Tales from the Dev Side: Greenlight, Red Light by Alex Jordan

Although I’ve sworn many times that Xbox Live Indie Games have a bright future, developers are treating the platform like a freshly pruned-by-iceberg Titanic.  For many, the brass ring for distribution is now Steam.  The problem with that is Steam is a tough nut to crack.  And then hope came in the form of Steam Greenlight.  But is it really hope, or is it all smoke and mirrors?  Cute Things Dying Violently developer and Greenlight hopeful Alex Jordan  has a few thoughts.

Greenlight, Red Light

by Alex Jordan

The life of an up-and-coming indie game developer sure is a great one. I mean, think of the perks!  Scant management, vast amounts of creative control, and great appreciation for the finer things in life, e.g. ramen noodles.

And, hey, there’s also the disproportionately huge share of revenue you command!  Unfortunately, 70% or 100% of shit is still shit (roughly “shi” if you’re using the 70% model, including the dot above the i, greedy bastards), so pretty much every last indie developer has had one nagging thing on their to-do list for the past four or five years: beg for distribution on Steam.  Because, let’s face it, it’d be super nice if people had actually heard about your game and maybe would deign to buy it.  If that were the case, you could consider quitting your day job, or at least consider having something for lunch other than rehydrated noodles in sodium water.

And because the only thing out there more in abundance than ramen noodles is desperate indie developers, the guys and gals at Valve who run Steam have had to fend off these Morlocks with a stick.

Pictured: Cute Things Dying Violently creator Alex Jordan and his fiancée.

For every indie game that manages to pass through the Pearly Gates, 100 get denied or ignored. Enter: Steam Greenlight, Valve’s way of saying, “Here! You look at shitty MS Paint art.  We’ll just sit here and make decorative pants out of $100 bills.”

Having had Cute Things Dying Violently rejected by Valve back in July, Greenlight (which was announced roughly three days after I got my rejection email) seemed like a juicy consolation prize.  A community indie games voting site for a large captive audience of Steam users, designed by a developer as canny and talented as Valve? Sign me up!

And I did. Pretty much the moment it went live, back on August 30.  And that’s when the horrible truth set in: Greenlight was. . . decent.  It wasn’t great, it wasn’t terrible, it was just. . . a filter.  Pure, exhausted convenience distilled into a website.

What’s Going Right?

My first 20 minutes with Greenlight were pretty blissful.  It was streamlined and easy to use, and I managed to register CTDV with trailer, screenshots, and description inside of ten minutes.  And pretty much the moment my page went live, the unique page views started pouring in.  The “large captive audience” I mentioned earlier is nothing to sneeze at.  Just by virtue of being on the platform, my game and others like it were getting a degree of attention that was unprecedented just hours earlier.

It’s also marvelously easy to provide feedback on games.  For each game page there’s an upvote button, a downvote button, and a Favorite button.  Additionally, Collections make it easier for third parties like gaming websites to promote a series of games.

What’s Going Wrong?

I’m not going to harp much on the reviewer’s experience, since most gaming journalism outfits have already beat me to it.  The short version is that discoverability is still a problem; talented developers with attractive games are unavoidably lumped together with complete crap; trying to cast several votes efficiently is a navigational cul-de-sac; and, unfortunately, the Greenlight community is full of slack-jawed retards.

“Gameplay looks like iphone appstore level trash” said Cletus Gumtooth of Pine Knot, Kentucky. Jed Toomanytoes of Camden, TN noted “looks like a boring, bad, lazy game thats just like a multitude of other terrible and boring games. also i want to fuk my sistah.”

How obnoxious can they be? Well, many of them didn’t know what Greenlight was for.  They thought it was a way to request their favorite AAA games getting on Steam as opposed to indie games.  Plenty of people who knew what the deal actually was were scarcely better, and each game’s comments thread began racking up scattershot feedback that many YouTube vets would cringe at.  One man’s Cthulhu Saves the World is another man’s crappy RPG Maker clone, and one man’s Cute Things Dying Violently is another man’s “stupid Flash game.”  Ouch.

I’m sure the majority of Steam accounts are held by lovely people, but you can only read so many variations on “Your game sucks” or “Get fucked m8” before the scales fall from your eyes.  After all, these are the people whose votes you need.

Oh my God, I turned out to be a politician anyway.

The Developer’s Experience

Anyway, such delicate interaction proved to be a wee bit of an eye-opener.  The rest of the developer experience on Greenlight isn’t much better.

The most notable aspect of the developer’s experience is one of confusion and withheld information.  Putting a game on Greenlight, with its studied silence from Valve and its schizophrenic community, is like being asked to stand in one place and alternatively receiving either kisses or kicks to the genitalia.

And those are the only two forms of feedback.  Initially, developers (and only developers) got to privately see their game’s percentage of upvotes to downvotes, but that disappeared after a few days when it became apparent to Valve that downvoting – either legitimate downvotes or those by trolls – served no other cause than to drag down a game’s up/down ratio.  Downvotes don’t subtract from upvotes, but, initially, we didn’t know that.  For reviewers, a downvote got the game off their to-review screen.  For developers, it was a sign of dislike for the game and perhaps even a negated upvote, as Valve hadn’t told us otherwise.  We got to suffer in silence for a few days, watching our numbers degrade, before Valve put us out of our misery and yanked that wonderful feature.

And then there’s the “% of Calculated Ratings So Far” bar that shows how far along your game is on upvotes before it gets submitted to Valve.  Well, the fine folks at Valve don’t quite know yet what level of participation the Greenlight community will have, so they’ve erred on the side of caution and set the number pretty damn high.  Even standout games on Greenlight like Project Zomboid have only gotten about 20% of the votes they need, while the rest of us plebes get to hang on to single digit approval percentages.  (Granted, it’s been less than a week, so take my whining with a grain of salt.)  And since developers don’t get to see how many upvotes their games have actually gotten, there’s nothing for us to extrapolate from.  We just get to sit, and wait.  And get kicked in the balls.

Hey, I’ve Done This Before. . .

Despite its shortcomings, Greenlight still presents a big opportunity for indie developers.  Whereas previously Valve would almost certainly take a look at your game and flat-out reject it in the same split second, now we have an opportunity to land a game on their laps with some sort of critical consensus and the understanding that Valve employees will review it with the time and attention it deserves.  Gone will be the days of instantaneous judgment leading to rejection and developer misery.

Thus, Greenlight becomes a plausible shortcut.  Sure, it’s an extra step in the process (you used to be able to just fill out a form on Valve’s website and send your game in), but if your game emerges intact on the other side, odds are you’ll soon be sitting pretty.

Cute Things Dying Violently has seen modest success on various platforms. Which is probably a good thing. If it did any better, you know a certain Silicon Valley mobile company would be right there with their “completely original” physics puzzler “Adorable Creatures Perishing Disturbingly.” Then they would probably sue him for stealing their idea before they thought of it.

But here’s the thing… Greenlight’s voting threshold and discoverability shortcomings mean that the developers still need to do quite a bit of hustle to gain attention and upvotes.  Which is. . . hey! I recognize that feeling!  That’s exasperation, having just realized that this is what we’ve always had to do, and will always have to do.  I don’t think any of us developers were naïve enough to think that Greenlight would be a straight ticket to success, but what we got instead was another chapter in the same story we’ve been reading for years upon years: capitalism is hard, and you gotta work for it, and in the end you still might get shafted for no fault of your own.

That means instead of spamming Kickstarter solicitation emails, now you’ll be spamming Greenlight solicitation emails.  (I’m sure gaming journos will be just as eager to read the latter!)  Developers will still be struggling to worm their way into bundles and promotions, desperate to practically give their game away just to get a little bit more recognition.  Networking will still be paramount and journalists will still need to be schmoozed at bars, but last I checked, I really like beer and I really like talking about myself, so that’s not a problem.

In the end, Greenlight represents yet another dance routine on the never-ending popularity contest that all obscure indie developers have to participate in.  It’s certainly not bad, and dare I say the vetting process still represents a good opportunity, it’s just that it’s underwhelming.  Greenlight’s another queue, another procedure, another form that needs to be filled out on the road to possible opportunity.

It is, in short, the perfect microcosm of the indie developer experience.  Does that look like a raw deal to you?   It shouldn’t.  It may seem like deferred, somewhat unlikely success, but it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?  If it wasn’t, we would’ve given up.  And judging by the growing number of games on Greenlight, that ain’t gonna happen.

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