Steam’s discovery algorithm killed my sales

Firstly I want to be clear that I have had some measure of success on Steam and I’ve enjoyed going to Steam Dev Days and other events and talking to their reps who seem to be genuinely interested supporting indie developers. So this blog post is not about me hating on Steam, rather it’s to discuss a recent issue that has impacted my sales and the sales of many other indies too.

Here’s a huge Steamworks forum post about the issue (you have to be logged on as a developer to read it).

The October Discovery Bug

In early October Valve changed something in their discovery algorithm and introduced a bad bug which meant that Steam was only recommending some big name games instead of relevant games, oops!

Ongoing Discovery Issues

Valve fixed the October discovery bug quickly (within a week I think) but since then many indies have seen a big dip in their traffic from “Other Product Pages” and “Home Page”. Other product pages includes a sub-category of “Discovery Queue” and traffic from that source appears to have decreased significantly for me if I compare before and after the October bug.

Here’s a good week (click to enlarge the image):

And here’s a bad week (click to enlarge the image):

You can see that Other Product Pages has gone from being my top traffic source with 305 visits to a mediocre traffic source with only 91 visits.

This effect can also be seen on the traffic graphs in Steamworks (click image below to enlarge it). The orange line is “Other Product Pages”. I ran a weeklong sale at the start of Oct but straight after the sale finished the traffic from other product pages dropped and stayed low. The other two peaks are the Steam Halloween and Thanksgiving sales.

I can see the same drop in traffic for two of my other games and some devs have showed me charts with an even more severe drop.

Impact on Sales

I 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.

I’m not sure if this issue also affects traffic during a) discount sales and b) game launches because those are a lot harder to analyse like for like, but based on some data I’ve seen from other developers I’m suspicious that those things may also be impacted.

Has this issue affected all indies?

I’ve heard in private that some games are either not affected by this issue or have actually benefited from it with increased traffic! It stands to reason that if many devs are losing traffic, then that traffic must be going elsewhere. That said, a huge number of smaller indies have been hit hard by this issue, harder than me, with traffic and sales dropping to near zero in many cases.

Have I told Valve about it?

Like many indies who added games to Steam since Steam Greenlight I don’t have an official rep. However I did email a couple of reps who I got business cards from and they said they would look into it, but I haven’t heard from them since then.

Admittedly I should chase them up but I was waiting to see if the problem resolved itself, but it’s been ongoing for two months now. Other indies I know have emailed their reps but I haven’t heard anything positive yet.

Here’s the data I sent to Valve (click to enlarge) along with screenshots of the traffic graphs.

Theories

Fellow indie dev Danny Day has suggested that the discovery algorithm may have a historical data component to it and after the initial October bug the historical data got trashed and so the algorithm is not giving the same results as before.

October/November is also AAA release season and includes two Steam sales so it’s possible that our sales are impacted slightly, but that doesn’t explain the sudden huge drop off in discovery traffic that many indies are seeing.

Another possibility is just that Valve changed the algorithm to highlight different games and some devs have benefited and others have not.

It’s even possible that Valve shifted some kind of slider from “show a variety of indie games” further towards “show popular games that earn more money”. They are a corporation after all and corporations like to make money and they don’t have any real obligation to help out smaller indie teams. This particular point seems evident when taking into account the recent news that games grossing over $10M will receive a greater share of the revenue but struggling indies will not.

Also I’ve heard Valve say multiple times that they put the customer first (understandably) and so they probably believe whatever changes they make improve the experience for customers.

But I must stress that the above points are just theories, we haven’t heard anything official from Valve yet.

Selling Direct and Itch.io

So, should I double down on selling direct or use itch.io?

Well I’ve been selling direct since 2006, but sadly my direct sales are about 1% of my total revenue. I need distributors like Steam to survive. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.

Btw, you can buy all my games direct from me here. I get 100% of the revenue minus a small processing fee, so it’s amazing and the best way you can support indies is to buy direct.

The second best way is to buy through itch.io because they only take a small fee (in fact developers can set it at a rate they think is fair). I haven’t put my games on itch.io yet because I’ve heard that sales on there are very low and I’ve been busy with potentially higher value tasks. However, I will try out Regency Solitaire on there soon and see how it gets on as I’d like to support the platform now more than ever.

More discussion

Check out these Twitter threads for more discussion with other devs who have also shared their data.

Conclusion

In the past I have felt positive about Steam, but these discovery changes and the recent revenue share changes that are only relevant to hugely successful games don’t make me feel particularly positive about the future of selling games on Steam. In fact I’d go as far as to say I’m worried.

Making indie games is my full time job and I’d really like it to continue for many years. I’ve had to adapt a lot over the years and it feels like another phase of adaption is fast approaching…

17 Responses to “Steam’s discovery algorithm killed my sales”

  1. noname Says:

    You can’t believe everything you hear. Just because itch.io is not popular doesn’t mean you should not try it. Itch.io cares about the developers more than Valve. Stop with your abusive relationship with Valve and do something else, you only get less views in Steam each day it has no reason to exist.

  2. Moriarty CMG Says:

    This discovery bug is really interesting, but I think that muddying the waters around their revenue share weakens the argument that this is something serious.

  3. Grey Alien Games Says:

    I will try itch.io for sure. But it’s not realistic to just cut off a major distributor especially when I am making a new game intended at their audience. I run a business and need the money to surive. I’d need excellent revenue from others sources before I could move away from Steam, and if that were to happen, I’d probably stay anyway.

  4. BorningGents Says:

    @noname: you don’t sell anywhere close to what you do on Steam, else much more people would release on itch.io instead. I wished it would be different but it is not. For hobby devs it’s fine to release on itch, as long as you don’t make a living out of it.

  5. Nirantali Says:

    The issue with steam and itch.io or others is two-fold, there is not only an abusive relationship between devs and steam, but also between customers and steam. It goes so far that anything that isn’t on steam, simply doesn’t exist. You can watch this with GAs, nobody cares for itch.io GA’s because the games don’t land into their Steam libraries. Steam is not only a storefront anymore, it’s where you collect your games and where your library is. So for many it’s like, if the game isn’t on Steam, it doesn’t exist.

  6. Sam Says:

    I have my game up on itch and I love the platform and what they’re doing over there, but every indie I’ve spoke to or read articles from always says their sales from itch are a fraction of their Steam and even Humble sales. And there is now a LOT of content on itch so I don’t think it’s going to get easier on there.

  7. Anders Larsson Says:

    Hi,

    Interesting, we saw something happen to the algorithms at the same time for our game in the “coming soon” category, whether it was a bug or not we don’t know. Right around the fall sales our traffic spiked, but conversion rates to wishlist dropped to almost zero. Hence they must have selected a very different type of player. And right after Other product pages traffic basically disappeared. It seems they changed algorithms somehow, which has seriously impacted the traffic to our page (and obviously the wishlisting of the game).

  8. Grey Alien Games Says:

    agreed

  9. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Yep it’s true. We released Regency Solitaire on our site and casual portals but it go no press/notice until released on Steam.

  10. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Yup. Much as I want to support it (and will try it soon) it doesn’t seem viable to run my business from sales on there.

  11. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Sorry to hear that. It affected a lot of people and doesn’t seem like it’ll recover.

  12. Steam indie traffic bug 'fixed', but permanent changes likely to affect indies | The Indie Game Website Says:

    [...] Birkett of Grey Alien Games – whose blog post initially brought attention to the issue in the media – now tells The Indie Game Website that [...]

  13. Justin Cuff Says:

    Hi Jake! I have really enjoyed reading your posts and watching your GDC presentation. One thing that has always remained true, is that generating income by making indie games is not a right, but a privilege. A few hard working and innovative developers may ‘make it’ on their own, but year after year, the odds are increasingly stacked against you. We’ve all watched Steam over time, corner an entire market, which is only now starting to fracture, and may eventually spread out more evenly, but without Steam, many ‘indie’ devs making games as a business would have been phased out long ago. So what now? Is Steam responsible for the success of all developers? No, of course not. Have developers over time been spoiled with revenue(s) that they could never have realized without Steam? Of course. Now the tide is turning, and if you continue to do good work, then I believe there is still hope, if only faint, as long as you’re willing to change too. How about making games in a broader variety, other than puzzle or match games? With your experience, I’m sure you could make a great racing game, or a fun match-3 dungeon crawler. I’m suggesting that we also need to morph a little to meet and compete in the ‘new’ environment. Congrats on all of your past success, and may you find more of it in your future. Cheers!

  14. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Hi Justin, my last game Shadowhand was an RPG game with turn-based combat driven by solitaire, and so is my current game, Ancient Enemy. So we are brancing out to appeal to the “Steam audience” more seeing as the casual portals have been in decline for several years. I may branch out more but I have a) a niche, b) fans, c) experience/knowledge in this genre, d) and existing engine in that genre. So making more of these for a while is less risky. If I can get $$$ from a publisher or investor to make a different genre, then I would do it.

  15. Justin Cuff Says:

    I hear (read) you loud and clear, I was using ‘you’ as a shout out to any devs reading this, as an example and suggestion that you have to diversify and as you wrote, ‘branch out’ as much as possible. My point though is that you stated yourself that selling games via your own website is incomparable to your sales on Steam, so without a company like Valve, who has literally rescued so many dead-on-arrival commercial indie games over the past 6 years or so, do you think that you and other indies would have gone out of business long ago? It’s hard to say, but you make it sound like without Valve, there is no real hope for indie devs to make a living with their craft. I don’t want to be reliant on Steam to make a living, it’s too many eggs in one basket. I hope we can all work (customers and creators) toward a more balanced market, where sites like itch.io are getting their fair share of traffic too. Anyway, I am a fan of your work, and I already added Shadow Hand to my wishlist, so I’ll pick it over the holiday sale. All the best to you in the new year!

  16. Justin Cuff Says:

    Shadowhand (title spelling correction). For any one else reading this, you can find it here: https://store.steampowered.com/app/427490/Shadowhand_RPG_Card_Game/

  17. Grey Alien Games Says:

    My sales on Steam aren’t that impressive so I don’t think I’d have gone out of business if I’d kept going with casual games. I might have even made more money tbh. But yes other devs have done very well from Steam in the past, though it seems pretty tough right now. I probably should have switched to making games suitable for Steam years ago but there were reasons why that was tricky. I do think a market with more (viable) distributors would be good so it’ll be interesting to see how things pan out over the next few years with Steam competitors. Enjoy Shadowhand!