Amongst the wake of concerns around user data and privacy, Steam announced they would be changing some default privacy settings for all Steam accounts. And while that sounds positive on the surface, there is one unfortunate downside: the change will result in the popular third-party Steam tracker, Steam Spy, becoming completely redundant.
In an announcement, a Valve developer explained that Steam accounts now "have the option to keep your total game playtime private". The expansion of the privacy settings also lets users choose who can see the game details of their Steam profile, including achievements, playtime, and what games an account has wishlisted or purchased.
What's not expressly said in the update, however, is a change to default privacy settings. A Steam account's owned games were publicly viewable by default, but as of today they are hidden off the bat. That means third-party trackers won't be able to estimate how many accounts have bought (or own) a game unless everyone universally opts-in, which isn't something the majority of people do.
As a result, it's no surprise that Steam Spy creator Sergey Galyonkin announced that his third-party service has, in one fell swoop, effectively been made redundant:
Valve just made a change to their privacy settings, making games owned by Steam users hidden by default.
Steam Spy relied on this information being visible by default and won't be able to operate anymore.https://t.co/0ejZgRQ6Kd
— Steam Spy (@Steam_Spy) April 11, 2018
While not 100% accurate, the Steam Spy tracker has been a resource for the industry - public, press and publishers - about Steam and as a gauge for the PC market in general. Galyonkin previously told Kotaku over email last year that the industry's introversion when it comes to figures had created "a skewed picture" of the industry. "Without several years in publishing business under your belt it’s hard to estimate both the costs and sales of other games," Galyonkin said at the time.
And with this change - as understandable as it was from a privacy perspective - the industry is now a little more opaque. By changing the default setting, Galyonkin explained that "Steam Spy can't extrapolate" the data it uses for its estimates.
"Valve doesn't expose any identifiable information about its users, so it should've been safe with their previous default settings," Galyonkin said over email. "And by hiding owned games they don't really make themselves more compliant, as GDPR is mostly about handling personal information, such as names or addresses."
The Steam Spy creator surmised that the drama around Facebook and the incoming General Data Protection Regulation laws - which go live in Europe from May 25 - might have been a factor, but that's a speculative guess on his part. I also asked whether SteamDB, another popular resource for changes on the Steam platform, would be affected. "Steam DB will lose some of its features, but should continue to operate," he said.
It may not be the end of the road entirely: one of the developers on Turbo Killer cyberpunk-adventure noted that a Valve developer at this year's GDC specifically called out Steam Spy as "the most useful developer utility" available. With that in mind, it's not out of the woods that Galyonkin could get access to Steam's statistics - although nobody knows at this stage whether Valve would approve such a measure, and whether it would be allowed under the new GDPR legislation.
In the interim, developers will be the most affected. Developers still can make manual estimates on their own by researching the various genres on Steam, but it's a substantially time-intensive process. "It used to take me weeks to research a single sub-genre. Most devs can't spare the time to do this," Galyonkin said.
"The manual estimates would be impossible with the current API, I'm afraid."