It’s one thing for a gaming company to announce a Steam competitor—and believe me, many have—but it’s something else entirely when the developer behind the world’s biggest game does it. Epic’s upcoming game store seems to have already gotten under Steam’s skin, but even before the announcement yesterday, one Epic employee spent countless long hours picking apart the behemoth piece by piece. As a hobby.
If you follow Steam closely, you’ve probably heard of Sergey Galyonkin. Since 2015, he’s been running Steam Spy, a site that scrapes publicly-available data from Steam profiles, analyzes it, and spits out statistics like approximate game sales, average playtime per game, and broader genre and tag trends. A change to Steam’s privacy settings put Steam Spy against the ropes earlier this year, but it’s still bobbing and weaving—albeit more clumsily—for the time being.
Few people outside of Valve are more intimately familiar with Steam’s inner workings than Galyonkin. He has always described the Steam data-gathering mainstay, used by major developers and publishers to take stock of Steam and justify their games’ existence, as a “side project.” His main gig? Director of publishing strategy for Epic’s new store, as it turns out. He announced yesterday that he’s been working on the project for “the past several years.” It didn’t take long for the “Steam Spy was literally a Steam spy” jokes to start rolling in.
“I think it’s funny,” Galyonkin said in an email to Kotaku. “It wasn’t my intention when launching or naming Steam Spy, but in retrospect, it makes for a great four-years-in-the-making joke.”
There is, according to Galyonkin, no great conspiracy here. He’s always been interested in data and game distribution, and that led to him both starting Steam Spy and joining Epic. Steam Spy has, however, taught Galyonkin, and now Epic, some valuable lessons that are being applied to the new store.
“I’ve learned a lot about how games are tracking [week] over week, how effective are sales (not as much as people think, exposure is more important), and more importantly, I got to talk to hundreds of developers to learn what they want from a digital store and what they like and don’t like about existing ones,” he said.
He noted that he could’ve done that last part without Steam Spy, but “for a person as introverted as I am, it’s way easier when other people are talking to me.”
This led to a slew of valuable insights that Galyonkin says directly informed the Epic store’s feature set. For instance, forums and other social media-like tools—a cornerstone of Steam—won’t be part of the package. Galyonkin said that this is because “not a single developer I talked to wanted forums” and “the toxicity it brings,” preferring to interact with communities on their own terms on platforms like Reddit and Discord instead.
“That’s why we won’t have forums on Epic Games store and will start with a ticketing system, so gamers can message devs about their problems instead of review-bombing them,” said Galyonkin.
Then there’s the issue of clutter, which often makes Steam feel less like a svelte 2018 video game store and more like a closet so stuffed full of games that if you tried to pull one out, it’d be like dislodging the wrong block from a Jenga tower. This is even an issue on individual game pages. Their “More Like This,” DLC, and bundle sections impact not just users’ ability to decide whether they want a game, but also developers’ ability to communicate what they’re up to.
“There was a problem with too many things competing for users’ attention on a game page and no way of ever reaching users unless a developer had its own account system set up,” said Galyonkin. “That’s why we’re trying to minimize the store presence on game pages and we’re adding a global Twitter-like newsfeed, so developers can update their players about recent changes to their games and their future titles. And they can have emails of their players if the players agree to it.”
Steam Spy’s greatest strength, though, has been its ability to pull back the curtain on sales data and other trends, paving the way for developers to make games they know people will like (or that nobody else has made before) and, hopefully, succeed. And while Epic’s store won’t have public-facing Steam Spy-like functionality built in, providing developers with as much information as possible is a big priority.
“We’re aiming to provide developers with as much information to make good decisions as legally possible,” Galyonkin said. “Contractually we can’t share other companies’ sales data—Steam Spy shows estimates—but we can share other useful stats, especially in an aggregated format. We use a lot of data ourselves and want the developers to have the same tools. And the partners obviously can share their sales information.”
The Epic store will launch with a “very barebone backend dashboard,” he said, but his hope is that “eventually it will give developers way more information about their games that Steam Spy ever could.”
As for Steam Spy, it’s not dead, but Steam privacy changes did a heck of a job of hamstringing it. Galyonkin’s not entirely sure what he’s gonna do with it yet, but for now, the project continues to move forward, though at a speed closer to a crawl than a sprint.
“The current algorithm is based on machine learning and is doing OK for tags and general trends, plus an actual PhD in machine learning is helping me with the next version,” he said. But, he said, Steam Spy has taken a back seat recently: “I’ve been so occupied with Epic Games store, I didn’t spend enough time working on Steam Spy in recent months.”