Steam is constantly evolving behind the scenes, but the latest reorganization of the storefront’s molecules has left some developers scratching their heads. Now, if a game makes $10 million, developers have to share less money with Valve. And if it hits $50 million, even less than that.
Valve announced tweaks to Steam’s revenue sharing system in a post on Friday. Previously, all developers had to give 30 percent of their revenue to Valve. Now, if a game makes $10 million, its developer only has to toss 25 percent of earnings after that into Valve’s bottomless money abyss. If it makes it all the way up to $50 million, the developer only owes Valve a 20 percent cut of remaining sales.
“The value of a large network like Steam has many benefits that are contributed to and shared by all the participants,” Valve wrote. “Finding the right balance to reflect those contributions is a tricky but important factor in a well-functioning network. It’s always been apparent that successful games and their large audiences have a material impact on those network effects, so making sure Steam recognizes and continues to be an attractive platform for those games is an important goal for all participants in the network.”
Meanwhile, smaller developers, who make up the bulk of Steam’s library, will still owe Valve 30 percent of their earnings. These developers might be lucky to sniff $1 million, let alone $10 million or more. In a marketplace where it’s increasingly difficult for even the most enterprising indies to gain a foothold, developers are bewildered by Valve’s decision to make things easier for the biggest games, which already have it easier in terms of exposure and money-making potential.
Some developers see the move as a way for Valve to keep bigger games on Steam’s platform. “Valve statement, paraphrased: ‘Don’t worry, big game productions, we’ll happily subsidize your increased income with the broken dreams of aspiring devs that fell just short of making it because they have no leverage and we don’t care,” said Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail on Twitter. “Just please don’t launch your own store.”
In recent years, an increasing number of major games have eschewed Steam to launch on publishers’ own stores—for example, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is on the Blizzard’s Battle.net, EA’s games release via Origin, Fallout 76 is on Bethesda’s launcher, and Fortnite is on Epic’s.
“So excited to have Caves of Qud subsidize Red Dead Redemption 2,” wrote Freehold co-founder and Caves of Qud co-designer, producer, and programmer Brian Bucklew. “I hope all of Valve’s customers are interested in having the tiny studios doing interesting things on razor-thin budgets paying for the next Fallout 76.” In a later tweet, he expanded, “This change by Valve is (presumably, clearly) specifically meant to court those games back, or prevent further flight.”
Some just don’t see the point in helping out games that are already so fiscally successful. “Steam just changed the rules so that games that make millions of dollars earn a higher % of their revenue, so the richest get richer,” said Wandersong developer Greg Lobanov. “What a slap in the face to the rest of us.”
“If Valve is willing to drop their revenue share on games that make 90% of the revenue of Steam, why not create some goodwill with indies and extend that to the 99% who make up for that last 10%?” said Hidden Folks designer Adriaan de Jongh.
On top of that, all is not well in the steamy metropolis of Algorithm City. Multiple small developers have claimed that Valve changed Steam’s game discovery algorithm in October, drawing significantly fewer eyeballs to their games’ store pages.
Grey Alien Games owner and Shadowhand developer Jake Birkett wrote a lengthy post about the issue in which he chalked up initial discovery issues to a bug that caused Steam to only recommend “some big name games instead of relevant games.” Birkett claims that Valve “quickly” fixed it, but smaller developers’ traffic from the Steam home page and “other product pages” hasn’t recovered. This is hitting some developers where they were already hurting: their pocketbooks.
“I compared full price sales before and after the October bug (being careful to avoid weeklong sales and Steam sales), and my total units sold have halved,” said Birkett.
“It is clear that Steam is favoring triple-A since Oct,” wrote NeuroVoider developer Thomas Altenburger. “All the big players are vampirizing the store, and it is very likely that you saw no indies since October in a pop-up. Since October, we have 75% less revenues.”
Simon Roth, creator of long-in-development Dwarf-Fortress-inspired simulation game Maia, finally took his game out of early access recently, only to discover that the algorithm rained all over his years-in-the-making parade. Posting a chart in which his page traffic dropped beginning in October, he said: “No doubt that cost me dearly on launch too. Great.”
While Valve at least explained its rationale surrounding the revenue share changes, it has yet to clear the increasingly murky air surrounding the discovery algorithm. Kotaku reached out to Valve for an explanation, but as of writing, the company had yet to reply.
Update - 2:30 PM, 12/05/18: Valve explained in a Steam post why the algorithm went haywire in October, admitting that a bug in early October caused smaller games to lose traffic, and further changes led to a situation in which “overall impressions and views for the ‘More Like This’ section did show a substantial decrease for about two weeks after the initial bug.” However, the company says the problem has since been rectified, and traffic has “stabilized” since the end of October.