Success on Steam is a hockey stick. The biggest games on Steam make so much more money than the games below it financially.
But, what if you want to earn just a “middle-class” income? You just want to make enough money to be comfortable while doing what you love (which is making games for the rest of your life).
If you were hoping to make “median” income, your comfortable lifestyle would be difficult.
In today’s blog I looked at the earnings for every game released in 2019 and I found that the median game earned just $1,136 lifetime.
The following is a graph of every game that released in 2019 and their gross estimated revenue.. Note that the Y-axis is log scale so the disparity between games at the top and the bottom are even more stark.
What percentile is middle income?
I have been defining clear benchmarks so indies can have a better sense of what is normal and what is out of the ordinary. I came up with the following basic tiers to classify gross revenue that can be earned on Steam:
Bronze: $0 – $10,000 (game is mostly ignored, probably didn’t get 10 reviews)
Silver: $10,001 – $249K (better, but still way below Steam minimum visibility thresholds)
Gold: $250K – $999K (Steam featuring begins)
Diamond: $1 Million+ (healthy revenue)
I created these earning tiers because they mirror how the Steam algorithm treats your game. The major fulcrum is between silver and gold. In my experience in working with clients, once your game earns somewhere around $250,000, the Steam algorithm starts to show you in more places and you can maybe ask Valve for some special featuring. My gold tier is a big bucket from $250K-$999,999 and the more you earn in that bucket the more visibility you will get on Steam.
So where do these games like on the 2019 graph I showed above?
A game that earns $10,000 gross, lifetime revenue would be in the 68th percentile (shown above with the bronze medal.) That means that game did better than ALMOST 3/4 of all games on Steam. Yet, I still consider it an underperforming game. This industry is HARD.
I mentioned that the visibility fulcrum is at $250,000. That is what I consider the difference between a silver and a gold game. $250,000 happens at 91.5%.
To have a diamond tier game, you have to earn more than 96% of all games released on steam. You are basically the top 4%.
When does Steam Pay attention to you?
Indies always say they wish Steam were curated. I think what they mean is that there is some sane human being that you could pitch your game to and they would realize the brilliance of your idea and your craft and genius and they would turn around and feature you on the front page so your game could earn millions.
Here is the thing… Steam actually IS curated…but only AFTER you prove that your game can earn money.
It reads “When selecting products to fill these front-page promotional slots, we consider games of all price points and genres.“
HOWEVER, Valve recently edited this documentation. In the beginning of 2022 they had this statement:
“When selecting titles to fill these front-page promotional slots, we try to be as fair as possible and select titles that we feel customers are most interested in and will result in the most happy customers. While there aren’t strict rules, as a base guideline we tend to focus on the top 10-20% selling games on Steam that are positively reviewed and have otherwise proven to be successful.”
But if you look at this latest version of the same page you can see they took out the 10-20% part.
Why? Well if I look at the 2019 estimates, the top 20% (aka 80th percentile) of games earned an estimated ~$34,000. The top 10% of games (aka 90th percentile) earned ~$198,000.
As I said before, in my experience working for clients, I know Valve doesn’t even consider you for front page featuring unless you are at LEAST in the $250K-$300K range.
My hunch is that whoever wrote this documentation had never actually looked at how lopsided Steam revenue is. Saying “We only look at the top 20%” sounds exclusive, but when you actually do the math, that is not much money. In the latest updates, the technical writer behind the text decided to make it a bit more ambiguous because otherwise you, reading this article could say, “Hey VALVE! My $34,000-earning game is actually in the 20th percentile, CONSIDER ME”
- It is very very hard to make money in this industry.
- Start small. Expect to earn in the 80th percentile or less (aka $34,000).
- Don’t put big long term bets on earning more than a couple thousand dollars at the start.
- Make more games. Your first few games will underperform, but success builds as you learn more about the Steam customer base. I documented how the developers behind Peglin (see Peglin blog here) and Dome Keeper (see Dome Keeper article here) released 80th percentile games before they released their 99th percentile games. Almost nobody achieves success with their first game.
- When you are researching genres, use tools like VGInsights to look at the types of games that are in the 50th, 80th, 90th, percentile. Can you confidently make games that good? This will calibrate your expectations when setting budgets and sales projections.
Details about this graph
Here is my methodology behind the 2019 article featured in this article.
- The graph and the data in this blog comes from Video Games Insights. You can use the tool to filter by year, tags, game price, and a bunch of other factors.
- I only graphed 2019 because this was the first year after Valve made some major visibility changes to the algorithm where they greatly suppressed games in the lowest earning tiers.
- This graph does not include Free to Play games because we can’t estimate revenue. So every game I graphed costs at least $1.
- I didn’t graph games in the most recent year (2021) because games earn money over several years. Those top earners in 2019 did free content updates, got front page featuring by negotiating with Valve, and appeared in multiple summer and winter sales. They have just been around long enough to earn a lot of money. So 2019 is a nice balance between representing the contemporary Valve algorithm, and having enough time on the market to earn money and make my estimates more relevant.