How I failed at greenlight
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Greenlight is a bit of an opaque process. I started my quest through greenlight six months ago and I’ve managed to get Captain Kaon bobbling around at 50%, but no farther. Through GreenDB.net I’m able to see how many votes the top 100 have and I’m about 400 short. In fact, in the last three months the votes required has risen from 600 to 900, while my rate of vote acquisition has been pretty static. At the moment I need more votes than all my attempts at promotion have gotten me and I’ve now run out of ideas on how to get more. At this stage it seems unlikely that I will make it through, so it’s a good time to have a post mortem on my campaign. If you’re thinking of trying greenlight, I hope this gives you a useful jump start.
Lack of Experience
This was the first time I’d promoted a game. I had a general idea of what to do, but mostly lacked the knowledge and skills required. This meant I was shooting in the dark with everything I tried. I don’t have the experience to know a good idea from a bad one, what would work from what wouldn’t, I just had to try everything and see what happened. I googled around the interwebs looking for advice and there’s some useful stuff out there. However, most of it is not concrete and it’s all from people who’ve passed Greenlight and have vague advice on how they did it. This is part of the reason I’m writing this, to add to the available information but from a different perspective. There is always value in failure if you can learn lessons from it.
I also found I am not ‘naturally’ good at promoting. When I’m working on my game I have all the drive and energy in the world, but promoting it is just draining. When you make some new sprites or code some new features you can see the positive results straight away when you run the game. There is a direct connection to what you do and the end result. I found promoting didn’t have this, I sent e-mails, posted on forums, but the end results weren’t instant and were often non-existent. This made the whole experience a grind and very draining.
There are some people who are suited to this sort of thing and I’m not one of them. In the future I will look into working with an indie marketing team. Promoting Captain Kaon has partly derailed its development. It would have been a better idea to have someone else handle the promotion whilst I concentrated on the game.
Preparing for Greenlight
If you haven’t done something before it can be hard to prepare for it. At the time I started my greenlight campaign I thought I had got the game in a pretty good state for promoting, but looking back now there are a number of things I should have done differently. You need to make sure you are properly prepared on day one, this is when you appear in the newest submissions queue and get a large amount of traffic to your page without having to drive it yourself.
Before starting the campaign I should have posted it on a few forums and looked for feedback. This would have helped me test the water and identify key problems. I had little nagging doubts about the game and areas I knew I would need to work on before release, but I did not know how this would impact greenlight. I thought the game was in a pretty good state and would attract enough attention to get me through. This was a somewhat foolish assumption. Just because a lot of poor quality titles get through greenlight doesn’t mean it has a low quality threshold.
Captain Kaons’ problem was a lack of visual pop, the screenshots and videos just weren’t exciting enough. I have since rectified this and improved the game immensely, redrawing sprites and improving particle effects, but it’s far too late to have any effect on the votes I would have gained from the new submissions queue. Comparing my yes vote percent now to back then, this mistake could have cost me around 100 votes. A quarter of the votes I’m currently missing.
I also think I started my campaign far too early. I didn’t really know when I should start it so I decided to ‘just do it’. But, promoting and developing at the same time is tough and this was a mistake. I’m only one person, dividing my time like this meant I was only doing half a job of each. I would have been better off carrying on development until I was mostly finished and then trying Greenlight, with my sole focus on promoting.
Greenlight's 9 second window.
As I’ve mentioned before, my analytics indicate that around 86% of people visited my greenlight page for 9 seconds or less. That’s a tiny amount of time to make an impression. It could be because people arrive just to vote, having seen the game elsewhere. However, I have been seeing this behaviour from the start, when the game was just in the new submissions queue.
Looking at my trailer I realised that the first 6-seconds were just logos, so I added a new video in front of this that was 30 seconds of pure gameplay. I hoped this would have a better effect. I then kept returning to update the page and swap this video to one with newer features. Then I noticed something on my youTube page, these video didn’t have many views. In fact, the 1722 unique visitors to my page had only generated 298 video views. At best 17% of people who visited my page viewed a video and that’s assuming everyone watched only one video and that they didn’t view it elsewhere.
I considered my own behaviour when viewing a greenlight page. I have videos turned off. I look at the screenshots, if they are interesting I’ll look at the video and read the blurb. It would seem that this kind of behaviour is common and that most people turn the videos off too.
Perhaps I should have done more with my screenshots. They were just straight frames from the game. I have a system where I get into an interesting spot and press a button, the next 360 frames then get saved as png’s. After half an hour of playing the game I end up with several thousand shots and I can then look back and pick out the best ones. I could have added some feature text or other information to add context to the screenshots, I’ve seen other games do this and it’s probably a good idea.
Killer concepts drive indie
Brevity is the soul of wit and the key to selling an indie game. You get 9 seconds to use wisely so you need to nail your concept. Big studios have PR teams with budgets to push their games. Indies don’t have that, all we have is our games concept and the hope that it makes us stand out. Your game needs to sell itself.
This is where I had a big problem. Captain Kaon is basically a gravity shooter that’s inspired by classics such as Thrust and Gravitar. There are not many games like that around, but there’s also not much demand for these types of game. These games are mostly forgotten, so invoking them doesn’t have much effect. I tried to develop the concept further by talking about its pixel art style and 50’s sci-fi themes, but that didn’t work either.
Because of this weak concept I have also continually struggled to write about the game in an exciting and engaging way, and I don’t really know what my unique selling point is. This is important for promoting games. You often need to write about your game to connect with people and make them want to pick up your game. Having a solid concept with a unique selling point is the key to this. Without it, you will find yourself having to work a lot harder at convincing people.
Captain Kaon was originally meant to be a short project, six months to a year to do. I picked it because it was a simple idea that I would enjoy working on, not because it was a concept that was exciting. This was a fundamental mistake that I made early on. I did this because Captain Kaon was partly intended to be a trial run at making an indie game. This was the first time I’d made a game on my own, outside of a studio environment. There were a lot of things I needed to learn, but as I worked on it the project began to expand. Before I knew it two years had passed, my money was starting to dry up and this little project had taken over my life. Yet, with all the improvements I had made to it, I still didn’t have a better concept or unique selling points.
Find your audience
I’ve heard and read the advice ‘you need to find your audience’. This is something I’ve completely failed to do. I looked all over the internet for places where people might be interested in my game. I got a few votes, but no lasting interest. To build an audience you need to find the players and then bring them to a central place, then provide a constant stream of new information on your game so they hang around.
I started with my Greenlight page and tried to engage with people there. I would read all the comments and reply to some of them, but was unable to start any conversations. It seems like people only go to a Greenlight page once, when they vote, and then don’t return. Replying to comments is useful for providing answers to the next voter that comes along, but it doesn’t help build a community.
When I was working on Total War our community was based in our forums. Finding a little corner of an indie forum somewhere seemed like it would be a good place to start building a community of my own. I posted on a number of forums and kept returning to each thread with news and screenshots to keep it alive. I kept this up for a couple of weeks, but I didn’t get any engagement. There were page views and even a few votes each day, but no replies. I suspect players require an actual game to play and get excited about, to talk about, if they are going to be posting on forums.
I’ve tried to leverage social media. I started with Twitter and joined in with the #screenshotsaturday trend. I’ve picked up the odd follower here and there; I even got a little bit of a mention in a blog post. But Twitter has mostly gotten me zero votes, I suspect this is because it’s a primarily mobile platform. It’s a pretty trivial task to log in to Steam on your phone browser and vote, but how many people actually make that extra step? I think this tiny barrier is important; unfortunately there is no way of measuring this behaviour to find out.
There was also some interesting behaviour I noticed with a recent tweet I sent. It was a link to a dev diary post I had just made on my website (with obligatory screen shot), discussing improvements to gameplay. Of the 455 impressions it made there were only 11 engagements, that’s 2.4%, but not the interesting part. The engagements were 5 retweets, 5 favourites, and 1 link clicked. People who favorited and retweeted the link didn’t even read the article it went to. I’m not quite sure what they says about social media, perhaps people are more interested in being involved in a conversation than in its actual content.
I’ve recently started building up a Facebook page in an attempt to at least have a social media presence; so far it hasn’t taken off. I’m still figuring out how to promote a Facebook page. You need people to ‘like’ and share your posts to make them spread, but you already need a following to get that to happen. Without this little army your posts won’t be seen by anyone. I’ve tried using the ‘boosted post’ feature to get some attention and it’s gotten me the odd ‘like’ and even a vote, which is better than Reddit ads, but it costs $20 a go to do this. It may be that I need to build a following by releasing games, once Captain Kaon is out it may draw people to my page and this will then help me on the next project.
No Kickstarter Campaign
I didn’t give Kickstarter much thought because I had enough savings to fund Captain Kaon and it didn’t feel right to ask people for money when I had it myself. But the thing with Kickstarter is that it’s as much a promotion platform as it is a source of funding. Backers have a vested interested in seeing your project pass Greenlight. Once they’ve put their money down they want you to succeed so they can get the thing they are backing.. This means they will tell other people about your project through social media or even word of mouth. This was exactly how I learnt about the Oculus Rift, I walked into the kitchen one day and there were a couple of programmers talking about it. Five minutes later I’m back at my desk watching the videos and getting out my credit card.
I’ve no way of knowing what would’ve happened if I’d tried Kickstarter, but there a few guesses I could make. Based on my Greenlight performance, the poor concept, and flat graphics, it would likely have failed. The interest levels when I first started my Greenlight campaign weren’t high enough to indicate that Kickstarter would have been successful. It would have exposed the problems with my concept and visuals in the same way that Greenlight has.
Kickstarter could still be an option for me when I’m closer to release. My game looks and plays a lot better now. If I can improve my concept, if I can get the game in a more finished state, if I can add some features and style that gives it appeal, then it might have a chance. If I ask for a small amount and about 500 backers it could get me the last few votes I need to get through Greenlight.
Captain Kaon Lite
Most of the positive reactions I got for Captain Kaon were from people who actually played the game. If I could get it in to peoples’ hands and have them play it, there might be a spark of interest. To achieve this I created a 4 mission version of the game that was as polished and fun as I could make it, and put it up on Itch.io. I was hoping this would get me a decent spike of around 50-100 votes, but had no data to use to make predictions, so I had to just try it and see. I did a little promoting to drive traffic to the page. I e-mailed websites and bloggers, then posted screenshots and information on forums and Facebook groups.
Itch.io gives you a useful analytics page that includes a list all the places people arrive at your page from and then links back to the source. Captain Kaon Lite behaved in the same way as my Greenlight campaign. Initially the traffic to the site came from the ‘new games’ section, but this dried up after a couple of days. The only website that produced any views was bluesnews.com, which accounted for nearly half my total. All the forum posts I made added up to about 3 views. The remaining views came from several indie game Facebook groups.
In the end it didn’t do very well. After a week I had 120 views, 40 downloads, and 8 votes. This was someway short of what I’d hoped for, but it wasn’t all bad. This mini release really helped focused my development and improve the game. One of the things I had to add was an in-game menu that paused the game. I had somehow managed to go two years without implementing any form of pause. Whenever I tested the game and needed to write down an issue I would have to park the ship somewhere out of the way and hope the Ai didn’t come along and shot it.
End of a Greenlight story?
So, based on my experience, what’s the best advice I can give to other indie developers?
- Start with a solid core concept that people find engaging. Try and find at least one thing about it that is unique and interesting. Show this concept to your friends and see what they think. If your concept isn’t exciting, do something else.
- Once you have a solid core to your game, a good vertical slice, show it to people and get feedback. Make sure it’s fun and see if people engage with it. You should look at your responses and use them to hone the core of your game.
- Don’t start your Greenlight campaign until you have polished your game and made it look amazing. Spend time working on the visuals so that everything pops and the game jumps off of the screen at the player.
- Have as much of your game finished as you can so you aren’t splitting your time between promotion and development. You need to be on a constant promoting drive every day.
- Start with very small games and simple ideas. Give yourself a hard limit on the time you are allowed to make them in. Get them polished and get them out so you can build up a following.
So there it is, not quite the end of my story, I haven’t given up yet. I’m still going to finish Captain Kaon and release it. I’m hoping that if I get it out on all the other distribution platforms out there it will get enough attention to pass greenlight. It should also be easier to get the attention of bloggers and press if there is a finished game to review. This might finally get me those last votes.
If you’re looking at trying a Greenlight campaign, I hope I’ve given you enough information to learn from my failure.