Skip to main content

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.

Read this next

Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
Related topics