3 lessons learned at Steam DevDays

Stefan Wehler
Mar 20, 2017 · 7 min read

(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse back in Oct 2016)

Last week I’ve had the pleasure to attend Steam Dev Days, Valve’s gathering of their worldwide developer and publisher community, so I boarded the plane to Seattle with the promise to write a straightforward blog post on Dev Days while sharing meaningful insights and learnings with you at the same time. So being straightforward, I will start on a negative note regarding the opening talks, which surprisingly were quite disappointing. No, I’m not going to join the choir of complaints from fan-boys about Gabe Newell not being on stage this year. I believe in content over personality, but in regards to content I found the keynotes to be quite poor.

The fanboys were missing Gabe

For example, Valve’s Marketing and Business Development guru DJ Powers confirmed a major update coming to Steam Store UI, which is set to release in the coming weeks. Very little has been leaked on this in recent weeks, but there were hints on a full visual refresh for the store front page, new navigation, a new top selling new release section or smart visibility for new releases and updates based on user preferences. Well, that would mean some pretty big changes, but guess what? Valve didn’t show any of this on stage — no preview, no mock-up, not even a few words on the details of what and when exactly the update will ship! Now, if you ask me, that’s kind of awkward for a conference designed for those who distribute their games on the Steam platform, don’t you agree?

But enough of that! A lot of the talks were full of actionable insights that made the conference more than worth attending. Here are the three most important ones you should take away:

The marketplace gets packed, the discovery game is heating up

One of the anthems of Steam Dev Days was this: “It’s a great time to be a PC developer!”. No doubt, Steam is providing a powerful set of tools for developers, from small indie to major studios, to develop, launch and sell their games. From a pure numbers standpoint, it’s a massive success: DJ Powers announced that Steam’s concurrent user base has tripled compared to 2011. At the same time, the number of new releases has sky-rocketed since 2014: The number of games shipped per month has increased to more than 500 in September 2016 vs. “just” 140 in September 2014. The revenue growth is not one bit less impressive: Steam-generated revenue in North America grew by 80% over the last two years, while Western Europe isn’t too far behind and in the 60% range. Outstanding growth comes from Asia, putting the market in the spotlight with a growth of almost 500% from 2014 to 2016, making the Asia region the third biggest market on Steam. For the longest time, most of us thought the Asian market to be insignificant for PC games — guess we were wrong!

While these are great news for Valve, they also raise some serious challenges that we need to address: as the Steam store gets more and more packed, discovery is becoming an ever-increasing concern. Steam has made big improvements to the UI which currently allows 4,800 games to be featured in the main capsules, and it’s quite likely that the upcoming new Steam Store UI with its smart visibility will improve this even further. But algorithms based on user preferences also mean that popular genres will get even more attention. Arty or niche genres, on the other hand, while finding a better targeted audience, will face less broad visibility. This isn’t exactly news to me — I’ve seen it all happening on the app stores, where huge parts of the user acquisition happens on Facebook, Google and in mobile ad networks, simply because the clutter in the stores is so massive. In my opinion, it’s crucial for you to increase visibility outside the Steam ecosystem as well.

Discovery is not over on launch day or as Valve’s Tom Giardino phrased it: “Launch day is not the finishing line, it’s the starting line.” Have a plan, view your game as a service that needs updates, new content and non-stop communication with your community and it will pay back in visibility. Robin Meijer from Ronimo Games showed a great example of this in his “Games as Service” talk: their title Awesomenauts outperformed launch sales and the winter sale in the second year by far. In fact, they made 69% of their Steam revenue past year 1. How did they achieve this? By designing the game with replayability in mind, expanding content with updates every two or three months and listening closely to player feedback. So take a close look at e.g. the most successful F2P games and how their community is being treated post-launch. Learn from their treating games as a service attitude and figure out how to apply these lessons to your game.

VR is the (un)known frontier

Steam is doubling down on VR without a doubt. They’re investing heavily and also hinted on original VR content coming directly from Valve next year. The VR theme has been around for a while and now Steam will finally be adding VR support to SteamOS, MacOSX and Linux. Even more intriguing is the fact that Valve invested in a company called Nitero, which is developing wireless tech for VR and AR. To me that sounds like the door-opener to another mass market-ready VR technology after PlayStation VR, as it should allow to make VR hardware cheaper. Combine that with the open VR platform (Lighthouse) that Valve covered in various talks, and we’re talking about a trouble-free VR gaming experience without the constraints of wired headgear.

At the moment, about 1,000 new VR players join Steam every day. That’s not a huge number just yet as it would only mean 365,000 new players a year compared to the hundreds of millions of regular PC gamers. That said, I firmly believe that this is just the beginning and I seem to share this opinion with those devs who have already put out more than 600 VR experiences on Steam. One more thing that encourages this belief is that Steam Link now allows others to watch you playing VR games. If you think that this doesn’t sound like a big deal, let me share two thoughts:

It’s the only way to make the VR experience accessible for Social gaming, be it with friends in the living room or streaming to the public
The Steam Link will be built-in all future Samsung TVs, thus it’s going to be available to a mass audience in just a few years’ time.
It should come to no surprise that Epic’s Tim Sweeney has voiced hope that a majority of the VR profits will be made in high-end PC VR experiences in the next five years. In other words, if you’re already considering developing a VR game, just do it!

Controllers do matter for Steam gamers

Next to VR I think it’s worth to spend some thoughts on enabling controller support for your game. Back in June Valve announced that they sold 500,000 controllers, and just four months later they are on track to sell a million by early next year. While these numbers aren’t that impressive and it’s not quite clear how many of those controllers are being actively used, Valve is definitely upping the controller game for PC. Since the first Steam Controller preorder units have shipped, a staggering 72 updates have been released — each one of them specifically targeting the controller functionality.

But it doesn’t stop there. One of few product announcements coming from Dev Days is a soon-to-come update that adds full configurability to third-party controllers. More precisely this will allow players to pair their PS4 controller directly to their PC and use all the configurability options available to the Steam Controller, including the use of the PS4 touchpad and gyro. And that’s a real game changer, considering the massive console player community who will have a much easier time getting their feet wet in the PC gaming universe.

Circling back to the discoverability of games, Valve also hinted about Steam going to introduce new logics that will increase the visibility of games that play well with a controller as well as more of focused promotions on Steam “that highlight hand-picked, controller-friendly titles” coming soon. So yes, controller support definitely does make an impact for games released on Steam.

Summing things up, Steam Dev Days definitely were about much more than just a decent gathering of friendly developers, beers and good spirit. If you’re working on a PC game right now, take away that you should…

…adapt to the new race for discovery in the Steam Store, not only on the store itself but also through external channels

…think profoundly about VR-readiness of your game. It’s Steam’s ultimate focus in the coming year or even longer and is set to create a lot of traction and attention

…have a second look at your controls. Are you ready to enable them for Steam Controller and third-party controllers? If the answer is “yes”, it might work well with it, then give it a go!

make better games

Thoughts, insights and actionable advice for game…

Stefan Wehler

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Uh, you’re reading bios … well … I blog about the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly in Marketing, Games and Tech.

make better games

Thoughts, insights and actionable advice for game developers curated by the rcp expert blogger network.

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