Steam Spy and the specter of game sales transparency

Sergey Galyonkin wants to share game sales data with the public whether publishers like it or not. Gamasutra spoke to him and several developers on the state of sales figure transparency in games.

The Ukrainian Sergey Galyonkin was living in Cyprus when he decided he wanted to know precisely how many video games had been sold on Steam that week.

In contrast to the film, music and TV industries, for which an orbiting constellation of organizations such as Billboard and Nielsen track and release thorough performance data, video game companies remain notoriously coy about their sales figures.

While NPD in the US and ChartTrack in the UK purport to collate video game sales, the data has become increasingly unreliable with the advance of scattered digital marketplaces.

NPD now incorporates digital sales into its reports, but that data does not include figures from Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft nor games sold on major online marketplaces like Nintendo's eShop, EA's Origin, Blizzard's, Good Old Games, or mobile storefronts. So-called official video game charts are desperately misleading

Galyonkin, who was working as a Senior Analyst for at the time, devised a simple plan. Every three days he would scan the profiles of Steam’s 1.8 million users using the site’s official API and, from that information, extrapolate how many games had been sold. His project, dubbed ‘Steam Spy’ to imply a whiff of espionage and privileged information, launched in April 2015.

"It makes me laugh when people claim Steam Spy isn't accurate. Each game of ours tracks, broadly speaking, within its stated margin of error."

While Galyonkin was quick to point out the margin of error (“It depends on the game: pretty accurate for big titles, widely inaccurate for smaller ones,” he told Gamasutra, recently) he was also forthright in publishing his findings, revealing that, for example, 28 per cent of games on Steam are owned by users in the U.S., or that the RPG genre is the most popular on the platform. 

While many praised Galyonkin’s endeavor in providing useful information, there were those who said the data was inaccurate as, thanks to press accounts and free giveaways, ‘owners’ on Steam does not equate to sales.

“It makes me laugh when people claim Steam Spy isn’t accurate,” says someone inside a UK-based medium-size publisher of numerous games on Steam, who asked to remain anonymous. “Each game of ours tracks, broadly speaking, within its stated margin of error. It is important to distinguish between sales and owners. But if you think of the data as ‘activations’ I’m confident that Steam Spy offers a realistic overview and I question the motives of those who publicly dispute it.”

While Galyonkin received some negative reaction to the site in its first year, he claims that, during the past six months, that negativity has eased off. “I haven’t heard any scare mongering in the last six months or so,” he says. “It’s a good sign.”

Indeed, according to the spokesperson for the publishing company, it’s become the industry’s go-to resource. “Everyone I know absolutely relies on it,” he says. “Within the short time it has been around, I suspect Steam Spy has become one of the visited sites in the industry. Even though it only updates once a day, I’m probably on it ten to twenty times through the working day, trying to get a sense of which titles are doing well, and, more importantly trying to spot why they are doing well.”

For publishers, the data gives an idea of how games are performing within a particular market, he says. For developers, they can now get an idea of how prospective publishers are doing.

"Someone else could still build their own Steam Spy and access the same data -- and I know, many companies did exactly that, including Paradox."

Perhaps for this reason, certain publishers have requested that their sales data be excluded from Steam Spy’s figures.

Last week, in a post on the popular video game forum NeoGaf, Galyonkin, who now lives in live in Berlin, Germany, where he works as Head of Publishing for Eastern Europe at Epic Games, revealed that Paradox, Nicalis and Techland have all written to request their data be removed.

(Nicalis declined to provide a comment for this article, while Paradox and Techland did not respond to requests for comment.)

For a while, Galyonkin complied with their requests. “I removed their games from my database,” he told Gamasutra, last month. “Someone else could still build their own Steam Spy and access the same data - and I know, many companies did exactly that, including Paradox. But I want Steam Spy to be a helpful tool to devs, not a threat, so I honored those requests.”

This reluctance of certain companies to share sales data in the video game industry has precedence. In 2007 NPD told Ars Technica that the group had no right to make console sales data public. “It's better to...leave it up to our clients to release their numbers,” said David Riley, NPD’s director of marketing, at the time.

“Or, if manufacturers tell us it's okay to release their hardware sales numbers, then we'll go back to providing them, but that shouldn't be our call.” In 2011 the company complied with a request from Sony to keep sales figures for the company’s PlayStation 3 console hidden. 

Many question this practice, especially when it comes to Steam Spy, which simply organizes publicly available information. “The motives of these publishers should be deeply questioned,” said the spokesperson from the UK publisher.

“If they are keeping that information from their own developers, that’s disgraceful. If they are hiding that information from prospective business partners, then that’s deceitful. And if they want to present a different story to investors then that’s highly questionable. All are immoral as far as I am concerned.” 
After months of complying with the requests to keep certain sales data hidden, last week Galyonkin changed his mind, and re-incorporated the hidden sales data into his site’s official figures. “There is no legal obligation for me to not provide estimates of ownership that were obtained using public data,” he told Gamasutra, after he made his decision.

“It’s not their confidential information. There haven’t been a single verified incident of a game developer being hurt by having their ownership numbers estimated by Steam Spy. There have been tens of thousand developers gaining valuable knowledge because of it.”

"You can only see from the appetite with which publishers and developers are trawling Steam Spy that an official resource would be preferable, though I fear that the industry will never universally accept a way of sharing official data."

Some claim, however, that there is the potential for real harm. One developer, which asked to remain unnamed in this article, requested that Galyonkin remove its sales data from the service.

The company’s game has sold an estimated 1.5 million copies on PC alone, success that could, according to the developer, which is based in Latin America, make its staff and premises potential targets for criminals. (A representative from the company told Gamasutra “we not making any more comments about that matter.")

While this company has clear and apparently legitimate reasons for secrecy, the prevalent coyness elsewhere is harder to justify. “I genuinely don’t know why the games industry is like this,” says the spokesperson for the UK publisher.

“But I think it is damaging. As it stands, it’s difficult to get a real sense of where the wider market is. Physical sales are still counted, but that really doesn’t give any realistic sense of what is happening out there. You can only see from the appetite with which publishers and developers are trawling Steam Spy that an official resource would be preferable, though I fear that the industry will never universally accept a way of sharing official data.”

For Galyonkin, who has a slew of improvements planned for his project in coming months, it’s to do with the industry’s origins. “The movie industry was originally financed by people from financing industry and they’re used to being open and even bragging about their numbers,” he says. “The gaming industry comes from a different background where people are worried about trade secrets, access rights and all this kind of stuff.”

Aside from the odd anomaly, most would agree that the transparency that Steam Spy has brought to the world of game publishing has been positive. Developers are better equipped to make informed decision when it comes to partnering with publishers, while publishers are able to track trends. It is, however, a resource that should be used mindfully, says the spokesperson for the UK publisher.

“Steam Spy is at its best when people understand exactly what it is and what it is showing. While the numbers are useful, they should never be used in isolation. Anyone basing a game development or publishing decision exclusively on what Steam Spy says is an idiot.”

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