By John Walker on July 21st, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
Valve can’t win. And Valve always wins. That’s a fair starting point for any discussion about Steam.
From their vastly dominant position, with a concerning grip over the online PC marketplace, they’re both the bane and the boon of PC developers. If Valve makes a decision, you can guarantee that there will be more voices screaming dissent than those declaring joy (alongside those trying to work out how it’s a covert announcement of Half-Life 3). So you can see why they might start to form a habit of making changes, then stuffing wadding in their own mouths, refusing to talk about it. However, I think it’s time for the company to start taking notice of a mistake I think they’re consistently making with their Store page: hiding new games.
As most recently chronicled by Nowhere Studios’ Burak Tezateser, new game releases on Steam are promised “1 million views on the home page when released fully”. So when a game is released, that row of three (increasingly buried) “FEATURED PC GAMES” will randomly pick games from the newly released pool, until one million logged in Steam users have had it shown to them. According to Tezateser, that takes about one hour.
After this point, things get weird. If your game is selling well, Valve will continue to give it prominence. If your game fails to sell well in that apparent first hour, then, well, bye. Do super-well and you could get into that revolving main box at the top. Keep doing super-well and you’ll stay there. It is, without doubt, a self-perpetuating system, where games that are selling will be given massive opportunity to keep selling, whereas games that are struggling will instantly be lost from the store’s front page.
That’s not necessarily wrong, of course. If you’re a shop, you wouldn’t fill your windows with a copy of a game you knew people weren’t likely to be interested in buying – you’d stick up posters and line shelves with dummy boxes for the Next Big Thing. The issue being, of course, it’s a pre-determined system. The Next Big Thing is more than likely to be the big publisher promoted title, and not the obscure indie game.
As I write this, games appearing in that all-important top box are the likes of ARMA III, The Elder Scrolls Online, and Divinity: Original Sin, alongside a few more obscure titles that are in the current top 30 sellers. Games that have already succeeded pretty well. Appearing in that “FEATURED PC GAMES” box are, um, three Wildlife Park 2 add-on packs. Scroll down further and I can see three random games that have been recently updated, and then a list of “TOP SELLERS”, reprising the exact same games I’ve already seen above.
Until a few months ago, this list of games defaulted to the “NEW RELEASES” instead of yet more of the “TOP SELLERS”, and provided at least a glimmer of front page presence for new titles. Not a great deal, of course, especially now so very many games are released every week. But some. The decision to make this list default to games that are already being heavily promoted above is, I think, the point at which things have gone way too silly. Because God knows, I’m not sure Skyrim needs any more plugs.
To see what new games have been released on Steam, one now has to scroll the entire front page down a screen, then click on a tiny tab to select the list. Click on a new game that catches your eye, then click back to the front page, and that list is once again TOP SELLERS, and any laborious scrolling down you’d done is undone. Now, this is in a large part due to what a dreadful mess Steam’s front page design is in, certainly. But it also makes the process of looking through newly available games a tedious trial. That this is the case, when finding the damn things in the first place is already so difficult, makes Steam a pretty miserable place for new, unknown titles, to find attention.
There’s an argument that says this is how it should be. By giving games that achieve success on Steam greater attention on Steam, it is said to remove Valve’s role as curators, and puts them emphasis on developers and/or publishers to promote their own products, and gain them the attention they need. There’s no doubt that some games defy all the odds of such a tough front page and become massive break-out successes. Spintires, The Forest, X-Plane 10 Global, are all examples of names that have emerged from the blur, and become successes from word of mouth, positive press coverage, and in turn, sales that generated greater Steam presence. For some, the system works, and for Valve, they’re far more hands-off in the process.
The other large aspect here is that Steam is now choked with a lot of garbage. Piles of half-arsed RPG Maker games, and barely functional sandbox experiments, certainly do not make for an appetising trawl through that hidden New Release list. Finding the gems in there is becoming increasingly tough. And with the disastrous flop of Greenlight, that too has failed to provide a useful place for unknown games to get known.
When comparing Steam to a brick-n-mortar shop, their rationale makes sense. They want to make money, so they put the big-name games in prominent displays. The obscure stuff that appeared at the bottom of the delivery gets stacked on a bottom shelf, out of the way. But Steam isn’t a brick-me-do shop, and there are so many good reasons it shouldn’t try to emulate one. An online store offers so many opportunities for originality, inspired new approaches, and brand new ways of selling games. Right now, Valve is steering their store far away from that, and ever-more increasingly toward the old model that saw the rich get richer, and the rest vanish into obscurity. And that’s never been a good model for this industry – ask a high street shop… if you can find one.
So what’s a constructive response? There’s the vaguely philanthropic angle. Valve already makes a fantastic amount of money. For every sale on their store, they’re getting 30% of that money. (Let’s all stop pretending we don’t know it’s 30%, eh, games press?) And as a private company without vast masses of shareholders to answer to, they’re under no obligations to consistently make substantially more money than they already do. It’s perhaps fantasy la-la land on my part, but it’s not impossible to imagine a company as astonishingly independently wealthy as Valve being in a position to sacrifice some of their mo-money positioning of the front page for something that gives smaller developers more prominence. We hear rumours of a store redesign, and it would be fantastic to see something like this – something designed to let new releases get attention.
How? Some sense can be applied here. And I think it begins with Valve’s abandoning their pretence that they’re stepping away from curation. Because they aren’t. Currently, they are curating the big-name games, ensuring the success of the blockbusters. That’s not hands-off, at all. Accepting that being a shopkeeper means you have to keep your shop is essential. And in doing so, Valve must now take on board that as much as they may not want it, whatever action they take, they directly influence sales.
While a lot of games are released on Steam, it’s not an impossible number. It’s not as out of control as some like to suggest. It’s not unrealistic for a company the size of Valve to hire people whose job it is to look through that New Release list, play games, and highlight stuff that’s interesting.
“But!” people may cry, following with complaints about objectivity, personal taste, inevitable bias. Sure, that’s all true. But it’s better than the current system. It creates a situation where there’s at least a greater chance.
Without using actual humans in the process, there are ways to hugely improve Steam users’ knowledge of available games. Steam desperately needs a completely new “Recommended For You” system, where games sharing similar tags, or bought by people who bought similar, or a new, interesting means, are immediately visible. Front page visible. Currently the notion of such a system is a complete mess, hidden in a barely clicked tab, and appallingly laid out. Think Netflix, Amazon, Audible, and so on, where the feature not only makes you immediately aware of other available products you may not have heard of, but also feels useful. Unique front page elements that tailor for you as a customer, dig out the oddities that your profile suggests might catch your eye.
It’s really important to observe this isn’t about finding the next Rust from the pile of forgotten games. Those games, those huge extremes, tend to find their way to attention already. It’s about the moderates, the games that merit decent sales, which would find their audience if given a chance without making overnight millionaires of the developers. Right now, when a game already accompanied by an advertising budget of tens of millions gets to squish an original, inspired indie project off the front page of Steam’s store entirely, something isn’t working. Sure, those big-name games should be up there at the top, because Steam users want to find them. But at the same time, it’s simply ridiculous that the New Release list is utterly buried, when it could be alongside.
Valve are Valve. They already won. They already make more money from Dota 2 alone than they could ever spend. Hell, I imagine they could run the company on TF2 hats. Steam deserves to, and should be making, vast sums of money. But it could be doing it in a Valve way, in a way that offers glimmers of differences from traditional models, that deliberately goes out of its way to give the little guy a chance. Please Valve, commit to curating your store – it would make so much difference. And at the very least, introduce a new wave of automated “discoverability”, letting users see past the dominant headliners. There’s room for moderate selling games on Steam. Right now, Steam is drifting in a very different direction, and it’s not fun to watch.