Waiting for the Greenlight From Valve

Developer David Gallant shares the trials and tribulations of getting a game through Steam's new submission process.

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I Get This Call Every Day
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Late last year, I came into contact with independent game designer David Gallant, who was working on a project called I Get This Call Every Day. His game replicates the no-win experience of working in a call center, which just happens to be Gallant's day job. At the end of December 2012, Gallant submitted the game for Steam Greenlight approval. The Greenlight program allows Steam users to vote for the games that most appeal to them based on information, screenshots, and video provided by the developer. I asked Gallant to document the process. What follows is one designer's journey through Greenlight, in his own words.

01/03/2013: Day 5 of Greenlight, starting journal to document the process.

I made enough money from I Get This Call Every Day's direct sales to afford the Greenlight fee. I had honestly disregarded Greenlight up until this point. I know Steam can be a big contributor to a financially successful game, but I didn't think I had anything worth submitting to Greenlight. I felt, based on comments I'd seen on other Greenlight projects, that the community of voters was very caustic and hypercritical. It wasn't something I was keen to subject myself to for any of my current games.

However, I Get This Call Every Day was received better than I ever could have imagined. Aside from some reddit detractors, the game's reception had been overwhelmingly positive (though I later realized that, aside from reddit, there were few venues for detractors to express themselves). With some Twitter followers encouraging me, I decided to reverse my earlier decision and give Greenlight a try.

The first five days surprised the hell out of me. There were bad comments, sure, but there were also really positive ones.

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Now, Greenlight doesn't provide a lot of useful feedback about precisely how many votes your game has received or how well you are doing compared to other games. There is this seven-day graph; it has grey bars showing the average votes received by the top 100 most-voted games on Greenlight. That's a very relative metric, since you are given no actual number for these votes. The green bar represents how many votes your game received on that day. As you can see, the green bar got significantly higher than the grey bar, which had me pretty stoked.

And it remained high. After two days on Greenlight, the game had received 4% of the votes necessary to be included in the top 100 games. While this seems like an achievable goal, I recognize it for the bullshit that it really is. There have been three Greenlightings since the service opened; in October, they took the top ten games. In November, they took the top twenty. In December they took some of the top-rated games and also some "fast risers" that hadn't made it to the top yet. Valve's selection criteria is fluid and entirely at their discretion, so a blue bar inching incrementally towards 100% is a meaningless indicator of success. I know this, and I try to pepper my perception of success with this hard reality.

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Here's where it's at today, day five. You can see the voter decline around the New Year's holiday and a slight upswing, but I doubt it'll ever hit that Friday level again.

When some folks were knocking the game on reddit, I reacted badly--I responded to them, I referred to them as "trolls" on Twitter, and I started to get depressed. I eventually got over it, with some help. It was something I needed to get over. Of course, the Greenlight page became a hotbed of negative comments. There's an option to delete comments that I have yet to use; it would seem somehow petty to silence dissenting voices. However, I cannot directly respond to commenters other than sending them private messages through Steam (and I'm not about to do that either). The inability to respond publicly has helped. I have this inclination to "correct" people, like "actually the game took me nearly a month to complete" or "no, it's not a joke; did you see the link to the Kotaku coverage?" Engaging in these discussions would be fruitless; if it was a discussion they wanted, they would have asked a question rather than make judgmental statements. As a coping mechanism, I've begun sharing these comments on Twitter under the hashtag #greenlightcomments. By sharing them, and allowing supporters to express humour or outrage at them, I feel like I am somehow deflecting their emotional impact. They still hurt (especially when being told that my games have no right to exist, that my art is an insult, or that I should not be making games at all), but they hurt far less for some reason.

01/06/2013: Day 8 of Greenlight, some ups and downs

Votes had been in decline ever since day 1, which is to be expected. However, it was day 6 where the decline seemed the sharpest. Felt like the bubble was bursting, as I always knew it would. Comments were getting worse, too (or at least they felt that way, with fewer positive responses). I was worried that things might have been influenced by some new videos I had added to the page. See, I've only got the one trailer for the game, which is very much a pre-release trailer. I've been reluctant to do another one because 1) a trailer is a ton of work, and 2) I have zero clue what to do for a trailer. However, I've been finding some Let's Plays and livestream recordings of I Get This Call Every Day on YouTube. One in particular is lengthy and basically exposes the entire game, but it's played by a group who end up laughing at quite a bit of the writing. Their laughter is infectious, and I thought it might show the game in a good light (despite spoiling the whole thing). However, the decline in votes coincided with the video being added to the page, and I still wonder if it may be responsible for the decline in votes.

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Day 7 (the Saturday) saw votes rise a little, but the average votes for the top 100 are also sky-high. What the fuck happened here? Without any metrics (like what new game led to this spike) there is no real way to put this upsurge into context.

Tweeting out the #greenlightcomments has been a generally positive experience and has actually inspired some to leave more encouraging comments. Also, the Greenlight page seems to have started driving some sales. I have no real stats for where sales are coming from, but I had a $20 sale from someone who emailed me after the purchase to tell me she had found the game through Greenlight. So I guess the investment has 20% paid for itself?

01/13/2013: Day 15 of Greenlight, nuka comments

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One-fifth of the way to the top 100! This is one-fifth of the way to an arbitrary ranking which may or may not result in the game being Greenlit, so it's a far less impressive milestone. It'll be interesting to see if votes trend high on Monday and Tuesday this week, as they have in the past two weeks; as you can see, votes dip significantly every other day.

The game's Greenlight page got a one-line mention in Patrick Klepek's weekly Worth Reading back on Dec 11. Also, the GameSpot feature from Carolyn Petit brought a lot of attention to the game and led to my first big sales spike since launch. These two things could be the reason for the slight rise in Greenlight votes on Friday and Saturday, but clearly that kind of coverage isn't immensely effective for this sort of thing.

While this journal focuses on Greenlight, I should probably mention that I have applied to sell I Get This Call Every Day through Desura and Indievania as well. Quite a different process on both sites; half the work for Desura was already done because I had already set up an indieDB page, and there was a "publish on Desura" there to easily send it up for approval. I was missing a key art asset required for the storefront; I supplied it four days ago, and haven't heard anything since.

Indievania took a bit more work; I got a little weirded out when their system handed me a login to their Amazon S3 server to upload my game, which also exposed the files of every other game on the service; I'm not sure if there is any actual security concern there, but it certainly did not look comforting. Their process promised a response within four days as well, and that response has yet to arrive. Though neither service required a setup fee, I think I appreciate the Greenlight process a little more: Greenlight gives you all this feedback and forces you to engage with your potential customers to get onto the service. I've heard so many stories how Desura and Indievania rarely make a fraction of what a game can make on Steam, and I will honestly be surprised if I make any sales at all on those fronts. The game will have to be sold for a fixed price, but my pay-what-you-want sales are getting to the point where a majority of people are buying the game for the $2 minimum anyways.

Now, a bit about Greenlight's comments: when logged in as the developer account linked to the game, every comment on the game's Greenlight page has a delete option. It would be so easy to purge a Greenlight page of any and all negative comments, but I refuse to do so. It wouldn't be fair, and I have no desire to live in an echo chamber of praise. However, I have used the function three times. Once was by accident: I was trying to highlight a comment from my phone so I could post it to Twitter as a #greenlightcomment, and my fat finger tapped "Delete" by mistake. There's no confirmation step to that process; touch "Delete" once and the comment is gone. I don't even think the user is notified, just as no user is notified of any replies to their comments. The system lacks any real social features, so there are no comment thread conversations as one might see on other websites.

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The second time, I deleted a comment that was simply a death threat against another commenter. The third time, it was because the commenter said the game was made by someone with Down syndrome. This really got under my skin, not because I perceived it as a personal insult--it was not--but because of the implication that someone with Down syndrome is somehow limited to being able to create only ugly, terrible things. It was an insult to anyone afflicted with Down syndrome and an ignorant, insensitive statement to make. I deleted that comment, and then discovered the offending Steam user allows any other users to post comments on his profile. I posted there to notify him of his comment's deletion and the reason why I found the comment offensive. Within an hour, he had deleted my response from his profile.

I have determined to focus less on the Greenlight process going forward, so that I can devote more energy and focus to a new project. I still have no clue what that new project will be, but I feel like I have to move on.

01/20/2013: Day 21 of Greenlight. Stalled.

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In terms of "progress", the graph says it all. Votes have slowed to a crawl compared to the top 100, the game advanced a whole 3% in a week (and I'm wondering if it is possible to make negative progress against that number--mathematically speaking, it could happen), and all this despite having renewed coverage. I'll be very surprised if the game ever makes it to 25%. This is how I predict things will remain for the foreseeable future.

Earlier this week, Valve Greenlit ten more games. No indication if they were the top ten, or what methods they used to come to their decision--expectedly inscrutable. The removal of ten games from voting had no perceivable impact on anyone's standings.

There was a brief glitch on Monday, the day before the Greenlighting, when everyone was showing as 100% in the blue bar. It made me feel the faintest pangs of hope, that maybe the game stood out to someone higher up, that perhaps it had been Greenlit and I had yet to be notified. A fleeting fantasy if ever there was one.

I Get This Call Every Day is up for sale on Indievania, and has resulted in two more sales. It is set to go on Desura (in the North American region only, thanks to some oddities in their minimum pricing guidelines) and is awaiting a final approval. Sales occasionally trickle in from my website, the first and primary place the game is being sold. Yesterday was my first day without a single sale, and today is my second.

I always knew I had created a game with limited appeal. It wasn't intentional, but I knew that reaching a wider audience would mean compromising aspects of the game that gave it meaning. Thus, I always knew it would come to this. I am very fortunate not to be in the position I have seen some of colleagues in: having "taken the plunge" and "gone full indie," the act of getting onto Steam becomes a salvation they desperately require. The exposure granted by merely being available on Steam is unlike any other form of promotion, and it can go a long way towards securing financial success. My finances are not yet dependent on the sales of my game, so I Get This Call Every Day's current performance on Greenlight is thankfully inconsequential. I have known others with more at stake to be in similar situations, and their lack of success with Steam was more damaging.

I have learned from this that while Steam can be a key to success, it had zero guarantees. Also, I became successful to myself the moment I made my first dollar from my own creation. That happened without Steam, and I know I can do it again on my own.

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