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Understanding Indie Development Through Greenlight

DennisScimeca

Posted September 26, 2012 - By Dennis Scimeca


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Understanding Indie Development Through Greenlight

The dominance of Valve Software’s digital distribution platform Steam rarely gets challenged. Back in 2009 it was estimated that Steam enjoyed around 70 percent of the digital distribution market in terms of dollars generated per month, and the service certainly hasn’t grown any smaller since. Valve makes big money in PC-centric markets like Germany and Russia, and these successes underscore how influential and important Steam is in the PC sector of the video game industry.

For independent developers who lack the budget to run effective marketing campaigns, whether or not people can discover their game is a huge concern. This makes Steam extremely attractive to indies.

There are plenty of other ways for indie developers to distribute their games like selling off their own websites or working with other digital distribution services, but nothing beats having space on a platform like Steam which is hugely successful and popular.

This is why Steam Greenlight is such an important addition to the service. Developers can submit their games to the Greenlight program, and then Steam users can vote for or against games they would like to see distributed on Steam. Steam users can see which Greenlight games their friends have voted for or against, and give developers feedback on their submissions.

The actual Steam submission process doesn’t change. Rather than submitting their games into the same queue as everyone else, indie devs can try to get some attention on their games via Greenlight and potentially move to the front of the line.

When Greenlight first launched it was almost immediately choked with garbage or inappropriate submissions. Some developers submitted game ideas rather than games already under development. Some Steam users submitted requests for triple-A titles that weren’t already distributed on Steam or made clear joke submissions.

Understanding Indie Development Through Greenlight

In an effort to filter out some of the noise, Valve instituted a $100 fee for using the service. This was not a fee to get one’s game listed on Steam, but rather only a fee to put a game onto Greenlight, with no promises of success. The money would not go to Valve, but would be donated to the Child’s Play charity.

The debacle that erupted shortly thereafter is illuminating to casual observers of the independent video game development industry. For instance, many of the complaints about the fee came from indie devs around the world. If a developer lives in a country where their currency is valued very low compared to the U.S. dollar, coming up with a “mere” hundred dollars can be a tremendous burden. These complaints were a reminder as to how many indie developers are working abroad. Regardless of which country these sorts of complaints rang in from, however, the debate over whether the $100 fee was reasonable was a reality check as to what conditions most independent developers find themselves working in.

Thanks to projects like Indie Game: The Movie and the success of developers like Markus “Notch” Persson of Minecraft fame, it’s very easy for the casual observer to imagine the indie scene as something akin to a world of boutique development. The truth which re-imposed itself after the $100 Greenlight fee was levied is that independent developers are far more often laboring in obscurity and trying to make their careers work on shoestring budgets.

Understanding Indie Development Through Greenlight

Greg Lobanov is an indie developer who has published games like Crazy Over Goo, Dubloon and Escape From The Underworld for free as a hobby, but he’s hoping to make the transition into professional game development with his new title, Phantasmaburbia and has been working on the game for over a year and a half.

“A decision like that has all sorts of heavy implications that I didn't really even think to start considering until I was in the thick of it, so now I'm crash coursing in the nitty gritty of marketing and publicity and sales and all that fun stuff. And it became clear pretty quickly that Steam was "the place" to be right now,” Lobanov told us.

“It's very easy and very, very common for a game to fail commercially. Getting people's attention is hard. If you're not one of the big names, you're nobody. And the way things are now, if you're making a PC game and it isn't on Steam, you may as well be nobody.”

The furor over the Greenlight fee also taught us something about the potential disparity between developers who get lumped under the label “indie.” Plastic Piranha is also an independent studio but they’re developing the first person multiplayer-only shooter Rekoil and are staffed with expert modders, and professional map designers from the Battlefield and Splinter Cell franchises. They also have a final predicted budget of three million dollars. They’re not worried about a $100 Greenlight fee.

Understanding Indie Development Through Greenlight

“If you are going to make a title for Steam, you are basically going to spend at least $300k getting there in internal resources,” Kevin Dent told us. Dent is the President and CEO of Tiswaz Entertainment and part of the team working on Rekoil. “I am yet to talk to a serious developer that has made studio grade titles that has a problem with this,” said Dent, referring to the $100 Greenlight fee.

“Here is the thing, our team works hard. We have sunk a ton of money into this title and yes that is material. However, the crux is that whilst money does actually matter; it is heart breaking to the team’s spirits to see that people cannot actually discover our title because some guy, in some house, in some town wants to amuse their friends by saying that they want to create World of Warcraft as a Greenlight project,” Dent added, referring to the garbage submissions that plagued Greenlight prior to the institution of the fee.

What’s illuminating is that even with the disparity of budget and staff between Lobanov and Plastic Piranha, getting his game on Steam is no less important or huge for Dent than it sounds like it is for Lobanov. And in that, Greenlight also reinforces our understanding as to what truly marks an indie.

For an indie, distribution is everything. “Our job as developers is pretty simple, we are here to serve and entertain; if people love our games then that literally makes us lose sleep with happiness. If they don’t…. well then that literally makes us lose sleep with despair,” said Dent. “I just hope people understand why this move by Valve [the $100 fee] takes a tiny bit of pressure off of game developers in trying to get their title on Steam. We are not looking for a pass, we are just looking for the possibility that our Greenlight project is a little easier to find.”

Understanding Indie Development Through Greenlight
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