MedicineStorm over on OpenGameArt.org recently asked me to elaborate on what I'd called the 'Greenlight Roller Coaster Ride' and so I thought I should do so for the curious out there. To be honest, I'd meant to write some sort of article Greenlight right after I got through it, since I thought it might be nice to share my experience with others who might be just starting or considering going through the process. Unfortunately, right when my game got greenlit there was a ton of other stuff to do in order to get it packaged and ready for sale on Steam, and then there was some bug chasing to be done, and then Steam cards and achievements to add, and then my next game to work on, etc. etc. Needless to say, I never got around to penning that 'Greenlight Go! Go! Coaster' article and now, well, it's hard for me to believe but it's been over two years now and unfortunately, it's all a little hazy fuzzy in my head now. But on the theory of better late then never, here's my little Greenlight memoir.
When I said 'roller coaster', I was mainly referring to the emotional ride I personally experienced taking my game Instant Dungeon! through Greenlight. The big thing I remember is that there is this 'admin' website which is full of all kind of interesting numbers for you to obsess about. And obsess I did. Ostensibly, the goal of Greenlight is to collect enough 'yes' votes to get your game into the top 100 of all games on Greenlight. That's when Valve is supposed to come in and wave their magic wand and give you the greenlight. Of course, the actual selection process is entirely at Valve's discretion, and being in the top 5% doesn't gaurauntee anything. Sometimes a game will languish in the top 100 for months or more, other times Valve will swoop in and greenlight a promising title before it's gotten anywhere near the top 100. But as a developer you can't really control any of that, so all you can really do is try and get your game more yes votes and pray.
When I was doing Greenlight, again this is a few years back now, you needed somewhere around 6-8,000 votes to crack the top 100. As I understand it, that's way down from the 80,000 or more that were needed when Greenlight first launched, but it was still plenty enough to be daunting. Like any overcrowded virtual 'storefront', the front page is a coveted spot on Greenlight. It gets the most eyeballs and is the best place to be to get random un-directed strangers to find your game and vote for it. The good news is that your game starts there since the page is just a date sorted dump of the most recent submissions. The bad news is it doesn't stay there for very long. This leads to a huge rush of visits (and hopefully votes) when your game launches followed by steep drop off as your game gets pushed to the back of the deck by incoming titles. If you're lucky, that first rush can be enough to launch you into the top 100 right away. Well, I shouldn't say lucky, if this happens, you've probably put together a really great pitch for a really great game idea. If this doesn't happen though, then you've just got to hope to get as many yes votes as you can during your moment in the sun and then start the long climb to get the rest of the way.
All the numbers are fuzzy to me now, but if I recall correctly, Instant Dungeon! racked up something like 1,000 votes in it's first weekend on Greenlight. Again, I might be wrong about that, I don't recall and am not sure there's anywhere I could even go to look it up at this point. What I do remember for sure is that it felt great! You see a lot of posts from developers after their first day or two on Greenlight expressing astonishment, humility and gratitude in the face of all the support they've recieved so quickly, and let me tell you, those feelings are genuine. If you added up all the people I've ever met in my entire life, it might total out to 1,000, maybe. So to have that many strangers come out and actively say 'Yeah that game you made looks pretty cool', is a really good feeling. Unfortunately, that initial rush doesn't last long as your game quickly gets pushed out of the limelight and your votes-per-day count drops off dramatically. When you got 1,000 votes in your first few days it seems like 8,000 couldn't be that far aways, even at half or a quarter that rate you'd still clear the goal in no time. But as the rate contiues to drop, 8,000 yes votes starts to seem very, very far away. At 100 votes a day, you're looking at 60 days. Two months, no big deal. At 50 votes a day, 120 days, four months, ok that's not great but doable. 25 votes a day, 8 months, ugh. And so on, until you hit 10 votes a day and realize, at this rate, it ain't gonna happen.
Of course, votes per day isn't the only number you get to watch incessantly while your game is in Greenlight. As mentioned, Valve has a whole page worth of analytics for you to study and obsess over. If I recall correctly, the key stats are total votes, total 'yes' votes, total page views, and your 'yes to no ratio' which is just all your yes votes divided by the total number of votes. That last one is a key barometer of your game's appeal. It basically numerizes the question, if someone saw your pitch, did they like it? In your dreams, your game is awesome and your pitch so irresistible that everyone votes 'yes' and your yes/no ratio is something north of 90%. In reality though, your game's appeal is narrow and your pitch isn't that great, so your ratio is quite a bit south of your dreams. Again, working from my hazy memory, Instant Dungeon! ended with a yes/no ratio just below 50% and that was considered pretty awesome. Which really it is. I should add that this number is especially critical during the launch period when you're getting tons of traffic from being on the main page. It's also critical whenever you're doing some kind of promotional work to try and attract votes. It basically sets the bar of how many people do you have to drag to your greenlight page to get one vote. Well that number is actually set by the ratio of yes votes to total visits, but the yes/no vote is a good enough proxy to get the idea. If you're yes/no ratio is 90% you're pretty much getting one vote for every eyeball you drag to the page. But if you're like most mortal game makers, you're ratio is way lower and you have to drag multiple people to the page for each yes vote you want. For Instant Dungeon! with a yes/no ratio of close to 50%, the math was fairly simple, for every vote you'd need about two people to check out the page. Not too bad, but it still meant to get 8,000 votes, I'd need something like 16,000 people to visit the greenlight page, probably closer to 18,000 when you consider that not everybody who views your page bothers to vote. That's a small army. It's definitely more people than I've ever met in my life. But I suppose I shouldn't complain, like I said, when Greenlight first launched people needed 80,000 votes or more to crack the top 100, and if you double that, well that's a very large army!
In addition to giving you numbers for your game, Valve gives you a comparison with the average of the top 50 games on Greenlight. There's even a nice big graph that compares your vote total to the vote totals for the #5, #10, etc. games after the same number of days on Greenlight. I forget exactly how many and which games it shows, all I really remember is that it can be a very demoralizing chart to look at. Basically, it just shows you how those games either were steadily getting way more votes than you, or were doing about the same and then one day got discovered by somebody and bang, rocketed right to the top.
And of course, aside from all these numbers, there are comments and discussion questions to obsess over. Actually, comments are their own numbers game, because not only do you read them and reply to them and stuff like that, you also obsess over how many there are. Just like the yes/no ratio, comments are a good proxy for how interesting your pitch is. The logic is pretty simple, voting takes a certain amount of effort and commenting takes even more, so if people are commenting on your page then you've done something right. Well, hopefully something right, it's either that or something horribly wrong. I was pretty lucky and got plenty and mostly positive comments on Instant Dungeon! and I should say how grateful I am for this. When you release a game you're really putting yourself out there, it isn't easy and there are definitely days when you'd rather just go hide than face the world. So if you're in the game buying public, one of the nicest things you can do is to drop a nice comment or give some good feedback to a developer, it can really help keep someone going in what often seems like a hopeless fools errand. I suppose you could call me vain, but to this day, I still occasionally go back and read positive reviews and comments for Instant Dungeon! I've been working on the follow up title for over two years now and the going has gotten rough on it more than once, so it's been great to be able to go back and get a little pick me up now and again. It's less about the adulation, and more about just knowing that someone enjoyed the work I created. That it was worth the struggle and hopefully the next one will be too.
Ok, getting back to Greenlight and in case I didn't make it clear already, the whole time your game is in Grenlight, you're checking all this stuff incessantly. I eventually learned to limit myself to one check a day, but that was only after a whole lot of self-inflicted pain and anguish, and even then I'd still cheat a little sometimes.
So how did I survive against this soul crushing gauntlet of math and get my game greenlit? Well the simple answer is I got lucky. Very lucky. I was fortunate enough to have a publisher working for me, and a competent and trustworthy one at that. Indeed, the only reason my game was even on Greenlight was because Flying Interactive contacted me cold and asked about publishing the game on Greenlight. I'd never heard of Flying Interactive and was naturally wary of entering into any sort of agreement with someone whom I only knew from an unsolicited email. But I asked some questions and they gave the right answers, mainly that they would just be getting distribution rights to the game, no IP rights whatsoever, and those rights would be non-exclusive and not include any of the stores I'd already self published on. They also said a few things that let me know they were honest and decent people. Moreover, I figured I didn't really have anything left to lose as I'd already given up on putting the game on Greenlight myself.
Instant Dungeon! was originally envisioned and written as something fun to do on my Playstation Vita. I'd self published on the Playstation Mobile Store and enjoyed terrific sales, seriously about 10x what I'd ever hoped for for the game. The PC version by contrast, hadn't done nearly so well. I really only wrote it because I am at heart a system programming junkie, so when I sat down to write a game engine for making PSM games, I naturally decided it should be a cross platform engine and PC was the easiest platform to do so I added support for it. It also let me use Visual Studio for the bulk of my game development which was a big plus, say what you will about Microsoft, they make excellent development tools. Oh and the PC version also meant I could share the game with friends and family easily since only one other person I know has a PS Vita and he helped make the game. So my ambitions for the PC release were none too grand, but I still self published it on a number of stores and even got some great promotional help from the kind folks at Green Man Gaming (they re-skinned their entire indie storefront Instant Dungeon! for a few days). But still sales were anemic at best. To give you an idea, I sold more copies of the game in my first week on the Playstation Mobile store than I did in total across all non-Steam PC storefronts for the entire 4-5 month period before the game was on released on Steam. And in case you hadn't heard of it, Playstation Mobile was some bizarre Sony experiment in cross cell phone and PS Vita open development. If there was a center to the Sony Entertainment empire, then Playstation Mobile was the store front farthest from it. My only friend with a PS Vita, the one who helped make the game? I had to show him where the store was and how to access it. Oh and it's closed now. Gone and completely inaccessible. Forever. Anyway, I'd designed the game as a portable, quick play kind of experience and based on the evidence in front me figured that there just wasn't a market for it on PC.
Flying Interactive had faith though, and more importantly, they had a plan. From the time the game got on Greenlight to the day it was Greenlit, they were always working hard promoting the game. They put it in front of reviewers and you tubers. They got it on some popular Let's Play streams. They got a few steam groups to recommend the game. They did a few small giveaways, raffling off 25 copies of the game. I hasten to add that since the game was already done and released, these raffles were never of the 'votes for games' variety. You got a copy the game immediately and regardless of it's Greenlight status. Though we did promise anyone who got a copy on any other PC store a Steam key once the game was greenlit and certainly made the link to the Greenlight handy for folks participating in the giveaway. Still, the giveaways were small, and it was more of a routine promotional tool than the kind of direct 'send us your email and we'll give you a copy /if/ the game is greenlit' scheme Valve eventually had to crack down on. In all honesty, Flying Interactive told me they could setup that kind of giveaway if I ever wanted, but I never availed myself of that option and in hindsight am quite glad I didn't, although I certainly understand the appeal. You're basically stuck at zero sales without being greenlit so even if you have to give away the game to get there, you'd still be better off than you'd be languishing in Greenlight forever. That and there were certainly days when I just wanted the whole danged Greenlight thing to over already.
Flying Interactive also got Instant Dungeon! into one edition of the weekly Indie Gala Bundle. Personally, I am not a huge fan for the indie game bundle craze, but it was a timed and deliberate move to get the game in front of a lot of players and generate buzz and hopefully greenlight votes.
To be frank, all this promotional stuff was pretty hit or miss. Somethings got the game a thousand or more votes, somethings a few hundred, some barely moved the needle at all. I don't remember too much about what promotions worked and what didn't, except that the two biggest ones were the Indie Gala bundle and getting noticed by some Steam groups. These are highly motivated gamers and when they put the word out about your title people listen. The important thing for me though was that Flying Interactive kept working at it. They were also smart about timing the different promotions, spacing things out instead of using up all their weapons early and having nothing left for later on. Of course, this spacing probably directly contributed to the roller coaster ride I talked about. One day your way up and it looks like the magic green light is just around the corner, the next your vote rate plummets and you feel like you'll never make it. And again, just so I don't under-emphasize this point, the whole while you are constantly refreshing the admin page, studying those numbers and staring at that chart thinking 'How long Lord Gaben, how long?!?'
For Instant Dungeon! the answer was 110 days. Since starting this little memoir, I've gone back and checked the admin page for Instant Dungeon!'s Greenlight page, which kindly enough was still around. So firstly, I can confirm that most the numbers given above are roughly correct. Secondly, I can dump some numbers on you for the curious and mathematically minded. Instant Dungeon! was greenlit after 110 days, had 23,302 unique visitors (this number is actually for the full 831 days the Greenlight page has existed and seems to still be climbing), got 1,943 comments, 16,937 votes, 8,861 yes votes, 8,076 no votes and 0 'ask me later' votes. That's a final yes/no ration of about 52%. And just to be clear, I am 100% eternally grateful for every single one of those votes and comments, even the no's and the harsh ones.
I'll also add that all those votes and comments inspired me to go back and expand the game considerably, adding a ton of new content (bosses, weapons, enemies, game modes, etc), partly to address my concerns about the game's suitability for PC gaming, but also just to kind of say thanks for all the love and support. So again, if you ever have the time, consider dropping a nice comment or suggestion on a developer's Greenlight page. It never hurts and it just might give someone the encouragement they need to finish up or improve on a game you'll love playing.
Just as a final note here, I should add that the non-Steam PC sales situation has changed a lot since the game came out on Steam, especially on the Green Man Gaming who've done some great promotions for the game and been a real treat to work with.
Ok, and just one last time, I want to say a big thank you to anyone and everyone who checked out, voted for, commented on, etc. Instant Dungeon! while it was on Greenlight and to anyone who has since then purchased, reviewed, helped bug fix, etc. etc. the game. It's been an honor and pleasure to help you all smile and enjoy our fair hobby and I hope to do it for you again with my next title!