Steam Spy and Publicly Available Data



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.



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.



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

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