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Steam Spy was a great hype buster for wary consumers

It shed light on an industry that talks about everything but the sales

close-up of white Steam logo on dark blue background Valve Corp.
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Steam Spy is not technically shutting down, but an announcement on Tuesday was treated as such. Changes coming to Steam mean that users’ libraries will now be kept private and out of the data sluice that fed Steam Spy, a third-party site that tracked game ownership, concurrent users and other trends on Steam.

Sergey Galyonkin, who created Steam Spy in 2015, responded to the Steam update by saying that he can still make some extrapolations and other guesses about games’ performance and popularity, but that they will come with a huge margin of error — a major setback for what’s known as the most reliable third-party Steam stats site.

As with a museum close by that I always said I’d visit, but never did, I’m both disappointed and remorseful. The few times I used Steam Spy (or SteamCharts, which measures concurrent players), I always found the context I lacked from looking at the Steam ownership charts alone. Wait, why the hell is that blowing up ... oh, it was in the latest Humble Bundle.

Steam Spy was an effective hype buster, showing the ownership of a particular game on what is by far the dominant PC gaming marketplace. For many multiplatform AAA titles, its data cut through the dissembling we usually hear from publishers, who flack a big game with jargon like “sold-in” (copies shipped to retailers) or tell investors every quarter how many players it has, instead of how many units the company sold. In a marketplace where inboxes are filled with news releases that all sound the same, a small game trending in its launch week is a good reminder to take a closer look at it. (Minit and Pixark are great recent examples of that).

So I get why many of my colleagues who report on this data would lament that Steam Spy is getting lopped off at the knees by Steam’s new privacy rules. But I didn’t understand why so many players, readers and forum-goers — you know, those not, quote-unquote, in the industry — would be disappointed. Why should they really care if or how a game sells? Either they had fun with it or not. Isn’t this just vicarious, fanboy tribalism? I thought.

Thinking on it further, I’m wrong. It’s not.

Giving consumers a feeling of control

In 10 years of covering this subject, I’ve seen how consumers view games companies as monolithic and near-unaccountable, and not without good reason. This is especially important when a publisher talks about “software as a service,” or as something it at least promises to maintain beyond stamping it on a disc and sending it to a distribution warehouse.

Steam Spy’s and SteamCharts’ information may not have any kind of corrective influence on a slipshod game or one with broken online features. But I can see how it gives a consumer some feeling of accountability or control in an otherwise one-way relationship, even if others might consider this data a placebo. Data trackers at least give Steam users an objective basis when they want to rip a publisher a new one: Hey, you hyped this thing all summer. Look at how many people own your game and are playing it. You sold them a broken product. So we can’t trust you anymore.

For all the excitement of a big game’s hype cycle, and the undeniable desire to hear more about what’s coming, it’s also felt a little uneasy and uncertain to me — a kind of lingering “oh, please be good” sentiment, even among those who were excited from the day the game was announced. Maybe it’s because the pain of disappointment (and the reminder of past disappointments) is a lot keener when the money at stake is five times the cost of a movie ticket. But video game hype is usually a lot more indulgent than the hype around movies, promising players they’ll get everything they’ve ever wanted to see, from favorite characters to new worlds.

If the game falls short of that promise, knowing how many people bought into the hype cycle is valuable intel for consumers. And when people are served something they plainly do not want — Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare took the sci-fi end of that franchise well past its expiration date — publicly available data means we can’t dismiss their complaints as the usual negativity from obsessive commenters and social media users.

The bottom line is, we have very little confirmation that we made a good choice when we bought — or didn’t buy — a video game. It’s mostly a hunch, informed by taste or perception. Reviews, however positive or negative, don’t provide the kind of consensus opinion that ownership (often taken as sales) and concurrent users do for a game’s acceptance and resonance. Look at LawBreakers, which was effectively mothballed last week. It didn’t stink in the reviews, but the reviews were just looking holistically at what LawBreakers was as a game. Placed in an environment with other games and their player bases, though, it hardly stood out. Those figures showed that people just weren’t going for it.

Video games are virtually alone among entertainment forms when it comes to how opaque their sales data is. The New York Times bestseller list, Billboard Hot 100 and weekly box office figures have been around for decades in mainstream print. Meanwhile, it took until 2016 for the NPD Group to finally start measuring sales of digital games. The public report only ranks the top 20 titles overall, and top 10 by platform — without giving numbers of units sold. Maybe this is because video games cost so much. Maybe it’s because third-party publishers don’t want to alienate one hardware maker by revealing how much better a game sold on a competitor’s platform.

In a business where everything is a hit or it’s dead meat, it could be easier to portray something as a hit if the actual sales totals are kept behind Oz’s curtain. Steam Spy, though it only covers games with a PC presence on Valve’s storefront, helped puncture that kind of must-buy mythology for the big names. It helped to highlight the worthiness and acceptance of smaller efforts. There’s nothing tribal or fanboyish about being interested in that. It just makes you a smart consumer, and a dedicated patron of the art of games.

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