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A More Personal Steam

Nearly two years after Valve went all in on a customized store experience with the release of the Steam Discovery Update, there is a lot more that Steam could be. That it should be.

I am a power user of Steam. On a daily basis I browse, wishlist, and manage games on the platform. I purchase too, of course, though certainly not daily but regularly. I use it for my business as well. As a publisher, I regularly evaluate other games and their Steam assets for inspiration. I also dive into the workings of Steam in order to give our games the best chance of success once available. Personally and professionally, I am a big fan of Steam. But it needs some serious TLC.

User, Top View, Office, ...

Muddled
Valve has a very strong incentive to deliver you the best user experience as possible. At the expense of all else the company should be laser focused on you, the user. Historically, Valve has done very well on this front, proven out by the market response over the last decade or so. Steam is as popular and as powerful as ever. But delivering the best user experience possible is a constantly evolving process and Steam is presently in a muddled state. Today, the three most important things for Valve to deliver to you are making great content available on the platform, making that content accessible, and making sure users find or discover relevant content. It is the last part where Steam is lackluster. There is an increasing amount of new content released on the platform that, on average, is of lower quality than what came before. That would be just fine if Steam delivered a customized user experience that was rock solid. But it does’t and that's the problem.

High bar then. Low bar now. 
How did this become a problem? It is a relatively new one that began with the increased ease of shipping a game on Steam. Until somewhat recently, there was a high barrier to entry for releasing content on Steam. During this time, generally, you had to be an established studio or publisher or your game had to hit a lot of right notes for Valve to take notice. Valve decided it wanted to get out of the business of manually vetting all games interested in being on Steam and in 2012 launched Greenlight, a program that is great in theory but has, to-date, been disappointing in practice (a deep dive into Greenlight is another blog post). The first couple years, Greenlight was tough to get through. You had to run a solid campaign and do a lot right on both presentation and in marketing. The bar was high and when a batch of games got Greenlit, it was newsworthy. As time has passed, that bar has continually been lowered to the point where now getting through Greenlight is all but guaranteed for games with average to decent campaign presentation. According to Steam Spy, 2015 saw 3000 games released compared with 2014’s 1900. And with a total of 8576 games Greenlit to-date (there is some Steam wonkiness to that number but quick math says it’s correct), we can expect that 2016’s number of releases to be notably higher than last year. 

“Low bar Greenlight” is the main contributor to the increased flood of content on Steam but a platform full of content, even if some is rather suspect in quality, is a great thing if, IF, the platform is suited to deliver a customized experience that will filter the subjective bad and deliver the subjective good on a user by user basis. Valve started down this path by launching the Steam Discovery Update in the fall of 2014. Real good first step! Problem is that we are nearly two years later and the experience is far from the promised land. The recommendations I receive at various different points in the app are...ok. Anecdotally, I hear from other power users that their experience is just ok too. So not bad. Just not where it should be. Where it could be. There seems to have been marginal improvements but nothing that shifts the platform to where it needs to be given the amount of games that are continually coming out, not to mention movies and to a lesser extent, non-game apps. So you have a platform that continually adds more content but is failing to deliver a proper customized experience to users. Maybe not in the short term but medium to long term, this combination is bad for business. The entire ecosystem - Valve, Valve’s partners, and users - will suffer.  

How to fix?
Valve could address this issue but increasing the barrier for entry back to the level of the early Greenlight days or even pre-Greenlight days. This is an desire I sometimes hear from devs and other publishers. The benefit: higher quality games in less quantity on the platform. It would be “manageable” for Steam users to know about new games. There are a couple main problems with this approach. First, it isn’t appealing for Valve. Manual curation and the dev relation or biz dev roles that come with it are very costly. This is why the company went the Greenlight route initially. Second, heavy curation for a platform as big a Steam is suboptimal. Steam’s user base is large enough that the platform should easily support a heap of content. So instead of going back to being more closed and curated again, Valve should keep the gates open but double down on getting the “discovery” aspect of Steam right.

In order to do so, Valve must take a much more data driven approach to Steam and show meaningful progress soon. It has the insight, now it just has to continue down the difficult road of supporting and conducting tests that will move the platform closer to where it needs to be - showcasing highly relevant content to the right type of users. Valve has plenty of signals. Perhaps more so than another piece of technology I use, save for maybe iOS and Windows, Valve has a ton of valuable signals from me. In fact, because I am narrowly focused on gaming when on Steam, the data Valve has about me may be more valuable to its business than what Apple and Microsoft receive about me to their very broad businesses. On Steam, I’m clicking all over the place. I buy, wishlist, browse, and of course play games. That last one is the most valuable. Valve has solid intel on my engagement in my library of games. That’s gold Jerry. GOLD! From the carousel to genre pages to the Recommended for You section, I should be seeing very relevant content all the time. I am not. I see slightly relevant connections. Eg Two adventure games, shown in the section “Due to your recent playtime in other Adventure games,” seem to only share a genre tag with the adventure game I recently played. Both are of no interest. I could think of half a dozen other adventure games that I don’t own that have more in common and are more relevant with the adventure game I just played and possible for Valve to tease out of my user profile. This feels like such a missed opportunity.  

Recommended For You: provocative anime dating sim?
Until Valve begins the process of seriously investing in a much more data driven platform and showing progress, Steam will continue to fail on delivering the best user experience it can. Interested in the latest “cheap” anime dating sim chock full of nudity (there are a lot these days!)? Maybe you are. Maybe you’re not. Problem is if you’re in the latter category, like me (promise!), you may see games in the genre in high placement areas. Those areas should be reserved for items that a user has a high likelihood to buy and enjoy. Valve has the signals. It should figure out how to use them in all their glory. This is problem for Valve, a big one, but it has time to fix it. There is no close number two. As the undisputed leader, you don’t have to worry about the short term. You have to worry about the next two to five years. But just because it has time doesn’t mean it should wallow in the mire. The innovation of Steam post Discovery update has been lacking and it needs to start making noticeable progress in the near future. Continued domination of PC gaming should be the goal and that can continue to be achieved in the long run if Valve gets lasered focused on creating the best user experience possible today though a highly relevant customized experience per user.

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