The following is a shortened version of an article from the RetroNeo Games blog page.
As I write, it's February 28th, 2017. Last day of the month, second day of GDC and our Greenlight campaign for Sons of Sol is 15 days old, but was born prematurely. The original due date was approximately February 26th.
Author's note: Despite the title and opening paragraph, this blog post isn't a gripe! Valve have every right (and it's been long overdue) to make changes to their submission process. We just happen to be caught out by the situation and are sharing our findings.
As I'm sure we all know, on Friday February 10th, Valve announced that it would be shutting down Steam Greenlight forever "this Spring" and replacing it with Steam Direct, a system that does away with the community involvement in favour of a verification process "similar to setting up a bank account" and then a recoupable fee for each game submitted. We all also know that this process involves an as-yet-unknown fee that could be "as high as $5,000".
Given that Greenlight costs only $100 to get on, any small studio who had hoped to get on Greenlight any time soon is now rushing onto the platform - usually underprepared!
Briefly, Sons of Sol is a 2D space combat sim where you decide how and when to fight. Essentially we're taking the controls of Asteroids, and building a 90s-style space combat sim (think Wing Commander or TIE Fighter) on it. The progression is systems-driven with a light story. Think of the strategy layer of an XCOM game, with story dotted here and there.
You can get the demo for yourself here.
Our plan was to launch the game's Greenlight campaign to coincide with our new 'vertical slice' demo that would show off our home carrier, some characters, new sound design and music, and a bit more gameplay. This same demo would be ready for GDC for any publisher or press meetings we might stir up.
But with Valve's announcement that Greenlight would be gone during Spring (when I was in school in Ireland, I was taught that Spring was Feb - Apr, so we were already in it by my count) the team had a quick emergency meeting over Skype on Saturday and decided to shift focus to doing a Greenlight trailer and page, sprucing up the website, and launching by Monday. The trailer would basically now just be the one we'd released just weeks before but with a Greenlight logo at the end. Previously the plan had been to shoot new footage from a playthrough of a newer demo and put that on the trailer.
We chose to move up our timeline because we knew that hundreds of other developers would be thinking the same way as us, and that the Greenlight servers would be absolutely flooded in a matter of days. We were only a few weeks from our intended launch anyway, so we figured we had an advantage in terms of the quality of the submission that we could make.
It's a pity because I've done a lot of research in the past year (one 2016 Gamasutra blog stood out in particular) as to how to maximise your launch on Greenlight, and I was eager to put it all to use. This included having a playable demo ready, having YouTubers play said demo, try to get press to talk about it, translate the page into multiple languages, and hook up Google Analytics.
Now, just two weeks shy of accomplishing all of this, we had to go off half-cocked. Seeing the green light turning red, we basically had to rev the engine to try and make the amber, because the red might be too expensive to... eh.. this metaphor is falling apart, sorry!
So, without translations, a press mailing list, a MailChimp campaign, or a demo, we launched. About the only thing we did get from our list (because it was the quickest thing to set up) was the ability to take some preorders on the site to prove to certain legal bodies that we're "in commerce". They're still available at the time of writing, discounted, but limited in quantity.
In the first week we got about 300 votes and made it 18% of the way to the top 100. There's no specific target to meet, but thousands of votes and being in the top 100 is certainly desirable (and normal for games getting through in the past).
The problem is that now, after a second week, we've gotten almost no further!
The reason we wanted all our ducks in a row was to maximise the 'yes' votes while Steam's algorithms were still sending natural traffic to our site. Just by launching, you'll get a certain number of referrals from normal Greenlight users browsing, but after that you're on your own to generate your voting traffic. In normal circumstances, the Steam algorithms send people your way for a few days.
Our natural traffic died off in under 12 hours!! That's a measure of just how many other new Greenlight games were going up just 3 days after Valve's announcement. At that stage we were closer to 200 votes. The next 100 votes we got during the first week were basically from friends and colleagues through Facebook and Twitter shares.
I've heard similar stories from many developers who are struggling with the campaign because they were forced to launch early and are just drowned out by the noise. The Steam algorithms just aren't sending people to your game's site for as long right now, and that's a big deal!
Since the launch I've been working every day for at (the very) least 12 hours, but not so much on the Greenlight campaign. Getting the demo ready for GDC to wow press and publishers was still a better priority - after all, nobody knows how many Greenlight votes you really need anyway, nobody knows when Greenlight is actually shutting down, and we had appointments scheduled with people who wanted to see a new build of the game. So, after launch and until yesterday, a new demo was priority number one!
I suspect that once Valve stops taking new submissions for Greenlight, they'll probably let through a lot of what remains in the following weeks, though they have kept their options open by declaring that anyone who has paid the $100 Greenlight fee and who doesn't get through will be reimbursed. So, who knows?..
That doesn't mean that I've ignored Greenlight either, though. Not at all! Over the coming days I ran a tentative €5 Facebook and €5 Twitter ad campaign (well targeted, with video) to see what happened. We got about a dozen clicks total and about 2 new votes. So, probably not worth investing too heavily there, then. Not for votes, anyway.
One issue is that you have to log in to Steam (assuming the ad-clicker even has an account) and often have to be emailed a security code for a 'new device' (so sick of doing that!), so anyone clicking a mobile or browser link would not likely be logged into Steam, and probably wouldn't bother doing so.
I got the Greenlight page translated into Russian, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese and German. Even though the algorithms had stopped sending us traffic, I hoped that a new language detected might send us users from those territories. It didn't. Absolutely nothing! So I decided not to proceed with French, Spanish and Italian.
I also contacted about two dozen Greenlight Collections groups. I especially targeted groups interested in space games. We did get included in five collections, but I saw no corresponding increase in traffic to us, unfortunately.
Well, with the GDC demo complete, I now get to turn my attention to contacting proper press outlets and YouTubers. I'm a big fan of grassroots marketing and using your own networks, but having tapped the social circles and developers that I know already we seem to have reached the limits of what that can offer us - namely, 320 votes.
Note: On Feb 28th, a batch of games must have been put through, as for virtually the same amount of votes we have now jumped to 25% of the way towards the top 100.
Contacting press and YouTubers is a fairly low probability activity, but one good bit of coverage can do wonders! That's now the stage that we're at to try and get more votes. You're commercially dead if you aren't doing this anyway.
I have confidence in our game, our trailer, our demo, and our team, but we're fighting in an oversaturated market, most definitely. Add to that that this is the week of GDC and the press (including Gamasutra) have even less column inches than normal to spare for Greenlight and indie demo stories.
This has felt like a bit of a weird blog to write. I often write about the industry somewhat abstractly, but I'm right in the middle of this one, and it's an incomplete story. Greenlight isn't gone yet, we haven't yet been accepted for or refused press coverage, and nobody, including Valve, knows much about Steam Direct yet.
I do hope I can do a positive follow-up to this blog in the near future. Until then, I can just thank you for reading, ask that you vote for us if you haven't yet, and consider sharing our Greenlight campaign with anyone that you think might be interested.
Thank you! Don't forget to try our free demo. You can download it from the Sons of Sol page.
Until next time..