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Steam Greenlight: Developers Speak Out

What do indie developers think of Steam Greenlight, which launched last week to a huge influx of entries? Gamasutra speaks to a host of developers about their expectations, hopes, dreams, and -- most importantly -- their first impressions and results from the fledgling service.

September 5, 2012

17 Min Read

Author: by Mike Rose

Steam Greenlight launched last week to a huge influx of entries. If you follow many indie developers on Twitter, you will have no doubt seen your fair share of both love and hate for the initiative. Crowds of developers happy to get their game closer to being on the system were buffeted by tides of frustration at Greenlight's shortcomings.

Now that things have started to settle down, Gamasutra looked to grasp the general feeling among developers: is Greenlight good news for the indie scene? Will it actually help consumers show Valve which games they want on Steam, or is it yet another database to throw your game into and then never see any real good come out of it?

"Greenlight is pretty bare-bones right how," Colin Northway, the developer behind Incredipede, tells us. "It's basically a collection of screenshots with like buttons attached."

Yet, he adds, this "is actually kind of nice for me. My big fear for Greenlight was always how much work was going to be involved. Kickstarter projects require an immense amount of preparation work, and I was worried that Greenlight would be the same. By having such a simple system, Greenlight doesn't take much time away from development. Which is good, because the last few months of working on a game are pretty hectic."

However, Northway is very aware of the fact that getting ahead on Greenlight is simply a popularity contest. It doesn't matter too much how good your trailer, screenshots, and description are if you can't play the marketing game properly.

"The skills required to make good games are very different from the skills required to dominate a 'vote for my game' contest, so I'm worried good games will be lost in the shuffle," he notes.

"Greenlight could be better, and I'm sure Valve knows this. They're great at changing and adapting. Their stuff is always living and improving. It's not surprising that the first Greenlight is pretty bare-bones. It's probably more of an experiment than a 'final product'. As they discover how it works and experiment with how to make it better I'm sure it will improve."

As for Incredipede's future on Greenlight, Northway is ready to now play the waiting game, and see what his fortunes are.

"Greenlight is scary as hell," he adds. "Great games not getting the attention they should is always a problem, and asking the crowd what's good usually results in 'that thing everyone else likes'! On the other hand, look at how many games are on Greenlight. That's how many games Valve used to get in its inbox every day. So in a choice between 'lost in the shuffle' and 'I don't have time to even open the email containing your trailer', I guess I'll take Greenlight."

Some indie developers are using Greenlight to gauge interest in sequels. Philip Tibitoski is one such dev, as his team looks to drum up support for Octodad sequel Dadliest Catch. As of now, his Greenlight has been going very well indeed.

"There have been a few inconveniences, like the upload service for screenshots being a bit wonky, but besides that we've been pretty happy with it," he says. "Knowing that Valve tends to be very iterative with a lot of their services keeps us at ease despite the few problems Greenlight has right now. We trust in the fact that they've always been on hand to answer any questions we might have and have just been really helpful in general."

The completion percentage meter on each game page is an area that Tibitoski doesn't understand at all -- as he notes, it doesn't say anywhere exactly what constitutes this measurement, plus he has witnessed his percentage jump from 1 percent up to 5 percent and then back down again multiple times.

"We spoke a bit with our Steam contact over the weekend, though, and what I believe is going on is that they're looking for the sweet spot of exactly how many upvotes one might need to get approved," he explains. "It seems like they've set an impossibly high ceiling, and will be adjusting it from there based on how some of the current top games are doing over time. Which I think is a really great idea, rather than just picking some arbitrary number."

Tibitoski already has a plan laid out for how he plans to use the Octodad Greenlight page -- he says his team will be utilizing it in the same way as its Facebook page, reeling in fans and gradually gathering support over time.

"The caveat of this, of course, is that we have the possibility of the direct result being that the game gets put on the Steam service. I see it as a way to build our audience somewhere that we may not have been seen before. We've been getting a lot of positive feedback and comments since we put the game up. We've seen a lot of things like, 'I don't know what the hell this is, but I like it.' Which I think proves that we're reaching a lot of new people."

Of course, as it stands, a game's Facebook page has numerous pros over its Greenlight page, from blogging to sharing new material to fans. Says Tibitoski, he'd love to see some of those elements brought across to Greenlight.

"It would also be great if we could directly link to our other social media accounts or just the website in general," he adds. "Submitting to Greenlight was easy and quick, but we also weren't able to display a lot of interactive information. I'm sure there could be many more features like a forum, or something akin to that."

Tibitoski is also worried that the average Steam user isn’t actually sure what Greenlight is about, and what its purpose is. "One thing I think that could be improved would be for Valve to do more outreach and explaining of what Greenlight is,” he notes, “because it seems as if some users believe it's simply a system to request games they like."

The system is bound to level itself out as the months go by, users gain experience with the service, and the trolls move on, reckons Tibitoski, while new features will no doubt be added to make Greenlight far more useful for developers.

"It would be nice if as developers we could receive some sort of report weekly or monthly on how our page has grown or changed," he suggests. "I think something like this could be on the horizon, but you can never be sure what Valve will do next."

"I at least ultimately believe that Greenlight is a good thing," he concludes, "and that this fear everyone has about the service ruining or clouding Steam's library of games is being perpetuated without much thought behind it. Have a little faith."

Project Zomboid is one of the big success stories of Greenlight already, gathering one of the highest rating percentages to date. Chris Simpson of The Indie Stone is wary of Greenlight's faults, but believes that the system's openness is a very good thing.

"There have definitely been teething issues -- the downvote debacle and of course all the spoof and fraudulent games," he says -- the "debacle" a reference to the fact that many devs are concerned that users can vote against as well as for games.

"And to be honest, Greenlight has been so good for us so far, that it's hard to objectively say how it fares for worthy games that have no pre-existing fan base," says Simpson. Those games which have gathered good ratings on Greenlight up to now have been those with an existing fanbase, and if you don't already have something to show, then you're going to be dead in the water.

"However, it all comes back to the fact that when you have a platform as mighty as Steam, with such a make 'em or break 'em importance to developers, having a transparent system is really the only fair way to go, so for that I applaud them," he says.

However, Simpson points out, Greenlight is only a middleman process for gaining support for your game, and all of Valve’s submission steps are still in place. "In terms of getting your game on Steam, nothing's really changed in terms of the process you need to have gone through,” he says.

Adds Simpson, "I really hope services like Desura become natural go-to sites to help foster a community around your game, as their service is very much centred around that. We'll continue supporting them as long as we can, as they have been great, and we would unlikely have made an impact on Greenlight unless it was for the wonderful people on Desura, and of course on our own lovely community forums."

It's been an arduous year and a half for the Project Zomboid team, with a wide range of ups and downs, and Simpson says that he cannot even begin to imagine utilizing Greenlight without all those months of hard graft behind them.

"Steam is the ultimate end game, not a first port of call," he says, "and there is still money to be made outside of it to get you on your feet. You're going to be disappointed if you expect 1 million Steam users to come on and upvote your game, just as you'd likely be disappointed sending the same details to Steam with the old system."

Like Simpson, The Indie Stone's Andy Hodgetts is also worried that some great and worthy titles are being hung out to dry by a system that seemingly displays games at random on its front page. "The big unknown at the moment is whether or not lack of popularity on Greenlight means that your average Steam consumer is not interested in your game, or whether it just means that the game hasn't yet had enough visibility," he notes.

He adds, however, "It's way too soon to start panicking. Collections and being able to see games which your friends have favorited are a great first step in getting a word-of-mouth infrastructure in place, and I trust Valve that the service will continue to be refined and improved as we go."

You can see a collection for yourself by checking out the one put together by the staff of Gamasutra sister site IndieGames.

Hodgetts also reasons that once a Greenlight developer has been accepted by Steam, they will no longer need to go through Greenlight in the future, as they'll simply be able to go through Valve from then on. In this way, he hopes, Greenlight will welcome a continuous stream of new developers, and therefore will be well worth a browse in the future.

Apart from having a most wonderful name, Barn Cleave is also co-founder of indie studio Niffler, which is currently looking to get retro reboot Chuck's Challenge 3D on Greenlight.

While his Greenlight experience has been good so far, he notes that the system clearly defines the difference between visibility and discoverability.

"Chuck's Challenge 3D is now visible to loads of new players who remember playing Chip's Challenge," he notes. "However, it's just luck whether they can discover the game as it's dependent on what's randomly selected on the changing front page."

However, Cleave questions why this middleman system is even necessary. "Looking at the volume of real games being submitted, I'd ask the question, why not just put all the games live on Steam?" he asks.

"Yes, 600-ish is a lot for a player to review, but it's not really that many for Steam. Let's face it, this is a month's worth of games that have been queuing for Greenlight to start, and Apple has to process more than that every day." (This is roughly true of the overall App Store, if not the games section in particular.)

Cleave also suggested that a $100 approval admin fee would be a good idea -- sentiment that numerous other developers have echoed. Valve has obviously been listening, as this exact idea has now been implemented in a bid to clear up the clutter. 

The move has divided developers. Some told us that they were happy with the fee, as it will keep the fake entries and obviously poor submissions at bay, and make finding the genuine entries far easier. 

However, a few did express concern -- developer Zayne Black noted, "The thing to remember is that $100 doesn't get you on Steam, it just puts you at the mercy of the voting public. Like if X Factor charged." A few others also noted that it wasn't very fair for those developers who simply couldn't afford $100, suggesting that better management and curation of the service would be a better option. 

"I do think it's a bit pricey," said David Johnston of Smudged Cat Games. "Just a $10 fee would stop people submitting rubbish, and $100 is a lot to some people." 

Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan Games has put forward a rather intriguing offer following the news -- he's offering a $100 loan to one developer so that they can put their game on Greenlight, and he is calling on other people in the industry to offer similar support to other indies.

"I've actually actively not taken a stance about whether $100 is too much or too little," he admits.

"There's positives and negatives to it, right? The fee almost certainly means a higher signal-to-noise, but on the other hand, it also means that an indie without that disposable income will have a tougher time submitting." 

He adds, "On the gripping hand, it means $100 that'll go to video games that will (via Child's Play) engage the brains of kids suffering from illness. That's a good thing." 

With his $100 loan and loans from other successful industry people, he hopes to make the entry fee moot for as many developers as possible. What's incredible is that Lambe has already received offers from dozens of people who also want to give $100 away -- indies, triple-A developers, and even people outside of the game industry.

Greg Lobanov has been creating smaller indie games as a hobby for many years now, with titles such as Assassin Blue, Crazy Over Goo, Dubloon, and Escape From the Underworld his best-known. With Phantasmaburbia, he is looking to make the leap onto Steam -- however, his experience hasn't been so wonderful up to this point.

"Unfortunately, the community has a lot of really distorted expectations, and games like mine have been hurting a lot for it," he says. "It seems like they're expecting triple-A gun porn, and they've been quick to 'downvote' many games that look a little too indie, or, in their words, 'like a Flash game.' My game's not even Flash, but the ratings on my game send a pretty harsh message. It's also frustrating that the comments and private ratings on my game paint a very different picture of the community reaction."

Steam is where all the money is at, he reasons, and without getting on to Steam, he doesn't believe he'll be able to live comfortably off making games. "Greenlight is now the major gateway to get there," he says, but it is "something of a necessary evil for people like me."

"The first day was something of a shock," he tells us. "Greenlight was promoted as a big support system, like a Kickstarter where upvotes replaced cash. The emergence of a downvote button was, then, terrifying -- because pretty quickly it looked like I was making lots of 'negative money'. I panicked and complained, and Valve just removed the ability to view downvotes at all."

While Lobanov is happy that Valve was quick to respond to the criticism, he says that an explanation of the system, rather than simply hiding it away, would have been much better.

"Now I can't actually see one of the major metrics to my game's success, and that's nerve-wracking. I expect things to smooth out, and for the system to get better with time; till then, I'm riding the ship, no matter what."

David Galindo is another indie veteran who is hoping his luck with Steam will change thanks to Greenlight. He's currently looking to get his 2010 beauty The Oil Blue on the service, and his time with Greenlight has definitely given him food for thought.

"Greenlight has been quite an experience to both watch and take part in," he says, "but ultimately what I think of the service depends on what Valve does with all this new information."

"I realize that it's a business move, and not necessarily a community one," he adds. "A small scale, little audience indie gem has no better chance of being on Steam with Greenlight than they did submitting it directly to Valve, perhaps even less so. But then again, who's to say it'll sell like gangbusters if it were placed on Steam?"

Greenlight's success will all come down to how Valve handles the data -- if the publisher picks up both the most popular games and those gems which are highly rated by perhaps not viewed by so many people, then Galindo would count that as the best outcome.

Says Galindo, "But if all this does is send [a list of] the top 20 games a Valve employee has to look at every month for store placement, then it's a complete letdown. I'm very surprised that a few days in, we're still under 700 games submitted; a Valve employee needs to take an afternoon every two weeks or so to comb through them, pull out some great games, and take it from there, instead of waiting for the votes to accumulate. That's what I hope Greenlight turns out to be. It just all depends on Valve's first move."

Difficulties aside, Galindo has found that having a Greenlight page for The Oil Blue has been a real morale booster for him, providing him with great positive feedback from users and raising awareness, no matter how many upvotes he's receiving. In that sense, he's hooked. "I'll definitely continue to put my new games on there," he states.

Greenlight’s future all depends on where it goes from here. "Six months from now, there needs to be a breakout hit from Greenlight,” he says. “There need to be games coming out of the system and onto the store on a regular basis."

However, Galindo has his doubts too. "It's a bit startling to hear that Valve forgot to update the FAQ about not having concept pages on Greenlight, and wanting to move them to a different sub section," he says, referring to the fact that Valve accidentally forgot to address game concepts for Greenlight. "Stuff like that makes me wonder how much Valve is committing to this project."

The dev also hopes that Valve experiments with out-of-the-box ideas for the system. "What about using some of the bigger indie devs on Steam, like Team Meat, and have them pick out one indie game from Greenlight to place on Steam?" he suggests. "Some kind of spotlight every month that takes the votes out of the equation, and puts the trust in some of the respected indie community."

"But like I said, it's all about what will happen when Valve first brings some Greenlight games to Steam. It should be interesting for sure!"

For its part, Valve has already tweaked the service -- including two rounds of changes to downvote functionality -- edited its FAQs, and spoken directly with developers. It had not yet answered Gamasutra's questions on how things are going as of press time, although Gamasutra plans to run the publisher's response later this week. 

Given this, it's not yet precisely clear what form the next changes to the service will ultimately take. There's no doubt, however, that these developers feel it's already changed the face of Steam and maybe even the indie development scene. It's clear the service has taken on a life of its own in the meantime.

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