(Update March 5: A few charts have undergone minor adjustments – 2013 release Call of Duty Ghosts has been removed from the “most played” chart and the free-to-play title Dead Island: Epidemic was removed from the pay-to-own chart. The “Top 400” list has also been corrected to resolve occasional row mismatches between games and developers/publishers. We regret the mistakes)
When we first unveiled the Steam Gauge project last April, we tracked just over 2,700 games released on Steam to date. Since then, the library of games on Steam has exploded to over 4,400 games by our count. That’s an incredible acceleration for a service that until recently was content to grow slowly. For context, as many new games have been added to Steam in the past 18 months as the service’s first 10 years combined.
All of which is to say that we should have waited a long time to see what Steam users bought and played from that new batch of games. And that means diving back into our random samples of public Steam data to estimate sales for all Steam games released in 2014. We’ll break down that data in a number of ways in this piece, and even provide plenty of raw data for you to slice it yourself at the end if you’d like.
If you haven’t already, check out our original Steam Gauge piece for a detailed explanation of how we got the numbers referenced here. Please note that while we believe these estimates are relatively reliable, they are still estimates. These numbers may not exactly match the reality reported to and by individual developers. When we’ve been able to compare our estimates to actual reports, we see that they overwhelmingly fall within 10 percent of each other in both directions. Also keep in mind that PC games that have not been sold or registered on Steam will not appear in this data.
The numbers reported here are measured on February 26, 2015, unless stated otherwise.
A few missing games
An important caveat before diving straight into the data: there has been a slight change to the methodology we used when we first introduced Steam Gauge. Back then, we got data by scraping public pages on SteamCommunity.com. Valve has since reached out to discuss how we used those public data sources. After some back and forth, we now get similar data using Steam’s public API, which puts less strain on Valve’s web interface.
On the positive side, this change actually improved the efficiency of our data collection. Where we previously got data from 80 to 90,000 valid players per day, we are now studying 170 to 210,000 Steam players per day. That’s more than half a million in an average sample of three days. We’ve also revamped our code to make the collection process less prone to crashes and gaps when running on our Amazon EC2 instance.
On the other hand, using the Steam API seems to have removed data from two of the biggest games on the service. For some reason, Dota 2 And Team Fortress 2 don’t seem to show up in our new API-driven model, even though many other free-to-play titles seem to measure up just fine. This is a pretty big omission considering that these games combined to have over 46 million estimated players last April (and no doubt more today). We’re not sure if this problem is on our end or Valve’s. Either way, their removal is likely to impact some of the 2014 sales and gameplay performance measured later in the piece.
Untwisted reigns the year
The best-selling game of 2014 is one I must admit I’ve heard surprisingly little about. The elevator description for Untwisted sounds like a gross combination of everything currently trendy in PC game design: Minecraftstyle blocky graphics and crafting, zombie-infested survival gameplay, a focus on co-op play, and a free-to-play “Early Access” business model. It’s a combination that apparently works well, leading to downloads from over 12 million Steam users by our estimates. Of course, it’s hard to know how many of those players are actually spending money on the game, but with so many copies out there, the revenue probably isn’t small.
Looking past the best slot, free-to-play games continue to dominate the top “sellers” on Steam. Only two of the top ten most downloaded games ask players to pay upfront, and only six of the top 20. Some people may not think that’s a fair comparison, as free-to-play games can easily be “impulse downloads” that users decide to get it and then quickly forget it.
The gameplay hours stats lend some credence to that argument: a surprising number of the best free-to-play games look less impressive when you eliminate people who haven’t logged playtime yet. That includes a whopping 25 percent of users who downloaded the highest performing download Untwisted and about a third of the “owners” for the free-to-play runner-up Robocraft.
It may seem odd that so many people would bother clicking through to download these free-to-play titles without playing them at least once. However, it’s not that hard to believe when you think about it. When browsing the Steam store, many users probably start downloading these free titles thinking they might want to play them later (and why not… it’s free!).
Once the download is complete, a user may have already returned to the familiar, time-tested games they already know and love. Sometimes it’s much easier to return to a familiar game than to invest time in a largely unknown free-to-play title, even if it’s already downloaded.
In each case,
<sarcasm>for you dead-enders who insist on paying money for a complete gaming experience before playing it
</sarcasm>, we’ve broken down those top pay-to-play performers. Here, at last, are many of the year’s heavily hyped AAA titles from major publishers, as well as a few indie darlings that have found a surprisingly large niche (Goat Simulatorwe’re watching you).
For the most part, the best pay-to-play games see a much higher player-to-owner ratio: People who paid money for a game released in 2014 overwhelmingly put at least a little bit of time into their purchases. Comparing the pay-to-play numbers to the free-to-play brethren, however, shows just how much harder it is for the more traditional releases to garner large numbers of players. It is obvious. Only five paid releases on Steam from 2014 registered at least a million players, compared to, say, eight free-to-play games with that many players.
There is one more important data point to consider when determining the most popular Steam games of 2014: number of days on the market. After all, games released at the beginning of the year had more time to garner a following, while more recent releases may still enjoy the increased sales period that comes with a game’s release (Note: games released in “Early Access” before their officially stated release date may actually get a pre-release sales boost that skews those proportions). By dividing downloads by number of days since release, you’ll see a few games with fairly consistent staying power so far (Untwisted, Robocraft, Heroes and generals) and others whose fates are less clear after their current honeymoon launch period (Dead Island: Epidemic, Don’t starve together, dizzy).