Valve's SteamSpy snub will only hurt smaller developers

And thus begins a rant about digital data

Just when you think we're getting somewhere with digital data, something comes along to send us reeling back into the dark ages.

This week SteamSpy, the unofficial Steam data supplier, has had to shut down because Valve has decided to let players opt-in to share its gameplay data - which is how the firm determines its numbers.

Valve might be unnecessarily scared about the recent Facebook controversy, or about GDPR, like half the business world at the moment. Yet don't make this out to be some unfortunate side effect of a European privacy law. Valve has been anti-data sharing since the beginning.

In an industry where there are thousands of creators and publishers, the best way to pull together a chart - and a accurate picture of the market - is if all the games stores supply their sales information to an independent data company.

That's how the boxed charts work in the UK and most territories that operate a chart. GAME, Argos, Tesco, Amazon and so on, all share their data with (currently) GfK. Not everyone does it - Toys R Us didn't, and neither do Dixons - but most of the market does. Every boxed game is therefore included and the charts (in the UK) are 95% accurate.

In digital, Steam will not share. In fact, it goes as far as preventing its partners from sharing data at all in its terms and conditions (although clearly some have renegotiated that for the recent NPD and ISFE digital projects).

They're not the only ones. Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo - although not nearly as data shy (at least, not the first two) - also insist that sales information belongs to the creators and its terms prevent them from sharing the figures with the wider world.

They could, of course, just update their terms. Endure a bit of a backlash from selected companies (Bethesda, mainly), but ultimately know they're on the right side of history. But they don't.

Instead, that means anyone that wants to put together a digital chart - or a digital report - needs to go directly to the publishers and developers themselves. That's what ISFE is doing with its European charts and it's what NPD does in the US. (Note: PlayStation and Xbox support these chart initiatives).

The downside to this is that it's hugely resource intensive to obtain thousands of reports from all the different companies out there, and then put it together in a system (and in a timely manner). Therefore, NPD and ISFE only work with large (or largeish) publishers and developers. That's understandable. It's unrealistic to expect any body to chase and secure thousands of reports, including those from smaller developers who may only release a game every few years.

The data charts that are emerging now all feature the Activisions, EAs and Ubisofts of the world, but that still misses out things like PUBG and any breakout game that comes from the independent community.

It's not great, but it'll have to do for the time being. Fortunately, there are some unofficial resources for digital figures to plug the gap, and the best one was SteamSpy.

SteamSpy wasn't perfect. It admitted so readily. Its data can be manipulated and it wasn't always right. Yet it mostly was (certainly for the smaller games). I've lost count of the number of meetings I've had with indie studios and publishers who use SteamSpy data to benchmark their performance.

Now that's gone. In an instant. We're back to the days of indie publishers licking their fingers and sticking them in the air when it comes to forecasting how well they might do.

All while the music and movie industries chuckle under their breath, wondering why the hell the games industry can be simultaneously so forward facing and so backwards at the same time.

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Latest comments (5)

John Bye Lead Designer, Freejam4 years ago
"Valve has decided to let players opt-in to share its gameplay data"

You say this like it's a bad thing. Users have been requesting the ability to hide some or all of their games and activities for ages. But the comments responding to the change on Steam's forums mostly seem to be from angry players demanding that Steam once again forces them (and everyone else) to let random strangers browse their games libraries and broadcast to all their friends every time they play a game.

Yes, it would be great if Steam shared sales data with services like NPD and GfK, and it's sad that this change breaks services like SteamSpy that just aggregated the available data.

But given everything else that's going on around the web at the moment, giving players control over their online privacy is a positive move, and not necessarily some conspiracy from Steam to hide how many people buy and play games through the service.
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Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz4 years ago
@John Bye: They're not hiding other, more sensitive information, though. Just gameplay data. Which isn't particularly sensitive.

Regardless, I never meant to suggest it's a conspiracy of Valve (I actually state it's probably a data protection issue). I am sure Valve never gave a second thought to SteamSpy with this. However, Valve is against sharing its store data. I recall a particularly disappointing interview I did with them 5 years ago on the subject. Maybe it's worried when the world sees how much of the market it controls. I don't know.

Valve protecting its customers' data isn't the negative. The negative is that its dominance of the PC market, and refusal to share information, makes it very hard for smaller creators to watch market trends, spot gaps and forecast sales... and just grow the overall marketplace. SteamSpy's half-way house meant that the games market had found a way to live without it. Now that doesn't work, the eyes are back on Valve for an alternative solution.

Which it won't provide.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Christopher Dring on 12th April 2018 2:11pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 4 years ago
Steamspy is an independent and verifiable opinion in a highly PR driven market based on absurdist narratives which defy parody. The numbers Steamspy provides exceed the accuracy of all quarterly reports put together.

Changing the default settings of all accounts, i.e. making a decision for every single user, is also a way of sending a message. It reeks of doing something to the detriment of the user for reasons of security, when in reality, the decision only furthers the goal of the one deciding in the name of everybody.

The decision to edit all user settings particularly stands out, considering how often users find themselves locked out of services they were using just fine, until they agree to the new terms and services. Valve did in 2012, they could have done it in 2018.

Message received Steamspy?
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Show all comments (5)
Matthew Finn Account Director, Exertis Home4 years ago
@Christopher Dring: Just to say that Dixons now do share data with GfK weekly
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Michal Bayerl Blogger & Critic 4 years ago
I tell you why sharing these data isn't always beneficial. Look at Battalion 1944. It went into "Early Access" this February, went big but was flawed. Thousands of people tried to play it but due to server issues they abandoned the game very quickly. Devs responded, they released couple of updates and game is working. Yet, there are no new players coming because they looked on numbers SteamSpy provided, saw very small number of active players and said in the forums: Ok, it might be good, but no one is playing the game so I won't buy it. And this is happening all the time with small games and indies so I argue with your positive results SteamSpy might have on indie scene. Gamers are very sensitive to numbers, too much and if they figure out something that may indicated low player population (MP games), they won't even try it and that's definitely bad. I feel that people these days pay way too much attention to numbers, stats etc. overall and they don't almost care about what realy matter - gameplay. But without players, there is no gameplay at all. I would much appreciate if there was some kind of official database where every gaming dev studio would have to publish their numbers but only the big ones - how many units did they sell. Other stats can actually be contraproductive because they are hard data, not some fun stats to mess with and can deal some serious damage to others.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Michal Bayerl on 13th April 2018 8:55pm

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