Are the new Steam Discovery tools having any effect on game sales?

Earlier this week, Valve made one of the biggest changes to its Steam platform ever, with game recommendations based on a variety of factors, including "Steam Curators."
Earlier this week, Valve Software made one of the biggest changes to its Steam platform ever, with game recommendations based on a variety of factors, including "Steam Curators." You can now follow other players, developers, websites and YouTubers on Steam, and see the games that they are playing and recommend directly via the Steam store. The idea is that this added level of curation will hopefully lead to better sales for devs, and better navigation for users. Aside from user-led curation, there are also other new features in place -- the Steam storefront now shows recommendations based on past purchases and what friends are playing, while a new "Discovery Queue" allows users to browse through new releases quickly, and "follow" any game that looks interesting, but aren't ready to purchase just yet. But how well has this new system been working since it launched on Monday, and how do developers who recently released games via Steam feel about the changes? Gamasutra got in touch with dozens of devs who released games on Steam in the last month or so, to find out what sort of impact new discovery tools are having. The answer for the majority was either "no change," or a drop in sales, with a minority seeing any kind of useful increase in sales. Many developers we talked to say that they saw a slight increase in traffic to their store pages, but no noticeable increase in sales as a result. Simon Bachmann, the dev behind Halfway, for example, noted that, "The first day we got about twice as much traffic on the page as before, but not that much more sales. That has gone back again and we are talking the same level of traffic we had beforehand." Sales of Halfway have actually dropped lower this week than the daily average he's been seeing to date. Of course, this could just be normal fluctuation, but it certainly doesn't suggest that the new update is having a positive effect on his sales. Many more developers told us a similar story. Strategy game Victory at Sea saw traffic to its Steam store page doubled at the start of the week, yet this has no noticeable impact on sales. Derek Paxton from Stardock told us that sales look unchanged as of yet.
"The change is good to games that've already cemented themselves as the gold standards of the indie world, and little to no effect on others."
Meanwhile, Shawn Beck's Velocibox barely even noticed the update. "The change hasn't affected Velocibox in anyway," he tells me, adding that, "the change is good to games that've already cemented themselves as the gold standards of the indie world and little to no effect on others." Same story for music game Sentris, and survival game Rebuild 3. Elsewhere, Cannon Brawl saw no noticeable increase in traffic or sales from the update, while Deep Under the Sky saw a spike of around 400 pageviews to its Steam store page, but these were not converted into increased sales. A couple of developers told us that they did see a very slight increase in sales. Back to Bed dev Klaus Pedersen, for example, says that sales were up "a tiny bit," although he noted this may well have been down to standard fluctuation rather than the new discovery tools. And Mini Metro developer Peter Curry told me that his sales doubled from $886 to $1,619 on the day of the update, although they fell again in the days that followed. "A definite spike albeit a small one, and it looks like it'll level back off again," he says. In general, then, the vast majority said there was no change -- or negative change. Heist game The Masterplan, for example, saw its sales "flatlined after the changes."

In the days that followed, sales were down to around 20 percent what they were before the update, and today sales of the game were down to 15 percent compared to the daily average before the update. Hexcells Infinite has also seen "a small but noticeable drop in both page views and sales," while Reprisal Universe developer Jon Caplin told me "Since the Steam update... traffic is very slow now. I can't even find it listed in the indie section when I filter it down to indie/strategy." McDroid is another game badly affected by the update -- this tower defense style game has seen a drop by half in both views and sales since Monday. Out of interest, I decided to check whether any of these games were featured on Steam Curator lists, and whether not being featured corresponded to a drop in sales or not.
"I'm really excited about curators on Steam... It's a human attempt at solving the growing problem of discoverability."
Numerous named above are in multiple big-name Curator lists -- Halfway, Cannon Brawl and Back to Bed, for example, are all in multiple lists for thousands of followers. Yet this didn't appear to translate to bigger sales. The only game that Gamasutra delved into that appears to have seen increased sales thanks to a curator addition was Mini Metro. This game featured in numerous curator lists, including popular YouTuber NerdCubed, Kotaku, and Rock Paper Shotgun, and appears to have seen an influx in sales as a result. But rather than curator lists providing additional sales, it seems that overall, not being in curator lists is having a negative effect. Games like The Masterplan and McDroid have not been added to curator lists, and have in turn seen a drop in sales. In other words: Rather than curator lists acting as a way for developers to reach new audiences, it would appear that they are actually penalizing developers who don't get onto lists, and providing the same old results for those devs who do manage to jump onto a few lists. Of course, it's still too early to say whether this trend will continue, or whether the system will level itself out in the long-term - and of course, Valve is known for tweaking new systems in the weeks and months after they launch.

What do developers think?

Regardless of traffic and sales, what do developers actually think of the new update? Thoughts are mixed, as you might expect. Some developers are excited at the prospect of what the uncertain future of Steam might be like, while others aren't so sure that the new features are actually doing any good for those devs who actually need the help. "I'm actually really excited about curators on Steam," says Sentris dev Samantha Kalman. "It's a human attempt at solving the growing problem of discoverability. Sure it's abusable, but I think abuse cases will be the minority." "The fact is that if a friend tells you about a game, you're much more inclined to consider it than if the creator tells you about it," she adds. "Curators have been part of the industry ecosystem for a long time, but now there's so many games out there that we have to acknowledge the importance of the role." David Edery of Road Not Taken studio Spryfox is also excited to see how the change affects the platform, although he's wary of making any judgements just yet. "After a couple weeks, that initial surge of interest should subside and we should start to see behavior more in-line with average behavior in the long term," he says.
"The onus is now on developers to drive enough traffic from outside Steam."
Many devs told us that they're very happy they aren't in the position where they have to launch a game on Steam now. As has been noted before, the Steam front page no longer offers "New Releases," but instead shows "Popular New Releases" as default. "I'm glad we launched before the change," says McDroid and Victory at Sea dev Fraser McCormick. "I think the visibility for just released games that aren't already selling well was slightly better before." "The 'Popular New Releases' tab being default over the 'Top Selling' could potentially be an improvement," he reasons, "but I'm not sure how well you need to already be doing to get on there. Depending on how much, it could be an overall plus to a well organised indie, but a serious problem if you just drop your game on Steam." Of course, this means that for anyone launching a game on Steam now, it's even more important to be talking to the press and YouTubers about your game before launch, since if you don't hit that "Popular New Releases" tab at launch, you may well have a problem. Hexcells Infinite dev Matthew Brown also notes this change, saying, "Day-one sales will definitely be reduced now they have switched from 'New Releases' to 'Popular New Releases.' The onus is now on developers to drive enough traffic from outside Steam to get a spot on this list." "On the positive side, I think the curators lists could be beneficial in the long run," he adds. "Hopefully people will continue to find the game even after all the release buzz has died down, which may help to stop sales ever drying up completely."

"Overall I like the new update, especially from a customer's perspective, but it has made Steam a little less 'friendly' to small developers." Many other devs shared this sentiment. Peter Curry of Mini Metro notes that he's not entirely convinced of the curators approach. "The most followed curators are those who are already the most influential in increasing visibility," he reasons, "so if Steam curation does turn out to be a big driver of sales, then it'll just amplify the already significant weight the YouTubers carry rather than even it out."
"I like the new update, especially from a customer's perspective, but it has made Steam a little less 'friendly' to small developers."
"It looks like getting onto top curation lists will just be another hurdle for indies (and just when Greenlight was looking like closing!)," Curry notes. Still, Curry is hopeful that this new system will eventually get more eyeballs -- and the right eyeballs -- on new games, instead of just showing users the same top games over and over again as it was before. "When I was looking down the homepage I saw Steam recommended Train Fever and Cities in Motion to me because I'd recently played Mini Metro," he notes, "so I was excited about those players being shown Mini Metro." "In truth having all this information terrifies me, because now I'll have to learn how to interpret it and what I should do in response. We were quite well-placed before, we've made more than enough during the first month to cover expenses until the projected end of development and mobile launch, and weren't too fussed about the (expected) drop in sales—fewer people to answer to - more time for dev! Now it's been two days poring over graphs we barely understand and pretending we're working." Stardock's Derek Paxton isn't completely sold on the new storefront, although he does appreciate that Valve is looking for new and effective ways to curate games on the platform. He notes that the Top Seller tab isn't as useful as it was before the update. Galactic Civilizations III is currently on sale on Steam, and while 45 percent of pageviews are coming from the Specials tab, a mere 0.01 percent are coming from the Top Sellers tab, even though the game was at once point in each list.
"In truth, having all this information terrifies me, because now I'll have to learn how to interpret it and what I should do in response."
He also notes that the new curator approach most likely means that players will be made more aware of games in the genres they typically play, not less aware of breakout games in other genres -- whether this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen. "Ideally I would like to keep the new changes in the top capsule (recommended for you, ability to customize what is displayed there, top new releases, etc)," he explains. "Return the former featured section for Valve curated games (so that games can be promoted beyond users specific preferences) and get the Top Sellers list back 'above the fold' (make sure the list starts before a normal user has to scroll down, you would be amazed at the difference this makes)." "I really like the concept of curators," he adds, "but I would probably sidebar it or have games recommended by it included in the top capsule rotation (no reason it can't factor into the recommended games list)." For Devolver Digital's Nigel Lowrie, the best part of the new update isn't what Valve has added, but what the company has removed. "Curated lists and the recommendation changes are lovely, but I think one of the biggest win for discoverability on Steam is the new feature that removes games a user already owns from the prime promotional spots," he notes. "That opens up quite a bit of real estate for games that might otherwise not get promoted over perpetual best-sellers like DayZs." So early impressions are mixed right now. The Curators system needs some tweaking for sure, and the front page may well need a shuffle. The best we can do for now is monitor the situation in the coming months, and see how the trends shift for devs coming onto the platform.

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