Author’s Note (April 2021): Hey y’all. Even though this article is years old at this point, it still gets a lot of views. Despite it’s age, much of it might still be valid and help you find the data you’re after. If you decide to read it, know that it was written in the world of 2015 and the methods I used then might not be the best ones now. If you spot something that is wrong or misleading, I’d love to hear about it. I’m leaving it up for now but if at a point in the future it is clear that it’s no longer relevant, I’ll pull it down. Happy reading!
Author’s Note (August 2018): This article was originally posted in October 2015. While some things have changed since then, there’s still a lot in this article that remains accurate today. So I am posting it in its entirety here on Medium.
According to Valve, there are over 125 million players on Steam. The platform has been a hit since it began allowing third-party releases in 2005, gaining players at a steady rate over the last 10+ years. 125 million is a lot of players. So who are these players? Which games do they purchase? Which do they play most often? And most importantly, as a game developer, how can you use this information to best inform the games you choose to make?
Defining your target audience
When you’re making a game, an early step in the development process is defining your target audience, in order to better understand who your product serves. How is your game meeting the needs of that audience and providing what they are looking for in a game?
Larger companies often pour lots of time and money into defining their audience for each game, using statistics pulled from market data, and observing focus groups. Marketing departments responsible for well-known IPs (the Sims team did loads of this) often produce prolific amounts of presentations and reports on what players of these games like and dislike. Business, business, business, numbers…
For an aspiring developer, this kind of work sounds somewhat mind-numbing, I realize. Unless you’re in marketing. Then it probably sounds super fun! Either way, my point is that it’s important to at least spend a short amount of time thinking about who you’re making the game for.
“But I’m making it for me!” exclaimed every first-time game designer ever.
Cool. If that’s your goal, and you’re fine with the possibility that no one else will like your game, then forge ahead! I’ve actually met a few people like this throughout my career. They create games simply because it’s fun to do and the games are meaningful to them. It’s art — and they don’t really care if anyone else ever plays them.
(Yes, there’s the possibility that you’ll get lucky and create something massively appealing by just making a game you love. It’s happened. But then again, relying on luck as part of your plan to create the next hit game is sort of like starting your day by saying, “I think I’ll win the lottery today.” It’s not the most realistic goal.)
The majority of game makers out there are in it because they want to create an experience that other humans enjoy. Potentially LOTS of other humans. So if you’re hoping to find an audience that loves your game, you’re going to want to spend time defining who that audience is.
Creating a typical player profile
How do you define your target audience? You can do this by creating a profile that describes a single player; the ideal player of your game. This player profile is used throughout the project lifecycle as criteria for making decisions about development — such as which features you prioritize, your art style, or your main playable character. This profile is sometimes called a Persona.
For example, while working on The Sims Social, our typical player was named “Molly.” Molly was a thirty-something, stay-at-home mom who liked crafts, animals, and romance, and was a moderate spender on casual games. Game features that emphasized collecting, decorating, organizing and socializing were her favorites.
Your player profile should be a good match for your game type, as well as the platform you release on. We knew players like Molly were numerous on Facebook, so we brought The Sims Social to them. I’d like to say we were largely successful, as the game had 16 million players within the first week of release — a data point that speaks mostly about the popularity of the Sims — but it also had 65 million players over its lifetime, something few Facebook games can claim. The Sims Social was a good fit for the Facebook audience at the time.
What does the typical Steam user look like?
If you’re planning on launching your game on Steam, you’re going to want to make sure it’s a good fit for the players there. Steam players are a segment of PC gamers, so let’s start with that. What does the PC gaming audience look like?
- 49% female, 51% male
- Average age is 38
- More than half buy games digitally
- Average household income is $69k
The PC gaming audience is made up of three distinct segments of players: Casual, Light Core, and Core.
- 56% of PC gaming audience
- Play non-core games
- Mostly female
Light Core Segment
- 24% of PC gaming audience
- Play core games for less than five hours a week
- Mostly male
Heavy Core Segment
- 20% of PC gaming audience
- Play core games for five or more hours per week
- Mostly male
- Spend twice as much on games as casual segment
Note: Core game genres include Action/Adventure, Fighting, Flight, Massively Multi-Player (MMO), Racing, Real Time Strategy, Role-Playing, Shooter, or Sports
If you’re interested in reading more statistics about PC gamers, see this.
PC gaming stats are helpful, but are really too general to help us develop our target audience description. So what else can we learn about Steam players based on the information freely available on the web? On the Steam & Game Stats site, Valve freely shares information about concurrent players.
Players can also browse a list of the 99 most popular games and how many players are currently playing each one. Browsing this list can tell you a lot about what kind of players are using Steam.
Note: This information was compiled mid-day October 18, 2015 (when this article was written).
Top 10 Steam Games (most players)
- Dota 2
- Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
- Team Fortress 2
- ARK: Survival Evolved
- Sid Meier’s Civilization V
- Garry’s Mod
- Football Manager 2015
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
- Grand Theft Auto V
I’ve kept an eye on the leaderboard for the past 3 days and the top 10 games have remained consistent. Sometimes they pass each other up in the list but the top 10 has remained the top 10, no matter what order they were in.
So let’s start building our player description. If we just look at the top 3, we can say that a huge percentage of players on Steam enjoy competitive (PVP) experiences. Dota 2, Counter-Strike and Team Fortress are all flavors of the same experience; a highly competitive, fast-paced team arena game.
ARK: Survival Evolved is slightly different than the first three, although I think it is a near perfect offering for the Steam audience, and that’s why it’s consistently found in the top 10. We’ll come back to that later.
Based on the top 4 games, I’d say that a large percentage of players on Steam are Core gamers (using the statistics listed above). They are a solid group of gamers that love a challenge, thrive on competition and don’t mind a game being punishing or difficult. Features like achievements, elaborate upgrade systems, or even perma-death can work with this kind of player. They are willing to put the time in to learn complex skills and feel rewarded by attaining mastery within the game, despite the difficulty.
Now… The outlier here in the #5 slot is Civilization V, a turn-based strategy game. What’s it doing in this list? From my point of view, the popularity of this game is largely in the IP. I could also point out that Civ V has a high replay value; it gives players a lot of autonomy in deciding how they play (such as providing multiple win states). Additionally, the game been regularly updated with expansion and DLC packs over the years since its launch.
However, I’d say the biggest reason Civ V still successful is largely because it is a great game with an active multiplayer and modding community. A multiplayer game that allows player-created content (modding) is one of the best recipes for building a dedicated community that will stick by your game for years.
Just for fun, I logged into Warcraft III. Over 8000 players are still playing games on the old battle.net, despite the fact that all the games there are well over 10 years old. Multiplayer + modding = dedicated community. Yes, I really have Warcraft III installed on my PC. Don’t judge. ;)
9 of the top 10 games on Steam are multiplayer games. Looking over the list of 99, you’ll find lots more. And it’s true, making a high quality multiplayer game is the best way for your game to find success and longevity.
Let’s take a look at the rest of the 99 top games and see what other trends we can find.
It’s a mad world
Aside from multiplayer, there are many titles that can be described as violent or dark in nature. These games usually rely on things like apocalypse, war, survival, modern-day crime, or darker fantasy themes so that the violence makes sense within that particular world. Games like:
- Payday 2
- The Witcher 3
- Fallout: New Vegas
- Left 4 Dead 2
- Saints Row IV
- Dead Island
- Arma 2
And so on…
So, zombies. ZOMBIES! They’re everywhere!!! Seriously. If there’s something that Steam players are loving right now, it’s zombie apocalypse games. (Hint: Don’t make a zombie apocalypse game right now. We’ve probably hit market saturation on that.)
While one could argue that a large percentage of all video games are somewhat violent, I still think it’s worth pointing out because violent games are not popular for all audiences. So this means that the Steam top 99 reveals things about gender, specifically — players of games in this list are much more likely to be male.
And the available stats I’ve found back this up — only between 4–18% of visitors to the Steam homepage are female. Based on this data alone it looks like the Steam audience is generally Core and Light Core players. I doubt this is a surprise to anyone that regularly uses Steam.
There are a few other general statements that can be made about the top 99:
— Strategy is a common thread, with several RTS and turn-based games in the list
— Sports games are numerous
— Shooters, and lots of ‘em
— Simulation games are surprisingly popular (Players that enjoy realistic simulation games are typically a small segment of gamers that are notably hardcore in their preferences, so it’s interesting that they seem to be here in larger numbers.)
What about top purchases?
I realize that using the top 99 current most played games may not be the most effective method to determine the Steam audience simply because it’s not going to be representative of all game types. This list will always be biased towards multiplayer and epic (content-heavy) experiences because those games simply provide the best opportunity for continued play — where a smaller, single player game will not.
In other words, you could create an awesome, high quality single player game, with only a few hours of gameplay, and it could sell tons of copies on Steam, yet it won’t stay in the top games list simply because it doesn’t have evergreen content. It has a shorter lifecycle — players play it once, then move on.
For that reason, I think it’s worth taking a look at top purchases on Steam as well, to see how the top played games match up with the top purchased games. This isn’t data that Steam releases, so I’ve dug up an approximate list that was compiled by SteamSpy and posted here in April of this year.
If you want more current data, go to SteamSpy, then click on TOP GAMES along the top, and then sort by the OWNERS column. Note that this won’t give you top purchases overall, it only shows data from the last two weeks about owners of the games. This means it’s possible that the numbers shown for owners are vastly different than actual purchases. So keep this in mind if you’re using SteamSpy as a data source.
Comparing our two lists doesn’t actually reveal anything too surprising. The games on each may differ some, but the themes called out above remain constant.
While there are definitely some smaller games on the list, and even a few indie games (woohoo!), the most important thing to take away here would be that if you want to have a player community actively engaging with your game for years after its release, it needs to be multiplayer, support some form of user-generated content, or both.
That’s not the only way to find success on Steam, though — there are definitely examples of a standalone, single player game that goes against the general trends and has gone on to do really well. If you haven’t played The Stanley Parable, go play it. Immediately. But then remember that games like this are few and far between on Steam and if you want your game to have this kind of success, it needs to be good, really good, and provide a unique, compelling play experience.
Hours played & games owned
So the last thing we should take a look at is the total weekly play time of an average Steam player, and how many games they own.
Steam Spy reports that the typical user on Steam plays games for slightly over 11 hours per week, on average. That puts the Steam audience well into the Core bracket of PC gamers.
In addition, the average user owns about 10 games. We can’t be sure if these games are free to play or paid, however. So let’s make an estimate that at least half of the games owned were paid for. Paying for even 5 games is significant, and allows us to say that the average user is a moderate spender, since they’ve used Steam enough to validate spending money on games at least 5 times, if not more.
This information, combined with the popular genres and themes above, can combine to make a useful player profile that defines the Steam target audience.
The Steam player profile
So after reviewing the top games on Steam, the most purchased games, and finding out how much players tend to play per week, here’s what I’ve got:
- Core gamer, plays PC games for more than 11 hours per week
- Finds challenges / high difficulty level appealing
- Achiever, enjoys mastery of a skill or system
- Enjoys sandbox/open world, content-rich experiences
- Enjoys realistic or glorified violence (Also, zombies)
- Enjoys competition
- Preferred genres: FPS, Strategy, Action/Adventure, Survival, Competitive Multiplayer
- Moderate spender; will pay for perceived value
Now that we have our Steam player profile, what’s next?
If you’re planning on making a game and releasing on Steam, you can use the information in the profile to help you make decisions about your game no matter which stage of development you’re currently in. In the beginning, it can help you come up with a targeted theme, or confirm you’re doing the right thing by sticking with a popular genre. Later in development, it can help your team decide which features to prioritize in the schedule.
— Making a farming and cooking game? Steam probably isn’t your ideal platform. Try iOS.
— Trying to decide which feature is more important: a complicated weapon-crafting system, or a detailed character creation system? Go with the crafting system, no contest.
— Thinking of developing a zombie apocalypse game? Really. Come up with something else. Anything else.
Crafting the Ideal Experience
So let’s come back to ARK: Survival Evolved. If I were to sit down to design a game for players on Steam, it would look like ARK. The game is the embodiment of every single point in the Steam player profile. It puts players in a hardcore, challenging environment where they need to fight to survive. It’s an open, multiplayer world with interesting, deep systems to master. You can impact the world around you in a meaningful way, and there’s a thriving PVP community. Plus: dinosaurs you can ride!
When I first learned about ARK, my first thought was: ARK is what Minecraft wants to be when it grows up.
Imagine the Minecraft audience. Then imagine them getting older and wanting a more complex, more hardcore experience, yet one that gives them all the fun aspects they loved when they were playing Minecraft: multiplayer, creativity, building, crafting, open world, public/private servers, etc.
It’s a fantastic audience to tap into, and this game is exactly what they are looking for. The numbers don’t lie: the game sold 2 million copies while still in Early Access!
Continue your research
If you’re interested in doing more research for yourself about Steam players and which games are most successful, here are a few places you can do that.
Valve’s Steam Stats — Check out how many players are currently online and which games are the most played.
Steam Charts — If you want to dig into the stats for a specific game, check out this site, which allows you to see over a year’s worth of data about how many players are playing any particular game.
SteamSpy — This is by far my favorite place for checking out what Steam players are doing. SteamSpy takes information from the Valve API along with data automatically gathered from Steam profiles and combines it into a great tool for game developers. One of the most useful tools is that you can see and estimate of how many people own a specific game. I also love the integration with Twitch and YouTube statistics.
Ars Technica sampled public data to estimate sales and gameplay info for every Steam game, and shared their results, as well as in the follow-up article that addresses some concerns.
Read Some things you should know about Steam if you’re interested in looking at some interpretation of the available statistics, including information on players by country and a gender breakdown.