Post feature RSS Breaking down Steam for developers

An article with plenty overall information regarding how Steam works for the consumers, and some insights on how to use that as a developer.

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Ok, everyone knows Steam is the way to go when trying to publish a PC game. But how exactly does it work? Besides being just a store, Steam is a complex system, with a complex community. There're also outside factors that can be used to greatly increase the chances of success withing a game release.

To be honest, I'm not a game developer, but as an avid Steam user, I'd like to share some overall information about points to consider when trying to sell a game, that hopefully may give some insights to those who don't have such information!

Basically all the topics may be common knowledge for lots of players, but since some developers may not be active on Steam as users, I guess it's a nice chance to fill those gaps and understand more variables in play.

I tried to cover a lot of ground, and I'm not sure if I skipped anything, but I may expand it later. Please keep in mind the division in sections is purely didactic, as most things are related to each other.

Steam Trading Cards


What is it?

Basically, it's a meta-game on the Steam platform, the very heart of their gamification system. The cards are collectable items that will drop on a fixed number for the owners of that game when the game is running, and the user may either sell that cards on the market for other users, or collect a complete set of cards and use them to create a badge on their profile.

More details about what it is can be found here: Steam Trading Cards and STC FAQ.

How to make it work

There's a process of submiting/applying to have STC on your game as a developer, where you must create images and texts for everything related to it: backgrounds, emotes, badges and the cards themselves, both normal and foil versions.

Valve will probably have to check it manually, and if it's approved, your cards may be available on a batch sometime later.


Many games may thrive or not based on this, specially cheaper games. For a buyer, having trading cards on a game means he'll get something extra from the game, that will ultimately be converted in either Steam Wallet (which would actually reduce the virtual price of the game), or some extra that has some value for the person: badges on their profile, XP for their profile which can increase their profile level, and also gives emoticons, backgrounds and cupons - and during big Steam sales, also give cards from that sale.

Each time one of these items is sold on the community market, 10% of the brute value goes to the publisher, and 5% goes to Valve.

The value of a card can go as low as $0.03 per card, but depending on several factors, and go up to some dollars for a single card. The final value may vary depending on if your game has been bundled or not, price, art of the cards/badges/wallpapers/emoticons, and mostly supply-and-demand.

Also, for now, as STC only drops when your game process is running, it'll also increase the concurrent amount of players, so you'll get more visibility. Mind you many users run programs in the background to make Steam think your game is running only to farm cards they're bound to receive.

The DON'Ts

Some developers recently have started distributing lots of Steam keys for their games for free, so their profit would come indirectly from sales of cards and derived items. Valve has put an end on this, banishing said games and publishers, and the cards ended up being unsellable on the market.

Other developers actually activated the keys themselves on fake steam accounts, and tried to get profit from those fake accounts and so on. Valve also figured it out and the outcome was the same as of the other situation.

Also, many devs started releasing fake games, reskins of their games and so on, only to release them quickly for a very small price, where people would buy them to get some profit from selling cards, and the devs income would be mostly from the card sales tax. Valve is fighting this soon, explained bellow in The future title.

The DOs

First of all, consider adding it to your game whenever possible. It'll add extra value to it for everyone, directly or indirectly, that may help sales, reward owners and also increase profit with the fees.

Games with trading cards are often bought by collectors during sales if their price is really low. Bundled games with cards are also more valued than games without cards.

And remember: it's not only about the cards and the guaranteed tax gains. A very cool profile background, or an useful and funny emoticon, can have even higher value for the community, that will turn into a even higher profit, so think it through!

The future

The system is up since 2013, and will also soon suffer many changes to reduce the amount of garbage data that the system ends up feeding. More details can be read here: Changes to Trading Cards.

Basically, Steam will not allow devs to get cards in their game so easily - the game will have to prove itself it's a real game, and not a asset flip, so it may take sometime to be ready.

For the players, it looks like they'll get the cards automatically once a game has cards enabled, so it won't feed the system with fake played hours as well.


achievementsWhat is it?

Achievements are part of a Steamworks integration that tracks specific feats achieved on your game, and can be used to reward the players, having him acknowledge he has hit a specific milestone of your game, done something valuable and so on. Basically, it's another way to reward time spent playing your game.

Technical details about how to implement them can be found here: Steamworks Stats and Achievements.

How to make it work

You must plan what kind of achievements you want to create, and define a number for them. Some games have achievements about stats, and have different degrees for the same statistic (example, kill 10 of that enemy, kill 100 of that enemy, and so on).

Other achievements may be tied to reaching points on a campaign. Ending a chapter, finishing the game, are all common sense achievements.

You can also set achievements for different paths taken on your game, in case your game allows different choices. Or even finishing the game on different difficulties. That way, one playthrough won't get the user all achievements.

The DON'Ts

Don't create unachievable achievements. Some of them can be quite hard to get, but they never must be something impossible to attain, or that depend on other external factors. Once I saw a game that required the user to create a map on the editor of that game, publish it, and have 500 players play it. Within a week, I saw lots of topics complaining about that, as the game barely had 10 concurrent players, for example. Remember, a few players are completionists, and will attempt to get every single achievement of your game, and if they can't get one, it'll be messy.

There're currently a few games on Steam that are basically achievement hoarders, features over 400 achievements, and rewarding the user with lots of achievements at once for doing almost nothing. While a few cheap games have being doing this tactic, by offering interesting icons for their achievements that users may find use on their profile to create sentences and all, it's some sort of abuse of the system, and may be punished by Valve someday. But some users love that, of course.

The DOs

Create many easy achievements, make a few harder ones, but nothing impossible to get. Users can track how many players have an specific achievements, so for completinists, rarer achievements that they get are more valuable.

Respect the context, but be creative: the name of your achievements can also strike a different impact on the user when he receives it. If you make a nice pun about it, rewarding the user for something unlikely, it can have a nice extra effect.

Make the best of the images: remember the images can be displayed on the user profile. There's no need to overuse it, but being creative here can add even more value to said achievements, and consequently to your game as a whole.

Steam Early Access

earlyaccessWhat is it?

It's a game tag that works as a soft launch for a title, that means it's still under development and not a fully finished product.

For a developer, it's a nice opportunity to interact with the community while the game is being tailored to get extra feedback, while the users are allowed to try the game earlier and participate on the developement themselves.

More details about what it is can be found here: Early Access FAQ.

How to make it work

If you have a working prototype, you may release it earlier as an early access title. It's an oportunity to get some sales earlier, while also having some exposure and getting extra feedback early from your target audience, so it's really invaluable towards the development progress.

To make it work, make sure you have an at least fun prototype, with its core features working, so you can actually justify why your game is in early access, and what's missing for it to be released.

Day-0 roadmaps are fundamental to make the process clear for potential buyers. Some devs have weekly patches, others participate along with the community. Make use of whatever you can, but never give the impression that the development is stale or the game is abandoned!

The DON'Ts

Some titles have been in early access for quite a few years, and are still barebones. Others titles have been abandoned and never released. These cases gave a lot of fear to the community, so many people became skeptical about the whole early access program, that it ended up hurting everyone else.

The DOs

Frequent updates or big and relevant updates. Lots of community interaction. A clear roadmap. That's all, folks!

Community Hub


What is it?

Steam store automatically sets up a Steam Community for your game, which includes Forums and other places for community content to show up.

The main place to care about is the Discussion tab, where you can find a forum.

How to make it work

First of all, visit it frequently. It'll probably be one of the primary places where people will access to ask questions about the game, make complaints, suggestions and bug reports, as well as interact with other players.

You'll be able to create multiple subforums if you want to separate threads by subject, but mind you that it should be intuitive, and often posts will have to be moved between them, as people will instinctively just post in the first session they find.

To not miss any threads, you can hit the button "Subscribe to Forum" located on the right column on all your subforums, which will make steam send you a notification everytime there's a new thread.

The DON'Ts

Don't antagonize the community. Besides ignoring the forums and not moderating them, the most common mistake devs and publishers do is to actually moderate it too harshly, to the point where people are banned for speaking their mind. If you can't handle the community properly, assign someone else to that role. It certainly requires lots of patience, and you have to learn to agree to a certain point with everyone, and the whole goal is to reduce the attrition there, not to increase it.

The DOs

A few pinned topic suggestions:

  • Patch Notes (locked, that only you would post on each update with changelog). Users would be able to subscribe to the topic, so they'd receive updates on each post you did there.
  • FAQ: common issues, what the game features, what it doesn't.
  • Roadmap: what's ahead on development. Specially important for Early Access games.






What is it?

Bundles are basically packages of games that are sold at a large discounted price, usually using popular bundle retailers (list below) as platform for distribution, some of them even contributing partially to charity.

As your game will be put along with other games and bundle prices are low, it certainly increases the chances of your game getting bought, and gives an extra visibility for it.

Most bundles give Steam keys, which developers can generate, and users may redeem said game on Steam directly using them.

How to make it work

Bundling a game have both a positive and negative side to the value of your game, but certainly may add some extra income in the end. There's no perfect formula for this, but I can list a few cases of positive bundling:

If your game is taking too long to get Greenlit, putting your game on a Greenlight Bundle (Groupees do it frequently, sometimes Indie Gala as well, for example) may give some extra exposure, and speed up the Greenlight process.

If your sales are stale, being in a bundle might give some sales, that will give profit directly via the bundle, and indirectly if you have trading cards enabled. That will also give extra exposure.

The DON'Ts

Bundled games are often bought, and sometimes the keys aren't activated. They may be bought to be given to friends (that could be potential buyers), traded around, or even sold in grey market websites, so in the end, it can harm future sales, specially when the base price is high and/or discount during sales are low.

If you put your game on lots of bundles in a short time, the value of your game will be really low, as people won't be able to trade it, and its price on the grey market will be really low.

The DOs

Personally, as a buyer, I think there must be some ethics on bundling. If I buy a game on day-one, and it gets bundled withing a month, I'd feel cheated, for example. So, remember this, respect the early buyers.

Personally, I'd assume 6 months is ok for a bundle if your game is above the $1 tier in a single bundle. Maybe a year later, you can be in the $1 tier in a bundle. There's nothing written in stone here, but there're some ethics regarding this somewhere in between the lines!

Just remember to reflect it the future discounts after your game as been bundled, to also keep the sales on Steam.

Finally, it's something you may or may not do to your game, but should be taken into consideration and studied whenever possible.

Bundle site list


What is it?

A demo is basically a sample of your game that allows the user to experience it without buying it (or resorting to piracy).

How to make it work

Demos behave like full games on Steam, with their own AppID/DepotID, but they have a special setting that hides them in the library when you have the full game already. So basically, you will need an alternate Steam Account to test a demo. Don't worry, Valve suggests that here.

Once your game is in a good shape and polished enough, a demo may be used to allow players to try your game before buying. Some demos are time limited, other demos are just part of a game, with limited character classes and limited levels. You decide what's best. Remember, it's a cake slice, but if it has a cherry on top, it's better, but don't stuff them with it!


What is it?

Any games bought directly from the Steam store allows users to ask for a refund, that will be accepted almost automatically if within the limits.

Refunds can be issued only if the game has been played for less than 2 hours and has been bought within two weeks.

Basically, it's something that may reduce the final sales figure, but it also encourages people to buy it when they wouldn't.

Alternative Stores

What is it?

Besides selling your game on Steam, you may list your game on several stores around, in which you may be able to sell Steam keys for your game.

Basically, these other websites will have a lower cut than Valve, so your profit may be higher for each sale. Also, you'll be giving more choices for the customer, which is always a good thing.

How to make it work

I assume you have to get in touch with those sites to partner with them, provide batches of keys, set pricing, and so on, right?


A few people also may want a DRM-Free version of your game, due to personal taste. Websites like, GOG or even Humble Store may be used for that purpose.

Regional Markets

Besides other huge global stores, remember there're also regional stores around the world!


What is it?

Giving away some copies of your game in raffles are a nice way to get some extra visibility to your game, that automatically starts off as a desirability towards it.

How to make it work

It can be done directly on respected giveaway sites (I'd suggest here on IndieDB, or even on Steamgifts), or using giveaway platforms, or websites/communities around that promotes giveaways.

Press Distribution

What is it?

Having content makes publish videos and written reviews of your game may get extra visibility to your game, so it's a must.

Unfortunately, you'll probably get lots of fake requests of people wanting your game as a freebie.

How to make it work

Set up a Press Kit page on your website. You can set up the original presskit() by Vlambeer, or even set up one here on IndieDB at your game profile.

You may center your requests on a platform such as Woovit, distribute(), YUNOÏA, Keymailer or Terminals by Evolve PR, so that you don't need to verify requests manually.

In case you need to verify a request, a very handy place is the Woovit Database.

Depending on your resources, a PR company can do that for you, reaching content generators, verifying and distributing the keys themselves.

Steam Greenlight (no longer valid)


What is it?

Greenlight is basically a gate that controls the games that can be sold on Steam, and any indie developers will have to go through it before releasing a game at first.

More details about what it is can be found here: About the Greenlight.

How to make it work

Basically, your game will be listed at the Steam Greenlight list of games, and people around the world can find it, check it our, and cast a vote of "Yes, I'd buy this game if it was available".

Top voters from time to time are then considered Greenlit, and may be released on Steam as the developers see fit.

The DON'Ts

Sometime ago, some developers offered around guaranted keys for the game if people voted for them on Greenlight, to speed up the greenlit process. Valve got aware of this, and forbit this kind of thing, where basically the developer is buying votes for the game. It worked before, it won't work now.

The DOs

While your game is on Greenlight, it'll get some exposure to a limited group of people who actually may use the system to find new games, searching for gems and stuff.

On your greenlight page, you may make announcements, people may post comments and start discussions, so you may get some nice touch with the community for starters.

If it's taking forever to get Greenlit and you want to speed it up, you may resort to bundling your game in a Greenlight bundle, as most buyers from said bundle will certainly vote for your game to get their Steam key. It IS a way of buying votes, but it's still allowed, as it's rather indirect. More on this on the Bundle section.

The future

The system is up for about 5 years, and this year was announced that it's actually going to end. More info here: Evolving Steam and Changes coming to Steam Greenlight.

It'll be replaced by something called Steam Direct (targeted to arrive Spring 2017).

That's it! Sorry if there're any grammar error, as I'm not a native speaker sometimes it's hard to write stuff properly. I sincerely hope those stuff have some usage for you!


This is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much for this!

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Fantastic read :) very informative for first-time game developers

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