Steam Spy and Publicly Available Data

 

Ugh

Steam Spy, as I’ve previously mentioned, doesn’t provide sterling analysis. They are a data aggregator. Before today they’ve agreed to remove certain developers/publishers from the site if requested. Today that ended.

This is bad for a variety of reasons.

The first is that Steam Spy’s argument presupposes all data that is publicly available should be spread around. It should be obvious that this is false. Steam Spy asserts that “In the last 1,5 years there were no incidents where developer was hurt because of his data being exposed on Steam Spy.” Which is a tenuous statement to make given that I am sure they make no effort to determine if their service causes any harm. I can tell you that I’ve received hate mail because various people believe my game is crap and didn’t deserve what they believed to be high sales. I can guarantee you other people have received the same; I am not a special unique snowflake.

The second involves Steam Spy’s assertion that its service is like a poll. It is not like a poll. They scrape data from public facing Steam user accounts to get an idea of specific statistics on Steam games. They are not going around asking developers/publishers to volunteer information on such and such a topic: in fact they are aggregating and presenting the information in opposition to their wishes.

The third is that Steam Spy apparently has no idea what “Hollywood accounting” is. Because of course they don’t. I would like to mention that “things that didn’t kill the industry” don’t necessarily default to “not bad.” I bet games costing $100 USD wouldn’t kill off the industry, either, but somehow I doubt a lot of people would be happy with that result.

The fourth is that Steam Spy is arguing out of both sides of their mouth. This is a semantics argument with no basis in reality. A service that estimates a game’s  owners is not intended to be a financial/business tool? But you also claim this service is to help developers, correct? Which is it?

 

Why Are We Talking About This

And at the end of the day Steam Spy’s data is hilariously bad because it is misleading. And yet it’s the most clear picture of the indie game developer industry we have. It’s good that we have information – but it’s bad that we allow third party sites to take and signal boost that information against the developers’ wishes.

Why is that bad? If you’re a gamer, or even a developer, your mind probably jumps to false advertising and wanting to suppress bad sales. Sure, that’s a possibility. But we should consider what we’re asking for. For example, should all private companies disclose their financial reports? Maybe this is a good idea?

How about you? Should you disclose your financial reports, your tax forms? Some places apparently do this, like in Norway. Interestingly enough in 2014 they also allowed people to find out who was looking in on their records. So this goes both ways, at least according to the thinking of the Norwegian government.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? If you’re a developer and you support this maybe show your own financials – it’s clearly a good idea, yes? Also you should probably ask your employees and contractors if that’s cool. If they say no maybe just ignore them.

Aside 1: That last is tongue-in-cheek, and the vast majority of contractors I’ve dealt with do not want their rates and overall hours worked publicly disclosed. You’ve got to contact them privately for the private details. Personally? I don’t mind letting people know. I talk about my hours worked and get backlash.

Aside 2: I’m not saying (financial) disclosure is necessarily bad. I’m saying that it’s not necessarily good.

I can tell you one reason contractors generally don’t like to disclose their rates: It makes it harder for them to charge more in the future. Consumers in general (not just gamers, developers fall into this category as well since they are clients of contractors) don’t understand costs very well. They don’t understand how things or made, or how they work – they just want it fast and free.

 

Horses

I’ve got no (personal) horse in this race. I have never asked Steam Spy to remove my game’s data, and I openly talk about the finance side of game development. But I have not disclosed Steam Marines’s revenue, gross or otherwise. I have not disclosed total units sold across all platforms, or specific platforms (these tend to have Non-Disclosure Agreements in place.)

The main reason for this is because that number doesn’t help anyone except for me. Let’s say Steam Marines grossed $500k USD. Okay? So this isn’t even a “get an estimate of units sold on only one platform that is probably the most but maybe not and estimate average unit cost and multiply and get a kind of weird number.”

So you can do the math, 30% platform cut, down to $350k, you pay some taxes so let’s just lop off another 30% and get $245k of post-tax moola.

Well what does that mean? To you, basically nothing. Maybe it gives you a general kind of idea of what a squad-based, turn-based, roguelike-y might be able to sell. But hold up: XCOM2 has sold a ton of copies on Steam. 940k owners? AAA game with a $60 price tag? What about Xenonuats? 22k owners. Huh. And we haven’t even cracked the surface on the games in this genre. Fire Emblem? All the small indie games that are similar?

It comes down to what sort of information you’re really looking for and how to impute that data from what you already know. The idea that removing a few publishers who want their games’ statistics non-public is going to somehow damage the value developers get from Steam Spy is a bit ludicrous. Cross that bridge if you get to it.

 

Value

I have never used Steam Spy’s data to influence any business decision I’ve ever made. It’s just not relevant to making the kind of games I’m making and selling in the market I’m in. Here’s what Steam Spy’s data is good for:

  • Going “WOW!” and seeing that a game you thought was crap apparently sold very well.
  • Going “WOW!” and seeing that a game you thought was great apparently sold very poorly.
  • Going “Okay, there’s some sort of market for this kind of game on Steam.”
  • Doing a lot of legwork to aggregate the data with other data to get a better picture of how an individual title did.
  • General trends, like “Whoa, that sale at that price point and discount for that one particular game at that time did well/terribly!”
  • There are many games on Steam I’ve never heard of that apparently do well. Cool.

As it turns out how XCOM EU/EW/2 and Xenonauts sold tells me basically zilch about how Steam Marines sold. Because why would it? The budgets are different, the teams are different, they came out at different times, and were massively different in art styles, audio design, gameplay, levels of modability, price points, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The thing that gets me is that no one who is defending Steam Spy in this can tell me how they are using the data for their business decisions. I guess that’s okay to stay private, though. Your call.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at yjseow@worthlessbums.comTwitter, or leave a comment below!

Should You Associate Yourself With Black Shell Media?

No.

 

Spam spam spam.
Spam spam spam.

 

Not a fan of spam?
Not a fan of spam?

 

Defy math!
Defy math!

 

Very client focused.
Very client focused. (This entire thread is filled with negative commentary.)

 

Good PR.
Good PR. (This one, too.)

 

@retroremakes responds.
@retroremakes responds. Xinasha goes more off the rails than usual, deletes posts after trying to shove what he believes are achievements in faces.

 

Videogame Attorney's Sketchy Publisher Post.
Videogame Attorney’s Sketchy Publisher Post.

 

Wall 'o text crits you for you owe me free business advice.
Wall ‘o text crits you for you owe me free business advice. (This was in Reddit’s private message so no public facing link – sorry.)

 

Xinasha Brags
Xinasha Brags. Because of course he does.

 

Vote Buying
Vote Buying

 

"How our PR partner's reputation became a liability, and what we did about it"
“How our PR partner’s reputation became a liability, and what we did about it”

 

Your call.

(All screenshots taken on 16 August 2016.)

 

 

Here is where I normally say thanks for reading and feel free to contact me or leave a comment below but I don’t want Black Shell Media to think I welcome what they have to say.

But I do have a few words for employees of BSM who are not Raghav/Xinasha: If you are good at your job, if you want games and devs and their associated industries to succeed, please take a hard look at what your company does, how it looks to pretty much every developer I’ve talked to who makes games for a living, and what your CMO is shooting his mouth off about on places like Reddit.

Money Makes the Games Go ‘Round

 

Blast From the Past

On 3 November 2013 I wrote about my second commercial game, Steam Marines.  At that point the game had been in development for about a year and a half, and I projected that it would cost $160,000 USD across its development cycle. It fully released on 24 September 2014 and I can now say that the actual cost of the project was $97,913.88. This includes all my hardware and software costs, contractor payments, and my full time salary*.

Aside: *I should mention that I worked a lot during this 2.5 year period. A LOT. If I converted my annual salary to an hourly rate I was by far the lowest paid person who worked on the game. But not if I consider my full compensation – I only revenue share with the various distributor platforms that I sell Steam Marines on.

Don’t be wowed by that cut from $160,000 to ~$100,000. That was a combination of me being very conservative, worst-case-scenario with my initial budget and extremely aggressive with cost and cash effectiveness throughout the entire development cycle. If you have any kind of budget, five digits and up, you may be surprised how far you can make it stretch.

Aside: And I do not mean not paying or underpaying your contractors. Do not do this. I mean find parts of your game you can effectively implement in a less costly and/or time consuming way. Reuse assets. Do you really need X to have unique art? Do you really need 32435 character classes and nine hundred tilesets? Actively manage your scope and it will pay off, I promise you.

Also I did run into a large roadblock partway through development, and the initial schedule of 24 months was extended to 30 months. So even my planning for the worst still had the final release date slip.

How well did Steam Marines do? Well enough. I still can’t speak about specific platform numbers, but I can link you to the game’s SteamSpy page. I can tell you other things, too.

 

The Shock Wears Off After a While

I started working full time on Steam Marines 2 on 24 September 2014. Yes, that was Steam Marines’  full release date. It’s August 2016 at the moment, so I’ve been working on Steam Marines 2 for about 23 months now.

Aside: I did take a multi-month break at the end of 2015.

I track my hours worked.
I track my hours worked.

 

The development cost of Steam Marines 2 is a little fuzzy to calculate due to various reasons I’m not going to elaborate on here. But I can say that its development cost to date is around $100,000 USD which translates to approximately $4,347 a month. It’s still slated for another 25 months of development before full release.

Steam Marines basically paid for Steam Marines 2 development in 2015. Having revenue streams is nice. Have more revenue streams.

I’ve been gearing up for early alpha release on Itch.io which should land in a month or two, depending on how things shake out. Itch, while being fairly well praised by small developers, does not appear to be able to supply the funding for developers, even (or especially?) small ones. I’ve talked to about two dozen now and none of them make a living strictly from Itch; Their sales are actually abysmal, double digits if lucky.

So why alpha release on Itch only? I do have a Steam AppID for Steam Marines 2 already. I’ve been through the process before and it’s not difficult. There are four main reasons:

  1. I initially launched my public builds for Steam Marines on IndieDB. I first started selling via its sister site, Desura (I don’t recommend these sites these days.) The community was small, but focused. You could get limited but helpful feedback and iterate. Most massive issues you have can be sussed out and fixed before shoving your game into the much more vicious Steam crowd.

    Aside: Steam Marines did well on Steam’s Early Access, but you really do need thick skin to deal with the vitriol you will almost inevitably receive. I don’t employ a Community Manager – I wear that hat. That means I get to read every review and comment myself. My ego has taken a lot of hits over the years.

  2. You can see if your price point is roughly correct or completely off the wall. The tentative alpha price for Steam Marines 2 is $25 USD. That is not inexpensive, but I didn’t set it arbitrarily high, either. I don’t mean you solicit feedback on if your price is any good or not. I mean you see if people actually buy your game at whatever price you think fits your game.
  3. Only one platform to update builds and keep in contact with really, really, really helps you be efficient. I literally closed down my official forums this year. I can be reached on the Steam forums, my Twitter, email, et cetera. I cannot overemphasize how important being able to focus is, especially when you’re trying to drum up sales, make fixes, add content, push builds, and do all of this with feedback flowing into your eyeballs.
  4. Itch allows me to set the revenue sharing any integer value between 0 and 100%, inclusive. I’m not setting it at 0%, but I’m not setting it at 30%, either.

    Aside: Itch uses PayPal and/or Stripe as payment processors. For (US people anyway) they charge a transaction fee of $0.30 plus 2.9% of the charge. So in Steam Marines 2′s case it would be $0.30 + 0.029 * $25.00 = $1.025 (not sure if they round up or down), or in total about 4.1% on top of what you decide to give Itch.

I’d like to be able to sell ~6,700 copies of Steam Marines 2 for $25 each on Itch. That’s basically a pipe dream from the data I’ve been able to gather, but there’s my goal. Maybe I’ll sell like 2. It’s hard to say.

Based on my experience on Itch I’ll nudge the game in better directions before dipping my toes into Steam Early Access – unless I’m very pleasantly surprised by great sales numbers. But the earlier I can pivot in a good direction, if I need to, the better. Maybe the game does really, truly terribly and I think I need to adjust the development time. Maybe the game does really well and I need to adjust the development time.

Game development is funny like that.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at yjseow@worthlessbums.comTwitter, or leave a comment below!