I've read a lot of Greenlight post-mortems this year, and there's one thing almost all of them have in common: no one knows exactly what it takes to get greenlit. Sure, everyone agrees you need a great video with gameplay up front, some GIFs, and a bit of a social following beforehand... but Valve is notoriously vague when it comes to the number of yes votes or how high you need to be ranked in the top 100 before being approved to sell your game on Steam.
We launched XO on Greenlight on July 20th 2015, at the same time as our Kickstarter campaign. 8 days and 1,511 yes votes later, we were greenlit.
This is my first time running a project through the Greenlight gauntlet, and I hope sharing my experience will give you some insight on how to prepare your project for success.
Before we dive in, I think it's important to point out a few things. Jumpdrive Studios is a team of 5 guys working full-time. XO was in development for 6 months before going to Greenlight and almost all of my time went towards marketing. We're not the biggest studio to go to Greenlight, but we're certainly not the smallest – if you're a lone developer, you may not be able to take all of this on by yourself. My aim here is to give you an idea on where to focus your energy.
The first 3-5 days on Greenlight are absolutely the most important. You only have a little time in the spotlight before your project will get pushed into obscurity among a ton of other games that get submitted each day. The quicker you can start getting a healthy amount of yes votes, the better… and that's where having a strong community comes in handy.
Development for XO officially started in December 2014, and I came on board at the end of January. The first thing I did was secure all of our socials – no easy task for a game called XO. Because of this, I thought it would be better to set up our handles in the company name, Jumpdrive Studios (jmpdrv where applicable.)
Finding your audience can take months. I tried a bit of everything to see what worked best – writing guest blogs, posting on forums, and of course tweeting a lot. A whole lot. I won't get into every avenue for social networking and blogging, but Google Analytics tells me that Twitter, Facebook, and reddit were the best places to post about XO. I credit part of this to having a decent presence on all three before I started working on XO, and I didn't shy away from using my personal accounts to promote our project.
Now, if you're a hired gun working on a game with a group you don't know well, I wouldn't recommend putting yourself on the line like this. I felt comfortable doing it because I really believe in the project, and I trust the rest of my team. I felt personally invested very early on, and I'm passionate about the work we're doing here.
There are plenty of resources out there for social media practices, but here's a few tips to get your started:
Twitter: Start making GIFs, they get the best engagement! 300 pixels wide, and under 2MB. I tweeted several times a day, followed game devs and journalists that I liked (and thought might like our game) and used a lot of hashtags - #gamedev #indiegames and #screenshotsaturday.
Facebook: Try joining a few groups and start being a part of the community. Don't spam! The more comments on your post, the higher you'll be listed on the page, so keep the conversation going.
Reddit: Check out /r/gamedev and /r/indiegaming – they have weekly threads like Marketing Monday and the Self-Promotion Megapost which are great places to get some early feedback and find support from your peers.
Before going to Greenlight we had around 500 followers on Twitter, 300 likes on Facebook, and I had passable karma on reddit. It's really important to make a schedule for yourself to spend some time posting content – getting people's attention can take awhile. You can schedule posts on Facebook, and I use Tweetdeck to plan out tweets ahead of time, which helps if you can't dedicate a lot of time to marketing efforts.
Your trailer is by far your most valuable asset to get people excited about your game, so you have to make it awesome! I'm willing to bet the majority of players who came across our game on Greenlight didn't bother to read any of the text I carefully obsessed over.
I found a problem with a lot of space/strategy game trailers was that they don't always give you the best sense for what you'll actually be doing when it comes to gameplay. I watched quite a few while researching for the XO trailer, and most of them are just insanely beautiful ships floating through space making things explode. We thought our trailer should tell a story while showing off as much gameplay as possible. (And having an amazing track by Jim Guthrie to edit to didn't hurt.)
I also wanted to keep the trailer under a minute, which turned out to be a tall order. To cut down on time, we put the text beats on top of gameplay footage, and didn't bother with a ken-burns, Jumpdrive logo fade anywhere. No one knows who we are anyway (yet!) We shared our video with friends, non-gamers, fellow developers, and of course our parents – and made sure the majority of viewers weren't confused. We actually ended up making some major changes based on that feedback.
A lot of projects opt for an animated GIF for their main image, and while I didn't do this for XO, I think it's a great idea. For someone who has never heard of your game, animation is going to catch their eye better than a static image. The only reason I didn't have a GIF for our branding image is because it looked like dithered garbage every time I uploaded it.
Here's an example of a solid animated branding image from Inversus.
If you're working on a pixel art game with a low color pallet, you've got it made when it comes to making sweet, sweet GIFs (looking at you, Crawl).
I'd say 8-10 images is the magic number here. You're going to want plenty of screenshots and GIFs when you start reaching out to press, so have them ready! I tried to make each one different, and reveal something that the others didn't. Here's a great article on taking beautiful screenshots in your game.
Things can sometimes get out of hand in this section. When I first started drafting XO's Greenlight page, I was using way too many GIFs. It took the page forever to load. I was running a Kickstarter at the same time, so I decided to keep things short on the Steam page, and if someone really wanted to dig into our longer explanations of mechanics and features, that was readily available on our Kickstarter page. I wanted this to be a highlight reel, so I posted my best GIF, some social proof quotes from press and respected industry folk, and a solid overview. Again, I know everyone's not going to read this thoroughly, but it's still important to have it in there for those who do!
It turns out XO was a really bad name for search engines. At the time, both Kickstarter and Greenlight required you to enter 3 characters before you can click search. Granted, this is something that we were aware of before hand, and made the decision to stick with the name anyway. We could have added a subtitle or something, but didn’t really want to do that. I don't think it hurt our campaigns much, but it did add a barrier for those simply trying to search for XO in the early days of the campaign.
Now here's where things get interesting… I got an email from Kickstarter after our first week saying they noticed the issue and had their engineers fix it for us! I didn't even think to ask... because who would?
After that I thought "Hey, I'll just e-mail Valve and see what happens.” A few hours later, they hit me back and it was fixed on Greenlight search as well! A couple hours after that, we were Greenlit...
Quite the coincidence, right? I sent a follow up question, asking if the guy I talked to had anything to do with it, and got this response:
We've been splitting our time between development and marketing, and building a community one expo at a time. I attended half a dozen major events before launching on Greenlight and Kickstarter, and several local meetups. While some teams prefer to wait until later in development, we decided to bring XO to events while we were still very pre-alpha. We learned a lot from showing people the game in such an early state, and tried to gain as much insight as possible from everyone we met.
By the time we were ready to push our campaign public, we had a lot of support. We met a lot of talented people, like the Red Hook team, Fullbright, Harebrained Schemes, and several others I greatly admire. They helped us catch the most excited parts of XO, which prepared us for the road ahead.
I wrote an extensive post-mortem about our experience working with the Collective, which you can read here. Running XO through their feedback platform was an awesome practice run. It helped us hone our pitch, figure out what was working and what wasn't, and it gave us a story – something we could use to start contacting press. On that note...
Getting an awesome story written up about your game can really kick things into high gear. Look for websites and journalists who write about games similar to yours, and especially those that are willing to cover a Greenlight game.
Keep in mind, getting press can be hard. Expect to feel invisible for awhile. And don't be surprised when everyone starts asking for a playable build before they're willing to write a story on your game. If you don't have one ready, try to give them an estimate of when you will, and stay in touch. Here's a good blog about how to reach out to press.
Youtubers and Twitch streamers are arguably as important as press these days. If you've got something you're ready to be broadcast over the internet, then I'd use the same strategy as contacting journalists. We weren't quite ready to send out builds, so this didn't apply to XO's Greenlight campaign.
This could be one of the most overlooked aspects of launching your campaign, but man is it important. We almost launched during E3, which could have been a disaster. We would have been completely overshadowed by all the AAA titles being announced. Luckily we realized our mistake and pushed everything back about 5 weeks. We were thinking more about our Kickstarter than Greenlight when we made this decision, but I still think it's a good point to note.
I'm not sure there's a perfect day to launch, but having our first few days roll through a weekend feels like it would have been a mistake. So we went with a Monday. I've also heard rumors that Steam will push the button on about 100 games towards the turn of the month. XO was Greenlight on July 28th, so this turned out to be the case for us, but I can't confirm that it always happens around that time.
I pushed Kickstarter and Greenlight live within seconds of each-other. When I was planning our campaigns, there was never a doubt in my mind that this was the right move. I felt confident that I could manage both at the same time. However, if you don't have someone on your team dedicated to running the show, this can be extremely difficult.
One of the benefits of running both campaigns simultaneously is that you'll get some cross-over. We had backer missions on our Kickstarter page, and one of them asked our supporters to go vote for us. Once we were greenlit, that counted as a point towards unlocking Stretch Goals.
I still found myself split between promoting the Kickstarter and Greenlight at any given time. Luckily, we got through Greenlight fast, and I immediately shifted all focus on our Kickstarter. Just keep in mind that it's going to be a lot of work before you settle in, and make sure you're prepared to be very busy and possibly pulled in two directions.
I made sure to respond to every comment that warranted a response. The only comment that really irked me was someone saying that we had no business being on Greenlight or Kickstarter because we had help from Square. As I talked about in my Collective blog, there was quite a bit of confusion on how the Collective was involved with our project. I posted a polite clarification, and besides that, only had to remove 2 comments – one that was comparing our title to a sex act, and another that was linking to what I assume was some virus, claiming our game had leaked. This alone is reason to visit your Greenlight comments several times a day.
During our first week, I posted an announcement about every other day. I had made a schedule of specific things I wanted to share to keep our momentum high, including a 3D ship modeling time-lapse video, close up screenshots of 13 different ship types, and a 17 minute video of pre-alpha gameplay that we streamed on Twitch. After getting greenlit, the announcements shifted more towards our ongoing Kickstarter campaign, and in the future I plan to mirror our weekly development updates there.
Even though my friends told me XO would get through Greenlight just fine, even though we had Square Enix Collective supporting us... I still never felt like getting through was a sure thing. When I got the “Congratulations, XO has been Greenlit!” email from Valve, I just just walked through the door into my apartment, and totally freaked out my 2 year old when I yelled in excitement.
But there's still a lot to do! XO has about a week left on Kickstarter, so we'll continue to push towards additional Stretch Goals for now. After that, it's on to Steam integration, and busting our humps to get this game to alpha!
If you'd like to talk more about running a Greenlight campaign, you can find me on Twitter.