As the largest source of downloadable computer games in the West, Steam has received huge criticism for just about every single one of its practices. One of the less controversial choices is one of the most dated: the “Steam Library” tab, where you can find and load the games you’ve already purchased. What could be sensational about that?
But if you’re interested in usability, this is perhaps the most offensive element of Steam. This interface, which revolves around a collapsible plain-text list, has remained the same since Steam’s launch in 2003. It may have made sense in the early days of Steam, but anyone who owns more than 50 games – a reasonable number after 16 years, between standard games and insanely discounted games – know that this interface does more to hide your oldies-but-goodies than expose them.
The 2012 launch of a TV-friendly “Big Picture” mode did not solve this problem; if anything, the (entirely optional) oversized icons and text exacerbated the problem. But with the PC game launch space starting to heat up fast, Steam has finally delivered on a promise to smooth out the game launch interface. Behold: the brand new Steam library, available as an opt-in beta on Thursday, September 17th.
The story is largely told by the gallery above. It contains one snapshot of the existing Steam Library interface and is further loaded with the upcoming changes to the interface. The core concept has been left somewhat intact. A left sidebar is filled with collapsible lists of games, and a wider, right-hand interface provides information about certain games.
But the original interface always devoted the right part to a single column about a single game. “Friends who own this game” was the top item, then achievements, then a plain text news dump. If you don’t select a particular game, this space now becomes a home for “shelves” or regularly updated bumps in news and activity about games you already own. You can remove these if you want, but the default interface has a few handy sorting mechanisms: games with recent news updates, games you’ve played recently, and games your friends have recently played.
Below that are your own custom “collections” of games by default. A static collection can be built by dragging and dropping game names into their respective collection box. This mimics the existing, hidden option to create “categories” in your games list. More interesting is the dynamic collection option, which allows users to type and select any descriptive tag they want (“single-player”, “RPG”, “turn-based”, “split-screen multi-screen”, etc.) from all matching games in your library. Dynamic collections automatically add new purchases that match the criteria you set.
You can still disable the new 3D animated decorations via a “low performance” toggle.
Note that none of this is designed to push games you don’t already have. The “Shop” tab is a click away if you want purchase recommendations. Steam Library, on the other hand, remains focused on software you already have (although that can include game makers announcing paid DLC or even sequels and other software).
And yes, once you select a game, a slightly more familiar looking interface will appear. As before, these game-specific lists contain relevant news updates and information about your friends’ game. But now everything is rearranged in a more logical way. If there is a major live event, tournament, sale or other temporary announcement, it may appear at the very top at the discretion of the developer. Then a few more game news updates, and then a split column shows more relevant information: uploads from friends related to the game, personal achievements, trading cards, and a new “post-game summary” view that wraps up the gameplay details of not only your most recent session, but also from the past week, the past month and more.
You can’t see it in the gallery, but many parts of the interface include new visual details, such as a depth of field effect when you expand a news story and some 3D animated icons when you mouse over achievements and trading cards. It’s all subtle, pretty things. Valve reps say they built this Steam Library update with low-end hardware in mind, but users can still disable the new blooms via a “low performance” toggle, if they wish (especially to conserve battery power). of the laptop).
More newscasts, more events… and more changes to the Steam store?
Valve also announced new tools for game developers to take advantage of this update, which goes live later today (presumably to fill the Steam Library beta with flashy update messages, once it goes live in nearly two weeks). The primary initiative is called “Steam Events,” which allows game makers and publishers to schedule game-related announcements and flesh them out with video and streaming embeds, Steam store items, and even a pipeline to import translation-related text.
In related news, Valve also announced plans to completely overhaul Steam’s syndication of magazine and blog content. The company told Ars Technica:
Each [press] outlet could appear for players who want to follow that outlet and receive that news. We need a system that can support any language. All six current outlets [in the existing Steam Library] only serve a certain audience, and they only speak English. Soon every point of sale will be able to show up there based on who follows them, and then we can support different languages.
During the announcement presentation, Valve acknowledged its concerns that the Steam Library system may be played by enterprising game makers posting a barrage of Steam events. “For each player, Steam Library posts are personalized based on what they play a lot, recently and in the past,” said Valve developer Alden Kroll. “An update to a game that has not yet been played will be less likely to appear. We are implementing speed limiting to prevent six updates of the same game from being released at the same time. Still, we want feedback from players on this.”
The announcement event was all about the Steam library, as opposed to the Steam store. But Kroll did say that the two systems are inherently intertwined. “A lot of what we do with the new library will inform a lot of changes in the Store both visually and structurally. A lot of that will inform the next steps of Steam Store.”
Update: Shortly after this article went live, Valve posted its own announcement. The company has yet to confirm how users will sign up for this beta redesign on the 17th, although it will likely work like other Steam beta updates, which can be toggled through “settings”, “account”, “beta participation” .