Steam indie traffic bug ‘fixed’, but permanent changes may affect indies

The storefront will ‘continue to refine’ discovery algorithms.

Valve has acknowledged that a bug led to dramatic decreases in organic traffic for large numbers of indie games on Steam in October. The platform says that the bug is now ‘fixed’ but acknowledges that other, deliberate, algorithm changes made at the time ‘helped some games but hurt others’ – suggesting that Steam may be an even tougher market for indie developers in the future.

Yesterday it was widely reported that a bug in Steam’s visibility algorithms – which determine which games to show to which users in their discovery queues, among other places – had negatively impacted a range of indie game launches over the past two month. It seemed that a bug had been preventing many indie games from being shown at all, with developers experiencing a sharp drop-off in organic traffic and associated sales and revenue from the start of October. Valve had initially told frustrated developers that it was not aware of any problem, but more recently said it was “investigating” the issue.

However, in the wake of this news, The Indie Game Website heard from developers that this so-called ‘bug’ may in fact be part of a wider and more permanent algorithm update – meaning indie games will have even more difficulty being discovered on the Steam platform in the future.

Several sources have told The Indie Game Website that data suggested a more permanent move toward favouring triple-A and already popular indie games over new independent releases.

Jake Birkett of Grey Alien Games – whose blog post initially brought attention to the issue in the media – now tells The Indie Game Website that a Valve representative has confirmed to him that there was an initial bug, which has since been fixed, but that other changes that affect indie games’ discoverability were intentional. These changes “helped some games, but hurt others,” he said.

On the private Steam developer forums, many have been speculating – not just over the past 24 hours but for almost two months – that any reports of a Steam ‘bug’ were not telling the entire story.

“I consider it myself as a deliberate change by Valve in the visibility algorithm,” wrote one developer. Another dev added: “I seriously doubt it’s a bug. Valve only seems interesting in shafting indies.”

The thread discussing the issue currently runs to 56 pages, with hundreds of indies reporting similar problems.

The news, of course, comes in the wake of Steam’s announcement that it will increase the publisher/developer’s revenue share on sales over $1million – meaning that large publishers and studios have the opportunity to make even more money. Given the circumstances, many indie developers are speculating that this is part of a wider plan to prioritise visibility for titles Steam knows brings in large amounts of revenue for the platform, rather than newer, untested titles.

Birkett says Steam insists it will “continue to refine” its discovery algorithms in the future, although some are sceptical of whether they will be refined in favour of small studios.

“I’m worried about selling games on Steam in the future,” Birkett told us, “and will need to adapt in the coming year to other revenue sources.” Meanwhile, another developer told us: “[Steam has] just killed a lot of indies.”

We have reached out to Valve for comment via various channels, but are yet to receive a reply; we’ll update this story if we hear back from them.