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This year’s Grand Prix-themed Steam summer sale was a bumpy ride, to say the least. Two weeks ago, Valve apologized and altered the sale’s meta game—in which players join teams and “race” against each other for prizes—after players found it unbalanced and confusing, and developers suffered a bloodbath of sudden wishlist deletions. Now, with the sale winding down, it seems that Valve’s efforts weren’t enough to undo the damage the confusing sale structure did to indie developers.

In the Grand Prix meta game, players joined animal-themed teams and gained points by completing quests in Steam games and, of course, spending money in the Steam summer sale. Players could put points into boosting their team, a straightforward-sounding system that splayed out into a labyrinthine systems design fever nightmare of sub-rules and exceptions.

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This confused and irritated players, but it wouldn’t have been so bad if free Steam games weren’t on the line, with random members of the top three teams receiving the top game on their Steam wishlist for free at the end of each day. Valve didn’t do the best job of explaining how this worked, leading to a situation in which thousands of people deleted games from their Steam wishlists in hopes of upping the odds that they’d receive their preferred game when in reality, they would’ve received whatever game they put in the top spot on their wishlist no matter what.

After a couple days of furrowed brows and furor, Valve clarified that, no, people didn’t need to take a scythe to their wishlists and also attempted to re-balance the Grand Prix meta game so that it would be harder for one team to take a commanding lead. It also introduced new challenges to the sale that involved looking at and even reviewing games, in order to help developers regain lost traffic. Two weeks after these adjustments, it’s clear that band-aids weren’t enough to hide the summer sale’s fundamental flaws. In the end, there were still copious bugs and balance issues—including a day in which Team Hare traveled the full diameter of earth—and early frontrunner Team Corgi won significantly more than everybody else. Yesterday, Valve once again apologized to Grand Prix players.

“Thank you to everyone who participated in the Grand Prix,” the company said in a note on the event’s page. “We realize that the race track had some unexpected turns—we tried to straighten them out when we could, and we’ll anticipate the curves better next time we invite you to the races.”

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It also randomly selected 5,000 users who’d participated in the event to receive the top game from their wishlists.

Developers didn’t even fare that well. Wishlists are one of the biggest predictors of sales success on Steam, as they notify users any time a wanted game releases or goes on sale. This serves to resurface games on a platform where it can otherwise be complicated to cut through the clutter. Best case scenario, an interesting indie becomes an impulse purchase instead of a game you never see again. However, as a result of The Great Wishlist Deletion Spree Of 2019 and apparent changes to the Steam algorithm, some developers experienced sluggish sales and net negative wishlist numbers overall during the sale—which is the opposite of what’s supposed to happen during a big event like this.

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“We’re down 4,000 wishlists on 2,000 sales, so about 2,000 more we should be,” Sir, You Are Being Hunted, The Signal From Tolva, and The Light Keeps Us Safe developer Jim Rossignol (who, full disclosure, I used to work with at Rock Paper Shotgun) told Kotaku in an email. “Sales were also lower than we’d expect, so I am not happy about it.”

“Steam’s message to users to stop deleting wishlists did not make any significant difference in the rate of our deletions,” said Vulpine developer
Clockwork Giant Games in an email, also pointing out that this sale didn’t have a mechanic that facilitated users going through their recommended games lists, which in the past got the studio “around 180" wishlists per day. “This sale we’re pulling around 40-60 additions, with our deletions coming in at 30-50. We’re barely net positive during this sale, and from what I can tell we’re one of the luckier devs... For an unreleased indie title, wishlists are our lifeblood; it’s how we get noticed on the platform. It’s saddening to see many of our fellow devs being hit hard by this sale.”

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Image: Valve

The restricted Steam developer forums were in various states of uproar throughout the sale, according to screenshots provided to Kotaku. There were threads about irregular traffic to games’ store pages and poor sales. In one particularly telling post, a small developer compared their previous Steam sale prospects to this year’s.

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“Last sale, I made over $2,000,” the developer wrote. “This one I’ve barely made $200. Thank you.”

Developers are chalking this up not just to wishlist issues, but also changes in the way Steam recommends games, as well as changes to the structure of the sale itself. Nepenthe and To The Dark Tower developer Yitz pointed to Steam’s data on his games, which showed that the “vast majority” of his store page traffic came from outside Steam, as opposed to from built-in recommendation systems like the front page, the discovery queue, tags, and games’ “more like this” sections. Data from the first half of 2018, meanwhile, shows less than 20 percent of his traffic coming from external sites, while over half came from within Steam. This, Yitz says, has been an issue since October 2018, when a Steam algorithm bug caused big games to make big gains in traffic while small games lost out. While Valve said in December that the issue had been fixed and the flow of traffic re-normalized, some developers say their games never recovered. Yitz is in this camp.

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“Before October 2018 (and for a few months after that while I gave Steam the benefit of the doubt), I told anyone who asked me that Steam was 100% worth it for indie developers,” he said in a Twitter DM. “Now, that trust is gone, and it’s not because I’ve changed or become more cynical... This Steam sale was a disaster, but I’m far more concerned about the overall trend we’ve seen in the Steam algorithm since October last year: pushing unpopular (including ‘mostly negative’ reviewed) triple-A games over titles that Steam has more than enough data to know would be a better match for the consumer.”

Other developers feel similarly. “The sale itself was a disappointment, but I don’t necessarily chalk that up to the Grand Prix minigame,” said Lore Finder, MidBoss, and Ultra Hat Dimension developer Emma “Eniko” Maassen, whose wishlist deletes largely outpaced wishlist additions throughout the sale and whose sales numbers were only half of what they were last year. “It was about as bad as the last winter sale, and this is consistent with slashed revenues for many smaller indie developers ever since Valve’s October Surprise, where they changed something in their algorithm that’s been causing drastically reduced sales for many developers... I’m afraid for the futures of many indie devs who may have been holding out for a good summer sale after 6-8 months of slashed revenue on Steam, and who may start running out of money now that the summer sale was no better.”

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A developer who chose to remain anonymous provided raw revenue numbers. “In 2018 we made about $100,000 with ONE game during the summer sale,” the developer said in an email. “In 2019 we made about $65,000 with TWO games during the summer sale. But it isn’t just the summer sale. It seems that for many devs, 2019 is the year of the lowest traffic and therefore least sales made yet.”

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It wasn’t doom and gloom for everybody, though. Some games, like parkour FPS Get To The Orange Door, saw big successes during the sale due to outside attention from YouTubers. Others, like exploration game The First Tree, more or less stabilized after Valve clarified the wishlist issue. In some cases, smaller games even got big (albeit brief) boosts from Steam. Painterly exploration game Eastshade wound up in the latter category.

“Sales-wise, Eastshade performed quite well compared to our past experience,” said Danny Weinbaum, founder of Eastshade Studios, in an email. “We sold 6.4k units, about 98k of gross revenue. Half of those units sold in one day, where we were selling at 10x the normal rate. This anomalous bump in sales occurred over precisely a 24-hour period, and with it came a number of forum posts saying Eastshade showed up in their recommendations ‘because you played Fallout 4.’ This suggests to me [that] Valve had some kind of rotation, pushing different games each day, and Eastshade was in that rotation.”

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Many small developers, however, continue to feel burned by this sale and worried about a downward trend in their traffic in general.

“Unless a game is so exceptional or unique that word-of-mouth alone can make it go viral (think Minecraft, Undertale, etc), there needs to be a supporting medium behind it,” said Yitz. “If those ‘hidden gem’ games are further hidden away in the back of the Steam store, even for people explicitly looking for them, the developers of those games will never be seen by most of their potential audience, and we as gamers will miss out on our most beloved obscure favorites simply because they were hidden behind all the triple-A microtransaction-filled moneymakers Steam decided to push instead. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s the end of a few careers, that’s for sure.”