Yeah Magazine #10

How to Make It In The Game Business – Navigating Steam’s Greenlight

This month we’re kicking off a new series of articles about “How to Make It In The Game Business”. And since we obviously don’t have a clue (because we haven’t been able to quit our day jobs yet and devote full time to GH) we’re bringing in some outside help!

Every Wednesday in October, look for a column from someone with practical experience in the game industry to drop in and offer some advice, encouragement, and wisdom about the road they’ve traveled in the game business.  After October, we’ll shift to a monthly column, but we wanted to open with a bang.

And for that awesome opening column, we’ve brought along not one, but two game developers to tell you all about their journey through Steam’s Greenlight program to shepherd their titles to publication.  So please welcome James from Evil Twin (in blue ink), whose Victory at Sea naval wargame is out there now, and also welcome back Steve from Yorkshire Rifles (in green ink), whose Airship Dragoon got a lot of coverage from GrogHeads earlier this summer.  Both describe their path to Greenlight success.

When we were given the task of taking Tabletop war game Victory At Sea into the digital realm, our first concern was how long if, ever it would take to get onto Steam.

Traditionally, developers hoping to get their game featured on this hugely popular platform are invited to sign up for Valve’s Greenlight system, where they can submit promotional videos, images and other game information for potential customers to see. The Steam community can then view and rate those that they’d like to see more of, with Steam eventually releasing the games that receive the most votes. Whilst democratic this is by no means a speedy process, with most games enduring a wait of anywhere between 2 days and 2 years for their game to reach players.

I am “Steve_Yorkshire”, also known as my developing/old modding/trade name “YorkshireRifles” (which is a play on words of “Eton Rifles”, a 1979 song by The Jam). I am a lone indie developer (sometimes known as a “One Man Army” in certain circles of indie development) and I created an old fashioned, uber-hardcore, turn-based squad tactics and global strategy game called “Airship Dragoon”, that has much more in common with titles from the 1980s and early 1990s than contemporary tactics games. It’s a niche strategy game, densely complicated, with enormous campaigns, lengthy battles, and is pretty much the antithesis of modern fast-paced gaming. And it’s available on Steam after getting through Greenlight.

Greenlight is reported to work with a simple algorithm; gain votes from the public members of Steam to get into the top 100 with a modifier depending on commercial popularity of the genre. Whilst this algorithm is not available for public scrutiny it would seem logical that “Action” is more popular than “Strategy”, and thus strategy games would gain a positive modifier due to there being less of them.

In fact from our chats with other developers we have been told that going through the Steam Greenlight process can require patience as well as the ability to hold your nerve when the popularity slows down.

We had received funding from Creative England’s Games Lab SW fund to help make the game we wanted, turning Victory At Sea into a large scale WW2 Naval strategy with RTS and sandbox elements. Our main concern with all the effort we had put in was, would anyone have access to play it through the stores we wanted?

Certainly some people vote “Yes” for everything on Greenlight, but I would expect that most people are honest with their interest. Greenlight is a “Big Thing” in itself, and clicking through new batches of games on a daily basis takes considerable time (to the point that with well over 2500 votes cast myself I wondered if Valve would consider handing out Steam achievements to incentivise for it) and it’s fair to say that the vast majority of Steam’s user base do not use it. Most voters on Greenlight are not going to spend more than a cursory glance at the page, simply stare at a few thumbnails, read the header, click “Yay or Nay” and move on.

VAS-Steam.jpg

We had an idea we wanted to bypass the Greenlight process and set about finding out how to do this. Through our contacts we were lucky enough to be invited to an event hosted by Valve. We took our laptop and got to show the game directly to a Valve representative. This was a rare opportunity from my experience and if asked today I couldn’t tell you definitive steps on how to do this yourself.

That evening I chatted with one of the Valve team for about an hour. They were really encouraging and very forthcoming with help. I showed them the game, talked through the functionality, what it would do and the elements we were adding. The Valve rep said he’d get us signed in so we could start talking on the forums and that was it.

The next day I thought it was all very positive but thought he was just giving me access to the developer forums. Biggest misunderstanding ever, as I received an e-mail from Valve saying ‘you have been invited to publish Victory At Sea on Steam’. I had to show it to the rest of the team to make sure I wasn’t dreaming!

The main concern for the Valve representative was that we’d get the game onto Steam and no one would see it or buy it. He said we had better get the marketing right if we went in this direction as Greenlight is its own marketing platform.

The standard way of attracting attention is to send out review copies of the game. As this is the “standard” method, it means that likely sites, publications and YouTubers are swamped by hopeful developers. Expect to be ignored, not just by the larger media organisations but also the more established indie games sites (unless you have a gimmick, gimmicks get publicity). Once you’ve blanketed the big sites on the off chance that you may get some coverage, finding smaller, often genre specific reviewers appears to be the best way to go. Even many of these will be inundated. Out of 150 keys I sent out to possibly interested parties great or small, less than a quarter were ever used. Clearly some games work better with YouTubers/Long Plays than others, and Airship Dragoon, methodical and complex, was not going to be one of them. Directly mentioning your game in genre specific forums can also help, with the proviso that you make it clear that you are the developer. Alas I only found Grogheads late in the day, or more to say, Grogheads found me. I will happily admit to not being terribly good at the publicity side of things.

We had already a plan in place for marketing and went about making it as robust as possible.

We were lucky to some extent as Victory At Sea already has thousands of followers of the tabletop game. One of the key areas for us was engaging those players and getting them on to playtest the game and give us feedback.

They knew the game wasn’t a straight copy of the tabletop game. The original miniature game is great, and I would highly recommend playing it. Frankly we saw no point in directly replicating it for that reason. Something we wanted the tabletop players to understand from the outset.

Having your game available elsewhere (demos are always useful) gives you some visibility already. I already sold direct via FastSpring, and had been accepted on Desura (I simply set up an account on http://www.indiedb.com/ and then asked them if they were interested) and GamersGate contacted me after seeing it available elsewhere. The only other games portal I had contacted was GoG (Good Old Games) who said that they were not interested.

Once on Greenlight I was surprised to find that I rose to 30% quite quickly, with little to no attention gathering on my behalf … and then views dried up. It was not a case of more No than Yes votes, it was a case of users not coming to the page because it was buried under all of the newer submissions.

Social Media is also important, get the game’s website up with a steady flow of content and share that content on the Facebook, Twitter and Steam pages.

Social media can help bring more attention to your Greenlight page, but this is very much dependant on your current standing on such things. A social media account with few visitors will attract fewer voters. I have always eschewed Facebook and LinkedIn (purely on personal taste) but would certainly not advise others to do so. concentrated on my own personal development blog and tied this in with a Twitter account. Twitter has some useful features, mainly revolving around searchable hashtags. My personal favourite for posting messages, often with links to my development blogs or Greenlight page was #indiedev (there is also #gamedev). There are numerous bots on twitter which will retweet specific hashtags and indie game development certainly has a fair few. There is also #screenshotsaturday which is actually posted all week. It has an indie development bias, though that does not stop anyone posting under it and if you are running a live feed via Tweetdeck or some other program excluding the hashtag #nsfw minimizes your exposure to the amount of young ladies posting selfies of their private parts, which can be a bit of a surprise to see when you look up from working on code expecting to see pixel art. Remember to include links to your Greenlight page with your screenshot for ease of use, keep it simple for the audience to get the chance to vote. With a mixture of blog posts and twitter related screenshots my vote count slowly but surely crawled onwards … with the emphasis on slowly. Images from #screenshotsaturday are also listed on http://www.gamedev.net for voting on as “image of the day”.

We also tried some leftfield marketing such as going to the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth and holding a “make your own tabletop naval game’ day.

This is where bundles help. Greenlight needs an audience, and bundles have them. Access to the most popular such as the Humble Bundle is out of the reach of most jobbing indie developers, but there are plenty of others. The condition is simple and constant, when you get on Steam, you provide free keys to those which bought the game in the bundle.

I found https://indiegamestand.com/ to be a great help. They are an indie games portal and indie games evangelists if you will, with a Pay-What-You-Want sale. They contacted me after someone in their forums nominated the game (they have a forum specifically for bringing games their customers/supporters would like to see available). Being on IGS raised my profile, and having the PWYW sale with accompanying interview (which took place at 4am my time when I was more brain dead than usual, available here for those interested) really helped. This gave Airship Dragoon a massive 8% boost in the Greenlight charts after weeks of floundering.

Following IGS I was contacted by http://www.indieroyale.com/ who work in conjunction with Desura. Initially I put them off and asked for a delay, not wanting to run another bundle so soon after the last one. The thinking behind this was that running a bundle was good for publicity when the previous influx of interest had waned and visits to the Greenlight page needed stimulus. They seemed quite happy with this and again contacted me sometimes later. Again this gave the game’s Greenlight profile a huge boost during the bundle and also for some time afterwards before it dwindled back to the small but steady column of visitors referred from Twitter, development blogs, and #saturdayscreenshot.

The final bundle I was involved with was the Steampunk2 bundle from https://groupees.com/. They had contacted me previously but having (once again) just organised the IGS deal I was reluctant to run another bundle whilst publicity was still good. Shortly before the Steampunk2 bundle went live they recontacted me looking for an extra game to go into it. With Greenlight attention once again waning I was more than happy to agree. Unlike the others, the Groupees bundles was a mixed media affair featuring games, music, comics, ebooks and film. This gave a much greater possibility of attracting new viewers and spreading the game’s profile. In the end, around 10% of the 22000 sales voted on Greenlight.

From there we have nurtured our Steam community, we talk with them and discuss ideas, we also let them know it’s a safe place for constructive criticism as we want this game to be great and realise that if we had the formula to develop a fully formed, perfect game from the outset we, and every other developer out there would!

After this final large jump in votes I was nearer the top of the Greenlight and began using the Twitter hashtag #screenshotsaturday to regularly post images showing my progress charts. The thinking behind this was that people are attracted to success and that success breeds success, a basic psychology that people who may not normally bother to cast a vote would be more tempted to do so when they feel that their actions have a direct and visible effect. Being high in the Greenlight ranks also had a noticeable effect on sales on other sites, especially direct sales.

Steam’s own change of policy regarding acceptance numbers also helped. Instead of taking a few each month, suddenly taking 75 titles certainly helped remove those ahead of me and for some time reduced the number of votes required to get into the top 100. Once into the mid-30s I was somewhat disappointed to not be selected in the next batch of 75 … and mildly concerned that maybe Valve simply was not interested, but I continued to persevere and was eventually selected.

The other key area was identifying youtubers willing to make “lets play” videos. Initially we gave the youtubers early “warts and all” builds and left them to it! We found some early fans of the game from these, who were great at showing the potential players the game. We definitely think this added to the interest. 

Having a video of gameplay is a must, and as many screenshots as possible, preferably showing many different parts of gameplay or locations. Variety is the spice of life, but also shows that the game actually has depth and is more than just a half-finished concept or demo. If the genre is to the viewer’s liking and the screenshots catch their eye they might linger long enough to read the blurb. I started off with a brief description (“Turn-based Steampunk squad tactical combat and global strategy with emergent gameplay.”) and then a list of game features (which in retrospect was probably too long), before rounding off with a few embellishments (“Conquer the super-continent of Pangea with an invasion of Airships!”, “Battle Dastardly Pirate Insurgents!”, “Keep the locals happy or else they will be revolting!”). The important thing is to make it easy on the eye to read and avoid walls of text (which this paragraph itself is in danger of becoming!). Not long after putting this up I was advised by an old mate who has a much keener interest in marketing than myself that these last three “fluff lines” should be considered as advertising “hook lines” and moved to the very top of the Greenlight page so as to be the first thing the viewer would read.

Our hard work paid off, on Launch day Victory At Sea peaked at number 5 on the Steam top selling charts, just a couple of notches below DayZ, which for us went well beyond our wildest dreams! We are still getting a steady stream of new followers and we are still doing all the steps mentioned to ensure the game stays fresh for new and old players alike.

All this is hard work, but if you believe in your product and love what you are doing it’s worth it.

So to the conclusion … Greenlight requires mass visibility. Some games are clearly going to be better at that than others due to wider appeal, and some … such as uber-hardcore, niche strategy titles of the type which is not popular these days … will require considerable more work. Bundles are a great way to get publicity and boost the game’s profile. Twitter can really help to keep a steady stream of votes coming with liberal use of the appropriate hashtags and links to development blog updates. If a developer is good at selling themselves publicly, something which I am clearly not, than things are going to be much easier using direct advertising on related game forums. I had no particular strategy for my Greenlight campaign and played it by ear, what I would consider to be of most importance is the ability to be flexible and not afraid to try new things which may at first be unfamiliar. Always be polite to people who run bundles especially when you are turning them down, an explanation of why also helps (eg: you would like longer time between each of them so that you run a bundle when the current spike in interest has waned). Be tenacious and never, ever stop.

 

Weblinks to our guest authors’ games
Victory at Sea

You can check out the Victory at Sea Steam page here

You can check out the Mac Store page here

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Airship DragoonOn Steam hereDevelopment blogTwitter

 


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