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Sure, the Steam algorithm is important to those releasing PC games, but is it really sinister and all-encompassing? Let's get into that.

Simon Carless, Blogger

September 18, 2020

7 Min Read

[Hi, I’m ‘how people find your game’ expert Simon Carless, and you’re reading the Game Discoverability Now! newsletter, which you can subscribe to now, a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Welcome back to another day of intense gladiatorial combat in the game platform & discovery arena. Which devs/publishers have picked the right weapons to win, and who thinks everything will be OK because ‘their friend from work’ has turned up? Guess we’ll find out!

First up this time out, let’s do a little Steam platform exploration with the help of recent Valve comments:

Steam algorithm myths, debunked?

So, long-time game consultant & funder Jason Della Rocca was kind enough to reach out to me. The Montreal co-working space GamePlay Space that he helps to run just had a (virtual, ‘cos COVID!) chat with the folks at Valve about Steam.

It wasn’t publicly recorded, but there were three particular things mentioned by Valve in that Q&A (paraphrased by Jason) that I wanted to repeat/amplify, because there may be myths about them:

  • Steam user reviews that are Mixed or higher have no impact on the various referral algorithms. If you are below Mixed, then your game starts to get filtered out.

This isn’t to say that your game won’t sell worse if it’s in a Mostly Positive review tier, since players might be less interested in buying it. I know No More Robots fights hard to keep all its games reviewed ‘Very Positive’ or above, which it has managed so far. But there’s no hidden ‘algorithm drop’ here, just different buyer behavior.

[SIDE NOTE: here’s the full list of Steam ratings afaik: Overwhelmingly Positive: 95 - 99% + more than 500 reviews; Very Positive: 80 - 94% with 50 reviews or more; Positive: 80-99% + less than 50 reviews; Mostly Positive: 70-79%; Mixed: 40-69%; Mostly Negative: 20-39%; Negative: 0-19% + less than 50 reviews; Very Negative: 0 - 19%; Overwhelmingly Negative: 0 - 19% + more than 500 reviews.]

  • Steam doesn't care if your burst of sales happens on launch day or 2 years after launch. A burst is a burst and the algorithm takes notice... with no penalty/effect from days-since-launch

We’ve seen this recently with Among Us, of course - a late rise to the top on Steam. But confirming and amplifying - that top ‘Featured / Recommended’ bar on the front page of Steam, which it’s very good to get on? It’s part algorithmic and part editorial.

The algorithmic part ‘just happens’ if your game is selling well enough in terms of minute to minute velocity. But it’s all about what is happening at that moment. So being in there once doesn’t train Steam to get you in there again.

  • The various store page click/impression stats have no effect on the algorithms. That data is provided for teams to make more informed marketing/promotional decisions and gauge what's having an effect to bring in more eyeballs.”

Valve is incredibly transparent compared to many platform holders on traffic to your game, and where it came from. Which is great! The point is - sure, sales/interest may affect your game. But SteamWorks’ page stats are a Google Analytics-style look at what’s happening on your page, not ‘the place where the algorithm decides to do things’.

To conclude - there are definitely some algorithmic changes that affect developers on Steam - especially tweaks to the More Like This box, which I’d love to see further tuned away from the usual (popular) suspects.

But overall, how your game sells is generally to do with how attractive you make it and the community you build up, not.. an evil computer in Seattle messin’ with you.

PlayStation Monthly Picks - new(ish) featuring!

Here’s a discoverability thing. Something notable on PlayStation 4 (fairly new, though I think I mentioned it once before?) is the Monthly Picks section. It’s interesting for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the editorially selected line-up gets major featuring for a few days per month. This includes a spot high up on the main PSN Store nav bar (see my above pic from Sept. 17th.) It even got featured as an icon on the PS4 home page. I know the latter happened because a) I saw it briefly, but then it disappeared, and b) this Tweet, lol:

Anyway, I do care about your monthly picks, PlayStation, and not just because you featured Descenders this month (0_0). The initiative seems like an attempt to showcase interesting titles, some of which are outside the typical AAA-featuring trends on PS4. They’ve even gone back to pick older games such as The Mummy Demastered and Bound, alongside newer titles like Windbound, No Straight Roads and Spiritfarer.

Finally, some fascinating platform taste differences are showcased here. Games like Windbound (which made it into Switch Digital eShop Top 30!) only has 14 U.S. PSN user ratings, whereas the Dark Souls-ish Mortal Shell has 1,144 ratings in total.

(Context: I’m gonna guesstimate between 50 and 100 sales per review for most PS4 games. But don’t forget Europe, the U.S. and other regions run independent ratings/review scores, so you have to look at total reviews across multiple territories.)

Other news…

Rounding up the week with some other wondrous game platforms and find-y stuff news, as follows:

  • Possibly the juiciest quote from the aftermath of the PlayStation 5 & PS Plus Collection announce - for us - is this one from Sony’s Jim Ryan talking to GI.biz“We have had this conversation before -- we are not going to go down the road of putting new release titles into a subscription model. These games cost many millions of dollars, well over $100 million, to develop. We just don't see that as sustainable.” Xbox Game Pass, that’s you told. Though Ryan does go on to clarify “putting those into a subscription model on day one… just doesn't make any sense.” But perhaps day 365 works for Sony, if the ‘Plus Collection’ expands in the future? We’ll see.

  • After casual and casino game firm Big Fish settled a lawsuit around gambling, NBC News talked to addicted mobile gamers. These are the straight-out slot machine apps, mind you, but: “A 42-year-old Pennsylvania woman said she felt saddened that she spent $40,000 on Big Fish Casino while working as an addiction counselor.” Ouch. Folks working in F2P, can we all think more about responsible monetization? Thanks.

  • I don’t cover VR much in this newsletter because *mutters something about giant money pit*. But for the regular dev, Oculus Quest is getting a bit more interesting - Janko Roettgers’ new Protocol ‘future tech’ newsletter notes that “Quest users have now spent more than $150 million on content, with more than 35 titles each generating more than $1 million in sales.” Good stuff about Quest 2 in this follow-on interview too, which includes the immortal phrase “we also want to support the Bruce Wayne use case.” And look, freeform John Carmack talk nirvana.

  • Continuing on the ‘what do publishers want to see from game pitches?’ angle, Johan Toresson from Raw Fury was kind enough to post a downloadable PPT on Slideshare which echoes some other recent efforts in this area to KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid. There’s been a few other example in the past along similar lines - Toge Productions has a useful ‘how to pitch us’ page, for example, and Superhot Presents’ deck suggestions. And basically, it’s all about a succinct ‘here’s the team, the concept, and what we want’ PPT, and a playable prototype/demo. That’s it. That’s the Tweet.

Finally, I’d seen these bots before that do funny things with Steam data. But I forgot this one was still running, and lol:

(I love the summer/Xmas sale dips, too.)

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About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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