I truly wish I could just create a bunch of quick jam games, polish them up, hire an amazing artist, and release them. Think about it: 30 day development times, quick and out-of-the-box ideas, and just hope people fall in love when I drop the game on steam out of nowhere with no dragged out marketing campaign. I release 12 games a year, each one earning 5K! Awesome – comfortable middle American lifestyle.

It sounds like a great plan, and I actually considered doing it with my series 1 Screen Platformer. I did this test because I think that most game developers spend WAAYYY too long on their game. 

But it won’t work.

In this blog when I say “small game” I am referring to games that are short in development time, have a pre-release marketing of less than 5 months, have limited content (1-3 hours total), and do not receive may updates post launch. Let’s call this the “rapid release” marketing strategy.

The Steam algorithm (1) actively works against these types of small games with short pre-launch marketing periods. The algorithm is purposely trained to suppress games that are made and launched in rapid succession.

In today’s blog I am going to outline specifically how the Steam algorithm works against these types of games.

Many of these algorithms are only hinted at or winked at by the staff at Valve but I am going to state them loud and clear so you know how they work and why they keep small games down.

But first… why does Steam hate small games?

Remember the indiepocalypse where all indies freaked out when Valve essentially removed any curation and allowed anyone with $100 to release a game on Steam? 

In the post-greenlight era, scammers of all stripes released a bunch of games made up of assets downloaded from the Unity Asset Store. Jim Sterling did this really mean video about those supposedly horrible horrible people who did asset flips.

Also there were these scammers who would create quick games and price them for absurd amounts like $200. Everyone suspected they were money laundering schemes.

Then there were “Achievement Spam” games where you could pay $1 and play for 1 minute and get 100s of achievements. Read about achievement spam games here.

These games would even give players trading cards that they could trade for real money. It was a crazy abuse of this loophole in the marketplace. 

People complained that Steam was flooded with Shovelware. “It is the Indiepocalypse” developers shouted! 

Guess what? Valve was listening. And they acted. You got your wish. Shovelware isn’t a problem anymore. Really it isn’t.

Sure people might laugh and share links on twitter to obvious horrible Shovelware titles like Summer Sale (which uses SEO to be the top result when you search “Steam Summer Sale”) but those games rarely make money because of the algorithm.

Seriously, the folks at Valve have very carefully tuned the algorithm to make sure these types of games are so unprofitable that they get instantly buried and developers stop making them. In this blog post from April 2020 the team at Valve essentially proclaimed victory over these Shovelware titles.

In that blog there was this one VERY telling chart that compared how much games released in 2018 earned vs games released in 2019 earned because of their Steam algorithm improvements. See that big orange section? That is the new algorithm gutting the sales potential of Shovelware, fast-release, “crap-games.”

In short: congratulations, we are now in the era where Shovelware doesn’t make money and doesn’t “get in the way” of “real” games. The bad news is Steam is now perfectly calibrated to promote, epic, long-form, games with years of development and marketing behind them. 

In public statements and Q&As Valve is always eager to promote themselves as an open platform where anyone with a dream and $100 can have a chance at hitting it big. They rarely mention all the little barriers you have to overcome in order to really make a sustainable living on Steam.

In today’s column I am going to show you all the small ways parts of Steam withhold visibility until your game overcomes certain (somewhat unmentioned) thresholds.

In short, if you want to get any form of visibility on Steam, you gotta produce a big game and market the hell out of it. Rapid release games rarely can accomplish this.

Barrier #1: Popular Upcoming

There is this little widget on the front page of Steam called “Popular Upcoming.” If you manage to get at least about 5000-10,000 wishlsits you will appear on this widget about 1 week before your game’s set release date. 

Steam shoppers really pay attention to this list and you can expect to earn about 200-1000 wishlists PER DAY while your game appears on this list. 

This is great, free visibility. Thanks Valve!

Unfortunately, it takes a while to get up to 5000 wishlists – even if your game is great looking and in the right genre. If you are trying to rapidly develop and release a game, there just isn’t enough time to get the minimum wishlist requirement to get on this list. This widget’s algorithm is a carrot (not a stick) that essentially acts to fast-track games that have proven to meet broad appeal on Steam.

If you have a rapid-release title, you don’t get to be on the fast-track and you will see games promoted more than yours. You will also get fewer wishlists which will mean fewer convert to sales.

Side Note: There was a time where some naughty developers would game this widget by perpetually setting their release date 1 week in the future to spend MONTHS on this list. Valve cracked down on this requiring you to open a support ticket to change your release date if you are within about 2 weeks of your original launch date. You can’t game this system.

Barrier #2: Ten Reviews

Steam averages your review scores to give shoppers an easy-to-read summary score such as “Positive” “Mixed” or “Overwhelmingly Positive.” However it only gives that score after your game receives 10 reviews. 

Fewer than 10 and Steam just limply lists your reviews like this: 

Similarly, Steam give you a little thumbs up icon on this long list when you get 10 reviews. Until you get that magic 10, you get no icons, and you get lost among all the other Shovelware.

I have seen many games sales stagnate until they hit the magic 10 number. Here is one example. In this image the “L” is the launch which starts to tail off until they get the “10” which seems to rebound the daily wishlsits.

Here is another example comes from game developer muddasheep for their game Catty & Batty The Spirit Guide. That inflection point? 10 Reviews! Notice how the Discovery Queue goes up too? My assumption is that the Discovery Queue algorithm shows your game a LOT more once you have at least 10 reviews.

Total page visits for the Game Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide.

If you are rapidly releasing your game it is hard to get a critical mass of players to follow your game and be there to play and review it soon after release. The typical ratio is 30 purchases for every 1 review. So that means you probably need at least 300 sales before you can hope to get over that first hurdle.

Another hurdle, if someone reviews your game but they got it via a free Steam key, it does not count towards the total. 

It is hard to get 10 reviews if you are a rapid-release game.

Barrier #3: Trading cards and showcase achievements

Guess what? The Steam audience REALLY LIKES achievements. They like earning them, they like showcasing cool looking achievement icons on their Steam profile pages. They like trading cards. Many players buy games based on the cards and the achievements they can earn.

Remember Trading cards and card-farming?

Look at this amazing player’s profile page. They have a custom avatar, with an animated border, unique backgrounds, and that “WELCOME” text is actually achievements that they earned in a game that used letters as the achievement icons. Hardcore Steam players LOVE achievements and the benefits that come from games that support them.

However Valve tweaked the algorithm so that your game can’t reward players with trading cards or allow people to showcase your achievements on their profile until you reach some unspecified sales or review level. Some players will only buy your game if they can feature the achievements on their wall (like this person with the WELCOME showcase). 

The threshold for the ability to give out cards is actually quite high.

I have a game that has not yet reached this magical threshold and I get grief in my forums about it all the time. This is an actual post in my 1 Screen Platformer’s discussion board. My only response to them is “Complain to Valve. It is out of my hands.”

I don’t have any data on this but I am sure that I have lost sales because I don’t have trading cards or showcase-able achievements. 

If you are rapidly releasing titles, it is a lot harder to reach the magic number that will unlock the features that Steam players want and give your game an extra boost.

Barrier #4: Steam players like deep games with lots of content

I know we jaded game designers always say “I am old, I just want short experiences I can play in an evening and be done with it.” I feel the same way. But the typical Steam player doesn’t feel this. They want LOTS of gameplay that is really deep. 

I really appreciate the rapid release strategy that the Sokpop Collective has tried. They release a game a month and I really like their irreverent style. But I am an out-of-touch game-industry-professional, what do I know? If you dig into it, their best selling game is also their deepest: Simmiland. However, even fans of the game Simmiland say they want a deeper game. here are some choice reviews:

Even the positive reviews like this one say they like it they just wish there was more.

Steam players just like deep games. There are few game types that you can produce in one month that can satisfy the voracious appetite of the typical Steam player. 

Barrier #5: Valve knows Steam players like deep games so it incentivizes games that have long play times.

There are hundreds of little widgets all over Steam that favor games with longer your play times. This leads to more visibility. Here are a couple examples.

The “your friends are playing” popup is more likely to appear for games that are played longer. It sounds obvious but is a real thing. More play time = more exposure to more people.

Steam allows players to showcase games in their library based on duration played. There is no option to sort by “shortest game” because why would any red-blooded Steam fan want to play a short game?

Or filter games based on Friend game activity (the longer people play your game, the more likely it will show up in their friends activity)

Play time is displayed (in several different ways) for every review – thereby subtly implying how much depth there is in the game and that a person with more play time knows better. Look at how the number of hours is shown in 3 different ways for this review:

Basically, Steam knows play time is a great indicator of a player’s love of a game and so many widgets are tuned to respond to that.

If you have a short game, you are making it hard for your game to get shown to potential players. 

Barrier #6: Pop ups & Daily Deals

To people who say they wish Steam had curation, guess what? It does! It is but not everyone knows about it. It is called applying for and getting accepted for a Daily Deal.

A Daily Deal is a very limited time promotion where your game gets shown EVERYWHERE on Steam. If you can get a daily deal your game can earn thousands upon thousands of dollars in a single day. But not everyone gets one. You have to apply for one with Valve. I would argue that you can’t really make money on Steam until your game reaches enough notoriety that you can opt in to Daily Deals. 

When you apply, a representative at Valve will dig into your numbers and if they think you have potential to earn them a lot of money, they will grant you a Daily Deal. Good reasons for a daily deal are: You are having an anniversary sale (like this game Crossroads Inn.) or maybe you did a major content update.

However, a Daily Deal is only given to you if your game meets certain earning thresholds. I don’t know what the actual number is, but it is in the multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue. If your game has not earned that, don’t even bother opening a ticket requesting a Daily Deal. You won’t get it.

The Daily Deal is how you actually make a living on Steam. You are basically playing in the kiddy pool with floaties on your arms until your studio makes a game that can get approved for Daily Deals.

This is where the REAL money is made. That is the curation on Steam that nobody really knows about.

And Pop up’s? They are these annoying boxes that appear when you open Steam. Here is a picture of one:

Yes they are annoying but they get you even more sales than a Daily Deal. They are only given out to games that have impressive wishlist counts and or revenue (think hundreds of thousands for both). This is the Steam curation people talk about. It exists, it’s just not in the form most new developers know about or expected.

Again, the real power of Steam opens up only after you produce a game that can sell at this level. It is very very hard to make the type of money required to get these when you employ a rapid release strategy. These are the mechanisms by which games can rise above the downward pressure that Steam puts on games that are “unworthy.”

Summary: Why you can’t compete while releasing small games

I totally understand why Valve tuned the algorithm the way they did. They want games that earn them money. The thing that is confusing to first-time indies is Valve isn’t very forthcoming about this system. They make it so easy to upload and publish a game and they don’t say “no” to anyone.

However, to counteract the inevitable flow of crap, they had to implement a somewhat non-obvious system of rules that actually does curate winners and losers. They just don’t say it explicitly.

That is why I wanted to teach you how this works.

To put it simply, the algorithm wants you to make big games. To satisfy the algorithm it is better to have 1 game that sold 10,000 units instead of 10 games that each sold 1,000 units. That is because that single 10K game will unlock the hidden Steam features like Steam Trading cards and possibly Daily Deals.

Epilogue: How small games can be useful

I hope I have convinced you that small games are risky if you hope to make a sustainable living on Steam. But, that said, I am not totally against small games. There are a couple specific cases where they make sense:

  • Making small games and releasing them for real money on Steam is a great way to learn game development. It will improve your skills as a designer MUCH faster than making 1 SUPER EPIC LIFE CHANGING GAME THAT YOU SPEND 10 years working on. Sure the algorithm will work against you and you probably won’t make much money at first, but your skills will be much better when it comes time to make your LIFE WORK GAME See The Ceramics Class Study
  • Make a bunch of small games and determine which one the marketplace likes best. This is essentially what Sokpop collective has done (whether intentional or not.) If you look at their full catalog most of their games earn 1-30 reviews. But Simmiland has drastically outpaced their other games 30-fold with over 900 reviews. Wisely they are making a sequel to it. Remember it is very hard to guess what the market will actually like. So run lots of small tests and react based on actual data.

Appendix:

(1) There is no 1 algorithm: Everyone from Valve always is quick to remind you that. Instead, “the algorithm” is really a constellation of widgets and each widget has a separate algorithm. To me that is a small distinction which is why for the rest of this piece I will still refer to it as “The Algorithm.”