Steam's Big Discovery Update Is Hurting Some Indie Developers' Games

Last week, Valve released an update as part of a recent push to make it easier for users to find new, under-the-radar games. The update purported to decrease the presence of popular games in Steam’s recommendation algorithms, increase overall variety, and give people a more personalised selection of games.

However, the update appears to have produced some unintended ripple effects, especially for games that aren’t out yet. Now some developers are saying the trickles of traffic their game pages were getting before have now dried up almost entirely.

Over the weekend, a bunch of indie developers voiced their concerns on Twitter, posting graphs of their plummeting wishlist stats and citing sudden drop-offs in store page traffic. The developers of atmospheric puzzle-platformer Unbound: Worlds Apart kicked it off with their own graph of users’ wishlist numbers, which is not moving in a promising direction:

Image: Unbound: Worlds Apart

“Thank you Steam for killing indie gaming,” wrote Unbound’s developers.

Mark Viola, the creator of tactical turn-based JRPG Bright Red Skies, lamented similar data, writing, “Noticed a huge drop as well.”

Image: Bright Red Skies

ScourgeBringer developer Thomas Altenburger called the new update a “catastrophe,” saying that his rogue-lite platformer’s daily wishlisting dropped by 66 per cent—an “all time low.”

“Months of effort, ruined in an instant,” he wrote.

Other developers reached out to Kotaku with similar stories. “Our impressions and wishlists have dropped 80% since the change, and it’s a similar story with tons of others,” Alex M-O, a developer on action-platformer Rune Fencer Illyia, told Kotaku on Twitter.

“Our upcoming game went from 30-40 wishlists daily to negative numbers today,” said Failcore Games founder Jan Cieslar. “Thanks to the changes, more people are deleting [the game from] their wishlists than adding them. And it’s Steam who tells us to set up a page as soon as possible and prioritise wishlists if we want to succeed.”

“Our traffic and wishlists [dropped] to 20% of the normal one, and the conversion from view to wishlist has also dropped to 50%, which means they are showing our games to people from other niches or people who already saw them,” said Lowpoly Interactive founder Bogdan Radu.

Both store page impressions and wishlists are extremely important predictors of Steam games’ success, especially upcoming ones. The value of page impressions is pretty self-explanatory, but when users wishlist games, they receive notifications from Steam when the game comes out, as well as every time it goes on sale. That way, it doesn’t get lost in Steam’s ceaseless howling vortex of a shuffle. Wishlists are generally regarded by developers as the most effective way of making a game sell to its fullest potential when it comes out.

The developers who say their games have entered flaming traffic talespins have something in common: Their games aren’t out yet. A couple of developers behind games that are already out have said that their internal Steam stats are in a holding pattern or slightly up.

Still, that’s done little to comfort the developers, who—in addition to their own long-term marketing efforts — had been relying on Steam’s recommendations to pull in pre-release wishlists.

“For example, a game like Hollow Knight,” wrote the developers of Unbound. “In the ‘More Like This’ section from the game page, they put only popular games and no smaller games. Moreover, games that will be launched in the near future are currently inexistent there, and this section brings the biggest organic traffic.”

I took a look at the version of the store Steam algorithmically generated for me and found this to largely be true. I had to scroll for multiple minutes through the recommendations section to find a game I didn’t recognise or that had failed to achieve some degree of high-profile success. While I did come across a couple compelling indies in the “More Like This” sections of recent cult hits like Hypnospace Outlaw and Wandersong, even many smaller games’ “More Like This” widgets were dominated by indie mega-hits, well-known classics, and barely-related triple-A games. Unreleased games, meanwhile, were nowhere to be found.

In a statement to Kotaku, Valve said that the update is “likely” to undergo further changes, but they may not necessarily be directed at this particular issue. “We’re monitoring the effects of the changes now that they’ve been deployed on a larger scale, and we’re reviewing the mix of feedback from all sources,” said a Valve representative in an email.

“It’s too early to say what changes will be made, but new features and tweaks are always likely after initial release.” In the meantime, indie developers with upcoming games on Steam are left in the cold.

“It’s a pretty clear pattern,” said M-O. “Upcoming games are given negative priority for visibility. ‘More Like This’ is roughly 50% relevant best-sellers, 50% non-relevant best-sellers, and a random [triple-A game] or two ... It’s comedically opposite to their stated intention.”


Comments

    And people wonder why indie devs are so eager to sign up for the Epic Game Store.

      EGS has no discoverability tools - no categories, no recommendations, no similar game lists. The only reason you can find anything right now is because the store has so few games on it. Given that's the only mechanism for discovery right now, either EGS continues to deny 99% of indie developers access to the store, or EGS lets many of them in and discoverability ends up worse than Steam. Either way, the indie community don't get what they want.

        Either way, the indie community don't get what they want.They never will, because they each want their game at the top, no matter its merits. This is how Steam was back in the early days, and because there was less noise, more games gained visibility. So indies wanted every game on Steam, which they got, and now they're upset they're lost in the crowd. There's no way to fix this, because even with 'decent' discoverability tools, there's still so many games that some games will be forgotten.

          I agree there's no perfect fix, but I'm firmly convinced that well-written, intelligent discovery tools are the only viable approach to the problem. Discovery is a really hard thing to model in software so I don't at all blame Valve for having trouble with it, but the only way to get it right is to try, fail, and learn. Valve have been doing that, so if I had to back a horse on which service would be doing indie exposure better in 5 years, I'd back Valve over Epic without a hint of doubt.

            IMO it's never going to be enough - because it's the end user who is going to be the limiting factor. There's only so much that people will click through or notice - Steam showing me 3 or 5 titles I might be interested for a related game might get my attention, but if it consistently shows me nonsense (which it does, for me) I'll ignore it regardless. When you've got huge numbers of indie devs with a few games each, the chances of me seeing Indie Puzzle Platformer Number 5,425 is pretty slim - regardless of whether it appears in my discovery queue or not.

            Popular games will always stand out and probably end up at the top of the list because they're popular, and they're popular usually for a reason. The mediocre games are increasingly doomed to obscurity - as it has always been.

              The goal is 'as good as we can make it', of course. 'Perfect for everyone' is impossible.

                Fair point, but I don’t see their efforts ever stopping articles like this one where some indie dev complains their mediocre title doesn’t get the same exposure as some indie classic.

      Anyone thinking Steam isn't a glimpse at the future of any long standing digital storefront is absolutely foolish.

      Every store gets progessively worse for visibility with every new item added, and people running around acting like Steam hasn't existed for over a decade of such growth is plainly moronic.

        Exactly, if you have every game ever on there, something will be forgotten. If not for these devs, it'll be some other group of devs with the exact same complaints.

        Steam was only great for indie exposure back in the day because there weren't that many games on there and curation meant that lots of titles never made it onto the platform. Now anything and everything is on Steam, which is what the indie sector demanded in the first place, and we're drowning in noise.

      Epic refuses most of them. They only want to steal the popular games.

    “Thank you Steam for killing indie gaming,”Lol, hyperbole doesn't help anybody, clearly lots of indies are still doing very well on Steam - otherwise they'd stop trying to get onto the platform.

    The unfortunate fact is that there's an obscene number of indie games, so people are going to get left behind. Popular games get recommended because they're popular, usually because they're good games. Indie devs screeched that every game should be allowed on Steam - and here's the end result, they're all drowning in a sea of games that most of us don't have the time or inclination to check out. I find most of my games from places like Kotaku or YouTube, not Steam's shitty discovery queue. And I get that it's unreleased games that are taking the biggest hit which may affect day one sales, but I doubt any of these were going to move big numbers anyway.

    I suppose Valve can randomly shove in less popular titles to placate them but it's never going to be enough for these guys. How many wishlisters were just going to wait for it to go on sale? Honestly the over-saturated indie dev sector probably needs a bit of a reality check. Games like Hollow Knight got views and sales because they're fun and interesting titles - not because they appeared on Steam.

      They also marketed themselves well.

    Sounds like the update is doing what I want as part of my browsing
    I am not really interested in seeing unreleased or early access games. So prioritisng games that are out and that I can buy makes sense for me.
    Will need to actually check out what the recommendations look like now, but having less unreleased games helps me as a consumer

      Yeah, that's one thing I don't like about the discovery queues. After the first one of the day, any additional queues I do are progressively more and more filled with unreleased games. There needs to be a 'released only' filter or something.

    Gets shit for Steam not showing off more games to people.

    Valve makes a change.

    Gets shit for Steam not showing off the 'right' games to people.

    Valve, mate... Just go back to doing nothing like everyone talks about, at least that way you only cop shit for that. As opposed to copping shit anytime you try to please those who can never be pleased.

    Wait didn't they change the algorithms because people were abusing them... Are these possibly the Devs that were doing that?

    But in all fairness I checked out all the Devs games and steam pages mentioned in the article (took me an annoying while, as only people are mentioned, not their projects).
    And I gotta say they looked ok. Not amazing not great but OK. But alot of games also look OK... And I only got so much game time in my day.

    Appears to me that being an indie dev allows for more reward but at a greater risk. If you have a publisher deal then you will get more exposure but less of the cut. The problem I'm seeing here is every indie dev thinks their product should be considered the best simply just because. The customers disagree and purchase what has been successfully marketed to them.

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