GDC's 'realistic' talk about game sales on Steam paints a grim picture

"So here's the thing. In February, around 850 games launched on Steam, which is about 40 a day," said Mike Rose, the indie publisher behind downhill biking game Descenders. "About 82 percent of those didn't even make minimum wage ... by this I mean, the money that came out of 82 percent of the games that came out on Steam would not support a singular person on American minimum wage, which I had to Google."

That's a sobering way to begin a talk, but it's something Rose has done before. Earlier this year he gave a similar talk, "It's time to be realistic about PC sales figures," with slides you can look at here. His talk at GDC includes slightly updated data but essentially the same conclusion: the average game on Steam simply doesn't sell anymore, and the quantity of games being released has made the platform more like Apple's app store, where it's increasingly difficult to stand out.

This isn't the first time we've heard things are rough on Steam. It's something we've written about before, between covering the more than 6,000 games that came out on Steam last year and publishing a developer survey of thoughts and concerns about Steam. Rose's talk and depressing number after depressing number don't really apply to the "big" games that land on Steam, whether those games are breakouts from indie creators or huge franchises from huge companies. But they do paint a grim picture for indies hoping to break onto the scene.

"I don't know why you're here. This is going to be horrible," Rose joked. "A lot of people are coming to me saying things like 'our game's a bit like Limbo, and Limbo sold millions of copies.' Oh god, that's not how it works. I get that weekly, people talking about games that came out two years ago. Even games that came out one year ago, you can't even use them for comparison anymore. A lot has happened in the last year."

According to Rose's estimates of sales on Steam, once he removes "the crap"—games he thinks never had a chance of selling at all—the average game on Steam will sell about 2000 copies and make $12,500 in revenue in its first month. The average game will make $30,000 in its first year.

Not the kind of numbers indie devs want to see.

Not the kind of numbers indie devs want to see.

The biggest change to the Steam landscape comes from Steam Direct, which has dramatically increased the number of games landing on Steam. Some have criticized Valve, asking for more curation or a higher barrier to entry on Steam, though Rose points out there's really no winning there. 

"It's funny, isn't it, because when Steam was closed we complained all the time that it was closed. It's a walled garden, argh! And when they let everybody in we were like, 'NO! Keep them out! GREENLIGHT!' We hate them whatever they do. It's not Valve's fault. It's just a horrible situation. But it's also a lovely situation, because more people can make games. I do think in the next couple years there's gotta be space for [another platform]."

The takeaway from Rose's talk was simple: have a plan for the worst-case scenario. Don't expect a game to sell enough on Steam to make its money back. And know that as bad as his estimates look, it could be even worse.

"A lot of it's optimistic. I didn't want to depress you too much," Rose said during the Q&A, when a developer asked about how sales discounts could actually mean even lower revenue numbers.

"I already have a game launched, so..." the developer said, before leaving the mic.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).