2019 has not been the greatest year for Steam and its proprietors over at Valve. Epic Games has risen up to post a real threat at the storefront’s dominance, snatching away countless big releases to yearlong exclusivity. Then there’s the failed launch of Artifact, a title that fell off a cliff and saw the company scrambling. Valve may have a hit with DOTA Underlords, but the Valve of old would have locked down the mod makers long before they signed on the dotted line with a rival. That recent victory comes alongside an even more interesting move: the launch of Steam Labs.
For a while now, Valve’s stewardship of its digital games emporium has seemed rudderless. The flawed but functional Greenlight process gave way to an opening of the floodgates that has buried countless games under a pile of garbage. With Nintendo doing a better job of selling indies than Steam, you know there’s a problem. We just haven’t been sure that Valve also realized it.
Thankfully, last week’s Labs launch proves that Valve has some ideas on how to fix things. While we’ve all seen Valve be quick to introduce great ideas and do nothing with them, this process makes it easy to to give them the benefit of the doubt. Each of the three experiments has merit on their own. When combined, their presence could be just what the storefront needs to keep up the competition.
Steam Labs | Micro Trailers show off games in their best light
Video games are very much a visual medium. Adding a little bit of gameplay into any pitch will instantly elevate it above a dry page with nothing but text and screenshots. Therefore, it only makes sense that Steam highlight a game’s trailers as much as possible. The first Steam Labs innovation involves shrinking trailers down into easy to sample chunks. Micro Trailers lets shoppers highlight a game’s logo and see a brief glimpse at what it looks like in motion. It utilizes the same technology now found on YouTube and a concept originating on Twitter.
You can see this coming into play in two ways. One involves a simple store page integration, replacing the screenshot slideshow in the current popup you get for hovering over any given title. That would work, but the second option seems much more interesting. As seen on the sample page, Valve has come up with several ways to organize these trailers in a browsable format. If done right, this could be a new way to page through search results, one that does a better job of highlighting games than a title and a logo alone.
Of course, sometimes you don’t want to see a game in motion, especially if it’s one of the many questionable releases that have arrived in the past few years. The examples on Valve’s page now don’t seem to take store filters into account. Because of this, a lot of my pages fill up with various examples of anime titillation and other low-quality efforts. You’d have to hope that these games would be grayed out on any variation of this concept going forward, or else it will face similar problems to the storefront as is.
Steam Labs | The Interactive Recommender lets you bend Valve’s algorithm to your will
One of the common refrains against Valve these past few years is an overreliance on machine learning. Steam’s curation is all done through a nameless black box that makes arcane decisions about which games boil to the surface. Valve’s new Interactive Recommender seems to be a way to give players a peek behind the curtain. With sliders for both popularity and age, you can see recommendations populate and dwindle in real-time. While it’s not an exact model of the system that pushes games to your own Steam front page, it certainly gives a few hints at how that all works.
Of course, your mileage may vary. Speaking from personal experience, an account with playtime logged in a wide assortment of games will get pretty scattered results with a tool like this. But it’s specific enough that I was seeing some interesting things I hadn’t seen before. Although this Recommender also highlights Steam’s problem with genres and tagging. Is Grand Theft Auto 5 really a “shooter?” Why would you ever call Rage 2 an “adventure?” What the heck does “indie” mean in 2019? The current categories on offer are lacking, making the tool much less useful than it could be. But the idea of better curation is there with this Recommender.
Steam Labs | Automatic Shows could be Steam’s next big thing
Finally, we come to Automatic Shows, the best innovation thus far. It combines Valve’s beloved algorithms with trailers in the best possible way. What’s available now feels like a demo reel, going through different concepts in an overlong half-hour format. That needs to change, but the fact that a computer automatically generated all these different segments opens up a wealth of possibilities. Imagine a show creator tool for Steam Curator, letting them put together a social-media ready clip of games they recommend for any given month. Genre spotlights at the top of search pages highlighting whatever is new and notable. Maybe even a tailor-made highlight reel for the pages of prolific publishers.
Not everyone will want to see video everywhere they go. News sites have proven that. However, for those who want to dig into what’s releasing on Steam every day, this could be the most useful tool out of the trio. Taking in a weekly roundup of new releases and skipping through what you already know about could put more games into the faces of those most likely to cover them and get the word out to the masses. As someone who used to know about every game release on Valve’s platform, the idea of regaining even a fraction of that knowledge is very enticing.
Steam Labs | The vital final step in Valve’s volatile experiment
All three of these experiments feel like a breath of fresh air. These weird tools are the type of thing that the Valve of old would do, and it makes it easy to feel cautiously optimistic about the future of the Steam storefront.
However, Valve’s willingness to introduce concepts only to let them rot as its attention shifts means that is naive to have such blind faith. The improved Steam Curators stands as a mostly finished but still deeply flawed tool, especially on the backend. Publisher pages are an interesting new look, but they’re haphazardly applied and make the store feel inconsistent. This is all without even mention the ancient Steam app, a program that’s been due for a makeover for the past five to seven years at least.
If Valve really wants to get serious about improving Steam, it has to buckle down. Let’s stop creating arcane games about Corgis racing and focus on showing up the competition. Epic Games still doesn’t even have a shopping cart, so Valve has a huge lead. It’s time to widen the gap by plugging all the holes in Steam’s infrastructure and finally getting that oft-delayed relaunch off the ground. Keep innovating with features like the three introduced in Steam Labs, and make sure that the existing experiments actually get used after a few months of tweaking rather than a few years. If Steam really wants to stay on top of the PC gaming sphere, then the time for Valve Time is over and the Steam Labs feature is a great first step.