It’s now been about two years since Valve shut down the source of Steam Spy’s huge, randomly sampled sales estimates, promising a “more accurate and useful” replacement would come. We got our first glimpse of what that replacement might entail today, as Valve took a rare glimpse into its wealth of aggregated sales data on thousands of PC games.
The blog post sharing that data correctly points out that the raw number of games finding minimal sales success on Steam has skyrocketed since 2012 (when Valve launched Steam Greenlight and tight control over which games could hit stores) . But Valve’s selective view of the data leaves out a huge amount of games that make less than $5,000 in their first two weeks on Steam’s virtual shelves. An Ars analysis shows that these titles have made up the vast majority of Steam releases over the past five years.
Filling the gaps
To get to that data for the charts above, we started with the charts that Valve itself provided in its blog post today. These represent the number of games earning more than $5,000, $10,000, $50,000, $100,000, and $250,000 in the first two weeks, respectively, per year of release. I’ve used photo-editing software to measure the bars on those charts and convert them to raw numbers, but the actual numbers may differ a fraction of a percentage point from Valve’s internal benchmarks (we didn’t decipher the charts for 2005 and 2006, when the total number of Steam releases was too small to collect much meaningful data).
We then compared those numbers to the total number of Steam releases for each year, as collected by Steam Spy (I removed non-game software and free-to-play games, as Valve did in its data). Using that, we were able to track down the one song that Valve emphatically didn’t mention in all those years: making games less than $5,000 in that two-week launch window.
As you can see in Figure 3, this lowest level of sales accounted for less than half of all Steam releases through 2014, a year in which Steam still saw fewer than 1,400 games hit stores. However, by 2015, the raw number of releases had exploded to over 2,300, and our data shows that the increase came almost entirely from games that struggled to make a significant impact on sales at launch.
Since 2015, both the annual growth rate in Steam releases and the proportion of those releases that struggled at launch continued to grow exponentially, before leveling off in 2019. first sales have hovered around 80 percent over the past three years.
As Valve acknowledges in its blog post, these home window revenue restrictions are somewhat arbitrary. A game that makes $4,000 in a few weeks can be considered a huge success for a hobbyist programmer just getting his solo start. First sales also don’t always show the full picture for games that can continue to be successful long after launch.
But Valve also points out that “most recent games that made around $10,000 in the first two weeks made between $20,000 and $60,000 over the course of 12 months after release.” Convert that into annual revenue for a struggling indie developer, and you can see how launch windows under $5,000 can easily be considered a commercial failure (although the calculation changes if a developer can launch multiple games a year or keep sales stable). can hold for a period of several years).
What does it mean?
There are two ways to look at these numbers. The first, which Valve focuses on in its blog post, is the raw number of games in those “high initial revenue” groups (ie, over $5,000). As you can see in Figure 2 (and below), the number of such titles generally rose slowly after Steam’s launch, absolutely exploded in 2014 amid looser Steam Greenlight standards, and has continued to rise from that expanded number ever since. . Many more total games are quickly finding significant audiences on Steam than ever before, and Valve can rightly feel good about that.
But while the number of successes on Steam has increased, the number of failures has increased even more, both in absolute and relative terms. For developers, this means that getting a game on Steam isn’t close to guaranteeing that you’ll be able to find a significant audience these days. For players, that means sifting through Steam storefront listings full of junk that apparently very few people want to buy.
Valve is constantly tinkering with its “discovery” algorithms to help both sides of this equation, and those algorithms do their best to drive deserving games to their deserving audience. But on a platform with increasingly hands-off submission guidelines and dozens of games launching every dayinevitably there will be a lot of losers in Steam’s sale lottery.
However, there are signs that things are getting better. As Valve points out in its blog post, the number of games that hit the $10,000 first-sale milestone rose 11 percent from 2018 to 2019, slightly dropping the “failure rate” for a generic Steam release over the past year. And average initial revenues for Steam games increased from 2018 to 2019 at all but the lowest percentile levels.
Those numbers suggest that quality games are starting to find an even wider audience on Steam these days, while weaker titles are proving to be even less lucrative. That doesn’t mean we’ll be returning to the relative “all-kill, no-filler” world of early Steam anytime soon, but maybe we’re starting to get a little closer every year.
List image by Getty / Aurich Lawson