Analysis: Can 'The Curators' solve Steam's discoverability issues?

Everyone has an opinion on how to "fix" Steam. This week, Valve launched Steam Discovery, whereby you now you put your wallet into the hands of "The Curators."
Make Steam completely open to all developers! Cut down on the number of games allowed on to Steam! Stop publishers from dumping their back catalogues on Steam! Get rid of Greenlight! Get rid of Steam reviews! We need better discoverability! Everyone has an opinion on how to "fix" Steam. What we know is that, with the barrage of games getting released on the platform, it's getting harder and harder for developers to get spotted amongst the rabble. The problem is that most of the game discovery tactics that Valve has deployed in the past haven't always been terribly effective. Greenlight clearly has issues, for example, while "tags" have been used for all sorts of nefarious means. Meanwhile, the "New Releases" tab on the front page is now next-to-useless, since a new game will pop up for maybe half a day before being dragged down the list, kicking and screaming. It's not entirely Valve's fault though, right? Discoverability is a challenge for all platform holders right now. And it's not like Valve isn't at least trying to solve the issue -- while the methods the company has tried out thus far have been flawed, they've worked to a certain degree. Valve's latest move to improve game discovery is also its most ambitious. The company last night launched Steam Discovery -- no longer is your Steam store front page dictated by Valve, or whatever is popular at the time, or some algorithm that is watching your "wish list"; now you can put your wallet into the hands of "The Curators." Here's the idea: You can now "follow" people on Steam, and instead of them tweeting hilarious anecdotes or getting into heated debates, on Steam you'll find game recommendations that not only pop up on the store pages for said games, but directly on your front page of the Steam store itself. That's not the only curation tactic though -- there's a sort of curation mish-mash going on. Scroll through the games at the top of the store, and you'll find many that have been "Recommended for You," based on a whole host of avenues, including who you follow, what you already own, and which genres you've shown an interest in. The front page of Steam is now an infinite recommendation haven. No matter how long you scroll, the algorithm will keep churning away, trying to find the games that best suit all your requirements.
It's still too early to say whether it's working or not, but first impressions are good. The top of my personal front page is currently recommending to me Gang Beasts, Starwhal and The Long Dark, all games I've definitely had in mind for a future purchase. Every time I hit refresh, a couple more games pop up that make me say "Hey, I'd forgotten about that one." As always with these big steps, though, the further you dig into the new system, the more familiar issues start to pop up. User reviews are now much more important, for example -- a "thumbs up," "thumbs down" or "average" icon appears next to games in the search, depending on how users have voted, and could very well be utilized by the average Steam user to simply flick through and discard a whole bunch of decent titles without much thought at all. Of course, we all know user reviews can be sketchy, so to make this distinction so prominent on the store seems risky. Then again, plenty of other game platforms have been putting user reviews front and center for years, so perhaps this is a red herring and not worth the worry. Another point of interest: If you go to the Steam Curators tab on the front page, you can actually customize what types of recommendations you see, going as far as to remove the entire Steam Early Access catalogue if you so desire. As if it wasn't already tough enough to get eyes on your Early Access game! And there's more: The "New Releases" tab has now been replaced with "Popular New Releases" -- essentially, "Top Sellers of the New Releases." You can still find "New Releases" underneath, but you have to click through to another page to view the list. Valve says that this is "to filter out less popular titles and provide a more functional release list." This particular subtle change worries me the most. As Gamasutra found recently, numerous big name YouTubers use the "New Releases" tab on Steam to find cool new games to talk about, and providing these people with a list of the most popular new games will surely just cause them to cover the top trending ones -- I mean, you're always going to record a video of the game that will potentially bring you the most traffic, right? The other big problem, of course, is that the Curator system essentially just gives all the people who already had the biggest followings even more power. YouTuber TotalBiscuit created a Curator page, for example, and within an hour was the top Curator -- hence, the games he recommends are going to appear on the front page more often now. In the past, the big name curators had a middleman between the games they recommended and the store itself -- they're now basically running the show and plugged directly into the store's systems. With this in mind, you have to wonder -- will this new curation system actually change anything? The big names were already bringing big traffic for the games they covered, so surely all that will happen now is that these people will gain even more people for their fanbases, and the games they cover will, well, still get bought in droves like they were before? Plus, it's going to be great news for developers who are already popular. If you have a game or two on Steam and a bunch of people choose to add your games to their Curator lists, that can only mean good things for your recommendation algorithm when the time comes to release another title. Has Valve truly helped out the little guy, or just made the rich richer? Only time will tell. And another important topic: With the integration of the YouTubers and press into Steam itself comes the same ethical issues we've been talking about for quite some time now. Head over to TotalBiscuit's Curator page, for example, and you'll see that his top recommended game currently is Sony Online Entertainment's PlanetSide 2 (at least, at the time of writing). Nothing too strange about that, right? Now click through for "the full review," and it'll bring up his YouTube video for the game, with the words "This is part of a paid promotion for Planetside 2" slapped at the top. [Note: The video has since been swapped out with a different Planetside 2 video that does not contain that text.]

Now, the chances are that this was just a coincidence -- he probably just added this game last without thinking, and he's surely not still making promotion money from a two year old video. Plus, there's nothing too wrong with it anyway -- he's stated upfront that it's a paid video. But what it does show is that Steam Curator recommendations can most definitely be bought, just in the same way that YouTube videos can. When ironing out the specifications of a paid promotion in the future, big name YouTubers can now potentially add the line, "I will promote your game at the top of my Curator list for X days." So there are clearly plenty of issues with this new system -- and yet, it's the most hopeful I've found myself for new developers coming onto Steam in a long time. There are now clearer ways to get your name out there, and indeed most ways to do so. As the discovery options open up, it can only be a good thing. Even if this new system doesn't actually affect sales or discoverability in a good way, it will hopefully at least cause some developers to have a hard think about how they are promoting their games, in a way they may have not done so before. What can developers do now, then? If you don't already have a game on Steam, the answer is quite simply to keep plugging away with the same tactics we've been discussing for ages -- talking to the press and YouTubers early, digging yourself a social media bunker, and preparing for a long ride. But if you already have a game on Steam, there's now plenty you can do. If you're looking to promote an upcoming game, for example, then it now makes sense to boost the presence of Game #1 on Steam -- the more Curator lists it appears on, the more likely Game #2 will pop up on the front page for as many people as possible come launch. And of course, if you're building up to launch, you may want to start putting together a Curator list, and get your game into their hands in the build-up. The chances are you'll most likely cover most Curators if you hit up enough press and YouTubers, but there are plenty of Curators already with big follower numbers who don't fall into either of these categories. As for the future, let's just hope that Valve can iron out the many kinks. It'll be interesting to see whether the company kills off Greenlight (as it has said it will), or whether it'll simply fold that functionality into the new Steam Discovery system.

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