Steam, Valve’s online video game store, once got flak for being too hard to break into as a game maker. Unless you were a major publisher or invited to sell games on Steam because of some critical buzz, you were unlikely to be next to the Fallouts and Civilizations of the PC gaming world.
Today, it’s customers who have struggled to make their way into a burgeoning, indie-friendly Steam, as initiatives like Greenlight and Early Access have exploded the storefront with content, including a whopping 1,300 new games in the past 9 months. To address this issue, rather than introduce a slow trickle of search and filter tools, Valve unveiled a massive “discovery” update for Steam on Tuesday. It’s possibly the service’s biggest visual update in years, and it combines ideas like third-party curation and more intense filters to push new content to gamers.
The overhaul is an improvement by default, but we tried out the features with a bigger question: Has Steam positioned itself as an all-in-one walled garden for computer game discovery?
Define “not interested”
We loaded up the latest build of Steam and found a homepage interface that takes a few design cues from Steam’s Big Picture mode, namely by using more shades of blue and using a more rounded font throughout the storefront. Aside from those improved aesthetics, the homepage isn’t too structurally different from what we’ve seen in the past, with a gigantic series of promotional, scrolling images leading the page, followed by various boxes such as “New to Steam” and “Recently Updated” and the giant tabbed menu of games divided by novelty, sales, and so on.
The first major difference is tucked away in the box section, made obvious by a large, brown ribbon icon that says “Explore your queue.” Clicking on this will take users through a dozen major sequences of recent game entries, along with a reason why they’re in the queue. However, the games in ours tended to be “popular” and “bestselling” games, as opposed to “all your friends have this” or “you spent many hours playing a similar game”, so it felt like a clunkier version of the giant – icon array at the top of the homepage – which, as it turns out, will always contain a few of your queue games anyway.
Interestingly, game store listings now come with an “I’m not interested” button, which prevents a game from ever appearing in that giant array of icons and other promotional areas of the store. Steam even goes so far as to say that clicking it won’t affect automatic recommendations sent to you, so don’t expect Steam to help you blacklist anything that resembles, say, Goat Simulator. Our biggest complaint was that after browsing through a queue, Steam would clear the list. We wanted to double check what games we had seen as we were browsing our catalog style but no dice.
The homepage also features a new block dedicated to curators, and these are special recommendation pages that can be created by any Steam “community group” mod. Individual users have been able to post ratings and recommendations in the past, but this system streamlines the ability to actively follow a list of recommendations, browse someone’s past favorites, or get an update when they add a new tip .
The curator page is already sorted by “top curators”, meaning those with the most followers within Steam (as opposed to Twitter or YouTube follower numbers). Clicking on the curator page created by Rock Paper Shotgun or TotalBiscuit brings up a list of games with short review taglines. If you know exactly which blogger or outlet you want curated, you’re good to go; the pages’ recommendations are clean and informative.
However, if you blindly jump into the curatorial system, you’re a bit more limited. Curators cannot tag themselves with genres or tags; instead, you can search for a curator by name only, and clicking through 216 pages of curators (as of this writing) seems like a daunting proposition. (For fun, we typed in “Nintendo” to see what would pop up, and it brought up a page titled “Nintendo ®”, even though it wasn’t an official Nintendo page in any way.)
If you’re more curious about a curator, you can click through to the community group page, where you’ll find other legacy Steam features such as announcements, forums, and a calendar. You’d expect this kind of page to go further, drawing from RSS or Twitter feeds, but the content is limited to Steam-specific content – most of which take a few clicks to find, rather than neatly tucked into the brand-spanking new curator pages to land, no less.
As a result, the admin pages are nice to look at, but they’re too walled in to replace more convenient “what’s new today” systems like RSS readers. We can only hope that Steam adds the ability to customize the curation pages with more text elements, links, and other ways to help genre-specific curators praise their favorite niches.
Is there a tag for “tagging”?
The most interesting thing we found was the homepage’s biggest addition, though it’s somewhat hidden: an endless scroll. After you’ve scrolled quite a bit, past the usual tabs for new/featured/upcoming games, you’ll see a ton of targeted recommendations. At first they are a bit generic; Steam thinks you like action games, so it includes a few tagged “action”.
Pretty quickly, Steam loads recommendations, lots of them, based on games on your wishlist or games you’ve played for many hours. In our case, the results contained a few welcome surprises and reminders of things we almost forgot. This was a much more comfortable sorting and browsing method than having to click through a bunch of queued store pages, especially since we could scroll back if we wanted reminders of something we’d scrolled past.
If you see an interesting game in this endless scroll, you can click the “find more like this” button to open a page of games that have been similarly tagged by the community at large. Indeed, Steam is now full of tags, and there are a ton of them, ranging from the typical genre labels (“first-person shooter, sandbox”) to straightforward descriptors (“local co-op”, “full controller support”) to some particularly esoteric tags (“beautiful soundtrack”, “difficult”, “local co-op”, “visual novel”, “atmospheric”).
However, Steam does not yet allow users to look at a single, gigantic list of tags. The default browser only lists the main genre ratings and Steam features, so if you want to find something in the “parkour” category, you’ll have to guess that it exists. We think it won’t be long before Valve makes its massive list of tags more easily searchable through the Steam client.
With all these changes in consideration, the most notable thing about this update is that it changes the tone of how games are presented. Gone is the sense that heavily discounted games will rise to the top; instead, Steam wants you to search and browse for a long time until you buy a game they think you want Loveunlike a flash sale title that remains unopened in your library.
But we’re in an era where recommendations are about a larger wave of critical opinion represented by the outstretched arms of social media, and yet Steam relies entirely on Steam-specific input to decide which games are “popular” at any given time . Even worse, with Amazon sinking its nearly billion-dollar teeth into Twitch, it’s hard to imagine Steam integrating with the live-game streaming service, which would be an ideal way for users to stay in the Steam client. and find out more about games they might choose. to buy.
This update is certainly a statement of intent, in that it hopes users will be comfortable sitting in a Steam mall, rather than alt-tabbing around to find game recommendations. That will be doubly important when Steam Machines finally launches next year; the fact that this discovery update hasn’t reached the full-screen “Big Picture” mode indicates that Valve still has work to do. Still, a tag-driven recommendation base and curatorial infrastructure are a great start to providing users with a smarter shopping experience within the Steam client, and we expect many refinements to come.