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Steam's Community Gets A Fix, But What Does It Need?

We can rebuild it, we have the technology

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There are, believe it or not, a few drawbacks to growth at such a rapid rate that your fiscal reports probably include statements like “on track to consume the Earth – in a fashion not unlike that of Galactus, devourer of worlds – by late 2013.” For one, organization becomes really, really tricky. Infinite virtual shelves, as it turns out, can’t be tamed by a simple afternoon of taking inventory, so new solutions are needed. It is, then, nice to see Valve attempting to grab the reins of Steam’s Community functionality and steer it toward better usability – especially with Steam Greenlight on the way. Honestly, though, Steam – for all its community-oriented innovation and constant evolution – is still dropping the ball in some seriously important areas. That’s not to say I don’t love Steam, mind you. It is – warts and all – easily the best option out there. But, in the interest of encouraging Valve to do some more under-the-hood tweaks before resuming its Olympic-caliber sprint into The Future, let’s break down what else needs fixing.

First up, here’s the skinny on Valve’s new Community suite. In short, it’s a massive update aimed at “finding and sharing the best community content.” Today, for instance, Valve unveiled Game Hubs, which are “are collections of game-centric discussions, workshop items, screenshots, videos, and news. It’s both community created and official content, as rated by you, Steam users.” The point is to have everything for each game available in one easily accessible place. And, by the looks of things, it won’t be half-bad. Each game has its own set of tabs at the top of the page, so feeling yourself age as you jump from page-to-page should no longer be an issue.

That’s a good start. Most obviously, though, functionality/streamlining along these lines for library pages would be hugely helpful. Steam’s current library system was conceived before the days when our piggy banks narrowly survived countless Steam sales’ Biblical game floods – which, somewhat fittingly, caused many of us to buy two of just about every game in existence. So there’s a lot of clutter and a comparatively small number of ways to sort it all out. I mean, the simple ability to categorize games under more than one umbrella (think “MMO” and “FPS” instead of just one or the other) would work wonders.

That, however, is just the tip of an iceberg that’s plagued with cracks. Steam in general suffers from clunkiness. It’s often unclear and obtuse in places where it’d actually be quite simple to be direct and to-the-point. Menus, tabs, and categories abound – each with their own additional menus, tabs, and categories. For instance, why even keep library and Community pages for games separate? What does that accomplish other than repeating a lot of information and forcing players to leap through extra hoops when they want to take their new content for a spin? That general feeling of slow cludginess manifests everywhere, too. Simply buying and installing a game requires more than a few unnecessary menu screens, multiple instances of waiting purely so that you can wait for something else, and other bits of head-scratching design.

And then, of course, there are the glitches. Even during the process of writing this article, I encountered a random, completely white screen while trying to purchase a game. I received no explanation for why it happened or what I could do to prevent it in the future. Sometimes, meanwhile, the main store, library, news, and community tabs just don’t work. I click. I wait. Nothing. And how about the rather pressing issue that is pressing shift in some games – for instance, to sprint in FPSes – only to run face-first into the game-obscuring Steam overlay? Again, it’s not supposed to happen, but sometimes, it just does. We live in an era of sleek, smart interface design and speedy performance. So why does it seem like the biggest purveyor of PC games in the world is trapped in 2004? Why doesn’t Steam feel particularly great to use?

Offline mode is another rather perplexing standout, in that – a lot of the time – it’s not really, well, offline at all. Boot up, say, your laptop in an Internet no-fly zone (for example, in a plane, aka an everything-except-Internet fly zone), and odds are, Steam will demand a connection even if you select offline mode. Silly, right? Well, here’s the mystifying part: It’s not even intended to be that way. Problem is, if you shut down your PC without first individually tucking Steam in and telling it a bedtime story, files don’t sync properly and offline mode refuses to work. Is it easy to get around? Sure. But surely there’s some way to automate the process more intuitively or, failing that, an error message that’s actually helpful. I mean, it’s a known issue. It has been for ages. Why hasn’t something been done?

The act of deleting game files, too, suffers from Steam’s lack of clarity and intuitiveness. For instance, I – perhaps somewhat unwisely – have my laptop do double-duty as a work and gaming machine. (My desktop, meanwhile, is gaming-only.) The end result? Not a lot of free hard drive space. So I heap unused games into the furnace pretty often – especially since choosing custom game install locations is such a giant fuss. It’s either wherever my main Steam file is, or an obscure amount of extra work. That omission, frankly, is baffling.

Happily, of course, I can re-download any game I’ve purchased at my leisure, but what about my save files? When a game shuffles off its mortal coil, where does its soul go? Steam, unfortunately, is frequently unclear. If a game has cloud support, you’re fine and dandy. But other games are inconsistent with where they store saves (some default to My Documents, some with the rest of the game’s files, etc), and it’s tough to know whether they’ll come out unscathed unless you do some digging yourself before digging a grave for a game you’re no longer enamored with.

Are any of these things the end of the world? No – at least, so long as you don’t accidentally delete a 200-hour save file. But they are very inconvenient – not to mention fairly intimidating for folks who aren’t in the know but want to get into PC gaming. If our favorite platform’s standard-bearer can’t even manage to roll out the red carpet without asking people to leap over a strenuous series of barriers to entry, then it becomes that much harder to assimilate non-PC-gamers into our mighty collective.

I’m not asking for a “dumbing-down” of Steam or services like it, either. These are simply issues of usability that have gone un-addressed for far too long. So then, Valve, the ball’s in your court. Yes, The Future’s more exciting than it’s ever been – and you’ve built a seriously amazing product in pursuit of it – but that’s no reason to lose sight of the present.

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Nathan Grayson

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