Sales, Statistics & Secrecy: Wadjet Respond To SteamSpy

Numbers.

People do seem to like numbers, don’t they? Scores, sales, profits, records, comparisons, biscuits eaten, angels on the head of a pin, and other statistics I find a curious part of gaming fandom. The holy grail for numberfans is, as far as I can see, Steam sales figures.

The latest site trying to guess at Steam numbers by extrapolating from what little data we can see is SteamSpy, and not everyone’s happy with it. In response to folks poking at SteamSpy statistics and asking personal questions, adventure game house Wadjet Eye Games have talked a bit about the reliability and uses of data and their unease about sharing numbers.

Wadjet head honcho Dave Gilbert wrote in a blog post over the weekend:

“Everyone is lauding it as this Awesome Thing, but I have to be honest – I am super conflicted. For most of Wadjet Eye’s existence, the majority of the profit went to me and my wife. So giving away sales stats was the equivalent of letting you peek into my bank account to see how much was in there. We are fairly private people, and giving away that kind of personal information was just not something we were mentally prepared to do. Even now, with several developers and two full-timers on our payroll, we aren’t comfortable with it.”

He adds that they’ve had “people looking at our sales stats and doing comparisons and adding things up and trying to determine how much money we have. Some are even going as far as to ask me personally if their estimates are correct. Some expressed worry that we are going out of business.” Oh dear oh dear.

He calls the SteamSpy sales estimates “close enough” to the truth, but goes on to explain that yes, the game which seems to have sold worst (last year’s The Blackwell Ephiphany) really has been their most profitable. It was self-made, self-published, and hasn’t been on sale or in a bundle yet, so yes, it has made more than games which have sold several magnitudes more copies.

Which is part of why, I suppose, I find number obsessions curious. We have such an incomplete picture, and what are we even to do with those numbers? Please don’t go around asking strangers if your guesses about how much money they’ve made are correct. I certainly see the uses for folks who sell games, but many folks sadly seem to deploy statistics as weapons in territorial arguments.

SteamSpy maker Sergey Galyonkin is quite open about his system’s limitations, mind. He explains that it draws data from public Steam user profiles to analyse and extrapolate from, that it can have a fair margin of error, that copies “owned” aren’t copies “sold”, and that it’s only Steam and not other stores.

Please be careful with numbers, chums. They can be dangerous things. Especially the 4 – he’s a jagged little fella, that one.

59 Comments

  1. emotionengine says:

    Indeed, be wary of the number four, for the four is the number of death.

    (Err, some context: link to en.wikipedia.org)

  2. Premium User Badge

    Qazinsky says:

    Uhm, I kinda feel that when they feel like this is intruding on their private life, maybe it’s a bit tasteless to post a screenshot of their sales figures in this post, spreading it to people not even going out to look for that info.

    • Deadly Sinner says:

      They literally posted the actual sales numbers on their blog, so I don’t think they care anymore.

  3. DarkFarmer says:

    I can never get to these “steam crawley” websites- I think they hit Reddit and just get totally slammed and by the time everybody moves on I’ve forgotten about it.

    That being said DERP HERP looks like i shoulda been makin steam games and not mobile games :((( naw j/k my regrets are more complicated and extensive than that.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      Mobile games extend your market to another level above Steam. But in numbers only. It also reduces the split per sale (due to market demands for lower prices I guess).

      That’s a difficult market no doubt. Steam is kind of getting there now with lots of “F2P” games and Greenlight excesses.

      • frightlever says:

        And it’s not like people aren’t porting their mobile games to PC on Steam.

  4. Dale Winton says:

    If you click on years if gives you the amount of games sold. 200m in 2014 , Valve must be sitting on some pile of gold

    • Kamos says:

      And yet they have bad customer support and their client feels like it has been designed by a 10 yr old, without any regard for basic human-machine interaction guidelines. Must be nice, getting 30% over pretty much every PC game sale to just operate a CDN.

      • Dale Winton says:

        I don’t think the steam client is bad , it does what it’s meant to do really. Can’t ask more than that. However they should have a helpline number to call them if you get stuck with it

        • SuicideKing says:

          True. Customer support needs serious work, given the money they have.

        • April March says:

          The steam client does what it’s meant to do, in the same way that you can technically drive a gas-powered lawnmowner to work.

      • Aetylus says:

        Oh as of 2007 the steam client was AMAZING! The alternative client involved leaving the house, walking down the road to deal with a shop staffed by some snotty nosed kid who had about ten new games on sale and a basket full of reject games from the late 90’s. Of course the steam browser is now woeful compared to the likes of Spotify, but there isn’t any digital games distribution platform that is markedly better that I know of.

    • Voqar says:

      Valve makes stupid amounts of money doing next to nothing pimping games, which makes it further inexcusable that they have some of the worst customer service practices, forums that seem to completely lack moderation, and a hokey browser-like presentation that’s about 15 years behind real browser behaviors.

      The piss away money doing goofy stuff like VR and creating LInux consoles nobody needs and barely even make games any more – too busy counting all the money they get for hosting downloads.

      • pennywyz says:

        Years on Steam with thousands of hours played across 3 different accounts and multiple PCs (and multiple kids using those PCs), never ONCE a problem. Not one. Always able to find and buy games when I want. Always able to play games when I want. I need nothing more and want nothing more. I suspect that despite the incessant whining about Steam, the vast majority of people are having the same experience I am.

        • Sarfrin says:

          I haven’t had any problems, but reading the comments above made me realise that its UI is pretty basic compared to something like Spotify.

  5. soco says:

    I understand that when it is a small indie dev there is a greater degree of personal information revealed by showing sales figures, but I find it odd that the video game industry has been so resistant to show numbers. Every other major media type shows some type of information into their economy.
    Movies have the amount of money each films makes every week as well as dvd sales. Ratings on TV shows with numbers of viewers aren’t exactly the same thing, but it is far more than what video games do. And books have sales figures publicly available.
    Video games shouldn’t be any different.

    • Baines says:

      People in the comic book industry tend to flip out over sales figures being released. I’ve seen comic book writers throw fits over the monthly sales charts that Paul O’Brien used to do, denouncing them for various reasons such as being an invasion of privacy, inaccuracy, and even a danger to the continued publishing of comic books. Diamond, the main distributor in the US, published sales data, but hide the real numbers by converting all books to units of Batman. (Seriously. Diamond’s public numbers have been normalized to a scale where the most recent issue of Batman is rated as 100.)

      When the comics industry publishes its own numbers, they are spun and even rigged. For example, promoting that a book has sold out, which is extremely easy to do when you just print enough copies to meet orders. Marvel used to sometimes just dump unordered books onto stores.

      TV ratings systems are known to be inaccurate. People just disagree on how inaccurate they are. Again, people only like to promote when numbers are high. When numbers are low, they instead either remain silent, talk about the flaws of the systems, or even point out that the whole measuring system or its numbers has become irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

      Book numbers are also fairly questionable, and there have been plenty of allegations of trickery and manipulation on both sales figures and charts.

      Transparency is arguably the exception, particularly when it comes to fairly accurate numbers. Even more so when you add more and more groups to the system who have vested interests in keeping all numbers secret except the specific cases that they themselves want to publicize.

    • Shuck says:

      Part of the problem is that the numbers can be really misleading if you don’t understand how the industry works. Some people really don’t understand how things work – I’ve seen people weirdly assume that the developers netted the retail price times the number of copies sold for boxed games sold at retail outlets, as if publishers, distributors and you know, the stores, etc. didn’t each take a cut. People have gotten really angry at developers for discontinuing development when they ran out of money because there were “sales” numbers for the game and the assumption was that every copy was sold at regular price (and thus the developers should have had enough money to continue working on it), when the reality was the vast majority of sales were at hugely reduced prices or via bundles (where the developers netted next to nothing). Gamers feel very strongly that they should have some say in how games are made, even though they have just enough information to leap to unwarranted conclusions, so the less information developers release about the business side, the less flack they tend to get, unfortunately.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Eproxus says:

    If you publish a game publicly, on a platform that has publicly available statistics, you can’t really expect any degree of privacy. You of course have the choice of not publishing on that platform to protect your privacy, but once that choice is made, the information is out there.

    • lylebot says:

      What would it mean to publish a game privately?

      I mean, “publish” and “public” have the same root… the first kind of entails the second.

    • Deadly Sinner says:

      Actually, the statistics seem to be determined by a random sampling of public Steam profiles. So, the statistics weren’t publicly available, per se, they’ve just been recently derived from publicly available information.

  7. mattevansc3 says:

    While knowing how much a game sold is not that important in the grand scheme of things, armchair punditry is almost an essential part of fandom.

    As sad as it sounds having something to gloat over or partake in group self pity does help in creating a fan culture. Gaming has a very hipster orientated following. Games like Beyond Good and Evil that weren’t commercial successes enough to warrant a sequel get HD remakes and potential sequels because they were good games that a vocal fanbase eulogize as under appreciated classics.

    On the flipside the gaming media love “The boy who could” stories. Under the radar games, especially indie titles, that go onto be commercially successful. This is the type of free advertising and hype that goes onto further sales.

    I always found it weird why Valve doesn’t release sales figures for games on Steam and theft are likely keeping them secret as it helps them “advise” devs/publishers on what prices to set.

  8. tomimt says:

    It’s pretty expected for people to be interested about money and sales data of games really. Other forms of entertainment have been discussed for ages when it comes to them and for an example movies have relatively lively discussion forums about boxoffice, rental, DVD sales etc. figures.

  9. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    I’ve never understood the “not talking about how much money you make” thing.
    I can imagine if you’re making shed loads, you might be worried about people begging you for some (or planning to rob you), but I don’t understand why it’s still considered impolite for the majority of people to talk about.
    As one example, if people don’t talk about their wages then employers can get away with paying people different amounts for the doing the same job.

    • Andrew says:

      Hear hear.

    • Urthman says:

      The taboo on talking about money, salaries, and sales mostly serves employers trying to avoid paying employees any sort of fair share of the profits they generate.

      • PancakeWizard says:

        Or not wanting to make others feel bad/turn every conversation into a class issue.

    • KeyboardSmash says:

      I get paid £7ph, currently have £28 in the bank, and expect to get £857 next payday. I now feel liberated as well as skint.

    • Somerled says:

      The taboo is there to avoid alienation between peers because of pay differences. Because you and I don’t feel strongly about it, that doesn’t mean other rational people won’t take a pay difference the wrong way. It’s like a corollary to “don’t talk about religion or politics at the dinner table.”

      • Aetylus says:

        Largely this. There will always be some level of anomaly between pay of peers. We recently changed the way we determine remuneration, and as part of it floated the idea of making pay known. The primary problem is that if one employee is paid $1000/annum more than their peer they are unlikely to care, but the employee that is paid $1000/annum is likely to be livid. It creates a staff satisfaction nightmare. Basically, ignorance is aggregate bliss. Aside from this privacy laws generally make it impractical for an employer to make employee pay public.

        • Urthman says:

          If you have a fair method of determining employee salary, there should be no legitimate cause for resentment.

    • derbefrier says:

      having the same job doesn’t mean you are worth the same amount of money. lots of people are unaware of this so to avoid problems employers prefer you dont tell your co-workers how much you make.

  10. Voqar says:

    I can see why some developers would want to keep their stats hidden – so people don’t know how many piles of money they’re making. For ex with some of these kickstarted games where the community 100% funds games and every sale is 100% profit for the developer and they’re selling 500k copies and pulling in 20m+ thanks to the community funded lotto.

    I don’t see the big deal and find the practice of hiding sales figures to be kind of shady. Make games worth buying at a fair price and nobody cares.

    • Voqar says:

      Can’t edit I guess.

      What further blows my mind with Kickstarter games is how they can be successful, and make the devs a pile of money, and then the devs turn around and get their DLC and/or next game kickstarter funded too, even though they’ve made millions. They have to be laughing their tails off at how readily the community will pay for them to develop games and profit off of them.

      I kind of figured some of these KS devs would take their millions in profit and reinvest it in their future games but instead most keep going to the community for funding even after making millions in profits. It’s pretty amazing.

    • Shuck says:

      Developers don’t want people to have these numbers because they leap to insanely incorrect conclusions about how much money they’re making, your own comments as case in point.
      First of all, almost no Kickstarters have raised the full development funds for a game. It almost never happens. Games require a great deal of time and labor, i.e. money, to make. Developers don’t even try to ask for full development budgets because they know they won’t get them. Most “crowdfunded” games could be more accurately described as “developer-funded” – they relying on the developers using their own savings to support themselves while they develop the game*. Game sales are therefore going towards paying developers back for the labor they already spent making the game. (And sometimes the wages they’re ending up getting are sub-poverty wages – see, for example, Eidolon). About the only time there’s millions in actual profit is for larger games – that are supporting larger groups of developers, i.e. it’s not enough money to actually fund the development of another game. Even if they do generate enough money with sales to make another game once costs are paid back, why not do another Kickstarter? The developers get some of their development money while making sure they’re making a game people actually want. The alternative is to spend all the money they previously made developing a game that might not sell, at which point they’re back to dipping into their personal savings to make games. That’s a terrible way to live.

      *This is a very, very risky way of working. Any developer who gets seriously ill or has any sort of personal crisis has to drop out (and without any sort of savings to support themselves), while the rest of the team is screwed because they don’t have the money to actually pay for a replacement – they have to find someone with an identical skill-set willing to work for free. Many projects have collapsed at this stage, leaving behind a lot of broke developers. Plenty more have been finished but not sold well enough to match the amounts of money developers used from their own savings.

      • JimThePea says:

        I’d like to see more developers opening up on their backed projects, a lot of people get really fierce about perceived waste, channeling funds to other games, not reinvesting, etc. but maybe don’t have a clear idea of the realities of funding a game. It’s a brave move, some studios have laid their spending out and gotten heavy criticism for their choices, but the assumption that devs misspend backer funds drives a lot of the distrust in crowdfunding, even if that assumption’s true, all the more reason to have information out there, so new devs are more aware of the realities too. Still, it should always be a choice.

    • Sarfrin says:

      If the devs make the game and give me a copy (plus some backer perks usually) I don’t see why them also making a profit is in any way detrimental to me. I hope they do get to make a living out of making games I like.

  11. SuicideKing says:

    Well, thanks to Dota 2, we know know that there are at least 47 million people on Steam.

    But hey, we finally have an idea about electronically distributed PC sales. And it’s nice, now I know how my country buy games.

    • SuicideKing says:

      LOL the Arma player base is not even statistically significant. Am I like one of 3 people with the game?

      • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

        I always thought Arma was very popular. Strange sample size I know, but all the gamer friends I have (~15 people) regularly play Arma. I certainly wouldn’t describe the game as obscure. Even the original OpFlash was rather a hit in terms of sales, at least relative to its budget.

  12. caff says:

    Having played most of Wadjet Eye’s games, I’m happy they’re making money, and hope they’ll go on that way too.

  13. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Too bad the Wadjet guy is taken aback about this, but if he’s in the business of selling product for money publicly, then publicizing basic information about that is fair game. It’s not like SteamSpy is publishing his source code or secret sauce.

  14. Stellar Duck says:

    I’m baffled that Epiphany was the worst selling of the lot. The Blackwell games, I mean.

    I was such a good game I thought.

    • Baines says:

      The other games have been included in multiple bundles. That bumps up the number of copies owned on Steam, and can easily be responsible for the bulk of sales for some titles.

  15. airmikee says:

    I love RPS articles about Steam, always brings out people with such original, interesting, new comments that have never been seen anywhere else on the internet.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Indeed, a comment that completely unironically expresses appreciation for the other commenters in a thread is a fantastic example of the kinds of original and interesting comments that RPS articles about Steam tend to provoke. I too appreciate your comment sincerely and unironically.

  16. JimThePea says:

    If people can get the idea that Wadjet Eye is going under from SteamSpy, I wonder how long before we see a studio get blasted with hate over misinterpreted figures.

  17. Continuity says:

    Am I missing something or are those sales figures ($) just complete nonsense?

    ON the topic of stats being available however, speaking as a data analyst, I absolutely approve. Who gives a shit if that lets us see the profit of some indie developer? most of them would be filing accounts showing exactly that anyway. On the other hand this data allows us to see how healthy PC gaming is and how large compared to console sales, also how big a market share Steam has vs its competitors, plus the data can be analysed to establish trends etc, showing what genres and themes are selling well etc.