With the Cambridge Analytica scandal still roiling, Silicon Valley companies have collectively just discovered that privacy is something they care about. Valve, which owns the Steam gaming service that dominates PC game distribution, has announced a new set of privacy changes that give users more control over their profiles, and a greater ability to hide what other people see in them. Unfortunately, one side effect of these changes means the end of the Steam Spy service.
Valve describes the new policy changes as follows:
You can now select who can view your profile’s “game details”; which includes the list of games you have purchased or wishlisted, along with achievements and playtime. This setting also controls whether you’re seen as “in-game” and the title of the game you are playing.
Additionally, regardless of which setting you choose for your profile’s game details, you now have the option to keep your total game playtime private. You no longer need to nervously laugh it off as a bug when your friends notice the 4,000+ hours you’ve put into Ricochet.
Valve has also notified users that it’s working on a new “invisible” mode that will allow people to hide being online while still having the option to send and receive messages. Such changes are a welcome adjustment to overall user privacy, but there’s a price to be paid for them. While Valve doesn’t actually tell people about this change in its blog posts on privacy, everyone’s game library has been made private by default. But because user game libraries are now hidden by default, there’s no longer any way for services like Steam Spy to build a third-party profile of which people own which games.
Steam Spy has been quite useful if you’re in the business of reporting on video games. Its reports serve as a way to monitor whether a game is becoming more or less popular, or to track the impact of reduced prices on sales figures. Sergey Galyonkin, who founded Steam Spy in 2015 and is currently Director of Publishing Strategy at Epic Games, has said the changes leave him no choice but to stop collecting data. PCGamesN spoke to other devs about the changes; the apparently near-universal opinion was that the loss of the service will impact them as well. Developers apparently used Steam Spy data to gauge how well titles that catered to specific niches performed over time.
Of course, one criticism of Steam Spy is that Valve’s Steam API was never intended to be used to generate sales data. Its figures aren’t always a great mechanism for judging sales, and a Valve-provided service could do the job better — if Valve had even the slightest amount of interest in providing one. (According to Galyonkin, Valve’s contract with developers forbids the sharing of sales information with third parties).
It isn’t clear if this shutdown is being driven by the same Facebook/Cambridge Analytica issues, the advent of the General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR) in Europe, or something internal. Nor are we sorry to see companies putting privacy front and center. It’s unfortunate that services like Steam Spy won’t be allowed to exist going forward. But it seems a small price to pay for winning back even a few inches of ground from corporate attacks on the very concept of privacy.
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