Greenlight is broken

In case you missed it, this happened. You might be able to see my comment, if it hasn’t already been buried. Since it wasn’t under one of my usual usernames, I’ll post it here.

What. The. Fuck. Steam… you are a pile of trash. You botched Greenlight and now the actual developers putting FUCKING HONEST TO GOD EFFORT into their work now have to try and get through metric tons of bullshit like THIS. Well fucking done. And you know what really gets me? People actually thought Greenlight was too restrictive. Someone at the Penny Arcade Report (yeah, remember when that was a thing?) actually was called out when he said that $100 was a good idea. People thought that was too restrictive! It boggles my mind that no one, either on the internet in general or at Valve could realize how much of a cesspit setting the bar to entry so low could result in. But that’s nothing compared to how staggeringly stupid your refusal to fix this is. Valve, fix your fucking shit.

Valve used to have some quality control. When it was gatekeeping Steam, I’m betting that they, and the lucky few Indies on at the time, made a lot more money on the sales because if you were a smaller game and on Steam, everyone knew that someone at Valve had personally vouched for you.

But Valve realized they couldn’t get every exceptional game on Steam. So they made Greenlight. The first I can remember ever hearing about it was, as I mentioned before, on The Penny Arcade Report. (Seriously, remember that? I barely did.) It was an article, I believe by Ben Kuchera, about how he was apologizing for defending the $100-entrance fee for Greenlight. I don’t remember whether or not being glad he apologized or having concerns about it being so low, but I was intrigued. Around 2012, when Greenlight was announced, I was still mostly only playing Triple-A games. I was curious to see what these unknowns would bring me.

It turns out, for a not insignificant percentage of the time, utter shit. If you go into the Steam Greenlight page, you’ll see Gif titles, badly lit horror games, and the kind of art that makes you think your friend in middle school is so cool but would be laughed out of any professional setting. Oh, and this. At the time of writing, Gabe Clicker (ugh, typing that makes me want to vomit) is on the second page of Greenlight. This isn’t the first time that’s happened, by the way.

Pretty early on, only a fucking year later, we started to see some problems. TotalBiscuit had his his video first impressions of a game taken down. This game called Day One: Gary’s Incident. It went through Greenlight, and in a somewhat suspect manner.

This was not an isolated incident. If you check out Youtuber Jim Sterling’s channel, you will find that his Jimpressions and Early Access Jimpressions playlists are mostly full of the utter crap that comes into and out of Greenlight. Then, there’s his Best of Greenlight Trailers and the unaffiliated Twitter account, GreenLightZ: Gold.

Even more disturbing are how companies like Digital Homicide, digpex games, Killjoy Games, and many more manipulate steam.These developers use vote rigging to get their shitty products on Steam and the moronic idea that developers should monitor their own Steam Community Hubs to suppress criticism.

However, my biggest complaint is Paint Dry Simulator. Not because its a bad game, no. In fact, I actually have respect for how the developer’s true goal: to show how exploitable Steam is. Seriously, read that link. It’s an interesting story of how someone whom I suspect might be a teenager was able to literally get a game with trading cards onto Steam via exploiting a glitch in the system. These are tools that have been around before Greenlight, and I have to wonder if Ruby really was the first to discover this glitch. Still, good on him/her (I don’t know this person’s age or gender) for reporting the glitch to Valve.

Funnily enough, when doing some background reading, I noticed that according to the Wikipedia article, the last it mentioned was that in 2013, Valve wanted to expand on the number of approved games. Also, it had only greenlit a hundred games on their one-year anniversary. Thankfully, they’re slowing down. Yet in total, they’ve apparently approved over four thousand games in the past four years. Greenlight could be great, but its drowning in shit.

I Find Your Lack of Vision Disturbing

NOTE: I am assuming you have watched every Star Wars movie ever. If you haven’t watched them, especially The Force Awakens, do so now. I’ll wait. Also, the reason I am slowly starting to hate The Force Awakens might very well be the reason you love it.

Today, January 24th, 2016, I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the second time. The first time I watched it, I was happy to see it. I believed, at the time, it was a good Star Wars movie… yet something was off. Now, I have a good idea.

Thanks to a certain group (it rhymes with “tamer plate,”) I can already hear everyone drawing battle lines, preparing arguments why Rey is or isn’t a Mary Sue. If it were just that, I could live with it. After all, Star Wars has never had the best character development. Yet what some people dislike about Rey is symptomatic of a bigger problem.

Now, let us do the unthinkable (even if you edge towards the Saint John’s Whippets side of the political spectrum like I do, trust me, it’ll be fun!) and put ourselves in the position of the Tater Laters. When they say “Rey is a Mary Sue,” there are as many definitions as there are people who use the term, rendering it almost meaningless. However, there are three common definitions. The first is a blatant self-insert character. Since JJ Abrams is not a girl from the UK, this definition seems doubtful. The second definition is a character that is unnaturally skilled and/or annoyingly perfect.

If we use this definition, Star Wars has a grand tradition of Mary Sues and their male equivalent, Gary Stus. They’re called the Skywalker family. In Episode One, Anakin had only flow pod-racers, but was somehow able to fly a Naboo figther well enough to destroy the droid control ship and in Episode Four, Luke was again able to fly a craft he was unfamiliar with and destroyed the Death Star. The explanation? Natural piloting skills, controls similar to craft they were familiar with, and that giant handwave known as The Force.

Rey has a similar issue. She’s supernaturally good not only at piloting, but also at repairing things. There are skills she has that we are supposed to infer how she picks up. There are also times when she is an unreasonably fast learner or more than a little lucky. And, honestly, I could forgive it… if she were the only one.

You see, not only are we expected to believe that Rey is instantly able to instantly learn how to pilot any craft and fix any machine, but that Finn can also learn how to shoot two different types of turrets under intense pressure and is able to hold his own with an unfamiliar weapon (Luke and Anakin’s lightsaber) against two experienced opponents (a dark Jedi who has mastered The Force and a weirdly competent storm trooper.) We are also expected that Poe could survive a TIE Fighter crash, trek through Jaaku’s desert surface, obtain a ship, and somehow make it to the Rebel, sorry, Resistance base and delivers his report. Not only that, but he’s able to beat a Jedi with more raw power than Anakin, a highly trained storm trooper and the two best smugglers in the galaxy… all without a scratch.

Again, I could even forgive all of that… if entire factions didn’t do this. Seriously, The Empire, I mean, The First Order have a giant laser beam that can shoot from sectors away and destroy multiple planets at once. It is powered by sucking all the energy from a nearby star and storing it inside a planet. The Resistance is somehow able to tell how it works and guess what its weakness is just by looking at a scan from a single recon mission. Finn is able to tell them where that weakness was located because he happened to have been assigned there. Still, speaking as someone who will defend the prequel trilogy, I could forgive this except for one thing.

Before I tell you that final thing, I want to share with you the third common definition of a Mary Sue: a character that is a black hole. The laws of the movie/book/comic/whatever will bend around this character. This is why people see a Mary Sue as the ultimate of bad writing.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is unique in that the plot bends, tears, and distorts around the desire to re-create the previous films. Every plot beat mimics part of the original movies. First, we have a tall, ominous bad guy with a distorted voice and a creepy mask try and intercept information vital to a group of plucky freedom fighters (A New Hope.) That information gets put in a droid who travels across a desert and runs into our hero (A New Hope.) Our hero meets a dashing, yet cowardly and self-interested stranger who helps her take the droid offworld to the secret freedom fighter base (A New Hope.) Along the way, our hero gets captured by creepy mask dude (think either like Princess Leia in A New Hope or like Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.) Place we’ve never seen before gets wiped out (A New Hope.) Lovable coward decides to save the day, which involves destroying superweapon (A New Hope.) Superweapon is protected by shield which needs to be destroyed. Destruction of shield comes down to the wire. (Return of the Jedi.) Creepy mask dude tries to turn hero and fails (Empire Strikes Back.) Bad guy turns out to be whiny emo douche with daddy issues (literally every scene with Anakin in the Prequels.) He also kills elderly mentor figure (A New Hope.) Film ends on a cliffhanger and a main character heavily injured (Empire Strikes Back.)

Even more damning, for all intents and purposes, it still is the Rebelion versus the Empire. Starkiller Base’s purpose isn’t just to create drama, no. Its entire purpose is to reset the balance of power to how it was in A New Hope. Yet, for some reason, the plot tried to disguise it by changing the name of The Rebel Alliance to The Resistance and the Galactic Empire to The First Order. As a result, the destruction of multiple planets feels hollow and empty.

(By the way, asides from JJ Abrams wanting to make A New Hope again, was there any reason to just have The New Republic simply fight the First Order? Couldn’t we at least pretend things had progressed? Right now, it looks like everything that happened in the Original Trilogy was completely pointless.)

In other words, someone could marathon the original trilogy and get the exact same plot points. Say what you will about the Prequels, at least they were different. They showed you things you had never seen. They made the galaxy feel bigger. More importantly, they didn’t lift character arcs and plot points to create a Frankenstein’s monster of meh.

You see, I’m not a fan of Star Wars because I want to see the same thing over and over. I’m a fan of Star Wars because up until this point its kept showing me new stuff. New vehicles, new technology, new ideas. In fact, I would have to say that the movies pale in comparison to the Expanded Universe. That makes this even harder to swallow because the Expanded Universe (X-Wing Rogue Squadron, Tales of the Jedi, Republic Commando, Dark Empire, Galaxy of Fear, and so much more) was what I grew up on, and even the worst of these usually had something new to offer. This movie, on the other hand, is cannibalizing the past for spare parts.

Of course, that’s just me. If you love The Force Awakens, more power to you. Its got the cool effects and imitates the style of the originals, but with better acting. However, do you really want to spend ten bucks or your regional equivalent for something that’s dedicated to showing you something you’ve already seen?

The State of Web Fiction #1

As a web serial author who also writes a blog that, so far, mostly talks about about web serials, the world of web serials is kind of close to my heart. For me, my introduction was Worm. For others, it was Legion of Nothing or Interviewing Leather or any other of a number web serials.

Being as involved as I am in the web serial world, I would just like to share a few of my thoughts on this. I’m not going to lie, a lot of it is negative. If we want to go mainstream, we’re going to need to make a lot of changes.

The Community

First, the good part. Web Fiction Guide and Top Web Fiction are amazing sources to promote your serial with, there’s no denying that. For just hanging out with authors (and the occasional fan) the WFG Forum is also an amazing place, and /r/webfiction, while still not great, has improved dramatically since I started going there.

Among the authors, we have this amazing DIY work ethic and a Good Samaritan feel to the community. I am proud to be among a group of people who are so energetic, resourceful and giving. From things like April Fools shenanigans, to what looks to be the first WFG Workshop, there is this wonderful sense of community, and I want it to continue.

Now, let’s get to the bad stuff. (Hoooo boy, please don’t get mad.)

A little while back, Lifesharpener made a note about why he or she thought some serials didn’t get reviews. I responded with this:

There’s one thing you got wrong: people actually do read negative reviews. Take, for example, Nerd^3, a gaming personality on YouTube. He has several series called Nerd’s Hell where he plays awful, awful games, such as Sonic ’06 and Grass Simulator. Now, you might say, “Well, that’s the one people complain about the most, so that proves my point.” However, according to Nerd^3, that’s the series that gets the most views, and consequently, makes the most money. This pattern also repeats for other internet personalities so much that they almost always review complete and utter crap. Jim Sterling, The Nostalgia Critic, Linkara,… I’m willing to bet that you’ve heard of at least one of these people.

However, it does prove very few of them like having to wade through something the devil pooped out. It is not fun to sit through Jason Derulo’s Wiggle until your ears bleed and you start losing IQ points. But Todd in the Shadows does it because he knows he’ll get a paycheck. However, I suppose he isn’t writing music. When we review another person’s story, we know we’ll probably meet that person in the WFG forums at some point, and we’re all friends so we’re worried about offending someone.

Therefore, what we need is either more people who aren’t authors or someone like Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation, who literally does not care what you think of him.

In this, we should note one sentence:  When we review another person’s story, we know we’ll probably meet that person in the WFG forums at some point, and we’re all friends so we’re worried about offending someone. Think about that for a second. Now consider that this has made me worry about giving out three-star ratings. Then we have this. While I love Worm, if Michelle feels like its overrated, she should be able to say so.

However, she feels like she can’t because Wildbow will see it or (even more disturbingly) she fears that because of giving a bad review, her own work will get reviewed harshly. The only reason her review should cause a backlash is if the review itself was shit.

And now, let us talk about review swaps. Yes, I have been involved in a review swap. In exchange for reviewing Interviewing Leather, BillyHiggins would review Nowhere Island University. It would be foolish to deny this, the evidence is right here. However, this fact was not properly disclosed in the reviews themselves. Any fan of web serials would rightly be disturbed by this practice.

The thing is, review swaps aren’t completely evil. All it takes is a simple message in brackets like [Disclaimer: this is a review swap with BillyHiggins] and it becomes passably moral. It still is a bit of a gray area, as we have become further inclined to give a positive review. It still reduces the risk of scandal and helps the reader of a review judge the serial better.

[Edit: I am not saying that review swaps are inherently evil, and the one I mentioned was actually one of the better ones. I’m just worried that this might get out of hand if we don’t check ourselves. Also, BillyHiggins, you’re cool and I like you.]

Flying Blind

The thing about making a web serial is that we rely on stats and comments to determine how well our serial is doing. The problem with that is due to the number of bots out on the internet, we have no clear picture if the stats are accurate. Also, most of us don’t get comments, so we have no clue what people think about our work. To further complicate matters, we rarely get to compare numbers with other authors.

Luckily, recently I have been given access to a treasure trove of raw data. Now, a few of you might know that I did an interview with Wildbow recently. What you might not know is that I posted it on /r/Parahumans to generate publicity. Not only did I get that, but I also got a snapshot of Wildbow’s readership.

Now, for Nowhere Island University, stats stayed pretty much unchanged. In fact, there was a slight drop in views that day. Note that only one visitor came from my blog.

NIU's stats. We're looking at July 2nd, the day highlighted in orange.
NIU’s stats. We’re looking at July 2nd, the day highlighted in orange.

Appart from the fact that Singapore is in second place (normally its Britain or Canada,)  Now, let’s see how well my blog did that day.

My blog, Wildbow's fans. Instead of noticing the differences of magnitude, let's focus on the similarities in kind.
My blog, Wildbow’s fans. Instead of noticing the differences of magnitude, let’s focus on the similarities in kind.

Now, if this is representative of Wildbow’s fanbase, there are some similarities. For instance, the top four countries are all English-speaking. Again, America is an order of magnitude higher than the next three most prolific countries combined. Then Tempest posted data from his site.

Temepest's data. I'm not sure of the time frame, and it would be nice to get referrers.
Temepest’s visitors by country. Note the amount of people from the US as opposed to from, well, anywhere else.

The top 25% of Tempest’s referrer sites. Note where the hits come from.

Already, we get some useful information. The time period is different (a year versus a day,) but we get some very useful information. Again, the US, the UK, Austrailia and Canada take the top spots with America generating around sixty-five thousand more views than the next-highest. America, fuck yeah indeed.

We also see that he’s also getting a more healthy set of referrers. While TWF and WFG are still generating his top amount of hits, Tempest seems to be benefiting from a social media presence. Ideally, though, more people would have been referred through Reddit, Batot or TV Tropes. That is good for the community because you’ve brought in new readers who might then go on to read other stories and good for Tempest as these new readers aren’t splitting their attention between two or more serials. The more varied your sources of viewers, the better.

In the same thread, Patrick Rochefort posted some very useful information:

I track my statistics pretty closely, but I also weight them monthly. I’ve done in a past career-life, market research statistical analysis, and in the land of webserials, you can pretty safely throw out anything more granular than weekly unless you’re doing something special like an advertising campaign or promotion.

For certain, there’s nothing quite like front-page exposure on WFG to get you a big spike.

WordPress gives you some useful stats too. A few I recommend paying special attention to:

1. Your conversion rate going from your first chapter to your second. That tells you how many people are washing out of your story before or at the end of chapter 1.

2. Your conversion rate going from second chapter to third, and then third to fourth. These, to lesser degrees, are your indicators of people who are going to go on reading. Some folks might give you more than one chapter to make that impression, but most will wash out in the first entry.

3. Views per visitor. That’s a good indication both of spiders crawling your site (common) and binge readers (also common).

4. Direct hits on whatever your latest chapter is. This tells you how many folks are actively *reading* your webserial, post-to-post, and hanging on your next chapter.

USA will represent the majority of your readership. Combination of english language fluency, literacy, internet pervasiveness, and leisure time. Canada will present at similar levels but scaled down to the population. England and Ireland to the same dwindling tails. If I take the month of June for example, about 45% of my unique visitors were American, 10% Canadian, 10% United Kingdom, 8% Australia. So that’s just shy of 75% of my readership right there.

Demographics are a sore point for me right now, as I haven’t been able to source any firm demographic data. And I’d like to know my audience. Extrapolating from other online media sources: Chances are very good over 70% of your readership is a white person between the ages of 18 and 25. Your genre will strongly skew the gender ratio of your audience. Your average webfiction reader is probably a college kid reading when they should be studying. The majority will be full-time students, with another large demographic chunk being full-time employed at a junior level.

(If anyone can source firmer figures on reader demographics, I will give you a slice of chocolate cake*.)
(*: lies)

Particularly of use is the idea of conversions. How many people go from chapter one to chapter two, how many go from chapter two to chapter three, etc, etc. This technique is honestly very helpful, as it tells you what the fucking numbers mean.

The next problem I have with Tempest’s data is that it doesn’t show referrers. Which brings us nicely to my next point…

Marketing and Publicity

Ok, I love Chris Poirier, Web Fiction Guide and Top Web Fiction. However, I’ve been writing NIU since February, and as of now Top Web Fiction has given NIU 582 hits and Web Fiction Guide has given me 281 hits. In one day, due to placing the right link in the right sub, Reddit was able to give this blog six hundred and forty-six hits in a single day. Think about that for a minute.

Another thing about this is if you look at the various people who frequent /r/Parahumans, you will find that very few of them came to Wildbow’s stories via WFG or TWF. They discovered them through Let’s Reads, interesting fan art, TV Tropes, or other subreddits. Hell, a while back, Tartra noted how her TV Tropes page was starting to refer more readers.

My conclusion? WFG is amazing for a fledgling serialist. It is low-effort to submit a serial, and the gains, as Chris suggested in his interview with me, are too great to pass up. However, these gains are only attractive because they take so little effort to achieve.

TV Tropes and Reddit, on the other hand, have the tendency to snowball. All it takes is for one other person besides the author to decide to talk about a serial, and all of a sudden it seems like everyone is talking about it. The badass character is suddenly fighting The Punisher on /r/WhoWouldWin. Quotes and trope examples are popping up all over TV Tropes. Spacebattles suddenly can’t shut up about it.

The problem is, that one guy doesn’t exist until hours, possibly years, of work later. You have to be on the social media of your choice every day until your work clicks with someone. Then you have to keep doing it until you realize that your efforts would be better served managing your community.

What we need is people like TotalBiscuit or Angry Joe. People who make money off of promoting our work. The thing is, the infrastructure is already in place. Currently, there are many people who write about literature, just waiting to stumble upon our scene. The problem is, we don’t know how to contact them and they don’t know we exist. To do that, one of our workshops should focus on how to get literary talking heads to read our books or something.

Preserving our History

As an amateur historian, I’m disturbed at how little information we have on our past. For example, this Reddit thread turned into a historical goldmine. Before I saw it, I had no clue that there was a time people were using less than virtuous methods to get votes on TWF and there was a period when everyone was writing about magic schools.

I’ve also heard stories of another author (this was before my time, and maybe before Wildbow’s as well) who got big. She did so by advertising on the Penny Arcade forums. After a while, it turned out she was developing too many projects at once, then her health took a turn for the worse. The result was a web serial crash.

The thing that disturbs my inner historian is not that they happened, but how I heard about it. Instead of finding articles about them, I found comments in forums that had nothing to do with web serial history. This means that our history is kept by a digitized version of oral history, passed down from one author to the next, with fans almost never hearing about it because they’re fans of the individual work, not the form.

This means that our history is easily lost. The bare minimum is very simple: archive the monthly results of TWF. We should be able to go back and see what the top serial of… let’s say, May 2011 was. (For those of you who don’t know, May 2011 is the moth before the first chapter of Worm was posted. It wouldn’t become a hit until seven months later.) Similar features for WFG proper would be nice as well. It would be nice to see what was introduced when.

However, ideally, more people would put out more articles like this. I kind of already volunteered (God help me) but if this blog ends up going kaput for some reason, I’d like there to be other people who’ll carry on this work. Also, if there are more people out there working on this, I’d like them to be able to call bullshit if I mess up. For instance, I’m worried that this is the first time anyone’s talked about preserving our history. Can someone please prove me wrong?

Accessibility

In 2014, I discovered Worm. Like Patrick said earlier, I was a kid in college who should have been studying. But who the fuck cared? College was awful and Worm was wonderful. I would spend all the time I could reading it. Eventually, due to the fact that it remembered where I was, I switched from my laptop to my iTouch. This had the advantage of allowing me to read everywhere I went. Suddenly, I was in fourth grade again, reading while the teacher was talking.

However, this did not allow me to read Worm on the bus between campuses. If I timed it right, I could read a section while listening to my music. If I timed it wrong, that was just one less barrier between a happy journey and being driven insane by bro country.

Other people have this problem as well. One person on Reddit I talked to goes to work by train every morning. For most of the ride, there is no internet access. At least there are some ways to get around this, such as saving the chapter to your device or apps like this. However, we will always be limited to people with net access.

The Future

As a community, our future is very fragile. Is this our golden age, or are we still struggling out of the primordial ooze? Will we blossom into something that traditional press and self-publishing houses will have to take seriously, or will we get swept up into the dustbin of history? Or will we just continue scraping by?

In my opinion, at the moment it could still go any of those three ways, but it is slowly moving towards the good one with choclate cake for everyone. Why do I think this? Because as time goes on, more people in Top Web Fiction are getting votes in the hundreds. As time goes on, we’re getting authors who are both talented writers and talented marketers. If we get more people like Jim Zoetewey, Wildbow, Unililustrated, and Drew Hayes, and if they direct more traffic to WFG, then we all benefit.

So those are my two thousand six hundred plus words on the subject. Hope you agree, or at least got to thinking.