Steam game sales tool rendered useless by Valve

In another blow to data transparency in this industry, Valve has effectively shut down a developer's new method of estimating sales.

Unlike Hollywood, the games business keeps a lot of data close to its chest. Publishers and platform holders are reticent to share their sales figures. It's one of the reasons that it took The NPD Group several years to form its digital panel, and it's why we've seen estimators like Steam Spy pop up. With nearly 8,000 games on Steam alone in 2017, it's pretty important to get a handle on how titles are selling.

Steam Spy creator Sergey Galyonkin announced back in April that he could no longer operate the service thanks to Valve's new privacy settings. He then followed that up by saying he could continue the estimator with a machine learning algorithm but it wouldn't be as accurate. As such, some developers have taken matters into their own hands. Tyler Glaiel, who has worked on games like Closure and The End Is Nigh, recently outlined a new method to track sales by looking at a game's achievement data.

For example, if half of users earned a specific achievement, he said that implied at least two players had bought the game, while 33% implied there were at least three, etc. This, by itself, isn't accurate enough since the public data is rounded to one decimal place, but the Steam API actually utilized 16 decimal places, and so Glaiel stipulated that his method could be even more accurate than Steam Spy once was. 

While this doesn't cast Valve in a good light, it's important to remember that this is Valve's platform and it's their purview to control data access, especially since the company has said that it's currently working on an official alternative to Steam Spy

Valve, however, has once again gotten in the way, the Kotaku-owned Steamed reports. Shortly after Glaiel offered his new tool to Steam Spy and made it open source for anyone to use, Valve adjusted its own Steam API to round numbers, thereby significantly affecting the accuracy of Glaiel's method. And while the response to Steam Spy back in April was blamed on user privacy and actions taken to support GDPR guidelines, Valve has not responded with any explanation about why they acted so hastily to pull the rug out under Glaiel's tool. 

“Looks like the GDPR thing was just an excuse after all," Glaiel wrote on Twitter. Vlambeer's Rami Ismail was among a number of developers who chimed in as well: “Valve killed the achievement user numbers trick faster than you can say ‘GDPR was never the issue with Steam Spy.'"

While this doesn't cast Valve in a good light, it's important to remember that this is Valve's platform and it's their purview to control data access, especially since the company has said that it's currently working on an official alternative to Steam Spy that will be "more accurate," as well it should be since Valve holds the keys to real, actual data. Valve's Head of Business Development Jan-Peter Ewert noted at the White Nights business conference in St. Petersburg that his company is "working on new tools and new ways of getting data out of Steam."

Let's hope that Valve follows through on its promise soon, because if it doesn't we're simply going to see more attempts at estimation with varying degrees of accuracy. Valve should not be playing whack-a-mole with data tools.

As Ars Technica editor and GameDaily contributor Kyle Orland commented, "Better sales reporting directly from a platform as big as Steam would do wonders for the public understanding of how the gaming market works; it would be something akin to the regular releases of Nielsen TV ratings and movie box office receipts. Even generalized Steam-level sales reports based on genre or Valve's tagging system would help add transparency to a sometimes opaque market."

Editor-in-Chief

James has been covering the games industry since the early 2000s and was most recently the editor of GamesIndustry.biz. He loves Zelda, Metroidvania-style games, action adventure and single-player narratives. He's also the proud father of twin boys and is obsessed with good coffee and Yankees baseball. You can reach him @bright_pixels on Twitter or you can email him at james.brightman@gamedaily.biz.