Success on Greenlight isn’t just about your pitch, it’s a matter of appealing to the right gaming culture

Steam is the Holy Land for indies. It’s notoriously hard to get into, but epically rewarding if you do. Thousands claw at its gates and, ‘Valve never replied to my email’ is a common tale of woe for those left in the cold. But perhaps the book has closed on such stories with the introduction of Greenlight.

Greenlight combines the unpoliced opportunity of Apple’s App Store with the democracy of Kickstarter, ushering the hordes of Steam hopefuls into a gladiatorial arena where the aggregate of the crowd’s thumbs up versus their ratings down spells the difference between progressing onto the platform or continuing to battle it out with the losers of this round. A crowdsourced approval process to supplement the infamously vague and slow internal process is the idea.

When Valve suggested Tiger Style submit Waking Mars to Greenlight, we didn’t know whether to feel miffed, terrified, flattered, or what. Since Greenlight didn’t exist yet, we had no clear expectations. We decided to perceive it as an awesome opportunity. As a self-funded company, we’ve never had a reason to launch a campaign, but we’ve seen that, in addition to the obvious financial upside, a good Kickstarter showing does wonders for promotion and awareness – skills at which our company tends to flop.

We envisioned a soapbox to advocate the brutally easy case that Waking Mars would make a terrific Steam title, and that fans would rally around. We made a promotional video in which I stood in the wilderness talking like a presidential candidate and David Kalina demonstrated how naturally Waking Mars adapts to a large screen and gamepad controls. We hit Send.

There were many surprises. Unlike Kickstarter, version 1.0 of Greenlight put little emphasis on videos. It was hard to find our video, so in the first week fewer than five people watched it – presumably just our team. And the competition numbered hundreds not dozens. Users could sort by criteria such as RPG and co-op play, but not by ‘Is this an actual game, or an MS Paint brainstorm for a Minecraft clone by a well-meaning individual still in school?’ But our biggest surprise was that even when people looked at our page, they still weren’t terribly interested in Waking Mars.

Observing what excited and failed to excite the Greenlight community proved eye-opening about PC culture, from which we’d grown increasingly distant as we settled into iOS development. Here’s what we saw raking in the thumbs up: Half-Life mods, FPSes, deathmatches, 3D, Roguelikes, zombies, sci-fi, crafting, dungeons and pixellation. In a way, exactly what you would expect, and sort of disappointing. Was this the echo chamber phenomenon, in which a group with uniform tastes reinforces its values in an enclosed environment? Was this the focus group fallacy, whereby you can’t ask people what they want next because innovative ideas are hard to imagine? Is Greenlight a flawed premise because it requires active curation to create a diverse ecosystem, whereas true democracy leads to a downward spiral of LCD sameness?

Clearly, on a level playing field, Waking Mars wasn’t jumping out at this community. For that matter, Waking Mars hasn’t done as well on iOS as Spider. So it was time to look inwards: what isn’t compelling about the Waking Mars value proposition? Our ‘action gardening while caving on Mars, cultivating alien ecosystems to unveil a science-y backstory’ pitch is perhaps not concise. Our 2D art can be gorgeous in motion, but doesn’t make for stunning screenshots. But probably most importantly, we didn’t adequately consider a certain cultural separation in some fundaments of our design.

Tiger Style aspires to appeal to adult sensibilities, and one key point is play patterns. Our games are winnable within a few hours and playable in short sessions. They are simple to learn, with depth arising from clear and visible interactions. This appeals to casual gamers. Successful Greenlight games showed a very different pattern: massive pages of stats, hundreds of hours of playtime, games offering a hardcore hobby to sink your teeth into.

Spider and Waking Mars were both designed for casual play patterns, but they differ in subject matter. Spider is about the familiar topics of romance, houses and family mysteries. Waking Mars trades in more hardcore fare: outer space, alien creatures and science. By being light and approachable, Spider was well aligned for the culture in which it succeeded. The successful Greenlight titles, with their stats, months of gameplay, gun porn and 3D zombies, aligned successfully with their culture. Waking Mars was taking play patterns from column A and subject matter from column B, thereby diluting its appeal to both groups.

Numerous factors contribute to success on Greenlight, or any platform, and the whole picture is never simple. However, oversimplifications tend to generate a type of truth, and the experience of examining our games under the harsh light of crowdsourcing has given us plenty to consider about spanning the gap between gaming cultures.

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