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SteamSpy creator warns PC market is once again open to abuse

“Imagine signing a basketball player without knowing his past performance,” posits Sergey Galyonkin

The sudden loss of SteamSpy was a massive shock for most users - but not for its creator.

Sergey Galyonkin, Epic Games' director of publishing strategy, started the site as a side project back in 2015, and it soon became an invaluable resource for developers and publishers around the world. It was always assumed that Valve was unhappy about Steam sales data being estimated so openly - and largely accurately - but it never seemed to make any direct move to counter-act it.

Yet an unannounced change in this week's update to Steam's privacy settings cut off a primary stream of data, spelling the end for SteamSpy.

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Sergey Galyonkin, SteamSpy

"I was surprised that Valve allowed it to operate for almost three years. I knew at some point they would shut it down," Galyonkin tells GamesIndustry.biz.

"It's not usually the sort of company to cave to external pressure, but Valve has been making changes over the past year that have affected SteamSpy. I was always able to adapt, and even in this case I still have enough information to extrapolate the data, but with less precision and a higher margin for error."

This doesn't leave us completely in the dark, but visibility has been significantly impaired given the cost of the alternatives - unfathomably for many of indie developers and publishers, which rely on Steam as a major market.

"You can order surveys from any number of companies who do all this stuff, but that might be $50,000 to $100,000 depending on how much you want to cover and the precision you want, and that process will take several months," Galyonkin observes.

"As a big company, like EA-size, you can still do that and companies I've worked for have never shied away from paying that sort of money for accessible information. Obviously as an indie, you could spare $30 per month for SteamSpy subscription, but you can't spare $100,000 to research any given game in the market. You can't take six months on that survey because you have a game to develop and bills to pay."

It's here that the impact of SteamSpy's closure becomes clear, particularly for smaller, less cash-rich companies. Preventing the site from continuing its analysis has demolished the level playing field it was attempting to create, making it riskier for ambitious developers to disrupt the market with new ideas and innovative games.

Galyonkin insists it's still possible to analyse market trends based on the information available without costly third-party services, but it will, "be harder, and take way more time than before."

"I still have enough information to extrapolate the data, but with less precision and a higher margin for error"

"SteamSpy removed the information asymmetry that people abused previously," he says. "In any market, if you have information asymmetry, it's bad for some of the parties that engage in any market transaction. Imagine buying a house without knowing the price of the house. Imagine signing a contract with a basketball player without knowing their performance in past games."

The loss of SteamSpy speaks to wider concerns in the industry - something we've addressed this morning. Digital data is becoming essential to making informed business decisions in order to ensure a company's survival and grow the industry. Yet Valve and even the biggest publishers remain determined to withhold this information - presumably out of fear that it gives their competitors an advantage, or would prevent them from appeasing shareholders.

"I guess it's a 'show me yours, I'll show you mine' kind of situation, only with tens of thousands of companies in the market," says Galyonkin on the likelihood that anything could replace SteamSpy. "That's really hard to co-ordinate.

"SteamSpy was acting like an independent agent that was easily verifiable. People trusted SteamSpy because you could always use the same algorithm and verify that the data was correct. That created a situation where I know some publishers were not exactly happy with SteamSpy, but it felt fair for everyone."

Independent publishers and developers have been remarkably open about how much they used SteamSpy - not as the sole basis for their strategies, but certainly as a significant factor. Given that this all started as a side project, did this add pressure to Galyonkin to ensure SteamSpy was accurate? Was he comfortable with how many business-breaking decisions might be based on his analysis?

"I did it precisely because I wanted people to be able to make informed decisions," he says. "I used to work as an industry analyst, now I'm a head of publishing strategy, and most of the decisions we make are based on data."

"SteamSpy removed the information asymmetry that people abused previously... Imagine signing a contract with a basketball player without knowing their performance in past games."

It's hard not to reiterate how little data there is in the market - not just on PC but on consoles, too. Yes, digital projects by NPD and ISFE are making some headway, but the industry still seems partly reliant on increasingly outdated retail charts. With the biggest blockbusters now selling between a third and half of all their copies digitally, it's impossible to gain an accurate understanding of the market by looking at the weekly or monthly Top 10.

"And boxed charts tend to skew towards single-player titles," Galyonkin adds. "Fortnite isn't even visible in the retail sales.

"The thing with consoles is, if you're a game developer and you're bigger than the smallest indie, the platform holders will actually share some information with you. They would make a prediction of sales you could expect, regional distribution or which languages you should pay attention to and localise for. At least in my experience, both Microsoft and Sony have been really helpful in providing information that can be used to make informed decisions. They don't provide as much as SteamSpy, but they do share information. Valve doesn't, unfortunately."

The privacy update that necessitated these changes - and, by extension, the death of SteamSpy - seems to be based on protecting users' sensitive information, although Galyonkin remains somewhat sceptical given how specific a move this has been.

"There are real concerns about people's personal data being exposed - we know this from all the Facebook stuff," he acknowledges. "So obviously if Valve is looking into that, it's absolutely the right decision.

"It's just in this particular case they chose to hide played games without hiding other information by default, which makes me wonder why they did that. If you want to comply with GDPR, you have to hide everything - not just games."

As mentioned, Galyonkin believes there is a way to continue analysing Steam data - but not to a sufficient standard for him to justify running SteamSpy. That doesn't mean he's finished with crunching Valve's numbers.

"Based on the information still available from Steam, I could actually write algorithms to use learnings based on previous data and on data that's still available to extrapolate marketing trends and look at data in games, smaller games," he says. "Obviously the problem is the bigger margin of error, so if I choose to do that - if I have time, of course, given that I still have Fortnite to run - I will probably not expose it to anyone. Because it will be way harder to use if you don't have any understanding of how statistics work."

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Latest comments (1)

Richard Browne VP Production, Leyou Technologies7 months ago
I just want to say a huge thank you to Sergey for doing this project over the years. Its invaluable and fascinating and has been the most wonderful tool for the development community.
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