Valve’s digital rights management services as well as the biggest online store, Steam, has gone through countless changes over the years. Starting as a seemingly unnecessary and very buggy application that frustrated the early adopters, it quickly grew to be the mecca of independent game developers thanks to the Greenlight system, only to become an almost unmanageable waterfall of endless new releases, including unfinished or downright broken titles. Many gamers and journalists cried for a better way to filter the onslaught of games. Valve has just issued a new major update to alleviate that, but perhaps the new homepage has a bit too much curation.
The latest update does away with the tedious, tabbed “carousel” view of new releases, introducing a simple list of popular new or upcoming titles. It seems like the not-yet-popular titles might not make it to the front page as easily. What is an even bigger change, however, is the extensive list of recommendations tailored to each individual gamer. The explorer queue features “the new, popular, and top-selling releases on Steam,” showing games one recommended title at a time. Scrolling below the main store page leads to an endlessly-refreshing listing of games based on the user’s playtimes, favorite genres, wishlist, friend recommendations and so on.
While the update seems great at first glance, as Rock Paper Shotgun reported, it instantly introduces a problem. All the games displayed on the front page are either “popular” new releases, or games only similar to the titles the users have already played. This means that small indie developers who have not lucked out with marketing savvy could be easily overlooked. Gamers themselves are less likely to broaden their horizons as well, being exposed to recommended games that are ultimately more of the same and leading to a self-reinforcing loop. With so many new releases each day, discovery of smaller indies has already been a problem in the past, and the latest update only makes it even harder. The detailed preference-based list is undoubtedly a great addition by itself, but combined only with the showcase of the already-popular titles, it introduces too much skewed curation on the Steam homepage.
Luckily, there is another great addition in this update. Valve has introduced the idea of Curators, or influential people and organizations others can follow for gaming recommendations. The popular YouTube figure Total Biscuit or gaming sites like Rock Paper Shotgun and Eurogamer can already be followed, together with many other prominent figures. However, if psychology has taught the world anything, consumers ought to be most likely to follow those reviewers whose opinions they agree with most. While the choice is ultimately on the consumer side, the Curator system could lead to similar discoverability limitations as the tailoring the presented games based on personal preferences.
There is no doubt Steam needs a better way of filtering its exponentially growing catalog. The store had already released more games by May of 2014 than in all of 2013, and the number only keeps growing. Sure, gamers still have the advance search, tags, outside gaming reviewers and magazines, as well as friends they can use to find new titles outside of their current gaming preferences.
However, the burden of informed search is entirely on their shoulders, so it is no surprise many simply turn to checking the storefront for new ideas. Indie developers in the past have explained how getting onto Steam and securing that front page spot has had a dramatic impact on their sales and discoverability. With the new design limited to just the most popular titles as well as personal preferences, it will only get harder for smaller studios to get discovered. Perhaps this time around, the new Steam homepage curates a little bit too well.
By Jakub Kasztalski