Valve has fixed a Steam bug that hurt indie sales, but the damage is still being done
Earlier this week, a number of indie developers noted that a change to Steam’s discoverability algorithm has led to lower store traffic and reduced sales – as low as half of previous averages. That bug was introduced to the store in October, and while it was fixed just a week later, those figures still haven’t recovered.
The bug saw Steam recommending big, popular games to the exclusion of smaller ones that might be more relevant to individual players’ tastes, but that’s only part of the story. The issue came alongside an update to the discovery algorithm, but intentional changes to that algorithm have also led to continued reduced sales for certain titles.
If that all sounds vague, it’s because Valve’s intentionally leaving out the details of how its algorithm works. As the company told indie dev Jake Birkett today, the intention is to keep the details of the algorithm secret so that it can’t be easily manipulated. The ultimate goal is to help players see the games that are most relevant to them, but there’s little denying that specific games have been very directly hurt by the changes.
Birkett offered one of the most detailed breakdowns of those effects in a blog post titled ‘Steam’s discovery algorithm killed my sales.’ Most notably, Birkett says that he “compared full price sales before and after the October bug (being careful to avoid weeklong sales and Steam sales) and my total units sold have halved. Revenue has dipped even more because our most expensive game has dropped to 36% of previous unit sales.”
The topic has been a hot one among indie devs this week, but as Simon Roth notes on Twitter, “we should consider that our sample of developers whilst large was self selecting.” Some devs have even benefited from the changes. But the issue is that no one knows exactly when these changes are happening or why, and with Steam’s position as the de facto king of PC game distribution, subtle shifts in discoverability can have a big effect on small developers’ livelihoods.
Valve also recently introduced a new Steam revenue split that offers big benefits to big titles compared with smaller ones – and just days later, Epic announced a store that would offer an 88/12 split no matter a game’s revenue. The Epic Game Store versus Steam will be a notable battle for game developers, but it’s one that’s important for users, too. The more options we have for where to buy games, the more those individual stores will have to compete and improve.