It’s been common knowledge for quite some time that Valve’s approval system for indie developers wanting to release a game via Steam is an arcane, obscure process, possibly involving divinations using animal entrails and/or throwing darts at an annotated board. Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of high-profile games come, get rejected and go. Even Derek Yu’s IGF award-winner (and already solidly-selling) underwater Metroidvania Aquaria was flatly refused, and only upon repeated attempts did the game get an audience with the king, so to speak. The latest casualty of this seemingly random approach to distribution is Mutant Mudds, a massive critical hit on the 3DS (see that panel of scores above), but apparently not good enough for PC.
So, what can be done? Right now, Valve claim that they’re working of improving their approval process and how they interact with developers, but clearly there’s still some issues. According to Mutant Mudds developer Jools Watsham (via Twitter), the rejection was flat and simple. “Steam is not a good fit for distribution” for the game, allegedly. While there may be some issues in the game coming from a handheld, Mutant Mudds wouldn’t be the first retro-styled platformer on the service by any means, with Cave Story, Eversion, Tobe’s Vertical Adventure and many more sharing virtual shelf-space.
It has been said that getting some positive press for your game is a key part of getting Steam approval, but apparently that’s not enough in this case – the game is currently the 9th highest rated game on the 3DS, according to Metacritic. Admittedly that’s not the greatest praise ever levelled at a game (poor old 3DS), but it’s certainly not to be sniffed at either. Our man-with-many-hats Chris Priestman put together an article not long ago, covering a few key ways to get your game one of those lucrative Steam distribution deals, but it does still seem to be largely up to luck of the draw at the moment.
I’ve heard it suggested that the Steam approval process is largely one of quality control, although that’s a rather questionable statement when you consider that some spectacular shovelware has been approved in the past. One notable example being Bad Rats – an Incredible Machine clone with a non-deterministic physics engine so bad that even the developer’s own solution can fail a dozen times before working. More recently, the only reasonable explanation for the risible Revelations 2012 getting a Steam release is because it uses Valve’s own Source engine.
Of course, it goes without saying that Steam isn’t the be-all and end-all of indie distribution. Far from it. Other major digital distributors like Gamersgate are an option, and GOG.com is branching out more and more into indie gaming. The Humble Store seems to be a good storefront for self-distribution as well (and seems to have solid ties with Valve), and there’s plenty of other options besides. A Steam distribution deal does offer it’s own set of advantages, such as good long-term sales potential and access to promoted deals, which tend to spike sales for much longer than the discount is in play. It remains undeniable that it’s a very good place to be if you’re looking to sell big on a smaller game.
So, what can Mutant Mudds‘ developer do? If past stories are any indication, then persistence is key. Keep applying, and keep spreading the word of the game and the planned PC launch. Interacting with the indie press is always a good start, and trying to get blogs and magazines to cover the story. As for what the indie press can do to change this sad state of affairs, not just for this game but for others? Well, we can make noise, too. Spread the word of such seemingly arbitrary dismissals. Beat the drum and let Valve hear that they’ve still got work to do. I’ve heard it suggested that a possible solution would be hiring a panel of ‘Indie Tsars’, to help pick out the wheat from the almighty pile of chaff that is the weekly submissions. Either way, something clearly still needs to change, so we’ll keep beating this drum until it does.