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Revisiting Greenlight

Gamasutra talked to a variety of developers -- some with games on Greenlight, others whose games have been through the Greenlight process and are now on Steam -- to get their thoughts on where Greenlight is now.

When Steam Greenlight was launched in August 2012, developers had numerous concerns with the platform.

Valve's idea was simple: Since the company was finding it difficult to keep up with the influx of games being submitted for the Steam platform, Valve decided to let its players decide what should come through the gates.

Steam users are now able to look through the Greenlight catalogue, and vote for any games that they think should be available via Steam. If a game receives enough votes, it will rise to the top of the pile, and be accepted by Valve.

There's still other ways you can get onto Steam -- via a publisher; via a prior relationship with Valve; being so notable that Valve comes to you instead of you coming to it -- but for 99 percent of developers, Greenlight is now the only way in.

Since the launch of Greenlight a good 15 months ago, those issues that developers originally had haven't exactly disappeared. While Valve appears to be pushing games through a lot quicker now, the same old problems remain.

Gamasutra talked to a variety of developers -- some with games on Greenlight, others whose games have been through the Greenlight process and are now on Steam -- to get their thoughts on where Greenlight is now.

The following Q&A piece has been split up in such a way that each question will be followed by answers from those developers who are still looking to get Greenlighted, and answers from those who have been Greenlighted immediately afterwards. This is so that it is easier to compare and contrast answers from the two groups of developers.

How long has your game been/was your game on Greenlight? Do you feel like it is/was taking a fair amount of time to push through the system, or has it been tough going to get through?

Developers hoping to be Greenlighted

Ryan Creighton, Untold Entertainment (Spellirium): Spellirium was posted to Greenlight in April 2013, around the time we launched an independent crowdfunding campaign to raise support for the title. I really don't see it as a matter of "pushing Spellirium through the system," because I don't see any hope for the game making it through the system.

There are a great many games currently on Steam which, if they were made to run the Greenlight gauntlet, would likely never be approved. Bookworm Adventures, Spellirium's closest kissing cousin, comes to mind -- and most of the minor entries in the PopCap library like Venice and Big Money! Deluxe wouldn't stand a snowball's chance on Greenlight.

Just as I'd like to see a lot of motorists re-tested to see if they could actually earn their driver's licenses again, I'd love to see certain games pulled off Steam and run through Greenlight to gauge audience response.

It just goes to show that, while it's greatly reduced the workload of the game approval committee at Valve, Greenlight is not exactly a tastemaker when it comes to choosing good titles for the service. If you take a look at the list of greenlit titles, it's clear that 3D games dominate, shooters dominate. If all our films were chosen by committee in the same way, every movie would be an Avengers sequel, and pornographic to boot.

Ian MacLarty (Boson X): Boson X has been on Greenlight since 18 October, so not that long. We've got 4237 yes votes out of 11684 unique visitors with 250 favorites and are "39 percent of the way to the top 100." We reached 3000 yes votes fairly quickly, but now we're only getting around 100 yes votes a day. These stats are fairly meaningless though as Valve don't choose games based solely on their Greenlight rank.

I think our case is somewhat unusual, as we hadn't originally planned to go on Greenlight. The plan was always to use the free PC version to create awareness of the game before the iOS launch. It was only after a Rage Quit video of Boson X generated a large spike in visits to our website that we decided to submit to Greenlight. It just seemed that not submitting would be squandering a good opportunity.

We're adopting a wait-and-see approach to Greenlight. If we get on Steam then awesome, if we don't it's not a big deal -- the iOS version is doing reasonably well and we're preparing to launch the Android version soon. We're not going to expend a huge amount of effort on Greenlight, because there's just too much uncertainty. Of course if we are Greenlit we'll be putting a lot of effort into ensuring the Steam version of Boson X is worth the asking price.

Boson X

Ashton Raze, Owl Cave Games (Richard and Alice): Our game's been on Greenlight since the service launched, back when it didn't even cost money to get on. We're 68 percent of the way there now, which, yeah, is taking a fair while.

A lot of existing players are pretty keen to see it on Steam, but I think to an extent the game's a little bit of a hard sell if you haven't already played it. Most people who have seem to love it though! I'd like to see it on there, because obviously it'd be great to reach more people.

Antonio Iglesias, Kraken Empire (Kromaia): Our game has been on Greenlight for 32 days. It takes a long time -- too long sometimes. Some friends of ours finished their game, a pretty good game, and tried to get through Greenlight to sell on Steam. It took them almost a year to get greenlit with an already finished and interesting game.

That is why we decided to enter Greenlight as soon as we had something interesting to show and play -- it seems better to get on Greenlight some time in advance than on final release.

[Note: The following answers from Colin Walsh were given to Gamasutra just hours before his game Drifter was Greenlit – hence, Walsh's answers are from the perspective of a developer looking to get his game through the Greenlight process.]

Colin Walsh, Celsius Game Studios (Drifter): As of writing this, Drifter has been on Greenlight for 154 days. It feels like it's been quite a lot of time, and compared to getting on to other similar storefronts perhaps it is -- but I realize this is far shorter than many other titles that have been through or are currently still on Greenlight.

Also, since they started approving larger batches of games more frequently it feels like things have sped up a fair bit. So before that point, I'd have said the process definitely felt more difficult than it does currently.


Developers who have recently been Greenlighted

David and Kyle Pittman, Minor Key Games (Eldritch): I've got mixed feelings about Greenlight despite our recent success, so I'll try to articulate those thoughts clearly. I uploaded Eldritch to Greenlight on September 9, and it was selected just over three weeks later on October 2.

The Greenlight selection process is opaque, sometimes frustratingly so. When Eldritch was selected as one of 32 titles in the October 2 batch, it was not actually among the top 32 ranked games. (I believe it was #48, but I have no way to verify this anymore.)

I can hypothesize about why it was selected despite its ranking -- the amount of press we received, our background in triple-A games, and the fact that Eldritch was a finished game approaching its release date may all have been factors -- but the truth is, I don't know. It was good for us that Eldritch was selected, but that also means some higher-ranked games were passed over with no explanation.

More frustrating is that some indie games apparently continue to bypass Greenlight despite Valve's insistence that Greenlight is the only process.

Brad Carney, Final Boss Entertainment (Wrack): We were on Greenlight for a little over a year (mid-September 2012 to mid-October 2013). For a long time, we just weren't getting any traction. Typically, with each batch we'd lose ground because more games would leapfrog us than where Greenlit.

We knew we had to do something, and that's when we pretty much shut everything down publicly and geared up for a large publicity push with a hugely updated version of Wrack -- hoping that would put us over the top.

But then everything changed. Valve started Greenlighting far more games than it had been -- starting with the massive batch of 100. Our publicity push was no longer necessary, and we were Greenlit shortly thereafter. I really thought it would (and perhaps should) have taken the publicity push to put us over the top, but was pleasantly surprised that it didn't.

Kevin Cerda, BeautiFun Games (Nihilumbra): It was absolutely tough. We entered Greenlight almost at the same time it was created, which means that we've been there for one year, and it seemed impossible to get ourselves greenlit. Luckily, Steam started approving hundreds of games and the necessary amount of votes to climb in the ranks started to drop.

During this year we did everything we could to get on Steam, but it's really hard to win a popularity contest like that if you are trying to sell your first game. You need to build a community out of nowhere just to be able to sell your game and that can take a lot of time and work.

Pietro Righi Riva, Santa Ragione (Fotonica): Fotonica had been on Greenlight a little less than a year when it was greenlit last month. It was definitely tough, although after the initial posting and updates we didn't actively promote it.

I think Greenlight has changed a lot since then (I think when we set up Fotonica Greenlight had only been around for a couple of months), and if we were to put the game on now, with the more generous Greenlight batches and in the light of our latest release, MirrorMoon EP, it would take much less time. 

Fotonica

Giorgio Ciapponi, Playstos Entertainment (Real World Racing): Real World Racing had been on the platform for 14 months, all the way from a couple of weeks after Greenlight's debut.

That was definitely too long. While our game was already in playable and evaluable state back then, as the time went by we managed to get out and update a demo a couple of times, transitioning to beta, set up our own online play servers, secure publishing on several digital delivery platforms and launch the actual game. Each of these steps would have been different if we knew Real World Racing would eventually be released on Steam.

I can't see many reasons behind such a long wait, which could have been assessed by a Valve internal review of our game. I understand the rationale behind Greenlight: see if there is enough public interest in a game to warrant an internal review in the first place. This however doesn't take into account two important matters:

  • The target audience for the game, which has higher chances of succeeding Greenlight if it matches Greenlight's own audience and arguably doesn't relate to projected sales or even the quality and value of the game itself.
  • How far the game is in its development: Games in early stages are more difficult to evaluate and may not be completed for a very long time, overshadowing titles nearing completion, or even already released.

While we are obviously more than happy having succeeded our own Greenlight campaign, all in all we can't say our experience has been positive or fair, and we can't see how this can be considered working well for any of the parties involved. It would be interesting for Valve to reveal some hard data on how well greenlit games are faring once on the store and how sales correlates to their prior Greenlight performance.

Davioware (TowerClimb): TowerClimb was on Greenlight a year and two months. I put it up as soon as Greenlight started, so the initial rush helped out a lot with visibility. Now, with so many games on there, it's a bit tougher to get visibility without outside advertising. I feel the time was lengthy, but I didn't advertise as much as the games which were accepted earlier, so that's to be expected. 


What do you think are the most important points that a developer can do to get through Greenlight more quickly? What have you been focusing on that appears to push you through the system? 

Developers hoping to be Greenlighted

Ryan Creighton: I haven't devoted all my energy to Greenlight, because my focus has been on the crowdfunding campaign. I think that the closer Spellirium gets to completion - namely with its music and voiceover intact -- the more likely it is to be greenlit. I have a nagging feeling I put it on the service too early, and that now I'll have to dig out of a 3/4 "no" vote situation because the game was too incomplete to impress people in April.

Ian MacLarty: I'm really not sure. I do regret not submitting Boson X earlier as I'm sure we'd be a bit further along by now if I had. So there's that.

Ashton Raze: Honestly, I think genre is a big thing, which isn't very helpful for a lot of devs. Certain types of games seem to have an easier time than others, as well as games with certain visual styles.

If you're trying to Greenlight a game that isn't playable yet, you need a very strong visual style or a very strong hook. For us, publicity spikes are what gets us boost in Greenlight votes. The game's been out and finished for over six months, so there's not much we can do to the actual game at this point. Publicity is obviously super helpful for anyone trying to get through, too. You need people finding your Greenlight link outside of Steam.

Antonio Iglesias: We started using Greenlight quite recently and it is still difficult to see the big picture. From our prespective the initial push seems really important. We would recommend entering Greenlight when you are ready to show something people will want to play. From then you will need to get some coverage (Steam groups, press, YouTube...) to get people landing on your Greenlight page.

A good video is probably the first thing I would point at. Unsurprisingly, any kind of eye candy seems to work pretty good when looking for votes and favorites, Try to select appealing screenshots and gifs to attract eyes.

Colin Walsh: Most important is to have some way of reaching enough people to vote on your game. You can't rely on anyone but yourself to promote your Greenlight page and make sure you get the votes you need to get through. Thankfully Drifter had a pre-existing audience through its Kickstarter and my own social media efforts which helped get us started, but I've found that getting the game in front of prominent YouTube/Twitch personalities has helped give the game a needed boost.

So my advice for others is to make sure your game is at a point of development where it looks good and you're comfortable sending a build that's intended to be shown to an audience. The more people personally vouching for your game and telling others about it, the better.

Drifter

Developers who have recently been Greenlighted

David Pittman: I believe three things contributed to our rapid selection. First and foremost, we were presenting a game in a nearly complete state, so readers could meaningfully evaluate what was shown. Second, we timed our Greenlight campaign to coincide with our first wave of press coverage, so initial excitement about the game converted directly into upvotes. Finally, we were pitching a first-person action game with a fairly broad appeal.

Brad Carney: There are definitely some things we could have done that would have helped, and planned to do had we remained on there longer. The first is to have really good cover art. What we had been using was basically a five minute Photoshop job of some art assets, and you could see in the metrics how it was hurting us.

Many of our ratios were very good (upvotes:downvotes, unique views:favorites, etc.), but the amount of views we were getting were terrible. If people are browsing hundreds of games on Greenlight, and your game doesn't immediately look appealing to them, they're not going to investigate further.

Another is to do whatever you can to get a major round of publicity. Greenlight is something where you still need thousands, if not tens of thousands, of votes to get through. Even if you have a sizeable following for the type of game that's on Greenlight and not already on Steam (say, 1000 people), you still need a LOT of external help to get the amount of votes you need to pass through. Whether it's releasing a highly polished beta or major new update with a trailer or whatever, you've got to do something that will earn your game some media attention.

Finally (and I think this goes without saying), make a great game. The cream will rise to the top. I think a lot of people are getting fatigued with Greenlight and just want to see some more high-quality games coming through there. The fact that people are starving for quality gives you an opportunity to rise through the ranks quickly.

Kevin Cerda: Being in touch with the people who are interested in your game is vital. You need to talk with them, using social networks or creating your own forum, but you also need to expand your community and that's not easy. Sending press notes, writing articles, answering interviews, contacting YouTubers... all this is a huge amount of work and, sadly, it takes a lot of your usual development time. You need to have someone working on this all the time, or be ready to face the consequences of leaving your normal job aside.


There's also a really helpful strategy that we found out not too long ago. You can create a contest in Steamgifts giving away a nice game that everyone would want, and ask for votes in return. Like this. Obviously you can't force people to vote for you, but in our case we noticed a really big boost because of this.

Pietro Righi Riva: I honestly have no idea. I think for us it helped a lot to have an animated gif the day that the game went up, because Fotonica is really a game that you have to see in motion. Although... at the time not many people were doing it, the gif thing, so I guess it is not very useful advice.

It helped that when we launched our campaign we did a Pay What You Want sale on indiegamestand.com, promising (or rather, hoping) to distribute Steam keys if we ever got Greenlit. That drove a lot of traffic and immediately pushed us to "80 percent to the top 100" (weirdly enough that's how Valve phrases your progress on Steam Greenlight), where we waited for a long while.

After that, we kept receiving 30/40 yes votes per day, and that kept our average steady until Valve started to accept bigger batches. I think it's crucial to have your Greenlight link in anything you do (press releases, features, blog posts, interviews, etc).

Giorgio Ciapponi: To get in the top places on Greenlight, what really matters is raw exposure to people able and willing to vote on Greenlight, in any form. This is probably mostly getting the gaming press to talk about you, unless you already have an established community around your studio or game.

We didn't have much luck with any of that, mostly because of our own inexperience in dealing with the press, and the niche genre our game is relegated to these days.
We had a couple of peaks coinciding with press exposure early on, but for the most part it's been a slow crawl with just a handful of votes per day, actually gaining positions only when a new batch of greenlit games was announced.

Davioware: Most of the advertising for my Greenlight campaign came from YouTube videos and Let's Plays or livestreams of the game, as well as articles on gaming sites. Many people seemed to think the game had potential, and went out on their own to write articles promoting it on Greenlight.

I just let the game speak for itself, didn't ask anyone to write articles, and slowly but surely the votes kept climbing until TowerClimb was a high enough rank to be accepted. The best thing you can do for your game is to get featured by popular YouTube channels, or get an article featured on popular gaming sites. Pretty obvious stuff. The more publicity, the more votes. Having a good trailer is essential, since those two minutes need to sell the entire premise and soul of your game.

In light of your experience with Greenlight, and watching how it has evolved over the last year, do you think it is a good step for Steam, or do you think that Valve should be looking at other ways to approve games for Steam?

Developers hoping to be Greenlighted

Ryan Creighton: I hope that Valve continues to meet indies one-on-one to find out about the sleepers and the diamonds in the rough. Spellirium showed well at PAX this year and found its audience.  Those who like the game like it a lot -- they just may not be the people who sift through submissions on Greenlight.  It's like any Ipsos-Reid poll you hear about.  They'll say "40 percent of people believe this", when really, you're getting the opinions of 40 percent of people who answer surveys.

Spellirium

Ian MacLarty: I don't think Greenlight in its current form is a good system for developers. There's just way too much uncertainty. You don't know when or if your game will be Greenlit. I feel for developers that are totally dependent on getting through Greenlight. I really don't think I could face the uncertainty. It might be better if there were more regular and predictable approvals.

Ashton Raze: I think it has potential. I think there are a lot of ways it could be improved, too. Maybe a combination of an approval team and Greenlight could work. Or separate sections for finished games and unreleased games.

Antonio Iglesias: I think Greenlight was an interesting move by Valve, but a bit risky. It is not the best way to approve games for Steam, but I believe it is still an improvement over the previous process of sending an e-mail and never receiving an answer. I am sure Valve is already looking for other ways, but improving Greenlight is possible and could get it closer to an acceptable approval tool.

Colin Walsh: I think as long as Valve continues to take steps to improve the Greenlight process it will be beneficial, and assuming that they're actually accepting more games over time now than before Greenlight existed, it's probably already been a net gain overall.

I do feel that they could benefit from expanding their approvals team to help streamline the approvals process, with Greenlight acting as a recommendation system but maybe allow for otherwise deserving games that might get passed over by Greenlight for whatever reason to still have a chance to get accepted.

That said, I don't think they'll please everyone unless they open up the storefront completely like the App Store or Google Play -- but that has its own challenges that I think they want to avoid, because having a curated storefront is very valuable for Valve, for its customers, and for the developers who are already there.

Perhaps one solution to that, and it seems to be something that Valve may be working on, is to open up the purchasing/library/Steamworks part of Steam to everyone, to make it easier for developers to sell their games to people who already have Steam accounts, but to maintain the curated Steam storefront as they do today.


Developers who have recently been Greenlighted

David Pittman: What I would like to see is for Greenlight to change from a per-project approval process to a per-company approval process. Right now, if a team has a wildly successful Greenlight campaign (for example, what just happened with Ikaruga), it stands to reason that their next game will do similarly well.

But what about an up-and-coming developer whose project lingers in Greenlight limbo for months? No one wants to go through that again. My proposal is that any developer whose first project is Greenlit would be whitelisted, able to release new titles on Steam on their own schedule.

Ultimately, the question I keep coming back to about Greenlight is this: who does a "curated" list of popular games help?

Brad Carney: Ultimately, I think Greenlight still has the fundamental problem of finding gems that haven't yet built an audience. It's not as severe now due to more games getting through, but still exists to some degree. I don't think you can solve that with an algorithm.

Kevin Cerda: Greenlight is definitely a good idea, but I don't believe that it's working like it should be. It's impossible to reach a wide audience through it, because people usually use Steam only to buy and play games, and they are not interested on spending time checking hundreds of projects to vote them.

Basically, you need to bring people from the outside, which means that Greenlight doesn't help you at all during the process of making your game known. And your game needs to be known, because alpha versions of zombie shooters featuring sexy nurses driving chainsaw-bikes are more likely to get votes than the average extra-polished indie game.

On the other hand, I don't believe that Greenlight should be called "the only way to reach Steam." It is not. Everyday there's indie studios listing their own games with a publisher, or even by their own. Basically, things are a little bit messy right now. You can try to reach Valve and they may choose to directly list your game on Steam without Greenlight but, if you decide to try on Greenlight, then you can forget about publishing it with a different method. Basically, Valve's policy right now is: If you get on Greenlight, you need to be greenlit to get out.

Both methods should coexist at the same time. Greenlight is meant to be a tool to help indies get their games on Steam, so it doesn't make any sense that, in case you find a big publisher, you can't publish your game just because it's already on Greenlight.

Pietro Righi Riva: I am very intrigued by the new model Valve is preparing for their game distribution. I think they are shifting the curatorial aspect of Steam away from the "game approval" system and towards a dynamic, multi-storefronts system, potentially tailored to specific players.

Greenlight is apparently just an experimental, transitioning solution, and as such it's hard to criticize, because we really don't know what is going to happen with greater numbers of games being added to Steam. I just hope there are always going to be better and better ways for players to find games that appeal to their tastes (something that is especially crucial to indies, because of the themes and aesthetics we often embrace).

Giorgio Ciapponi: It's like having to secure a deal to sell your product by showing a picture of it to the public in a catalog, instead of going with your prototype to the distributor and talk about it. It just isn't fair -- somebody is going to have a hideous looking prototype with revolutionary functionality, while somebody else is going to show a mind-blowingly drawn notepad sketch of a worthless item. That is (sadly) the norm when marketing your game, but on a business-to-business level, I can't see how this can be beneficial to anyone.

Davioware: At the beginning, Valve was way too slow in accepting games, but recently they picked up the pace to an acceptable level in my opinion. Greenlight isn't perfect, but it's better than the acceptance process was before.

TowerClimb

What could Valve be doing at this point to make Greenlight better?

Developers hoping to be Greenlighted

Ryan Creighton: I have heard that Valve may open up Steam to be more like the Humble widget, where anyone can host a store, and any game can get on the service. This is a really interesting idea. If that happened, I can see YouTube celebrities imbued with an immense amount of power, as they review and curate games for their own stores, and become those tastemakers that Valve really needs to be.

Consider it: if you're an adventure game fan like I am, wouldn't you buy every g-d adventure game you found posted to a Tim Schafer- or Ron Gilbert-curated Steam store? This would add a very Ebert-like celebrity angle to game curation, and it could be really interesting. You'd have respected people going to bat for small, interesting games like Spellirium, and bringing them to audiences who otherwise would have missed them.

Ian MacLarty: I do think it's wonderful that Valve are experimenting with ways of opening up Steam to more developers. I think they will continue to try new things and I'm intrigued by some of the ideas they've hinted at, such as user-curated stores.

I can also understand them not wanting to just open the floodgates immediately. I would prefer a more open Steam and I think they're moving in that direction. A completely open Steam will make discoverability more of an issue, but I think that's a much more tractable problem for developers to deal with.


Ashton Raze: Mainly I'd like the selection process to be a little clearer. Discoverability needs to be better, and certain genres need to be served better. Some types of games sell much better as impulse buys or in Steam sales, for example, and I'm not convinced Greenlight accommodates fully for different markets-within-the-market. Plus Derrick the Deathfin needs to get Greenlit post haste.

Antonio Iglesias: Greenlight has got to the point that visibility is a big problem. I think that is one of the main issues t

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