Friday, August 2, 2013


A lot has been said about Greenlight recently, most of it very negative, and with Broforce being greenlit, I wanted to share some of my experiences and thoughts to perhaps present a more balanced picture of the challenges a developer faces while trying to get greenlit.

For those that don’t know, Broforce is a 2D action platformer where players take on the role of every action hero from the 80s and 90s to defeat satanic terrorists that you can play for free right now.

The first part of this article is essentially a post-mortem of our successful Greenlight campaign. I hope that my experiences with the system can lend some insight to those planning their Greenlight campaigns.

In the second part I try to counter some of the criticisms that have been leveled at Greenlight. It is not my belief that everyone who dislikes Greenlight does so because they adhere to these criticisms, but some developers have made these particular claims without any public debate from the game development community as to their validity (that I am aware of). I hope my perspective can start a more constructive discussion about Steam’s Greenlight process.

Lastly I make an argument for why Greenlight can be a powerful tool within a game developers arsenal, rather than an obstacle in their path.

This article makes certain assumptions. One assumption is that Steam heavily curating their marketplace is a good thing, and that a more open marketplace, like the AppStore, would make Steam less effective as a distribution/marketing platform. A debate about whether Steam should be more open in the future, and how it should achieve that in order to benefit everyone, is not within the scope of this article.  I also don’t think Greenlight is perfect, but in order to not derail the article we’re not going to go into our ideas for how to improve the service. You can view some of Gabe Newell’s ideas for the future here.

Broforce’s summit of Mount Greenlight

I joined Free Lives at about the same time Greenlight launched. Broforce was put onto Greenlight in the first few days of the system going public. At that stage Broforce had nowhere near the level of polish it has today: most of the artwork was still from the original Ludum Dare entry, enemies were very limited, bro's did not even have their own special abilities. We got a little bit of attention then, mostly thanks to Greenlight itself being new & novel and attracting a lot of visitors. We also gained a couple of fans who have stayed loyal throughout, but for the most part the internet forgot about Broforce.

Our core strategy for Greenlight was simply to maintain a version of our game at all times that anyone can play, and that prompts you to vote for it on Greenlight. We're not a well known studio, we don't have any powerful journalist friends, we simply have a game that (we think) is fun to play and we've let people play it.

One of the interesting things to observe from our time on Greenlight is how well votes corresponded to the quality of the game. At the start of our campaign the game was quite rough and we didn't get very many daily votes:

We had a spike or two where we got some early articles/youtube videos (including two really kickass ones by EatMyDiction), but our average daily vote always quickly plummeted. In February we started attacking greenlight in earnest: We hired a person to manage marketing and press relations and started launching more frequent, high quality updates to Broforce and you can clearly see our average daily rate improve.

We were sitting on about 20-50 votes a day as baseline before February. From February to April we were seldom getting below 50, and from April (after a Cyprien Squeezie video with 700,000 views) until late June we were seldom dropping below 100.

In May we launched one of the biggest updates for the brototype which included much better enemy variation and a boss.  We also launched a trailer (the one at the start of this article) that reflected the updated quality of the game, and which had a request for people to vote for the game on Greenlight. I think it is critical that the request for Greenlight voting was in the video itself (not in the description) so that people still see it when watching the trailer as embedded video, and the request should be as succinct as possible and at the end of the video. We also intentionally put the line "Link in description" in the video itself so that embedders were forced to link our greenlight campaign. This is what our greenlight graph looks like from then until now:

As the quality of the game improved and people spread it to friends our fanbase increased. In the month of May Broforce got over 100,000 unique players, and the little bit of buzz around our game was enough for it to generate a constant stream of attention from youtube channels.

On June 25 we were at about #40 on Greenlight. We released an updated trailer for Broforce that day, which received coverage in most major American indie game press websites, as well two Markiplier videos. From that day onwards we didn’t receive fewer than 350 votes in a day and climbed rapidly through the ranks.

On the 12th July, we were sitting at #16 with 40000 votes. 12 days later, after a Jesse Cox and two Yogscast videos, we got greenlit. At that point we were at #2 with 82000 votes.

All of this seems quite counter to what greenlight detractors typically say: We were not popular to begin with. Our game doesn't have the words "zombie", "craft", "simulator" or "slender" in the title.  While we did get a lot of help from various sources, we did not have ties to any publisher or big names in the Indie space with the kind of popularity that could push thousands of voters to Greenlight.

We had no magic bullet with which to conquer Greenlight, instead we worked hard to make an appealing game, we put some effort into making videos of the game that helped it get noticed, and we made it as easy as possible for people to play it and share it (and then asked them nicely to vote for us). We saw early on the impact of Let’s Play videos and tried to ensure that our game would work well under those conditions.

These were very much the sorts of development practices that we would have (hopefully) followed anyway. We found that in the case of Broforce the Greenlight system rewarded us for developing the game openly. And open development in turn ensured that we had a lot of feedback with which to test and improve the game, which fed back into tangible results on Greenlight.

This isn’t necessarily a method that fits all games, but I think that Broforce’s success on Greenlight does contradict some of the more wayward Greenlight criticisms. I’d like to offer some responses to other criticisms that Greenlight receives, with some of our thoughts and conclusions from our campaign:

Criticism Rebuttal #1: Greenlight screws niche games.

“Niche” games are a tricky subject. A lot of developers who struggle on Greenlight claim that niche games who do not pander can not get through greenlight, yet 'weird' games like McPixel, Papers Please and Shelter have managed to gather enough attention quite easily. It seems to be that people assume because their game is unpopular it is automatically niche when the game being mediocre is far more often the case.  With the amount of games being made, competition in the Indie space is intense and your title needs to stand out somehow.  Frankly, being niche is in many cases more likely to be an advantage than a disadvantage.

Criticism Rebuttal #2: Greenlight items should receive more traffic from within Steam.

Greenlight detractors have suggested that it would be preferable if more Steam users were being sent to vote on Greenlight items. I don’t see how this would benefit the system at all, if your game receives more random visitors then so would every other game on Greenlight.  I suspect users would fatigue of the greenlight queue very quickly if they were more heavily incentivised to vote (in fact their fatigue with unappealing Greenlight campaigns is certainly the main reason the vote counts aren’t higher).

Broforce received the vast majority of its votes from traffic from outside Steam. There was never a chance that a pixel art 2D platform shooter was going to get a high enough “Yes” vote ratio that random visitors alone would vote the game onto Steam, so we worked at driving traffic onto Greenlight from the start. Some players did discover Broforce via Greenlight, but not a significant number.

A system where the vast majority of votes on Greenlight items come from outside Steam is a far better measure of quality than a system where all or most of the votes came from random Steam users. In a random user “yes/no” voting system there would be no measure of passion, so the games with the broadest possible appeal would be favoured and it would be genuinely bad for niche games.

Criticism Rebuttal #3: Publishers should be allowed to pluck games out of Greenlight and put them on Steam.

Turning Greenlight into a game shopping tool for publishers doesn’t really benefit anyone except publishers. It is safe to assume that even a mediocre game would garner sales on Steam and a predatory publisher may choose to find failing games with desperate developers on the Greenlight queue and push them through onto Steam in return for an unscrupulous cut of the revenue.

If this were to happen the Steam store would lose some of its trust as weaker games that cannot compete on Greenlight are placed on sale. Consumers would have bad experiences playing possibly inferior games. And other developers receive fewer sales as consumers view the Steam store more skeptically.

Steam Greenlight is a system designed to enable better access to self publishing to indie developers, and in Broforce’s case it did just that. There is zero chance that at this stage of development we would have been able to secure a distribution deal on Steam without a publishing arrangement if Greenlight did not exist..

Criticism Rebuttal #4: Good games with plenty of votes aren’t being greenlit.

Chasm is a game that has been touted as being at the centre of Greenlight injustice.  Disregarding the fact that the game has actually now been greenlit, I struggle to see how they were suffering an injustice before. The game was still a long ways off from being finished, and Valve had stated explicitly that Greenlight releases were focusing on finished games. I don’t know of any cases where a finished, releasable game has been stuck in the top 10 for longer than a month or two.  Even if that is the case, in the old system they would likely have been even more in the dark as it is impossible for Valve to give detailed responses to all applicants, and also impossible for Valve to release every game as it is finished. At the very least, having a good ranking on Greenlight lets you know that your game is under serious consideration for Steam distribution.

Success on Greenlight is actually a damn good barometer for the overall success you can expect from a game.  Doing OK on Greenlight initially has allowed us to feel comfortable with allocating all our resources to Broforce's development, and the transparency of Greenlight has given us useful information about the competitiveness of our product in the PC marketplace.

Criticism Rebuttal #5: Some games without a ton of votes get greenlit, therefore the system is broken.

This is only a good thing. It means that if you have a game Valve feel strongly should be on Steam then your game will get on Steam. This is especially good if your game isn’t a game well suited to getting to the top of Greenlight.

Closing thoughts

Deciding which games to publish on Steam, considering the limited bandwidth that a quality service would inevitably have, is undoubtedly a difficult job and I am not insinuating that Greenlight is perfect.  I do think it’s the fairest system there is, and Valve have certainly been taking steps to improve it and it will improve in (valve) time.

Greenlight gave us a rallying point to motivate press articles, and even some Youtube videos. It also gave us useful statistics from which to evaluate the effects of our actions and be able to draw comparisons with other campaigns that would have been impossible otherwise. It’s hard to overstate how valuable that has been for us especially because we’re operating from relative isolation in South Africa.

It also allowed players and viewers a soft support option, i.e. clicking “yes” on a button. This provided for us a means to convert fans to supporters. It’s a subtle boundary to cross, but each person who has crossed that boundary will now be slightly more likely to advocate Broforce in the future. That is hugely valuable to us, and perhaps part of the reason why dealing with our players has been such a pleasure throughout Broforce’s development..

Without Greenlight it would have been impossible that Broforce, at this stage of development, would have secured distribution on Steam without publisher assistance. Being able to get that kind of certainty early on as a self-publisher is golden.

As I see it, the biggest difference between our experience on Greenlight and those of detractors has been our attitude. We always saw Greenlight as an opportunity to get on Steam, build a fanbase and gauge interest before release. Most others seem to see it purely as an obstacle to overcome before getting a distribution deal and raking in cash.  Making games is hard, doing so professionally and successfully is even harder.  If you enter this sphere and want to compete you can’t expect that others will make it easy for you.

(This article was cowritten by Ruan Rothmann and Evan Greenwood)