We fantasized a few days ago about "the end of Steam," and how we'd go about buying games if Valve's big-dog digital store didn't exist. Over at Valve, they're doing precisely the opposite: Musing in a lengthy new blog post about the company's "philosophy," and how it plans to keep the store relevant over the long term to both gamers and the people who make games—including with a new feature added today, which shows users why its curation engine recommended a game to them.
"Whenever we announce a change to the Steam Store, we're always really interested to read the discussions that follow. Obviously we see a wide range of opinions on how good a job the Store is doing, but increasingly we're seeing that people have very different ideas of what its job even is—and what it should be," Valve's Robin Walker wrote.
"That's understandable. One of the reasons it's so hard to make a good store—one of the reasons we've been working on it for years, and one of the reasons we think we still have years of work left to do—is that it has so many jobs. It has to serve so many players whose tastes and interests are not only different, but sometimes complete opposites."
Walker broke down Steam's audience into different types of players:
- Players who are highly connected to the online game community & conversations, and players who are totally unconnected.
- Players who browse the store looking for a game, and players who arrive already knowing the title they're looking for.
- Players who come to the store once a month, and players who visit multiple times a day.
- Players who just want to buy the latest AAA title, and players who want to search for hidden gems.
- Players who want to play titles earlier in their development, and get involved in their evolution.
- Players who want games with specific attributes, such as a type of gameplay, support for a specific technology, translation to their local language, etc.
And also developers:
- Developers with AAA titles that have large, existing fan bases, and developers who are barely known, yet have a game that would be a hit if players found it.
- Developers who want to build deliberately niche games, and have them find that niche audience.
- Developers who want to get community feedback earlier in the development process.
The ultimate goal of a "successful store," he said, is to treat all of those people fairly; the challenge is that they often have "competing interests."
"It's important to understand that if we're not doing exactly what one group wants, it's probably because we're trying to weigh it against another group's interests," Walker wrote. "It might seem obvious that developers have some competing interests, but it's also true on the player side—some players specifically enjoy exploring Early Access titles, while others never want to see them."
Walker said the addition of features like the Discovery update and on-demand refunds have helped expose games to wider audiences than they may otherwise have enjoyed, while Greenlight "confirmed our suspicion that no single, small group of people should be sitting in judgment over what is and isn't a good game." Valve's efforts have thus far primarily benefited indie devs, he explained, "because our data showed that the store was already working well for [AAA players and developers]," but he added that Valve has to ensure that it doesn't go too far in that direction because "there's a huge audience of players who just want to buy AAA titles."
For the future, Valve plans to improve the Steam user experience by making its recommendation algorithms more transparent, beginning with a new "algorithm section" on store pages that breaks down the reasons for a game's recommendation. "This section will let you see inside the black box, and understand what the Store is thinking. We hope it will be useful whenever you're exploring the Store, but in particular, whenever you've navigated from an external web page directly to a specific game's Store page," Walker wrote.
"In those cases, this section will help you understand whether or not this game is something the Store would recommend to you. In other cases, you might be more or less interested in something the store recommends if you know exactly why it's recommending it. For instance, knowing that a particular friend or curator likes or dislikes a game might make it clearer whether you'd like it. Finally, if the store recommends something you know you're not interested in, you'll be able to see where its decision making is going wrong, and tell us about it."
The new feature is live now, and can be seen in the "Is this game relevant to you?" box on Steam listings. It does seem to be hitting the mark, at least in the broad strokes: Candle, for instance, is listed as relevant to me because I've previously played Samorost 3 and Full Bore, and because it has "very positive" user reviews; Magical Diary: Horse Hall, on the other hand, is more of a straight-up "No, never mind."
(Technically, it says, "We don't have much information on whether or not you might be interested in this game," but if 12 years of Steam use hasn't produced one single reason to recommend a game, then it's a good bet it can be left off of the "Play this someday" list.)
The post is actually the first of three that Walker hopes will give users "a better understanding of what we're trying to do with the Steam Store." The next one will delve into "the ways that bad actors have been gaming the Store algorithms to create revenue for themselves," and what Valve plans to do to address that problem; the third post will be about Valve's approach to the Steam Direct publishing fee, a potentially sticky subject we dug into earlier this year.