Getting the Greenlight – What Valve’s Steam recommendation service means to indie games developers

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With Valve announcing the first ten titles to be ‘Greenlit’ on its Steam service, we speak to some of the developers to find out just what it means.

Since its introduction way back in 2002, Steam, Valves digital distribution platform, has inexorably progressed from a way to easily distribute updates and patches, to an online store the envy of every other games publisher from Nintendo to Electronic Arts.

Until just a few days ago the games available from the network were largely those backed by larger publishing houses, amid a scattering of titles from the scant few indie developers who had built up enough prominence to have their projects picked up and made available by Steam’s in-house selection committee.

Now all that has changed with the introduction of Greenlight, a community-based recommendation system where developers can list details of their game for approval, before leaving it to the users to decide whether their ware is worthy of a place on the service.

Last week the first 10 titles to be ‘Greenlit’ were announced on the Steam Greenlight blog, those games including Carlos Montero’s Black Mesa (which sees Half-Life reborn in the Half-Life 2 engine), Rumpel’s eerie FPS Cry of Fear, HyperSloth’s exploration game Dream, Reto-Moto’s massively multiplayer FPS Heroes & Generals, Captain Deathbeard’s feudal RPG Kenshi, Sos Sosowski’s point and click adventure McPixel, zombie shooter No More Room in Hell, The Indie Stone’s Project Zomboid, Lunar Software’s space chiller Routine and Supermalparit’s city-building RPG Towns.

I caught up with the developers of Project Zomboid and Routine to discover exactly what getting the Steam green light means to the small games developers.

‘We’ve definitely had a nice boost in our other sale channels,’ says Marina Siu-Chong, one of the co-founders of Indie Stone, and artist on zombie holocaust survival sim Project Zomboid. ‘Being greenlit means a tremendous lot for us. Being on Desura has been fantastic in growing Project Zomboid’s community, and now we have the opportunity to take advantage of Steam’s huge userbase and grow it even further.’

Project Zomboid, still in its alpha stage, asks the player one simple question: ‘How will you die?’ For in a world where 99% of the population has already been turned in walking dead the odds of your survival are ultimately zero, though canny survivalists can keep deaths cold fingers at bay by using the cover of the sprawling Knox County to their advantage and so keep themselves alive, one day at a time.

‘There have certainly been some bumps in the Greenlight debut,’ continues Marina. ‘But that’s only to be expected as there’s a huge shift from a closed system of few people making decisions behind the scenes, to an open system of thousands of people voting. I think once Greenlight has settled down a bit and developers learn how to use the service to their advantage, the benefits of Greenlight will emerge more fully.’

‘As Steam has such a large userbase, which we will now be able to reach, this hopefully means more funds for development – a winning situation for both our pre-existing and future customers. In addition, availability on Steam has always been one of the most requested features for PZ, so being greenlit has made more than a few people happy!’

Another much anticipated title amongst the first batch of successfully Greenlit games is Lunar Software’s Routine, a chilling space-based survival horror which evokes the claustrophobic atmosphere of the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Moon and Alien.

Billed as a ‘non-linear experience’ Routine tasks players with the exploration of an abandoned lunar settlement, but its actual gameplay is far more ambitious than that, with the game actively rebelling against the hand-holding most modern titles force upon us; so allowing for true freedom of exploration, multiple conclusions and even perma-death so that failure to survive hostile encounters has tangible repercussions.

‘I think it’s absolutely amazing,’ says Lunar Software’s Aaron Foster when I ask him what he thinks of Greenlight as a whole. ‘It gives small developers a better chance of getting on Steam and what else could you ask for in terms of distribution? I do however wish they had some form of Greenlight button on the store page even if its small, as the traffic has dropped considerably since then, but either way it still gets a large amount of visitors.’

‘On Steam [Routine] will reach a much larger audience and that potentially means that we may get enough money back from this project to work on the next one, and honestly that is everything to us, we just want to keep making games comfortably. I think its eases the mind that we have pretty much secured a release on the biggest digital distribution platform around. Now we can just concentrate on making a great game and not worry too much about finding a distributor.’

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