Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Greenlight Experience

My first day on Greenlight with Sumo Revise was an absolute failure.  From a previously unsuccessful Greenlight try with my game Rubber Ducky and the Rainbow Gun and conversations with other Greenlight devs, I knew exactly what a doomed game might look like.  So when I saw my terribly low percentage and negative comments at the end of day one, I gave up.  Right there and then.

Four months later, I was Greenlit.

Here's what happened.

The beginning:
This is a screenshot of the game I had decided to try to get Greenlit, just for reference.

Yay!  This screenshot always makes me happy.

I think my artist did a great job considering the restrictions I put on him, but this wasn't and isn't the type of game that's instantly going to wow an audience like Machinarium or Limbo.  But, at the time that I started developing Sumo Revise, I didn't really care.  I was going to make a game, darn it, and it was going to be awesome!  I would be successful!  I would be famous!

The first day on Greenlight was a mess.  Me and my team had spent quite a while preparing screenshots, a trailer, a description for the game, and a lot of other stuff too.  After what was around a month-long cycle, we had finally put together something that we thought very well may have a chance of getting Greenlit, given some divine intervention and just the right timing for everything to come together.

One of the first comments on the page informed us that we had a misspelling both in the header image and the trailer, and a glaringly obvious one at that.  Something like 500 people had already visited the page, which didn't make me feel good at all.  We fixed the error as soon as we could, even trying to make a joke out of it.  Nevertheless, comments on the general of the quality of the game started flowing in, including:

Well, these comments aren't exactly condemning, but the stats were more-so.  Although I don't actually have a screenshot from the time, I think I can rough-ti-mate the stats by the end of the first week to be something like this:

This wasn't exactly the breakout success I had been hoping for. . .

Now, I don't at all think that these stats were unfair.  The majority of people who had visited my page had not liked my game - simple as that.  I've gotta' say - I was pretty sad about the whole business.  I was actually to the point of thinking about quitting the "professional" scene and just going back to hobby game design, because I was about to start my second semester of college and didn't really want to try to balance a doomed business and education.

I did something that probably wasn't a great idea: I stopped marketing Sumo for the Greenlight page just a week or so after the page hit.  I didn't know what else to do, and I didn't really feel like figuring it out.  It was my second Greenlight flop, and quite arguably worse than the first try.  I was the only developer I had ever heard of to do worse as he continued developing games.

The turning point
Now, something had actually happened that I didn't realize yet that I truly can chalk down to intervention outside of my own plans.  A while back I had submitted Sumo Revise to a bundling group called the Groupees because I had worked with them previously on other games and was kinda' bored on the day I sent the submission email.  I had been in one of the Groupees bundles before during my previous Greenlight stint, and although it was loads of fun, I can't honestly say it was that much help to my Greenlight effort for RDATRG.  I submitted Sumo to the Groupees more because I liked being in the previous bundle and less because I thought it would help the Greenlight deal - in fact, I don't even think Greenlight was much on my mind at the time.  I never heard back from them.

. . .until a couple weeks after the Greenlight launch.  One of the Groupees people contacted me out of the blue saying that they were putting together a "Retro" themed bundle and thought Sumo would fit in pretty well.  Although I had given up on the thought of Sumo going anywhere, I wasn't about to turn down a sweet bundle deal with some people that I liked working with.  I accepted the bundle deal, clueless (as I normally am) about what was going to happen.

Now this is the first bit of advice in this article - running a successful Greenlight is not about getting people to your Greenlight page.  Running a successful Greenlight is about getting the right people to your Greenlight page.  And, to boot, it doesn't necessarily need to be a lot of the right people.  This is a screenshot that I took of Sumo's Greenlight stats a few days after the Groupees bundle launched:

Now that's a bit better!

I had gone from being about 15% to the top 100 to 32% in a matter of days and about doubled in yes-to-no-vote ratio.  As it turns out, bundling Sumo Revise was exactly the thing I needed to do.  I always knew that Sumo's big draw had been in its gameplay, but I didn't realize until this moment that the people I needed to be drawing in to my Greenlight page were the people that would be able to experience the best part of Sumo, or the people that already owned the game.  Sumo had been artificially pushed into the user's hand because of the attraction of the bundle, and because of it didn't need to rely on what many saw as sub-par graphics to be judged.  And, to be fair, the Groupees community was predispositioned to want to upvote the Greenlight games in the bundle, so that helped quite a bit too.

The spike in the green line there (my game) is the first two days of the bundle

I took these ideas to heart and started marketing Sumo again, but in a different way.

The marketing
I figured that the best course of action would be to continue to get people that would want to like my game to go to the Greenlight page.  I started running promotionals on - I gave away the various Steam keys I had lying around and a free copy of Sumo to every person who entered and wanted one, writing in the giveaway description something like "if you like this giveaway and Sumo, make sure to check out the Greenlight page linked below!"  Again, not only was I gathering people who would have potentially played my game through the giveaway, but I was also gathering other people that would be pre-dispositioned to like my game because, ya'know, I was giving them stuff.  I started crawling up in percentage towards the top 100, while keeping the decent 42% or more yes votes on Sumo.  All I needed was 70%, I thought, because if I got that far I could sure as heck get 80% - and if I could get 80%, I could get 85% and so on and so on and so on.  One week I was at 44%.  The next I was at 45%.  Three weeks later, I was at 46%.  It was slow, but I had gotten my second wind and was sticking to it.

I also started to contact LPers with copies of Sumo.  Only one channel made a video of Sumo from this phase of development, and they were pretty small.  To help them out as much as I could, I embedded their Let's Play on the Greenlight page and didn't really think twice about it.  Their Let's Play became a very key component to the Greenlight page much later, and for it I will be forever thankful to Drinkio Games.  But more on that later.

Now keep in mind that my Greenlight graph still looked like this:

Believe it or not, this represents a total of about ten votes.

Although the Greenlight page was going quite a bit better, I still wasn't hitting a fantastic Greenlight experience like all of those online articles tell you is possible.  And, to boot, I had made no money except from the bundle and was still just selling Sumo off of this here blog.  I decided I should spend the time to try to spread my game to the distribution sites other than Steam, which to a college Freshman currently in mid-semester and trying to Greenlight his game isn't a pleasant thought.


Desura said "no" to begin with.  GOG was all like "AAAAAHHHHH WHAT IS IT?????" and the Humble Bundle offered me a widget but no place on the store.  At this point, I was just stubborn about the whole thing and continued anyhow.  As it turns out, the Drinkio Games Let's Play was the saving grace of the situation.  After a few emails back and forth, IndieGameStand accepted Sumo, saying something like "we liked seeing people having fun with your game!" which wasn't hard to pinpoint as referencing that exact video.  Having a place on an actual storefront gave Sumo something more of a professional appeal, and I noticed (although it may be coincidental) that people were generally more accepting of the game after that point.  After I added a single-player feature in the way of AI, Desura let Sumo on under the alpha-funding section.

The end
I didn't know it, but things were starting to wind down.  Over the next month, I slowly built more and more recognition through Desura, Steamgifts, and eventually more Let's Players.  I kept creeping up percent by percent on Greenlight, still thankfully keeping my "yes vote" percentage at a decent amount, and even got to present the game at a local computer science conference.  And then, something finally snapped.  In the space of two weeks, I had been featured on a much bigger Let's Player than I had before, was accepted into the IndieRoyale, and was about to break the 65% to the top 100% mark to boot, nearing my 70% goal.  Then, just after my college semester ended when I was going to go crazy marketing Sumo in my free time, everything changed.

Specifically, I got an email I wasn't expecting.  I get emails in my business account fairly often from subscriptions, people who own one of my games, or really anything.  This email had bold-ed sections, which I wasn't expecting, and almost seemed. . . business-y.  Confused, I started to read.  A man named Vanni introduced himself and asked me how I was.  He briefly talked about the game industry as a whole, and then very elegant way asked if I was interested in working with a publisher.

Holy cow.

Within a handful of days, I had been Greenlit.  See, although Vanni had done some initial contact work, I still had to pass QA on their end to be officially published.  Because I had spent so many days tiredly keeping my Greenlight stats at a decent level, and because I was on multiple distribution sites already, and because I had a couple Let's Plays of people "having fun" with my game, I had a fairly positive-looking product to show off.  When I had been accepted for publishing, the head of the company emailed me to congratulate me on the news and also to tell me that he personally had spent upwards of an hour of his day playing the game.  Now, I have everything good to say about my publisher as they've been fantastic to work with up to this point, but his first comment was the one that struck me the most.  I thought back to the beginning of the Greenlight fiasco, which had enveloped my every free moment for the past four months, and realized that the start of the success of my Greenlight page and the triumphant end had come about much in the same way - as Jonathan Blow's dialogue between the player and the developer, or, simply, as playing the game.

I really don't know how Sumo's going to do on Steam - it may do well, it may do poorly.  But I know that the work I've done up getting it there was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life, and that's probably worth more than I really give it credit.  And, you know what?  I feel blessed.  Blessed beyond words.

I'm planning on writing up a different article detailing the marketing aspect of Sumo on Greenlight to hopefully help other no-name devs like me get through Greenlight.  Keep eyes out for that.

John Szymanski, Cr2cr Studios
Solus Deus