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Steam Greenlight is a platform that allows active Steam users to vote on indie titles they wish to see showcased on its site. For a small submission fee, any indie developer can upload their game to the service. Once submitted, thousands of users, if not tens of thousands, will view and possibly vote or comment on the game. Sound great? It is... sort of.
The problem is, Greenlight differs wildly from other publishing models and, because of that, an understanding of how the system works and how you can make it work for you is imperative. And while it's still probably the best mechanism of generating exposure, and subsequently revenue, for your game, Greenlight is not without its inherent design flaws. In this article, we examine the Greenlight process and offer tips that will improve your chances of being highlighted on the Internet's most heavily trafficked game portal.
How Greenlight Works
So Why Did Valve Start Greenlight in the First Place?
As Valve, and subsequently the indie market, grew, it couldn't keep up with the sheer overwhelming amount of game submissions. So instead of not giving each individual game the attention it deserved, Valve opened up the submission process to the public. The result: Steam Greenlight.
What Do I Need to Do to Submit a Game to Greenlight?
Perhaps the biggest misconception developers new to the Greenlight process have is that their game must be in a completed, or nearly completed, state before submitting. That couldn't be further from the truth—well it could, but not much further.
While you'll want your game video to be representative of the final product (more on that later), most games that go up on Greenlight are months or even a year away from release.
Here's what else you'll need to submit:
- A valid Steam account (duh!)
- A submission form, chock full of details about you and your game
- $100 in cold hard cash—this is a one-time fee, meaning that once it's paid you can submit as many games to Greenlight as you like
- A branding image—essentially box art (512x512px and no larger than 1MB)
- Media: At least one video, and four screenshots that represent your game
- A description: typically just a paragraph or two that provides voters with an overview of your game and its features
And that's it. All told, the process is somewhat easier than submitting a game to Kickstarter. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't scrutinize every word and upload—quite the contrary.
For more on the Steam Greenlight submission process, I encourage you to visit Steam's About Greenlight page.
How Do I Get Approved?
This is the part that Steam doesn't fully explain. What we do know is that, in order to be Greenlit, your game will have to rank in the top X of those currently being voted upon.
So what is X? Unfortunately, there is no perfect answer, but by looking at trends we can come up with an idea.
Between mid-October 2013 and the time of this writing, 277 titles have been Greenlit. I say "titles" because a small percentage of those Greenlit are non-games.
Also noteworthy is that, while Steam does approve smaller batches from time to time, 100 seems to be the magic number. Thus, in order to safely ensure comfortable passage onto Steam, you should probably aim for a ranking in the top 100, if not the top 50. Thus, X equals somewhere between 50 and 100. This approximation is subject to change as the service evolves.
Tip: Note that a high ranking doesn't guarantee approval, but it will certainly heighten a game developer's chances.
Considering that there are nearly 1,500 games up for eligibility at any given time, ranking in the top 50 may seem like a daunting task. But really, after you take a few factors into account, it's not that bad:
- Sadly, the majority of games on Greenlight are either not polished or not professional enough to warrant consideration from voters. Generic RPG Maker games, games better suited for mobile devices, and games with inferior graphics litter Greenlight, and are almost immediately dismissed by Valve's fickle community.
- If 100 games are greenlit, your game will move up 100 spots in the rankings. Think of it like a deli line; every month, 100 games are removed from the queue, and everyone else still in line is one step closer to ordering cold cuts—er, getting their game Greenlit.
- "No" votes are not counted towards your overall ranking, only "Yes" votes. Thus, generating attention to your page is of paramount importance. Thankfully this is something you have some measure of control over.
How Many Votes?
Okay, so just how many votes does a game need to get the Greenlight? Despite all the information publicly available, it's still hard to say.
Celsius Studios, creators of recently Greenlit game Drifter, posted some insight into the topic in a recent blog post. Among the myriad of other useful information listed in the post, the studio points out that, by their measures, approximately 16,000-17,000 votes are needed to crack the top 100, and 50,000 are needed to reach the top ten.
The post also points out that the top 50 games only have a 60:40 ratio of yes-to-no votes. After doing a few simple calculations, it appears that about 28,000 total votes will be necessary for a good game to be accepted onto Steam.
And given Steam's traffic, that's really not all that much.
Common Criticisms of Greenlight
Steam Greenlight has been heavily scrutinized by the community, and although Valve has made some attempt to resolve its issues, several problems remain. They are, in no particular order:
- Not enough games are Greenlit: This was an early complaint among the community that has since been resolved. However, some would argue that nowadays too many games are being Greenlit. Case in point: recently Greenlit studio Playniac didn't even notice that it received the Greenlight until one of its fans informed it.
- Greenlight is a popularity contest: This is 100% true. The ability to communicate your work supersedes the work itself. Of course, making a great, well-presented game is still important, but not nearly as important as it should be.
- Voters cannot play your game: The single best way to realize a game's worth is to actually play it. Unfortunately, Steam Greenlight does not allow developers to post demos of their game, and I can't imagine why. It is, in my humble opinion, the biggest flaw of the system.
Preparing for Submission
Now that we've established that popularity factors into Steam Greenlit just as much as it does in a high school presidential race (not really, but it's close), we can base our entry strategy around getting noticed.
When preparing your submission package, the following advice should serve you well:
- Don't underestimate the power of social media: It may seem obvious, but your website, Facebook page, and Twitter account should all be set up months before you launch a Greenlight campaign. That way, at least you'll have the chance to gain some sort of following. And the more upfront "Yes" votes, the better. For more on marketing your game, see our indie game marketing checklist.
- Produce a video that showcases the best aspects of your game: Skip the splash screen and formal introductions and get right to the point. Don't bother talking at great length about the game—this isn't a Kickstarter campaign. Instead, let the gameplay speak for itself. Do, however, feel free to inject trailer-like aspects into your game, such as voice overs and meaningful transitions. Recently Greenlit game You Are Not the Hero does an excellent job of this.
- Write a meaningful, yet brief, description: The first paragraph or two should be a sharply written, engaging summary of your game. A short bit on the premise, followed by one standout gameplay feature and a final hook should suffice. Then, describe the core features of your game in bullet point form. Wrap things up with either a short FAQ, snippets from positive press, or links to your social media outlets.
Avoid the following at all costs:
- Programmer art: Your screenshots and video should be indicative of your final product. Do not, under any circumstances, use programmer art in your video. Remember, voters won't be able to download your demo from Steam Greenlight, and because of that their assessment of your game will be based heavily on visual presentation.
- Submitting your game to Greenlight before it is ready: Along the same lines, if you're still in the tech demo phase, hold off. Now, that doesn't mean your game needs to be finished, but if all you show a glorified tech demo, your chances of success will be reduced to ash. As a general rule, at least one level of your game should be in a beta state before you consider submitting it to Steam.
The Concepts Page
If you're not sure whether your game is ready for the big stage, consider placing it in the Concepts in Steam Greenlight section. Not only is it free, but it's a great way to gain valuable feedback. Granted, not nearly as many users visit the Concepts page as the game submission pages, but any feedback is better than no feedback, right?
A couple of other notes regarding the Concepts page:
- The requirements for submitting a concept are less rigid than submitting a game, but you'll still have to provide things like a branding image and at least some media.
- Registered Steam users can vote for, share, and follow conceptual games in much the same way that they can for actual Greenlight submissions.
- Developers can detailed metrics from a control panel, giving them an idea of how their game will fare once submitted.
- Concept games are rated on a scale of one-to-five stars. Having a high percentage of Yes votes versus No votes is not enough to earn a five-star rating; a significant amount of visitors will have to Favorite and Follow your concept as well.
Kickstarter and Greenlight
It seems that nearly everyone who runs a Steam Greenlight campaign is either in the midst of running a Kickstarter campaign, has already launched one, or is about to do so. Running a successful Kickstarter can do wonders for your Greenlight effort, and vice versa—but don't think that just because your Kickstarter met its goal that your game is guaranteed to get Greenlit. In fact, launching Kickstarter and Greenlight campaigns simultaneously can potentially cause more damage than good.
Let's examine the pros and cons of three different scenarios:
Launching Your Greenlight and Kickstarter Campaign Simultaneously
- Visitor traffic from Greenlight and Kickstarter will peak at the same time. By highlighting your Kickstarter campaign on Greenlight, you'll drive a ton of traffic to your Kickstarter page. The reverse is also true.
- Early popularity on Kickstarter tends to lead to sustained popularity, as you'll be featured on the site's "Popular this Week" section.
- Maintaining two major campaigns at once is a ton of work, and may prove overwhelming.
- Some games that are Kickstarter-ready aren't necessarily Greenlight-ready.
- After your first several days on Steam and Kickstarter, it's possible that your visibility will wane considerably.
Launching Your Greenlight Campaign During Your Kickstarter
- Sustained visibility on Kickstarter: Historically, Kickstarter donations fall off considerably during a campaign's second and third weeks. Launching on Steam Greenlight may provide your game with the added boost it needs to get through the trough. Along the same lines, Kickstarter campaigns in danger of not reaching their funding goal would do well to launch on Greenlight, if only as a desperation tactic.
- Existing backers will be excited to check out your Steam Greenlight page.
- You'll have received valuable feedback from your Kickstarter backers that can be applied to your Greenlight.
- You'll miss out on an influx of Steam Greenlight users during the pivotal early days of your Kickstarter campaign.
- It's difficult to run two concurrent campaigns. Not as difficult as if they were launched simultaneously, but arduous nonetheless.
- If your Kickstarter isn't doing well, it may deter Greenlight users from voting "Yes."
Launching Your Greenlight After Your Kickstarter Has Ended
- It's less stressful.
- You'll have more time to focus on your game, making it better and working out flaws before submitting it to Steam. In turn, your presentation will be more representative of a final product.
- Your game will benefit from two distinct exposure peaks.
- Kickstarter backers are very likely to vote "Yes" for your game.
- Failing to meet a Kickstarter goal doesn't necessarily spell doom on Greenlight, but for some voters it's a major red flag.
- Your Kickstarter won't benefit from the extra traffic wrought by launching on Steam Greenlight.
As you can plainly see, there is really no right and wrong answer to the Kickstarter vs. Greenlight question. Well, maybe one wrong answer: I wouldn't recommend launching a Greenlight campaign before a Kickstarter. Why? Quite simply, it'll be exceedingly difficult to convert the 10,000 or more Steam users that view your page during your campaign's first week into potential Kickstarter backers if your Kickstarter isn't live. Seems like a waste.
Collections are user-generated groupings of games that typically have something in common. They could share a release date, be part of the same genre, or simply be a listing of the collection owner's favorite games. Some of the more popular collections are viewed by tens of thousands of registered users. It is for this reason that you'd do well to get your game on as many high-profile collections as possible.
Doing so is no easy task. The best way is to already be an active member of the Steam community. Make friends, network, comment on others' pages. Treat Steam like you would any other social networking site. And most importantly, create an awesome game.
It's no coincidence that the one thing that every Greenlit game has in common is that they're all featured in multiple collections.
Releasing on Other Game Portals
In may seem counterintuitive at first, but releasing your game on sites like Desura and GOG.com may actually increase your chances of getting Greenlit. Historically, the bar for entry on these and other like-minded sites is far lower than it is for Steam.
The good thing about releasing on other portals first is that by the time you launch a Steam Greenlight campaign you'll have a dedicated fan base. Also, your game will likely have been reviewed by at least several gaming sites. If those reviews are even remotely favorable, it'll provide your campaign with an extra little boost. I know that if I'm on the fence about a game, a little positive press is sometimes just the encouragement I need to vote "Yes."
It's hardly perfect, but Steam Greenlight is still one of the best ways in which independent game developers can promote their games. Even if your Greenlight campaign ultimately proves unsuccessful, you'll have gotten your game in front of upwards of 100,000 gamers. And, unless you're a known commodity within the gaming world, no amount of social networking or marketing (possibly sans running a Kickstarter campaign) is going to generate that kind of exposure.
In short, you can enhance your chances of succeeding on Steam Greenlight by:
- Understanding the system and how you can make it work for you
- Putting together an awesome presentation that shows off the best aspects of your game
- Launching a Kickstarter campaign either before or at the same time as your Greenlight
- Networking, networking, networking
- Releasing on other game portals
Good luck, and may your game be given the green light.