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.

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  1. uriele

     /  September 11, 2012

    I think THIS could help the discussion: Steam have already selected the game who had gain the attention of the community (Project Zomboid had 35% of the required votes); all the game that couldn’t get at least 5% of the required votes are not considered. And… apparently it’s not a lottery:

    1)Project Zomboid is a moddable open world game with infinite replayability who has been out for a bit and has a consistent fanbase

    2) Black Mesa is one of the most awaited remake ever

    3) Kenshi and Town are open world/sandbox game with a virtually infinite replayability

    4)McPixel has been sponsored by piratebay, and the author himself has put the torrent online to have more visibility/votes. It’s a smart idea: release a pirate copy yourself is the best way to let other people play your game.

    And it’s also interesting to note that all the generic FPS receive less than 200-4000 votes (0%-2%). Why? Because you need lots of money and resources to make a FPS that has mechanics and IAs and covers as good as any of the AAA generic shooters around

  2. James Patton

     /  September 11, 2012


    Although I disagree with you on this issue, I do think you make a number of good points. If making indie games is your sole source of income it makes sense to try to make a decent living out of that, ie. run it as a business.

    But I just think that it *makes sense* to do things this way; I don’t think that, as some have suggested, *not* doing things this way *necessarily excludes you from being an indie dev*.

    Imagine a developer who works alone, who has taught himself how to make games for free via the internet, whose computer and software packages were birthday presents from a few years ago or given to him by friends who upgraded their machines and knew he needed a new one. He sits at home making flash games for a living and sells them to places like JayIsGames and Newgrounds and just about makes enough money to buy food and pay rent, maybe he makes a little profit sometimes, but he seldom has $50 or $100 to spare.

    But he makes this one incredible game which is brilliant and compelling and people will love it. For the sake of argument, let’s not just say that *he* knows this, but that this is objectively true: that if this game gets on Steam it will reach hundreds of thousands of people and will enrich the world of gaming forever.

    And he doesn’t have $100. He’s sort of been running his game-creation as a business because he needs money to eat, but he’s not been head-over-heels successful money-wise.

    My point is, he is definitely an indie dev. Maybe he’s not a very profitable one, but he is still an indie dev, because he’s made games and he just made an amazing game. While Shakespeare was writing his sonnets and epics he was still a poet, even though they hadn’t been published and apparaised yet.

    And the game should be judged on its own merits. There should definitely be some kind of filter to stop all submissions getting through; we’re all agreed there. But I like Jonas’ suggestion of a nominal fee with moderation much more than this $100 system, because it means that Steam get to peruse all the potential indie games of the internet (so they don’t miss any from poorer devs) and it doesn’t exclude anyone.

    People are absolutely right when they say it’s Steam’s prerogative to charge a fee on what is essentially an unlikely gamble, but literary agents and book publishers are just as free to charge a fee. The ones that do are labelled as exploitative charlatans and frauds and, given that indie devs are often the people most in need of $100, I am beginning to think that the current Greenlight system isn’t much better.

  3. @Martin Pilkington:

    I would love to expand on this, but am for too busy. Sorry. Here’s my final answer on the subject, which admittedly doesn’t have much to do with the overall discussion.

    You said:

    So say in theory I had 3 people who worked for me, but were contractors (who were self employed) and not employees. Would that not make me a capitalist? Is the distinction between capitalist and, well… not capitalist, a case of me actually employing one of those people rather than contracting them.

    Now, odd as that may sound to you, living in a capitalist society doesn’t make one capitalist. Capitalists, in the economic/scientific sense, are a tiny minority in our capitalist world. They are the people that actually control the means of production, employ workers and, well, more.

    Now, at the moment you were employing people you were indeed acting like a capitalist. A small, insignificant one perhaps, but a capitalist nonetheless.

    As soon as you stopped employing people, you stopped being one (provided of course you don’t own huge stock portfolios or acres of land etc). It really is that simple.

    The rest, you can read. This is not some sort of mystical knowledge.


  4. @Martin:

    We can make this really simple by quoting Wiktionary:

    capitalist (plural capitalists)

    1. A person who is a supporter of capitalism.
    2. An owner of (considerable amount of) capital.

    Thus “capitalist” refers either to people supporting a certain economic system, or to a certain class of people within that system. The act of selling a product does not turn one into a capitalist, much like being forced to live in a kingdom does not make one a monarchist, even if one obeys the king’s laws for reasons of survival.

  5. Jerbearxi

     /  September 12, 2012

    All I hear is that you’re too poor to afford 100 dollars. People aren’t downvoting games because they aren’t Call of Duty, we’re tired because this niche of “inde developers” are releasing shitty, “retro shit” in an already stagnant industry. Indie games were an escape from that stagnation, but now all indie developers are releasing are clones of “good games” with almost no originality. How many more Super Mario, Infiminer, or 8bit “so retro” games did you guys think we could take?

    The big difference it, no matter how much we don’t buy Call of Duty or Madden, it continues to get made. At least we can be the gate keepers in keeping people who aren’t cut out from the industry out by not only keeping them from making their terrible products, but also keep them down.

    If you’re a professional game designer and have made games in the past, and cannot afford 100 dollars, I’d say it’s time to re-evaluate your profession and your life.

  6. @Jerbearxi:

    The sad thing is that people like you refuse to even attempt to understand what others are talking about, completely missing the wealth of complex arguments that has been posted.

    The funny thing is how coming in and posting clichés that are nearly identical to the ones posted and taken apart previously makes you look like a complete idiot.

    I guess the world is an odd place.

  7. Dear Jonas,

    you raise a lot of good and logical points, but I have to disagree with the notion that the $100 fee is a barrier to any serious developer. Using sites like indiegogo and kickstarter to upload up a demo and ask for donations would cover that expense really fast. Also, a lot of indies have offered to pay that fee for devs that cannot afford it – all they ask is proof that you’re serious about the game you’re creating. Hell, hit me up on twitter and I’ll share a link to your game and donate what I can.

    I understand that $100 can be out of the question for some people (I’ve myself lived on the “pasta, pasta and more pasta” diet for quite a while), but the indie scene is always ready to help.

    Best of luck,

  8. Lucas

     /  September 12, 2012

    ” The funny thing is how coming in and posting clichés that are nearly identical to the ones posted and taken apart previously makes you look like a complete idiot.”

    [Citation Needed]

    I’ve been reading this for a while and I would not say that any arguments have been dismantled at all.

  9. Lucas, you are extremely irritating and not really contributing anything to this discussion. I think I will classify you as a troll now, as I probably should have done a while go. So please go away.

  10. Lucas

     /  September 12, 2012

    Really, asking you to back up your point that you’ve dismantled that argument is trolling? Obviously this discussion is quite long so most people are going to jump in without reading it all. This is a good chance for you to summarize it coherently on a page where people will see it instead of just calling it a “clicked” argument. (You keep on using that word. I’m not sure you know what it means )

  11. Lucas

     /  September 12, 2012

    Cliched. Lousy phone autocorrect

  12. Really, asking you to back up your point that you’ve dismantled that argument is trolling?

    At this point, yes.

    Obviously this discussion is quite long so most people are going to jump in without reading it all. This is a good chance for you to summarize it coherently

    If people aren’t willing to read, they’re not willing to read. Most of the comments obviously come from people who’ve barely bothered to look at the original post. It’s not my job to do their thinking for them.

    (You keep on using that word. I’m not sure you know what it means )

    I think it means you’re aggressive, condescending and have contributed just about nothing to this discussion, and future posts by you will be deleted.

  13. In fact, this is as good a point as any to close the comments. I think most of the things that needed saying have been said.

    “When I tell any Truth it is not for the sake of Convincing those who do not know it but for the sake of defending those who Do” – William Blake

    “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx