Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Steam Greenlight and the Discoverability Challenge

Update: Since writing this post, Steam has introduced a $100 entry fee for Greenlight. I've added my thoughts at the end of this piece.

Last week saw the launch of Steam's new Greenlight programme. For the uninitiated, Greenlight is an initiative by the aforementioned desktop games portal to get its user community deciding what indie games should be published on the service. New game proposals, with demos and screenshots, can be shown in the portal, much like an App Store, and users can upvote games they like, share comments, and help promote the games they are most interested in for selection by Steam.

When I heard about the scheme after its announcement in July, I was apprehensive. While taking game selection out of the hands of a black box of executives was promising, I was concerned that any community-rated games ecosystem would suffer the same issues as the App Store and Google Play do - that is, the games receiving most attention (sales in App Stores, upvotes here) would receive the best promotion, creating a virtuous cycle for those at the top, but a wall for exposure for newcomers. Fortunately, as Mike Rose intelligently explained in his recent Gamasutra article, Greenlight has found a way around this issue…

… by not including a ranking system at all.

Obviously, it's in Steam's best interests to create a system that exposes the games that stand to make most profit. So it makes sense not to have the system generate publicity for games by itself, as this would skew their data. But who this really benefits are indie developers themselves.

The Benefits of Removing the Rankings

By not providing any internal ranking systems - either through staff picks or top listing algorithms - the platform benefits small indie studios with creative and ambitious IP proposals. There's no closed-box system of needing to know the right people (e.g. Apple representatives) to get a good placement. It also means that gaming the system is far more difficult to do. With the App Store at the moment, user acquisition schemes are big business, which is something Jon Jordan picked up on earlier this week on PocketGamer.biz. While these schemes are beneficial to large companies to get them placement in the top spots their existence blocks out a lot of indies who can't afford to compete.

User Collections stand in for the Featured list we're used to from the App Store, but with the benefit of a varying ecosystem. Anyone can create their own Collection, and while not doubt some will become more influential than others there's always room for more voices. Not everyone will be following the same tastemakers' lists, and developers don't need to grab the interest of individuals in a mysterious cabal. Tastemakers will, presumably, follow other tastemakers, so there will always be room for developers to find an interested party if they have a product that merits it. The list owners are not elusive, so it will be much easier for developers to gain access to popular list-makers. This makes for a fairer system where developers don't need to have prior contacts to make a splash.

Encouraging Good Indie Promotion

Not only does Greenlight provide an ecosystem that allows indie talent to shine through, but it also encourages good promotion from its developers. With the platform itself offering no visibility mechanics (beyond the community lists), it forces developers to draw visibility through their own means. They need to build a community, generate press interest, and get their content and messages out there from their own backs.

That's arguably what indies should be doing anyway, even on iOS. There's a lot of competition for game visibility out there, and if there's a system to be gamed the chances are there's many more people out their with the funds to game it - just like the user acquisition bubble. For a small studio the only way to compete in that respect is to come up with a better game plan than anyone else in the field - like Tiny Tower or Draw Something. Indies need to play to their strengths, and that means inventive IP, pushing yourself as a personality and drawing on a community that you believe in.

Greenlight offers an ecosystem where, it would appear, this is the only option for participants. Successful Greenlight participants should be excellent case studies for any other indie studio on any platform.

Setting a Standard

I believe that Greenlight has big potential, and while it has yet to be proven I expect to see a very healthy system for developers to take part in. And if it works as a discovery platform it may be good example for distribution platforms, including the App Store, to follow.

Of course, such a strategy could only work with such a well-established and hotly-valued (in the eyes of developers especially) platform as Steam. It would be hard for a new distribution or discoverability platform to take on a strategy such as this. After all, they would need to be able to showcase the best of what they can offer, before they even have a community around them - so having top ratings and features lists would benefit them as a platform.

Either way, I look forward to seeing how Greenlight affects indie development and publishing on PC. Interesting times are certainly up ahead!

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Update: The $100 entry ticket

Since writing this blog, Steam has introduced a $100 entry fee for Greenlight candidates, to stop spam and hoax games from appearing on the service. I don't think this is entirely a bad thing. If your game is at a stage where you feel it could be accepted for Steam then $100 should be an investment that will pay off.

It's the same price tag as for getting a game on iOS, and for entering a game into the IGF. And if you don't believe your game could win an award at IGF then it's probably not going to get onto Steam.

The difference between Greenlight and iOS, however, is that paying upfront doesn't result in access to sales. You're essentially paying for a raffle ticket. Unlike IGF, however, you don't just get one shot at success. Once you're on Greenlight you can keep on building up your promotion and your strategy until you get on Steam or decide it's time to move on.

If you're a developer there's plenty of promotional activities you can do to test if a fee might be worth paying. Free online demos, press activity, Indiegogo campaigns, and any other marketing activity will give you the feedback you need to see if it's worth trying a Greenlight campaign. One you can work out how to make these a success, you probably have a good shot at getting value out of that investment.

Although on the other hand, because it is effectively a raffle ticket (after all, even if you make the required number of upvotes you may not get selected), $100 is a big price to pay. There's lots of parts of development and promotion that need to be paid for, and small self-funded developers are already stretched far enough. To say "for all the benefits it could bring, $100 isn't that much" is an argument that could be levelled at any other event, conference, advert or piece of software which is deemed too expensive to be within reach.

At the end of the day, it is expensive, and it's worth remembering that for self-funded studios the Greenlight fee is going to be a big investment, and a big decision. And while I think any belief that it should be "easy to scrape together $100" is ridiculous, developers just need to see it as part of their long-term game plan, alongside any other promotional activity which they will need to do anyway to succeed.

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