Greenlight turning red!

It's February 28th, 2017. Last day of the month, second day of GDC (the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco), and our Greenlight campaign for Sons of Sol (please vote here) is 15 days old, but was born prematurely. The original due date was approximately February 26th.

So this month's blog is a bit more personal than usual as a major industry change affects RetroNeo Games directly.

What is Greenlight?

If you already know, consider skipping this section, but to sum it up quickly; Valve are the company behind Steam, an online digital storefront responsible for 90+% of all PC games sales. If you want to have a business that develops PC games, you need to be on Steam, basically.

Up until 2012, it was very hard to get on the store because each game was vetted on its way through to the platform. This takes time and so the bigger titles from bigger studios/publishers were prioritised. That's probably an oversimplification, but it'll do..

In August 2012, Steam Greenlight launched. It's a process where first-time developers pay $100 to place a game on a community voting subsection of Steam, called Greenlight. They can't sell their game from here, but instead throw up early videos, screenshots and a description of what the game will be, and the community vote on whether or not they would buy the game if it became available on the actual store.

To this day, nobody really knows what it takes to get through. A few thousand votes and waiting a few weeks is a virtual guarantee, but a few hundred can get a completely fake scam game up as well, or see real games languish in limbo.

Even Valve said that it was an imperfect system, and was basically a stop-gap, but it's taken them nearly 5 years to move past it. The theory of crowd-sourcing some quality control and democratising access to the platform was solid enough, but in practice it allowed all sorts of scams and asset flips (where you buy a functioning game prototype or several assets, intended for learning or fast prototyping, then try to sell that as an original game on Steam with a minimum of effort to get from A to B) to flood the store and give Greenlight a bad name.

Broforce was one early Greenlight mega-success.

Broforce was one early Greenlight mega-success.

To be sure, Greenlight is also how the real indie successes got through to Steam as well ("over 100 Greenlight titles that have made at least $1 Million each" - do the math on that!), whereas before they may never have had a platform to be noticed, but the rubbish gets through as well. Greenlight has done a lot of good, but it's broken, with all sorts of workarounds (trading game keys for votes, for example) gumming up the gears of a well-intentioned system.

There are community groups and YouTube channels like Jim Sterling dedicated to highlighting the scams.

Red Light for Greenlight

On Friday February 10th, Valve announced that it would be shutting down Steam Greenlight forever "this Spring" and replacing it with Steam Direct, a system that does away with the community involvement in favour of a verification process "similar to setting up a bank account" and then a recoupable fee for each game submitted. Greenlight used to allow the same developer to submit additional games for free once their first had passed through.

This is intended to reduce "noise in the submission pipeline", which most would agree is a desirable goal. The problem is how much the fee will be set at, and how exactly it can be recouped. It has to be high enough to dissuade the scam artists, but low enough that legitimate small-time studios (and especially ones based in countries with lower average incomes) can still manage to get their games on Steam.

To be blunt, there is going to be no good number here. Valve are taking feedback and mentioned that they'd been advised on fees ranging between $100 and $5,000! No matter what it is, some scams are going to get through, and some developers are going to fail to get on the store. Since profitable games are meant to be able to recoup the fee, perhaps less well off developers who believe in their game could borrow to pay the fee, but frankly, game development is already very expensive and risky. A high fee here is quite an unwelcome added expense for the little guys.

In true Valve style, they seem to be prepared to make sweeping changes and "listen to the community" (which is good, but also points out that they don't really have a solid plan) just to see what breaks, and fix it later.. well, that's one way to do it, and it's their platform so what can I say?

They're throwing the baby out with the bathwater and waiting to see what the next baby looks like, basically.. and it's not actually the worst idea..

Re-emphasis on publishers

..for them at least. They can set this fee quite high to try and clean up their store. This just means that serious indies will have to go to people with deep pockets to get their games published. Re-enter the publisher! 

The Kickstarter revolution (also circa 2012 - for games anyway) meant that games could raise lots of capital from the public, without needing to be beholden to a publisher. But with the success rates for Kickstarter campaigns (for digital games) falling off in the last couple of years, and with a potentially high barrier to entry to the commercial storefront in this Steam Direct fee, we may see the power back in their hands.

Kickstarter changed the way that games are made.. well, some games... a little bit... for a while..

Kickstarter changed the way that games are made.. well, some games... a little bit... for a while..

Publisher Raw Fury announced just days after Valve's statement, that they would cover the Steam Direct fee for developers who couldn't afford it, without obligation. They won't own part of the game or anything. Their aim is to develop closer ties with talented developers, and to garner good will and make a bigger name for themselves, generally. That's a great idea, since personally I hadn't heard of them before, and now I think of them as quite a forward-thinking publisher who isn't gunning for your back pocket. Good will earned!

How many others will do the same, or similar? That's when I realised..

Valve's Genius

Raw Fury will obviously be vetting the submissions that they get to try and put through the games most likely to recoup the Steam Direct fee. That means they will be doing quality control for Steam!! Think about that! Valve have just outsourced their quality control department, and Raw Fury will pay Valve for the privilege!

People were long arguing that Valve, a multi-billion dollar corporation that employs approximately only 360 people (2016 figure) should hire more staff to oversee Greenlight submissions. They could most definitely afford it. The number of new Greenlight submissions averaged just a few dozen per day normally. That's certainly something that a small new department could handle. Valve just don't want to say 'no' to anyone truly deserving, or 'yes' to any hate speech or copyrighted material that sneaks by a human worker. They'd prefer instead to let their automated systems take the blame for any missteps.

Again, that's probably fair enough, though.

How this all affects RetroNeo Games

RetroNeo Games' plan was to launch our Greenlight campaign to coincide with our new 'vertical slice' demo of the game that shows off our home carrier, some characters, new sound design and music, and a bit more gameplay. This same demo would be ready for GDC for any publisher or press meetings we might stir up.

But with Valve's announcement that Greenlight would be gone during Spring (when I was in school in Ireland, I was taught that Spring was Feb - Apr, so we were already in it by my count..) and that it would be replaced with a potentially very high pay wall, the team had a quick emergency meeting over Skype on Saturday and decided to shift focus to doing a Greenlight trailer and page, sprucing up the website, and launching by Monday. The trailer would basically be the one we'd released just weeks before but with a Greenlight logo at the end. Previously the plan had been to shoot new footage from a playthrough of a newer demo and put that on the trailer.

We chose to move up our timeline because we knew that hundreds of other developers would be thinking the same way as us, and that the Greenlight servers would be absolutely flooded in a matter of days. We were only a few weeks from our intended launch anyway, so we figured we had an advantage in terms of the quality of the submission that we could make.

It's a pity because I've done a lot of research in the past year (one 2016 Gamasutra blog stood out in particular) as to how to maximise your launch on Greenlight. This included having a playable demo ready, having YouTubers play said demo, try to get press to talk about it, translate the page into multiple languages, and hook up Google Analytics.

Now, just two weeks shy of accomplishing all of this, we had to go off half-cocked. Seeing the green light turning red, we basically had to rev the engine to try and make the amber, because the red might be too expensive to... eh.. this metaphor is falling apart, sorry!

So, without translations, a press mailing list, a MailChimp campaign, or a demo, we launched. About the only thing we did get from our list (because it was the quickest thing to set up) was the ability to take some preorders on the site to prove to certain legal bodies that we're "in commerce". They're still available at the time of writing, heavily discounted, but limited in quantity.

How have we done so far?

Well in the first week we got about 300 votes and made it 18% of the way to the top 100. There's no specific target to meet, but thousands of votes and being in the top 100 is certainly desirable (and normal for games getting through in the past).

The problem is that now, after a second week, we've gotten almost no further!

The reason we wanted all our ducks in a row was to maximise the 'yes' votes while Steam's algorithms were still sending natural traffic to our site. Just by launching, you'll get a certain number of referrals from normal Greenlight users browsing, but after that you're on your own to generate your voting traffic. In normal circumstances, the Steam algorithms send people your way for a few days.

Our natural traffic died off in under 12 hours. That's a measure of just how many other new Greenlight games were going up just 3 days after Valve's announcement. At that stage we were closer to 200 votes. The next 100 votes we got during the first week were basically from friends and colleagues through Facebook and Twitter shares.

I've heard similar stories from many developers who are struggling with the campaign because they were forced to launch early and are just drowned out by the noise.

Our votes after 24 hours

Our votes after 24 hours

What did we try?

Since the launch I've been working every day for at least 12 hours, but not so much on the Greenlight campaign. Getting the demo ready for GDC to wow press and publishers was still a better priority - after all, nobody knows how many Greenlight votes you really need anyway, nobody knows when Greenlight is actually shutting down, and we had a request from a publisher to see a new build of the game. So, after launch and until yesterday, a new demo was priority number one!

I suspect that once Valve stops taking new submissions for Greenlight, they'll probably let through a lot of what remains in the following weeks, though they have kept their options open by declaring that anyone who has paid the $100 Greenlight fee and who doesn't get through will be reimbursed. So, who knows?..

That doesn't mean that I've ignored Greenlight either, though. Not at all. Over the coming days I ran a tentative €5 Facebook and €5 Twitter ad campaign (well targeted, with video) to see what happened. We got about a dozen clicks total and about 2 new votes. So, probably not worth investing too heavily there, then. One issue is that you have to log in to Steam (if you even have an account) and often have to be emailed a security code for a 'new device' (so sick of doing that!), so anyone clicking a mobile or browser link would not likely be logged into Steam, and probably wouldn't bother doing so.

I got the Greenlight page translated into Russian, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese and German. Even though the algorithms had stopped sending us traffic, I hoped that a new language detected might send us users from those territories. It didn't. Absolutely nothing! So I decided not to proceed with French, Spanish and Italian.

I also contacted about two dozen Greenlight community user groups who exist to highlight legitimate Greenlight games. I especially targeted groups interested in space games. We did get included in four collections, but I saw no corresponding increase in traffic to us, unfortunately.

What now? 

Well, with the GDC demo complete, I now get to turn my attention to contacting proper press outlets and YouTubers. I'm a big fan of grassroots marketing and using your own networks, but having tapped the social circles and developers that I know already we seem to have reached the limits of what that can offer us - namely, 320 votes.

Contacting press and YouTubers is a very low probability game, but one good bit of coverage can do wonders, and there are some existing relationships that I can leverage. That's now the stage that we're at to try and get more votes. 

I have confidence in our game, our trailer, our demo, and our team, but we're fighting in an oversaturated market. 

To Conclude

This has felt like a bit of a weird blog to write. I often write about the industry somewhat abstractly, but I'm right in the middle of this one, and it's an incomplete story. Greenlight isn't gone yet, we haven't yet been accepted for or refused press coverage, and nobody, including Valve, knows much about Steam Direct yet.

I do hope I can do a positive follow-up to this blog in the near future. Until then, I can just thank you for reading, ask that you vote for us if you haven't yet, and consider sharing our Greenlight campaign with your friends.

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I'll leave you with our Greenlight trailer. And don't forget to try our free demo. Download it from the Sons of Sol page.

Until next time..