Steam Greenlight Offers Path to Success For Indie Game Developers

About a year ago, An “Rolf” Chung (M.F.A. ’16) and Fred Lin (M.F.A. ’16) were having dinner together after class when an exciting email arrived. Their game, Magic Masks, had been “greenlit” on Steam Greenlight—an online platform where members of the community vote on the games they like best.

“All of a sudden this message hit us by surprise. We could hardly believe it,” recalled Chung, Magic Masks lead designer. He clicked the link to Magic Masks' Greenlight page to confirm it was true, and sent screenshots to the rest of their development team—Andrew Miller (M.F.A. ’13) and Yulong “Tobby” Tao (M.F.A. ’16). “We all got really excited and immediately started planning our next steps.”


A look at “Magic Masks.” Image courtesy of Mary Lou Dorgalli.

With thousands of games and millions of users, Steam is a powerful force in the digital gaming world. A robust platform where users discover and download games as well as interact with an online community, Steam serves as a resource for independent developers to get exposure and potentially release their games. 

“Because Steam provides such a large community, we will have access to over 100 million users, and a chance for some of them to see and hopefully download and play Magic Masks,” said Miller, who does rigging and animation. “I never would have thought that I could have worked on a published game so soon in my career, but more and more it’s becoming easier for small teams and developers to do so.”

When games are uploaded to Steam Greenlight, they can be fully launched or still in development. Once a game gets enough support from the community in the form of votes, Valve, the company behind Steam, advances it to “greenlit” status. And once it’s fully developed, it can be released as a published, purchasable game with its own community that grows around it.

With over 500 reviews and an active discussion board, Ballpoint Universe is one of those games. Developed by Leo Dasso (B.F.A. ’12) and Jacob Stove Lorentzen (B.F.A. ’13) of Arachnid Games, it’s a “shoot-em-up” adventure game featuring intricate, imaginative artwork drawn entirely with a ballpoint pen. The game was “greenlit” and then released on Steam in 2013, but the process took a year, and Dasso and Stove Lorentzen weren’t about to sit around and wait. They had some strategizing to do.


A look at Baqir Shah’s game, “Hero.” Image courtesy of Baqir Shah.

First, they released Ballpoint Universe on Desura, another platform for independent game developers. Then, when a publisher approached them about making an iPad version of the game, they accepted, seeing it as a chance to optimize the game and redo the UI.

“The game itself was looking a lot better, but the prospects on iPad were grim,” said Stove Lorentzen. “We had no money to push our game—on mobile there was (and still is) a massive cost related to getting on the front page, and you might as well not exist if you’re not on there. Steam saved us. A couple weeks before releasing on the Apple Store we got the Greenlight acceptance letter.”

It was a relief for Dasso and Stove Lorentzen, who consider the Steam user base more aligned with Arachnid Games’ original target demographic of PC and console gamers. They also felt more comfortable releasing on Steam, finding the community to be more patient, supportive and understanding when engineering issues arose. 

Another game gaining traction on Steam is The Last Sunshine, a beautifully atmospheric shoot-em-up game where a solitary star battles the forces of darkness. After getting “greenlit” in 2014, lead designer Jonathan White (M.F.A. ’12) formed a company called Four Eyes Productions with fellow alumni Daniel Wekell (B.F.A. ’14), Adam Hudson (M.F.A. ’12), and G James Sacco (B.F.A. ’16), as well as Academy instructor Scott Berkenkotter. Since releasing the game as an alpha build on Steam in July, the game has gotten positive reviews and attracted the attention of Unity Technologies who is considering featuring The Last Sunshine at Unite 2016. “If we’re accepted we’ll be showcased at Unity’s premier tech convention alongside other big game titles. It’s really big for us,” said White.

While the industry is changing quickly, and some experts worry about an eventual over-saturation of platforms like Steam, the site continues to be a place for independent game developers to get exposure and help boost their success. For some, that means getting their game out to the public and earning revenue to sustain their studio and make more games, but others, like Baqir Shah whose game, Hero, was “greenlit” in June, hope to segue their success into an industry job at an established gaming company.

“I posted my game on Steam because of its status as the number one platform for developers to put their game on. My hope is Hero will be a great portfolio piece that can get me hired at a game studio,” said Shah, a senior game development major who works part-time at the mobile games studio Pixowl.

While developers weigh the benefits differently, one aspect of getting “greenlit” on Steam is undeniable—it offers validation that a game is good and that there are people out there who want to play it. 

“It’s appreciation for our hard work, it’s approval for our skills in developing games, and it’s motivation to work even harder to make the game better for players,” said Tao. “It is an unbelievable feeling when there are so many people who like what we are making. This gives me so much passion to continue making video games.”