The implications of the Steam Grand Prix
Bring out the safety car
Steam Sale season. A time of fear and hope for indie developers everywhere, all vying for a much-needed boost in sales figures and attention. As the summer sale has ended, it’s about time we take a look at how things actually work on the creator’s side of things.
This year, Steam did something special for their big summer blowout.
Off to the races
The Steam Grand Prix was an odd one. Running from 25th June 2019 until 7th July 2019, it managed to pull the fascinating trick of gamifying the purchase of games. A poorly explained and overly complex concept at the beginning of the sale, no one seemed to have a clue what the hell was going on.
Players were encouraged to complete tasks in games in their library as well as purchase games to earn more points. These points went towards their team’s total, and each day, players were randomly selected from the winning team (almost always Team Corgi) to receive a free copy of the top game from their Steam wishlist. So, despite the confusion, how could they mess this up? It’s just a simple marketing stunt. Well, as many people are aware, the issue comes when players don’t know what the actual offer is. People began purging their wishlists in order to keep games like Cyberpunk 2077 in them, removing games that may not be worth as much for a random prize.
I spoke to indie developers who took to Twitter to voice their concern. It’s hard enough to turn any sort of profit when the most popular storefront is also the least beneficial for developers, leading to a confusing combination of needing to sell your game as much as possible on Steam despite other platforms being more profitable. David Stark, developer of Airships: Conquer the Skies, doesn’t blame the people who removed smaller games from their wishlists. “You’d rather get a $60 game than a $15 one, I get that,” says David. “There's two things happening: Players taking the opportunity to tidy up their wishlists, and players misunderstanding the way the promotion works.”
Clearly then, the blame lies at the feet of Valve’s portrayal of the promotion. If you think a free game is on offer and you might accidentally get a £5 indie game instead of Cyberpunk 2077, you’ll make those changes. It took Steam a couple of days to fix this, posting updates and instructions on how to move items on your wishlist so you could ensure the correct game is at the top in the event of you winning. Regardless of this, the lateness of the hour cannot be disregarded.
The specifics of Steam’s recommendation algorithm remain a mystery of dark magic, but many indies suspect that there are issues with the solution as well as the length of time and lack of foresight from Valve. Emma 'Eniko' Maassen, founder of Kitsune Games, was significantly impacted by these problems.
“As far as sales go, it's a disappointment just like myself and other devs thought it would be. We're looking at maybe half of what we made last year, and despite the two week length, it'll be on par with a week-long non-seasonal sale like we would've done before Valve's algorithm cratered revenues in October-December.”
If wishlist placings, as well as overall wishlists, also impact the recommendation algorithm, it’s far from productive for indie developers. If this happens, Emma fears that “expensive games will top everyone's lists, and cheaper games will be at the bottom, even though on average people are more likely to convert on smaller games.” It could lead to an overall shift within Steam’s algorithm towards AAA titles, even more so than exists already.
It’s already been touched on that indie developers have had a disappointing sales period. However, Steam’s influence on indies’ overall success cannot be overstated. According to Stark, “Airships: Conquer the Skies was actually on itch.io for about a year before it was on Steam. The moment it became available on Steam, sales on itch dropped to near-zero. Even people who are willing to use Itch prefer Steam.” Itch famously allows 100% of a game’s proceeds to go to the developer, meaning it’s far more beneficial for indies to sell their games there. Unfortunately, Steam is still king, and that means they have to deal with the aforementioned problems with the platform’s algorithm.
“Steam definitely appears to weigh wishlists pretty heavily at the moment,” says Stark. “Until recently, wishlists generally went up during sales, so this is definitely making devs worried.” It’s bad for Steam’s user base as well. Emma worries that players won’t be as able to search for the games they’re after, and the focus on wishlisting will just “reinforce AAA game sales even more, to the detriment of indies. It won't get customers the hidden gem recommendations that they're really looking for on Steam.”
What can actually be done?
Valve will continue to make billions in revenue from Steam. In return for the enormous market they control, they are able to take a cut of all games sold there. The Steam Grand Prix was not the disease. It was a symptom of the stranglehold Steam has on the PC gaming scene. Despite the external threats faced by Steam, from Discord’s even larger user base to the Epic Games store’s exclusives, the Steam Grand Prix showed bare-faced where the responsibility lies. Steam is still a place relied upon by many indie developers, and it therefore has a duty to deliver a good service in return for the 30% revenue cut they take.
It was put excellently by Emma, who suggested that Steam should take more steps to understand the importance of indie developers and games for their service that is supposed to be the most comprehensive platform in gaming. The algorithm change has led to significant struggles, and Maassen suggests that they rethink this change in order to “restore passive traffic to pre October 2018 levels.” The alternative is to “lower the cut they're asking for. 30% was fine when they offered proper access to their huge userbase through passive traffic, but is a lot when they slash that in half (or worse) and we're expected to drive traffic ourselves to make up the difference.”
Perhaps there’s a higher chance that Steam becomes more indie-friendly when they begin to feel the rising tide of competition sting, but that’s not going to help indie developers right now trying to sell their games and be able to make more. There’s not really anything to do but support them as best you can. Maybe purchase from itch.io next time.