Illustration: Luke Plunkett
In the wake of changes to Steam's default privacy settings yesterday, unofficial data and sales tracking kingpin Steam Spy is doomed. Many developers who relied on it are mourning its passing, but some are saying good riddance.
The service scraped publicly viewable Steam profiles to estimate game sales along with troves of other data. Some developers, especially smaller ones, viewed it as a key resource. Without Steam Spy to guide their decision-making processes, they feel like they're in the dark again.
"This really sucks," Dreamfall director Ragnar Tørnquist wrote on Twitter. "SteamSpy has been an invaluable tool for us. And more transparency in games sales would be great for the industry in general."
Game designer Andrew Crenshaw laid out exactly how availability of data helps developers - and what they now stand to lose. "Losing Steam Spy is terrible news for indie game devs," he wrote.
"It was one of the few resources that small developers had for assessing the market. It's also encouraged publishers to be transparent with their developers about sales figures."
"Pour one out for Steam Spy," wrote Pillars of Eternity executive director Adam Brennecke, echoing a sentiment shared by many developers at the mercy of Steam's whims. "Thanks for being there in times of darkness."
That said, developers mostly seem to view Steam Spy as a necessary casualty of a that's gained a burst of particularly pointed momentum in a week that's seen Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg get grilled by Congress (and roasted by Twitch).
"As much as I like Steam Spy, making users' libraries hidden by default is 100% the right privacy call," wrote Sean Barrett, a developer who worked on the original Thief.
There is, however, the looming question of why Valve suddenly embraced privacy after years of leaving users' profiles comfortably open for examination. The question, said programmer Per Vognsen, is whether Valve made this call for the good of users or because its bottom line was in danger.
"It's in Valve's interest to make game development and publishing on Steam seem more attractive than it really is," he said, "and public sales data from Steam Spy has been an empirical cold shower for that kind of hype."
Some, meanwhile, think the downsides of Steam Spy outweighed its benefits. Accurate sales data is a powerful tool, but inaccurate sales data that people believe to be gospel can be a weapon of mass annoyance.
"Unfortunately, the vast majority of Steam Spy armchair statisticians I've witnessed completely misinterpret every little bit of data on there," said No More Robots founder Mike Rose.
"Steam Spy disappearing means that people who actually know what they're talking about can now still estimate current sales pretty well, while people who are maybe not the best at this stuff can't make up their own numbers anymore."
In some cases, people even used Steam Spy data to demean or harass developers, something Night In The Woods developer Scott Benson's dealt with.
"Goddammit how am I going to be a consumer advocate if I can't see an unreliable estimate of how a game sold and then do bad maths to come to a concrete number of how much the LAZY DEVS did or did not make," he wrote, adding that Steam Spy was a "double-edged sword" that helped him see how games were selling before his own came out, but a pain in the aftermath because the site's data on Night In The Woods was apparently not accurate.
Emma Maassen, head of Kitsune Games, thinks that despite the headaches, Steam Spy was still far too valuable of a resource to write off entirely. "People misused it and took the numbers at face value all the time and used it to draw unfounded conclusions," she said, "but that doesn't mean plenty of devs didn't use it to cautiously and carefully inform their business decision. That tool is gone now, in a market that's rougher than ever.
Vlambeer's Rami Ismail summed it all up.
"The biggest issue after Steam Spy will be a lack of semi-dependable context for developers researching or negotiating with others," he said. "The biggest advantage is that no one will have to explain to devs and users alike that no, these numbers might look accurate, does not mean they are."