Steam’s Winter Sale Was A Success For Smaller Games

Steam sales are renowned for cleaning out the wallets of many, but the last two have felt slightly lower key than previously because they featured neither daily deals, nor flash sales, nor complicated metagames. Perception can be misleading, though: a report by Valve – perhaps released accidentally – states that the recent Steam Winter Sale was the most successful ever.

The post was first made to the developer-only Steamworks group, then for some reason mirrored on the public SteamVR page. It was quickly taken down, but not before someone copied it and pasted it onto the SteamDB forum. As its introduction explains:

“As you already know, the format of discounts in this year’s Winter sale was a little different from past years. This year’s sale was centered around discounts that ran for the full length of the sale, rather than changing from day to day for featured titles. Our hypothesis was that this new format would be a better way to serve customers that may only be able to visit Steam once or twice during the 13-day event. We also saw this change as an opportunity to showcase a deeper variety of titles to customers each day, while having confidence that any game being highlighted would be at its lowest discount.”

The rest then goes on to back it up with graphs and numbers: a 197% increase in the rate of wishlist additions; 35% of traffic delivered to games outside of the top 500 best sellers; 45% growth in revenue generated by the same group when compared to the last winter sale, and more. In short: it was good for business.

Why do you care? I don’t know, but I care because I want to know that smaller games can still find an audience amid the quantity and noise of present day Steam. It’s in everybody’s interest that Steam not be solely hit-driven, that Valve are interested in spreading attention around, and that more unusual or niche experiences aren’t disappearing without trace.


  1. Sin Vega says:

    This is really interesting, and frankly a relief to someone who just wants to pay for the bloody games and get them without all the pointless complications and condescending metagame crap.

  2. anHorse says:

    I’d love to have bought more niche games during the sale, unfortunately I could only find the ones I’d already read about because the Steam store is crap for discovering things.

    Most of the storepage is listings of games I already own ffs!

    • caff says:

      It can be quite hard to discover niche games. The way I do it is read RPS, follow a few Steam curators, and generally hunt around new releases on the indie area of Steam. I normally add loads of stuff (no matter how unknown they are) to my Steam wishlist, then check which drop and those that still appeal during the sales.

    • noizy says:

      You can configure what you want to see on the main store page.
      I disabled “Games already in your account, and other stuff i don’t want to see”. Just click the Customize button link to

      The “Not Interested” button on a game page also helps to never see that title recommended on the front page.

      It doesn’t solve the fact there’s a lot of bloat, and the algorithm can’t read your mind, but you can train it to stop showing you the same old tat.

      • anHorse says:

        Thanks, I actually looked for something like that but couldn’t find it

      • Thurgret says:

        I didn’t realise that there was a setting to exclude owned games from the store page, and almost went to find it – except I realised that I spend no small amount of time keeping an eye on sales just to recommend cheap games to friends.

      • Bugamn says:

        I just wish those configurations would work during the Steam Sale. Last Winter Sale my front page was full of games that I already own or have marked as “Not interested”.

  3. Ze Madmax says:

    I wonder what effect the Holiday card drops had on wishlist additions. I know personally I added quite a few games because of the thrice-daily Discover queues to earn cards for badges.

    …no, I don’t have a problem. I can stop with the badges whenever I want.

    • thedosbox says:

      Yeah, encouraging people to use the discovery queues was a great idea and resulted in the size of my wishlist doubling.

      However, it also revealed just how much shit (subjectively) is out there. I never knew there were so many sakura games or “hardcore” survival games.

      • Ze Madmax says:

        Or how every other game is now a roguelike. Or a roguelite. Or a roguesomethingortheotherpleasebuyourgameweswearitscool.

      • Tekrunner says:

        Same reaction here. I thought that at some point I’d seen all of the Day Z-knockoffs there are, and yet more of them just kept popping up.

  4. Nevard says:

    Not sure how this really effects me as a consumer but it’s… interesting.

    I guess I can hope it’s the accepted model going forward, checking by rote every day for deals was “fun” but also… kind of not at all.
    Now I just have to cross my fingers for the removal of garish steam meta-holiday trading card events.

  5. ainokmw says:

    There’s a part of me that wonders if it’s related to the dearth of quality AAA titles. Since so many are sequels in their seventh or eighth iteration, or bland inoffensive rehashes of already existing games, I just wonder if there’s less pull at the top.

    Alternatively, I also wonder if the decrease in physical copies available have made steam gift cards more popular and common in the holiday season as a gift. In the past I’d ask for gifts from my wife and family and receive games. This year, it was pretty much all gift cards because there was no way for them to wrap what I wanted under the tree.

    It would be interesting to see how sales of the Top 30 games compared to Top 30 sales in the past. It would also be interesting to see how sales of gift cards are doing. Both might illuminate what’s going on here. Or not.

    • LegendaryTeeth says:

      I like to print out little certificates on nice paper saying what they are getting and give them out, then just send them the game through steam. For something really special, you can sometimes get a steam key (off the humble store or whatever) and then burn it onto a piece of wood. It’s fun if you want to be creative.

      It would be nice if Steam gave you the option of paying an extra buck or two to get a snazzy little plastic card to give someone as a gift.

  6. Cinek says:

    So, they made a sale that rewards people for viewing product pages…

    …and then they measure the success by page views, traffic and wish lists? Hahahaha, well played. Yea, sure, sales jumped too, but nowhere near as much as the page views graph suggests. Still a funny marketing move.

    • Maltose says:

      How do you know what the jump in revenue was?

      • RobF says:

        My sales were somewhere between 4x and 10x up across the course of different days. Given I had a relatively small discount (compared to most of Steam with 50 and up being the norm) and no front page feature beyond discovery queues/the usual routes then -for me- the sale worked a treat.

        Obv. I have no year on year to compare it to directly but from anecdotal evidence I gather I’d have been lucky to see this sort of jump without either a feature in some regard or a more substantial discount. My wishlisting was also up quite substantially for the period so if even a portion of folks pick up in the future, I’ll be happy with that. Obv. I’d prefer full price but hey! You can’t have everything.

        Of course, it’s not up to Valve to release this info which is why they tend to keep revenue close to their chests and publish other things like we see in this post.

        • Comco says:

          If you don’t mind me asking, what’s the overall rating if your Gabe from user reviews. I’m interested to know as I’ve wondered how influential that metric is.

          For me, I’ll consider games outside my normal interests if they’re highly rated and, conversely will walk away from poorly rated, but interesting listings.

          So with your game, I’m wondering if the spike that you called ‘lucky’ was actually a result of your game having more exposure through increased use of the discovery list and a good score?

  7. Ethaor says:

    Personally it was the worst, it’s the first one I didn’t buy anything at all.

    I would have been tempted maybe, but honestly I went on the first day, saw all I could be interested in, deemed the discounts not worthy and then forgot about the winter sales for the whole 2 weeks it lasted as I knew no discounts would be changed.

    Whereas in past big sales, I usually connect daily to the store and regularly check flash sales on top of it, meaning I’m spending much more time at their store and being tempted, browsing potential titles, fighting temptation. Not to mention I always liked how it highlights some games more than others every day. There still was highlights in this winter sale but since I never connected again…

    • Distec says:

      Same boat. It’s hard to knock their rollout of the Winter Sale if it mostly worked out for them, but as an end-user I lost a lot of enthusiasm. I bought the entire Bioshock series on Day One and didn’t intend to get anything else until Fallout 4 suddenly a ten dollar price drop after the event already started. But I had no compulsion to check anything else after browsing my wishlist once.

      I can understand other people being annoyed with the metagame crap. But I think you can include an event that’s disconnected from pushing products that still encourages user engagement. After all, people are fine pursuing that stuff just for badges. The previous Summer Sale minigame was mindless and prone to scripting for the best results, but at least it wasn’t part of anything and was entertaining enough in its own right.

      Conversely, last year’s Winter Sale had nothing going for it except for the noir comic, and that ultimately seemed truncated and ended up underwhelming as a result.

    • ramirezfm says:

      I’m in the same boat, just on the other end. I was so relieved I don’t have to log in every 8hrs or so to check if I missed that deal or not. I just looked at discounts on the first day, got all I wanted and had fun with the queue-card-getting with no stress attached.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      “As you already know, the format of discounts in this year’s Winter sale was a little different from past years. This year’s sale was centered around discounts that ran for the full length of the sale, rather than changing from day to day for featured titles. Our hypothesis was that this new format would be a better way to serve customers that may only be able to visit Steam once or twice during the 13-day event. We also saw this change as an opportunity to showcase a deeper variety of titles to customers each day, while having confidence that any game being highlighted would be at its lowest discount.”

      Hmm. It seems Steam (or their advisers) have more of a clue than a lot. Just seen other industries try the “for one day only 10% offer” and it left people so confused and disinterested. I wonder if a “10% for all this week” would have been better?

      • TechnicalBen says:

        PS, sorry for the reply fail. Meant to go somewhere else. :(

    • Doogie2K says:

      Same. I did buy about $50 or $60 worth of things, but it felt almost like an obligation. I just was not enthused about what were often rather mediocre discounts, and while flipping through the discovery queue could be fun at first, it almost became stressful after a while as the wishlist grew and I realized that I would never, ever have time to play half of what was on there, especially in light of already owning almost 400 games, most of them unplayed. As it stands, I will likely get more entertainment out of the Hexcells trilogy, which I got for something like $5 on discount a few weeks ago, than everything I bought during the sale.

      I think this is the year that Steam sales finally broke me. I’d wondered for a while now when the diminishing returns and overall glut of games would finally come to a head and I now have my answer. I think it’s time to retire for a while and just focus on actually playing things and enjoying them, rather than acquiring them for the sake of acquiring them.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      I don’t know how you could have browsed the thousands of games on sale on the first day. While I didn’t end up buying anything (unrelated to the sales), I visited my discovery queue daily. I found about one game worth looking at every day. And despite looking at several hundred games, that was only a fraction of the sales. I find it far preferable to flash sales. While I might be okay with daily sales, I see no reason why game companies would prefer it.

  8. Artificial says:

    I discovered some hidden gems from this sale. Purely because of the way they incentivised using the ‘Explore your Queue’ thing.

    Made it more interesting than seeing the same titles on sale over and over again that have already been on sale hundreds of times previously.

  9. basilisk says:

    I really don’t understand how this happened. Because I’ve tried that discovery queue thing of theirs a couple of times, and it always kept showing me such obscure titles as GTA5, Arkham Knight, Dota 2 and the like; it was almost always “this product was recommended because it is popular”.

    • typographie says:

      If you click “Not Interested” on a game, I don’t think it can appear again. The more Discovery Queues you do, the better the system seems to get at guessing what you might like. At least that’s my experience. And during the Winter sale, users were encouraged to do up to three queues per day to earn free trading cards.

      I just did one, and the biggest game it recommended to me was Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India, which I didn’t even know existed.

      • Distec says:

        I’ve been using the Exploration Queue in fits and starts since it was introduced. It still seems to recommend an endless supply of survival games, retro platformers/RPGs, and anime stylings that I reject constantly. If this is supposed to be a “smart” system, I can’t discern any intelligence. The only factors seem to be “Oh, you have one or two of these game sin your library or wishlist? Here’s a dump truck.

        I feel like there’s an Xzibit meme that should be deployed there.

        I can’t quite tell if my perception is off here, but I’m usually not buried in an avalanche of shooters or strategy games despite having far more from those genres than those listed in the previous paragraph.

        • Llewyn says:

          No, your perceptions are correct. Valve explicitly said when introducing discovery queues that follow/not interested selections won’t influence other recommendations – for reasons I fail entirely to understand – but will only determine whether you’re shown that game on the front page.

          • Gus the Crocodile says:

            And the “Not Interested” button used to have hover text that explicitly said “this will not affect which other titles are recommended to you” or some such, but interestingly (or the opposite) I noticed that as of the winter sale, that part of the text was removed.

            Made me wonder if it’s an indication of plans to expand the recommendation system and have Not Interested have a broader effect. Alternately it’s nothing!

    • anHorse says:

      Mine’s recommending me a moba (smite) and an rts (plan anhil: titans)

      I never play either genre

      • basilisk says:

        Yep, it does this for me very consistently. The algorithm doesn’t seem to factor in information on what I actually play at all, even though they have years of data to draw on. It’s almost always MOBAs and crafting/survival sims, even though in these two genres combined, my recorded gameplay time amounts to a grand total of 15 minutes in Dota 2.

    • thedosbox says:

      There was an incentive for people to go through the dicovery queue three times each day. That gave more exposure to games that weren’t as well-known.

      It also seems games were included if they were “well received” (both in terms of metacritic and steam reviews).

    • Frank says:

      Iunno. I just race through the queue most of the time. If I see GTA5, I click and am to the next item in about a second. Gone through about 3000 items (as procrastination) and accumulated 300 on my wishlist. Works well for me. In this sale, I just looked at deals via my wishlist…

  10. Alberto says:

    In my case, Steam kindly remembered me some titles I had forgot (such as Spacechem or Transistor). I kept browsing lists even after the card drops, half interested half with the smug satisfaction of declaring “I’m not interested, fools!”.

    I prefer this system, I made a sensible wishlist and purchased after I was sure. It’s lots less… Hmmm… Pushy? Compulsive-friendly?

  11. waltC says:

    I bought Oblivion for ~$2.xx, and Vampire: Bloodlines for $5…and that was it. I would have bought both @ GOG except that that neither is available on GOG for some reason. (Vampire Redemption, a much inferior game, is on GOG, along with Morrowind–I own both at a similar price.) I bought all these games when they were new, but long-ago misplaced the original game disks…so these days I tend to be a collector of titles, my favorite being the AAA’s of yesterday…that I remember so well. And sometimes not so well.

    I love these sale prices…! Finally GOG & Steam are getting the picture that you can actually make a lot more money from certain titles at a much lower MSRP, because you’ll sell umpteen more copies. Reason seems to be sinking in at last. If not for the captive console market so desperate for games that they’ll almost buy anything and cheerfully cough up $60 for it, and for some horrendous titles to boot, new AAA games on the PC would be ringing the bell @ $29.99-$39.99 and doubling the present sales @ $60. Some people think that consoles stimulate the PC gaming market–but I’m not so sure that the console markets don’t hurt the PC market a lot more. Ah, well, we have to live with both, don’t we?

  12. InfamousPotato says:

    I liked the format of this (last?) year’s sale more than previous years, so I’m quite glad it was successful.

  13. says:

    It felt like every one of my queues either started or ended with an Assassin’s Creed game, and I don’t play or like the series.

  14. LNO says:

    I think the sales this winter were quite disappointing and nowhere near the level of the past sales. My guess is that is has to do with the new refund option. Companies are not willing to gamble with high discounts in combination with the refund option. Personally I bought five titles of which I refunded one.
    One important thing to remember, is that the steam wintersale is also important because it pushes other sellers below the steam prices to compete. Websites like isthereadeal are great in this regard. Perhaps next year steam will acknowledge this and lower prices in an effort not to lose customers to the competition.

  15. Vandelay says:

    That shows how little attention I paid to the same this year; I had no idea they weren’t doing daily deals! Did they actually say this anywhere? They certainly had games that they highlighted each day.

    The only thing I did take notice of was the tomfoolery that Valve were doing with the comic, which many seemed to think was leading up to a big announcement. After various strings of clues were followed all it lead to was a badge labelled “Red Herring.” Disappointing, but the confusion and anger it caused many of those participating was probably worth it.

  16. Heliocentric says:

    But was it a success for smaller gamers?

  17. emertonom says:

    I’m glad it was successful, because I do like the new format, but I wonder how much the “wishlist additions” and so forth was due to this year having an unusually large number of very good games from small companies. I know there were a lot of surprises for me in the year-end roundups on all the sites I visit, and I added several things to my wishlist on the strength of that, and even bought Life is Strange and Downwell. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seemed to me like it was a particularly good year for indie games, and those release often enough and with little enough fanfare that it’s easy to miss them until the retrospectives bring them up again around the holidays.

  18. Phantasma says:

    Good for the indies but personally this sale (and to a minor extend the autumn and summer sales as well) were quite the disappointment for me.

    Partly because of “teh backlog” but certainly the No More Flash Sales policy didn’t really do it for me.
    On the one hand it relieves you from the obsessive compulsion of checking every other hour for some bargains.
    On the other side, back in the days i purchased Skyrim quite cheap on the 24th; Otherwise i would have surely waited for the GOTY edition or wouldn’t have bothered at all because Fallout 3 and especially Oblivion robbed me of much of the goodwill i had for Bethesda (curiously Skyrim even managed to restore a bit of that).

    So this time i looked at the price of Fallout 4 (a game i’m only vaguely interested right now, especially not in the first half of its post-development cycle – for obvious reasons), checked the bug forum and decided that i’ll pass.

    Then i glanced over my wishlist, full of “yeah, i might but i don’t really crave any of them badly” titles, saw the good but not outstanding deals and decided that i’d rather let my backlog haunt me a little bit longer, but not to feed it any more.

    So, conceptually i welcomed the end of flash sales but from a business perspective, Valve never saw me opening my wallet either… which is quite the novelty.

  19. Rince says:

    I’m still waiting for the Tecmo-Koei games to have a nice discount.
    Bad reviews or not I want to try DW8:Empires. But I’m not paying that price. And that not counting all those DLC.

    Same with Dragon Ball Xenoverse.

  20. Viral Frog says:

    I’ve heard so many complaints about the discovery sale and winter sale this year, saying they were “crap”, yet I ended up with more purchases in this sale than I have in previous fall/winter sales. I didn’t have to worry about checking the flash sales every few hours. The best part is that I didn’t have to wait, hoping for my wants to go on a flash sale and eventually being disappointed because the games I want never get flash sales. I’m glad they changed the format. The old way of doing sales was complete crap.

  21. JuergenDurden says:

    i applaud the lack of daily deals this time around…. next get rid of all that trading card and achievement and badge stuff and just let me play my games.