?

Maybe that’s the heart of the argument. People have so internalized the ideological myths of capitalism that they believe the poor deserve to be poor. If you don’t have $100, your game must suck, because if it didn’t, you’d already be rich (despite not having access to not only the biggest market, but also to a major source of legitimacy in the eyes of consumers and critics). More than that, you’re not even a game developer – like Calvinists or Social Darwinists, the entitled are certain that their entitlement means they are the chosen, superior few, and everyone else is doomed anyway.

Platitude followed upon platitude in the debate, in a way that sadly resembled every other similar debate about poverty and class. If you’re unemployed, why don’t you get a job? If your audience isn’t big enough, why don’t you get a bigger audience? If you don’t like being a janitor, why don’t you become a lawyer? Hilariously, some touted the possibility of loans as a solution – the history of capitalism repeating itself as farce.


Anna Anthropy, one of the indie gaming scene’s stars, is no longer a real game developer. Amon26 isn’t a real game developer, either. As for my own The Sea Will Claim Everything (“a must-have”, “delightfully evocative”, “an instant classic”, “made me truly proud of what the medium can accomplish”), it is a bad game, because if I hadn’t submitted to Greenlight before the fee, it wouldn’t be on there. I don’t have $100 to invest. And I’m already in a much, much better situation than people in countries poorer and/or more exploited than Germany.

Do the people who say “you’re not a real game developer” know that poverty is a real thing? That the games they play are often made by people who are quite poor? That the indie scene they see as a pathway to riches was to a large degree created and shaped by people who didn’t have $100?

Forget Greenlight. Forget Valve. Valve is just a company that made a mistake. The question isn’t what Valve is doing, the question is what we are. Is this what indie games are now? A playground for privileged folks who want to pat themselves on the back for being chosen? A space that is not about challenging the mainstream by expanding what is possible (and popular) with games but about reinforcing the mainstream by creating a niche where only what is alternative in a safe and instantly profitable way is supported?

They used to say indie game developers weren’t real game developers. Now they’re saying poor indie game developers aren’t real indie game developers. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Is this how we will be judging not only games, but people from now on? Is the hundred dollar question the new criterion for who gets included? Because if it is, don’t put me on your list.