How developers want Steam to improve in 2017

We asked game developers how the popular digital storefront can get better for creators and players alike.

Green. That's what we mostly remember about Steam when it entered our world in 2003. It's come a long way since then, with changes big and small, some great, and some… not so great. 2016 was no different, ushering in a new review system, an updated UI, and a new set of rules for marketing games. But with new changes come new problems. From Kickstarter backer reviews no longer counting towards a game's average score, to the continued confusion of just what Early Access means, Steam has a lot of room left for improvement.

With over 4000 games released on Steam last year alone, and 2017 shaping up to be even more hectic, we picked the brains of a handful of developers for ideas on how Steam can improve in the year ahead.

Review the review system

Big changes hit Steam's review system in 2016. Prime among them was the separation of reviews tied to Steam purchases, and those tied to Steam keys bought from external sources or provided by developers for free, with only the former counting towards a game's average score. This has been especially hard on games funded through Kickstarter, since Steam now effectively ignores the opinions of a significant portion of their player base. For Megan Fox of Glass Bottom Games, the studio behind Hot Tin Roof: The Cat That Wore a Fedora, this change has been a tough pill to swallow, but she remains hopeful things will improve in 2017.

"It's very much a double-edged sword," she says. "Given how exploited keys were getting, I don't know if [Valve] had an immediately better option. Hopefully, they're working on a fix or workaround."

Tyler Glaiel, the programmer behind Closure and Bombernauts, appreciates that the filtering of reviews makes it tougher for dodgy developers to abuse the system by buying positive reviews. Better yet, it makes selling games outside Steam more viable.

"[It] makes it slightly safer to put your game in a Humble Bundle without worrying too much about the influx of negative reviews from people who didn't really care about your game in the first place."

Online mobs can really hurt a game’s standing, so ways to mitigate that seems like they would be worth pursuing.

Forrest Downling, Designer

At the same time, smaller games often suffer from a lack of reviews, with their average scores skewed by a handful of effusive fans or a few jaded players. James Buckle, the indie developer behind the recent Captain Kaon, feels Steam could do more to encourage people to write reviews and even out such anomalies.

"In the same way they do for Steam sales, they could have Steam review trading cards," he suggests. "They have all the mechanisms in place to do that, and that would encourage people to go and write Steam reviews for games they like."

By rewarding high-quality user reviews and continuing to weed out the jokey and disingenuous ones, Steam reviews might actually become a viable means of judging a game's quality, instead of a home for all-caps memes and armchair game design. 

 2016 also saw Steam introduce the 'Last 30 Days' review score. Forrest Dowling, designer of The Flame in the Flood, believes this is a useful measure for counteracting the effects of rough launches or review bombing driven by reasons that have little to do with a game's quality.

"I think it can help reward a developer who continues to improve their title," he says. "I’d actually be interested in seeing Valve take it further, maybe in the direction of the iOS store in which reviews get sequestered off based on version, allowing a developer to clear the slate in some way. Online mobs can really hurt a game’s standing, so ways to mitigate that seems like they would be worth pursuing."

With the likes of Star Wars Battlefront and No Man's Sky releasing patches big enough to be their own games, a version-based review score would be helpful for anyone coming to a game months after its release. Knowing that a developer is working to turn a rought launch around is useful information for all gamers. 

Don't let sales numbers rule the storefront

Late last year, Steam rolled out its Discovery Update 2.0, giving users a finer degree of control over the games suggested for them. Defender's Quest developer Lars Doucet has written a lengthy blog post packed with data about the effects of the Discovery updates on store visibility. Forrest Dowling feels the update has benefited both gamers and developers.

"I think the Discovery Update 2.0 is a move in the right direction," he says. "Anecdotally, I know that impressions have gone up for a lot of smaller indies, particularly with their older titles."

Nevertheless, he wants Valve to step up its game in 2017 and stop relying purely on sales numbers to dictate what gets pride of place on the front page.

"As a developer, it can be frustrating that in spite of [Valve's] efforts with things like their visibility rounds, there’s definitely a sense of certain approaches leading to a rich get richer outcome. A lot of the very best visibility placement goes to titles that are already doing extremely well, which likely don’t need that placement nearly as much."

Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, Rocket League: most of us don't need to see these in our recommendations to know they exist. It's the Finnish car-maintenance simulators and the spinning limousine puzzle games that make browsing Steam worthwhile, and Valve needs to recognize that in the year ahead.

Give curators incentives to curate

Steam Curators is a great idea on paper, but the feature hasn't really lived up to its potential. Megan Fox thinks it's time Valve knocked it up a notch, giving curators a good reason to seek out and recommend new and novel experiences. Fox suggests a number of ways Valve can achieve this: paying curators a small percentage of Valve's profit per game, fixing the interface so it's less arduous to curate stuff, and better surfacing curators to users so that more users start following them.

"If they leaned more on the curator angle," she says, "curators would have a much, much easier time sorting out the diamonds in the rough. Then [Steam's] pretty-good recommendation engine could play second fiddle to that."

With Steam's catalogue growing at an exponential rate, curators, much like gaming outlets, are more important than ever for directing you to worthwhile experiences. With a renewed emphasis on the curator system, Steam could address its 'too many games' problem without sacrificing the creativity and diversity that leads to games like Pony Island and Undertale.

Clean up Early Access

That's a very good question.
The Early Access Playbook

Last year, we PC Gamer obtained a copy of Steam's Early Access rules and guidelines. Surprisingly (or maybe not), they're pretty hands-off. See them for yourself here

Early Access had its share of problems in 2016, but Darkest Dungeon was definitely not one of them. Tyler Sigman, design director on the game, believes that despite some rough patches, Early Access has been an invaluable addition to Steam.

"I think there's so many awesome Early Access experiences out there that it's here to stay," he says, "and I think it should be."

For 2017, Sigman wants to see Valve better communicate to users just what 'Early Access' means.

"Valve has really made great efforts to try and inform consumers that 'hey, this is an Early Access game, it's in development,'" he says. "But the blue banners are not enough. I don't know what the solution is, but I think [it's important] to continue to find ways for people to know that they're buying into something that's in work."

Knowing which elements of an Early Access game are already playable and which are still scribbles in the back of a notebook would be a good first step towards dismantling the Early Access stigma. If it didn't feel like such a leap of faith to buy in early, making an informed purchasing decision would be a lot easier.

Given Valve's tendency to play by its own rules, 2017 is sure to be another eventful year for Steam. Personally, I'd like to see Steam Sales get a refresh, with the return of treasure hunts or idle clickers to give me a reason to check in every day now that flash sales are no more. My Steam wallet's put on a bit of weight these last few sales, and it's high time it got a good workout.