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For those who may not be aware, Valve is the company that owns Steam, the largest single games platform in the world with a user-base of over 125 million, recently updated their store with a new algorithm. The "More Like This" algorithm makes recommendations to players based on games they are currently viewing. Traditionally, the algorithm selected these recommendation based on actual similarity. Now, since September 12th of 2019, the algorithm seems to have been tweaked to recommend better selling, more popular games, with actual similarity taking a back seat.
Dear Mr. Newell,
I wanted to write about how this change in the Steam store has effected small game developers such as myself. I appreciate what Valve has provided for small and solo teams, an opportunity to sell and showcase our games, the like of which has never been seen before. However, with the recent update, less popular games have been hit hard.
So, as an example my best selling game "Star Explorers" used to have 13 games that recommended it. Star Explorers is a procedurally generated galaxy exploration game. Prior to the change, No Man's Sky, Empyrion: Galactic Survival, Astroneer and other procedurally generated exploration based games used to point to Star Explorers.
Now, according to Steamlikes.com (A website that tracks which games point to others), only one game points to Star Explorers. That game is called Rombie. From what I can gather, Rombie is a game about robots living in some kind of wasteland. It does not appear to include exploration of outer space or planets. It therefore does not, if you ask me, bear any relevance to Star Explorers.
Yet somehow, magically, the Star Explorers page still points to No Man's Sky, Empyrion and Astroneer. Are these games similar to my game, while my game is somehow not similar to them? Or has this algorithm been tweaked to favor more popular, more expensive games? Which one is it? Is the cake actually a lie?
Here is the past month of sales for my games. As you can see, starting September 12th, sales have dropped considerably ... 58% to be precise.
What's More Important?
Now obviously I am just one developer, and clearly this new algorithm has not been good for my sales, nor those of other small developers. Some have seen sales drop by as much as 80% since the Steam store has been “upgraded.” That aside, I really feel like this new approach does not actually do what it's supposed to do. It is not giving players useful information about games that are "like" the game they are looking at. You can read more about other game developers and their experiences with this change on this reddit thread...
I appreciate that Valve may be making more money with this new approach. I accept that they have never promised to actively promote my games on this platform. If Steam is primarily about making money, then I guess this will have to do. But according to Valve...
"Steam is the ultimate destination for playing, discussing, and creating games." Store.steampowered.com
If Steam is about GAMES, as Valve here declares publicly, then I believe my argument stands. Steam should prioritize the games over the money. Money is important for any business. But, as we have seen many times in the past, businesses that no longer follow their own values will eventually implode. Money is necessary and useful, but it is useful to fulfill an idea or a goal, in Steam's case that goal is games. If Steam becomes "the ultimate destination for making money" then developers and players alike will eventually recognize this fact, and will no longer come here for games. They will go to a place where games are the priority.
The Epic Games Store Logo
The Trouble with Epic
Another important factor is the recent opening of the Epic Games Store. Epic is a huge company and they will make lots of money selling games. They have already proven themselves to be a major source of competition for Steam. However, so far, Valve has had the moral high ground in this battle. By helping and supporting smaller developers, Valve has maintained their commitment to games. By using this new approach, they are prioritizing money over games. I think it's important for a business to keep its integrity and prioritize its own stated goals over money alone.
Look at Starbucks. In Howard Schultz's book "From the Ground Up" he describes many ways in which he steered the company toward its stated mission over short term profits. Each time, according to Mr. Schultz, it eventually gave Starbucks a better position, and led to more opportunities.
American business consultant and public speaker James C. Collins, in Denver, Colorado, May 2017 Commons.wikimedia.org
The books “Good to Great” and “Built to Last” and others by Jim C. Collins also point out how important it is for companies to keep a hold on their core values. This is not new age mumbo-jumbo, but fact based research that suggests the truly great companies always held their goals to be more important than short term profits. Reading these books may really help to improve Valve as a company, and Steam as a games store.
Making a Great Company
By refocusing on the games, over short term profits, I believe Valve will be able to build something far greater than wealth, it will build loyalty. Right now, a lot of your smaller developers are feeling that they are not valued anymore. Your message to us has been, "we can ignore your pleas, and there is nothing you can do about it." This is absolutely true. You can ignore this message and you will be fine ... for now. But small actions sometimes give way to big consequences.
Many small developers may stop selling their games on Steam. They may stop making games altogether. Their dreams of becoming game developers will have been crushed. Who knows ... they may stop playing games altogether. Those that do continue to play may feel resentment toward Steam. They may talk bad about Steam and they may buy their games elsewhere. They may tell their friends not to buy from Steam. They and their friends may buy from Epic, or some other platform. Smaller devs may go to itch.io, seeking to support those who still have a dream. Steam will no longer be the place for smaller developers, the place that truly cares about games, and no one will feel any guilt or give a second thought to buying from Epic. These actions will make Valve's fears become a reality, and they will slowly, but surely, lose their hold on the PC games market.
I just want to take this time to implore Valve to reconsider this move. Trading long term mission goals for short term profits has never been a good approach for businesses. Valve has an opportunity to really refocus on the reasons it started Steam to begin with. Valve is a good company ... now it has a chance to be a great one.
Michael Klaus Schmidt
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