In light of Internet and social-media privacy landing at the top of major news outlets this week, another major online service announced its own privacy-policy updates on Tuesday. The latest change comes from Steam, the Western world's largest online PC game seller. According to Steam's creators at Valve, an updated settings panel will soon let gamers more clearly decide how their use of the service is communicated to approved friends and the public at large.
Within hours of this announcement, one company confirmed the policy change's collateral damage. Steam Spy, the world's most comprehensive game ownership and play estimator available to the public, announced that it "won't be able to operate anymore" thanks to Valve's official policy change.
"Valve just made a change to their privacy settings, making games owned by Steam users hidden by default," the site's operators announced on its official Twitter account. "Steam Spy relied on this information being visible by default." In answering questions from fans, Steam Spy creator Sergey Galyonkin suggested that the site will only remain as an "archive" from here on out.
From Gauge to Spy to goodbye
Indeed, Steam's new private-by-default setting is the kind of proactive, data-protective move that sites like Facebook have faced repeated scrutiny about over the past decade. However, as of press time, we could not confirm exactly how these updated settings will work, thanks to the service's "edit privacy settings" page currently appearing blank. (This can be found in the Steam interface by selecting the word "profile" under the menu that appears when mousing over your username.)
If you've seen Steam Spy mentioned at Ars Technica in the past, that's for good reason. The service launched in April 2015, nearly a year to the day that Ars senior gaming editor Kyle Orland published his extensive, data-sampling "Steam Gauge" feature to measure both game ownership and playtime estimates based on the huge sampling size afforded by Steam's default privacy settings. As Orland wrote in 2014:
The core of our data comes from the individual profile pages on Valve’s SteamCommunity.com social portal, such as this one for yours truly. Prominent on each of these public pages, again just a click away, is a list of every game that Steam users have registered to their accounts. This page also lists how many hours they’ve played for each of those titles.
Orland's work combined that public data with tried-and-true data-sampling techniques. Ars estimated that the resulting numbers would "generate a margin of error of only 0.33 percent from the actual numbers, statistically." Steam Spy carried our data-scraping work forward, with attribution to Orland, while issuing similar caveats to our own: that the numbers could be skewed particularly by "free weekend" promotions and volatile information regarding more recent game launches.
Even with those caveats, as Orland wrote at the time, "the site represents an invaluable resource for anyone interested in demystifying the usually opaque world of game sales stats." Without tools like Steam Spy, anybody hoping for clear sales data about video games sold in the West won't have many places to turn. Monthly game sales charts from firms like NPD dried up years ago, so stat hunters will largely be stuck picking through official announcements from publicly traded companies.
Valve pointed out that Steam will also receive a long, long, -awaited "invisible" function for Steam's online-status toggle, which will allow players to actively communicate with Steam friends while hiding from the general public, and that it will also specifically let players hide both game ownership and gameplay time counts from friends. The company explained that Tuesday's changes came "directly from user feedback," which Steam Spy founder Sergey Galyonkin questioned via his site's Twitter feed: "They said it was by users feedback which makes me as a person born in the Soviet Union very suspicious :)"
After Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney applauded Valve's privacy-minded policy change, Galyonkin responded with his own opinion on why so much data was open on Steam in the first place: "This was always a compromise between being able to play with other people and privacy," he wrote in response. "It seems they moved towards privacy now."
We have sent Galyonkin questions about the policy change and will update this report with any response.