Q+A: Survival of the Coolest? The Struggle to Get Noticed in the Marketplace of Games

steam_logoAs a small game development company or startup, it’s hard to get noticed in a sea of hundreds of thousands of new games each year. This is one of the constant challenges for students embarking on their first venture in the game development industry. Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio is set up to help these student startups get their footing and initially find their way. But getting their games into the pipeline of popularity is a hurdle students are trying to overcome shoulder-to-shoulder with established companies and developers.

Recently, two Drexel computer game endeavors inched closer to entering that pipeline by way of a crowd-sourcing process created in 2012 by Valve, a company that runs the most popular PC gaming website on the internet, Steam.

One game, called Fantasy Fairways, by the EGS startup Sweet Roll Studio, lets players build their own not-of-this-world virtual golf course where they can employ things like trampolines, conveyor belts and a variety of creative gizmos to guide the ball’s journey to the hole. The other, called Mirrors of Grimaldi, was created by a group of undergraduates as a senior design project and caught the eye of developers around the country when it was recognized at Intel’s Game Developers Conference.

Both games were submitted to Valve’s system, called Project Greenlight, which is intended to bring these great new games to light using crowd-sourcing to determine their viability. Games are submitted to Greenlight with a nominal fee and posted on part of the Steam site for visitors to review, test and either support or critique. At some undisclosed point, Valve decides that a game has what it takes to get called up to the big leagues – a spot on its pay-walled site where the world can play.

This fall, both Drexel games got that call.

It’s a big deal for the student developers because Greenlight is still one of few avenues for fledgling PC game developers to get their work into a major monetized distribution service. And while Greenlight has certainly helped open up the market for these games, in much the way GooglePlay and the AppStore have provided an outlet for mobile game companies, the system is facing challenges of its own.

Among them, the sheer volume of games on Greenlight means that it’s difficult to maintain a high level of quality. In addition, Valve’s methods of selecting “Greenlit” games is still quite murky, because of this an entire sub rosa industry — with varying levels of scruple — has sprouted around the promotion of games and use of various formulas guaranteeing selection.

Frank Lee, PhD, who directs Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio in its mission of helping student game design startups find their way, recently lent some perspective on the program and the struggles that new games face while fighting to see the light of a computer monitor.

How important is a mass gaming marketplace, like Steam, for burgeoning game designers and startup game design companies? 

Among mobile platforms, it has become harder for new companies to stand out. It’s not impossible — just really difficult — to stand out, and the top of the market has been pretty stagnant for a while, with the top apps changing places infrequently, if at all.

So, many developers are turning to PC platforms to find a less difficult way to get exposure or money. On the PC side, Steam is the major delivery platform by a big margin.

What are the challenges facing designers when they put their work in the Greenlight pipeline?

The biggest challenge for getting “greenlit” is standing out among the crowd and getting the word of mouth out there that the campaign is ongoing. It’s not too different from crowd funding, but no money is required from a would-be customer.

Do you foresee any negative effects of Greenlight or other crowd-sourced gaming projects — either on the quality of the games or the designers/companies themselves who are trying to make it?

Greenlight has a fair number of problems. A lot of low-effort games can make it onto the service and the overall quality of games on Steam has arguably diminished over recent years. Valve, the company that owns Steam, introduced a $100 fee for developers to put their game on Greenlight, which has helped a bit but didn’t entirely resolve the issue.

Recently, Valve has indicated that it might consider abandoning Greenlight but they haven’t indicated what it would be replaced with, if anything.

We’re already seeing some of the effects of having a truly open marketplace of ideas on Greenlight, with the company Digital Homicide suing Steam users for libel and harassment. How big a problem is this for Greenlight’s vision of an open marketplace for games, and might it dissuade some designers from participating? 

Digital Homicide, to my understanding, first sought a subpoena for Valve to release the identities of 100 Steam users as part of an $18M libel lawsuit against users. Valve then took down their games from the store front, effectively banning Digital Homicide from Steam. In order to have a true open marketplace, you need to allow open expression and not let people feel or be intimated by threats of lawsuits for expressing their opinions about your game.

I believe in the spirit of open market place where games and ideas can be put forth and judged by the public, but Valve has a responsibility to take a more active role in discouraging abuse from both developers and consumers.

Do you foresee, or have you seen already, Steam having an effect on the App Store or Google Play?  Is it now more desirable for a small startup company to get their game on Steam?

Steam is a lot more open than it used to be but it’s not quite an app store like Google or Apple’s. Greenlight isn’t the only way to get on Steam; established companies and large publishers have relationships with Valve that let them go right to the marketplace.

In terms of Steam’s effect on the App Store, Google Play, etc. it’s hard to measure. One big difference is that games are just one of many types of apps at the Apple App Store and Google Play, whereas Steam is all about games. I’ve seen games that have succeeded on one be released for the other and vice versa, but I think there isn’t as much of a crossover since the types of games you would play on a PC are very different than the types of games you would play on a mobile device.


For media inquiries, contact Britt Faulstick, assistant director of media relations, bef29@drexel.edu, or 215-895-2617.