The Guy Behind Steam Spy Has Been Working On Epic's Store For Years

Image: Steam Spy

It’s one thing for a gaming company to announce a Steam competitor — and believe me, many have—but it’s something else entirely when the developer behind the world’s biggest game does it.

Epic’s upcoming game store seems to have already gotten under Steam’s skin, but even before the announcement yesterday, one Epic employee spent countless long hours picking apart the behemoth piece by piece. As a hobby.

If you follow Steam closely, you’ve probably heard of Sergey Galyonkin. Since 2015, he’s been running Steam Spy, a site that scrapes publicly-available data from Steam profiles, analyses it, and spits out statistics like approximate game sales, average playtime per game, and broader genre and tag trends.

A change to Steam’s privacy settings put Steam Spy against the ropes earlier this year, but it’s still bobbing and weaving — albeit more clumsily — for the time being.

Few people outside of Valve are more intimately familiar with Steam’s inner workings than Galyonkin. He has always described the Steam data-gathering mainstay, used by major developers and publishers to take stock of Steam and justify their games’ existence, as a “side project.” His main gig? Director of publishing strategy for Epic’s new store, as it turns out.

He announced yesterday that he’s been working on the project for “the past several years.” It didn’t take long for the “Steam Spy was literally a Steam spy” jokes to start rolling in.

“I think it’s funny,” Galyonkin said in an email to Kotaku. “It wasn’t my intention when launching or naming Steam Spy, but in retrospect, it makes for a great four-years-in-the-making joke.”

Image: Fortnite

There is, according to Galyonkin, no great conspiracy here. He’s always been interested in data and game distribution, and that led to him both starting Steam Spy and joining Epic. Steam Spy has, however, taught Galyonkin, and now Epic, some valuable lessons that are being applied to the new store.

“I’ve learned a lot about how games are tracking [week] over week, how effective are sales (not as much as people think, exposure is more important), and more importantly, I got to talk to hundreds of developers to learn what they want from a digital store and what they like and don’t like about existing ones,” he said.

He noted that he could’ve done that last part without Steam Spy, but “for a person as introverted as I am, it’s way easier when other people are talking to me.”

This led to a slew of valuable insights that Galyonkin says directly informed the Epic store’s feature set.

For instance, forums and other social media-like tools — a cornerstone of Steam — won’t be part of the package. Galyonkin said that this is because “not a single developer I talked to wanted forums” and “the toxicity it brings,” preferring to interact with communities on their own terms on platforms like Reddit and Discord instead.

“That’s why we won’t have forums on Epic Games store and will start with a ticketing system, so gamers can message devs about their problems instead of review-bombing them,” said Galyonkin.

Then there’s the issue of clutter, which often makes Steam feel less like a svelte 2018 video game store and more like a closet so stuffed full of games that if you tried to pull one out, it’d be like dislodging the wrong block from a Jenga tower. This is even an issue on individual game pages. Their “More Like This,” DLC, and bundle sections impact not just users’ ability to decide whether they want a game, but also developers’ ability to communicate what they’re up to.

“There was a problem with too many things competing for users’ attention on a game page and no way of ever reaching users unless a developer had its own account system set up,” said Galyonkin. “That’s why we’re trying to minimise the store presence on game pages and we’re adding a global Twitter - like newsfeed, so developers can update their players about recent changes to their games and their future titles. And they can have emails of their players if the players agree to it.”

Image: Steam

Steam Spy’s greatest strength, though, has been its ability to pull back the curtain on sales data and other trends, paving the way for developers to make games they know people will like (or that nobody else has made before) and, hopefully, succeed. And while Epic’s store won’t have public-facing Steam Spy-like functionality built in, providing developers with as much information as possible is a big priority.

“We’re aiming to provide developers with as much information to make good decisions as legally possible,” Galyonkin said. “Contractually we can’t share other companies’ sales data—Steam Spy shows estimates — but we can share other useful stats, especially in an aggregated format. We use a lot of data ourselves and want the developers to have the same tools. And the partners obviously can share their sales information.”

The Epic store will launch with a “very barebone backend dashboard,” he said, but his hope is that “eventually it will give developers way more information about their games that Steam Spy ever could.”

As for Steam Spy, it’s not dead, but Steam privacy changes did a heck of a job of hamstringing it. Galyonkin’s not entirely sure what he’s gonna do with it yet, but for now, the project continues to move forward, though at a speed closer to a crawl than a sprint.

“The current algorithm is based on machine learning and is doing OK for tags and general trends, plus an actual PhD in machine learning is helping me with the next version,” he said. But, he said, Steam Spy has taken a back seat recently: “I’ve been so occupied with Epic Games store, I didn’t spend enough time working on Steam Spy in recent months.”


Comments

    This is what I wanted to hear from the start! When this was announced a few days ago I was waiting for... not that the maker of fortnite is making a store... not that the Unity Engine is offering a lower commission... that the market analysis genius behind Steamspy and Fortnite was looking at all the aspects of online games sales and delivering something different.

      Don't think for a second that Epic intends to release something that's good for >us<, the consumers. They're looking at all the aspects of online game sales to deliver something that'll attract COMPANIES FIRST. And to try and get their attention over Steam means they're removing any criticism from their platform.

    Seeing a couple red flags, here.

    1) Sales don’t matter as much as exposure? Well, good luck to developers, then. A crowded room full of devs, each thinking they deserve to be heard more than the other guys who are also filling that room. It just creates noise. Noise that they all get lost in.

    2) No social hubs, no forums, no review-bombing, etc. Developers don’t like them… but consumers do, and they serve a very real purpose. ‘Review bombing’, for all its potential for brigaded abuse, DOES matter and is a useful tool for consumer rights, for making an informed purchase. The more clicks you bury pertinent information behind, the less likely I'm going to buy.

    3) ‘More like this’, DLC and bundle sections are ugly on Steam, presented poorly, but they are also important. I sure hope they’re standardizing a cleaner way of portraying the same information instead of letting individual devs do their own bespoke versions. And of course, if their updates are getting pushed out on Twitter, I’m never fucking seeing them. Fuckit, I load twitter once or twice a week, I barely see what my friends have to say; I’m not polluting that with additional noise.

    This is all hinting at a more direct, optimistically(/unrealistically) ‘intimate’ developer-to-consumer relationship being facilitated at the developer’s whim, with developers holding power over consumers, and I’m incredibly sceptical of it. I want to see a weird indie title turn up on my ‘new to the platform’ widget, sure… I also want to find the consumer angle (review score aggregate, top discussion threads) in the same place without having to visit the developer’s studio forums, reddit or discord. I don’t want to engage with the developer and follow their progress or post-release support or whatever. I want to see if their shit is worth buying, then buy it, play it, and be done.

    Anyone trying to sell this platform to me as a consumer, on the basis that it’s a better revenue share for developers or gives devs better tools to ignore consumers/engage on their own terms, leaves me very, very cold. That’s nice for devs, but what’s in it for me? They’re going to have to do a lot better than that to convince me to install yet another fucking storefront and fragment my library even further than it’s already being fragmented – something I strongly resent, with a resentment that is only escalating with every new player.

    Remember: publisher-driven fragmentation is not a phenomenon that came with customer benefits in mind. It’s a negative customer experience, forcing us with a stick, by taking those titles away from our preferred platforms for the sake of publishers chasing that 30% distribution fee. We got few if any carrots in that paradigm shift; it's mostly just stick.

      1) I think the emphasis here is less that the sale (discount) sells the game, but the exposure from the sale is better... that promotion is better. Steam Sales used to be good to discover new games but it changed to people gaming the system. If they are taking 18% less comnmssion exposure on Epic could be as simple as passing on the savings to consumers.

      2) Steam Community is wild wild west, you have better control and actual constructive social experiences on other platforms like Reddit, Twitter and even MetaCritic. If a drama arises it will be front page reddit, but when its resolved it will disappear into the ether. Fallout 76 is not even on Steam and still getting review bombed... but at the sane time Bethesda screw up is on their own sales and marketing teams for ignoring reddit or their own forums.

      3) I think its more to do with the Train Simulator example where its released and then spams 250+ DLC packs for every train. Unexperienced customers dont know how to filter that... and those developers will trickle the DLC to game the system to get more views on the store. It needs a bit more control, I dont think he is ruling out the way the system of Stean fails and how both developers and consumers game or punished by Steams stubborn practices.

      NoClip on youtube had an interview with the SteamSpy developer, he has a goid take on the industry.

      1) Sales don’t matter as much as exposure? Well, good luck to developers, then. A crowded room full of devs, each thinking they deserve to be heard more than the other guys who are also filling that room. It just creates noise. Noise that they all get lost in.
      He's obviously talking about patterns in the data. While dropping the price of a game might increase sales, increasing the number of people who know about the game is more effective.

      That's an interesting data point, even if it isn't clear how to apply it. They're not going to be able to put every game on the front page of the store, for instance.

        Well yeah, it's clearly a discoverability issue. And the deal with sales is obviously that it helps you stand out - a point negated utterly if you only have them when everyone else is having them, during the big sale seasons.

        I just don't see how they're going to improve discoverability for all. There are going to be losers in this, who won't want to be losers and don't think they deserve to be.

        It's making me wonder if they go back to the curation days, and accepting responsibility for having passed on whatever the games journalism industry's latest unfairly-neglected darling is, and that whole incestuous, "Who in the indie scene is better at networking than making games," issue.

      I use the 'more like this' part of Steam quite a lot, personally. I've made a dozen purchases after discovering something through there. Hell, I bought Rimworld after finding it through there.

        Yeah. If anything, it could do with being more than 3 titles, and maybe just smaller thumbnails to compensate for the real estate, and turn up in better/more places, but I've used the hell out of that.

        To the direct benefit of indies whose titles I would not have seen otherwise.

      You're an awfully entitled consumer, Transientmind. I'm an indie dev living out of a car. And I don't mean a nice, expensive car either. I am not a "publisher". Trying to figure out even how to get the game done is the focus of my life. I'd like to have something less than 30% of my effort taken away from me.

      Once upon a time, almost all games offered demos. That's a practice I still believe in, well unless the game costs $1. $60 for a game? Better believe I'm demoing it first, one way or another.

        Hey... I've been near-bankruptcy/homeless poor. It sucks, and you have my sympathy for that.

        But telling me that you're living out of your car as an indie dev is like telling me you're a struggling to make rent as an ice salesman in the Antarctic. You're essentially noting that you've either made some unfortunate decisions, or took some risks that didn't pay off... in an industry where there really, really should not be any expectation that doing well is even reliably achievable, let alone easy.

        First up, and most important: a consumer-developer retail relationship is not a charity. You reckon I'm entitled... while also indicating you feel entitled to more consumer money... for a worse experience? How does this work, in your mind?

        I'd like to have something less than 30% of my effort taken away from me.

        Doesn't everyone? If only I made what my organization charges for my time... But that doesn't seem like the right way to think about this.

        Distribution is a vital, valuable service to the publisher/developer - a service you pay for. You have many choices around who you can pay to provide this service to you, and you're not at all limited to only one choice.

        Hell, you don't want to pay 30% of your revenue in distribution costs? Sign up with itch.io! They let you pick! The 'default' is 10%! They've also got fuck all audience. You get what you pay for.

        Which is where we realize that what you 'pay' in distribution costs comes with different benefits... and they are not all equal. In Steam's case, you pay 30% of whatever price you set for the consumer, per sale. That's apparently, by all reports, the 'industry standard.' Now, Epic's popped up and offering a lower price for you to pay to receive distribution. And it's looking a lot like what you're paying for comes hand-in-hand with a worse consumer experience.

        It would be self-entitled to expect consumers to shop with Epic instead of Steam because it's better for you, even if it's worse for them.

        The point of my comments expressing concern and criticism for Epic's approach and the intentions of the devs who sign on with them are around some worrying impressions I'm getting of expectations. Especially with regard to the amount of exposure to expect. Especially when it comes to exclusivity; where you can easily distribute through multiple platforms, trying to force consumers into the platform that gives you a bigger cut but is worse for them, by not putting it on the platform they prefer.

        Epic has a lower distribution cost... but we've yet to see if they can have an equivalent audience to make that lower cost a sensible reason to abandon your other distribution options.
        And from what I'm seeing of their attitude towards consumers... I have serious doubts about that.

    The big question I stillbhave is will there be Epic Keys?

    Most people dont buy games on Steam now due to stiffer pricing, bad exchange rates or better sales.... hell most of my Steam Library is Green Man, Humble or Chrono.gg. if even part of the 18-23% is passed on consumers... the Steam Key might be a thing of the past.

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