Recently, Valve had two popular YouTubers, John “TotalBiscuit” Bain and Jim “Jim Sterling” Sterling, visit their offices. Over the course of a day-long series of meetings, the company laid out a roadmap for the future of Steam.
Both Bain and Sterling posted lengthy videos about their descent into GabeN’s mystery dungeon. You can watch those here:
For those who don’t have the time to watch a cumulative hour and 24 minutes of video, here’s a blow-by-blow. Bear in mind that this information comes secondhand from people who, while generally trustworthy, are not Valve:
- Valve is about to overhaul Steam in order to ensure that good games are visible and lazily developed games created for the purpose of making a quick buck—which Valve apparently calls “fake games”—sink beneath a sea of algorithms. They’ve already laid the groundwork, which is why they recently announced Steam Direct.
- The problem with this system, of course, is that it risks burying a handful of good games, as well. To combat this issue, Valve is going to introduce a program called Steam Explorers. Explorers will play through queues of games that haven’t been selling super well. If they dig a game, they can flag it. The more games get flagged, the more the algorithmic gods will smile upon them.
- Anybody will be able to be an Explorer, much like Steam Curators. They’ll also get their own forum, so they can do things like arrange multiplayer matches in games that nobody else is playing.
- Speaking of Curators, that system is getting overhauled too. Valve will be adding functionality like embedded videos, top ten lists, and different types of sorting. Developers will also be able to give game keys directly to curators within Steam, as opposed to doing so via email or other means outside Steam (which has led to confusion, attempted fraud, and other issues).
- Curators will also be given more info about how their curations affect games’ sales, and Valve is considering ways to incentivize Curators to keep at it. Payment might even be an option.
- Valve admitted that so-called “fake games” make the bulk of their money off Steam trading cards, something that’s been long theorized but never confirmed. As a result, Valve will be changing the trading card system so that doing so is no longer an option.
- Regular Steam users will soon have access to a lot more data on games. They’ll be told why a particular game is being shown to them, how many impressions that page gets, where those impressions come from, and more. Valve apparently wants to show people that crappy games are not, as many have speculated, clogging up the service.
- Valve believes that once Steam Direct launches, fewer (though probably not drastically fewer) games will be admitted onto the service, and quality will generally be higher.
- Valve hopes to continue improving customer support, which is currently handled by external teams and an internal one for issues the external teams can’t solve. However, they also hope that by cleaning up Steam and the “fake games” issue, less support will be necessary.
I do have some issues with the way Valve is going about doing this. While I’m grateful that they’re trying to mop up Steam’s toxic ecosystem—which has spawned everything from “publishers” who manipulate users and developers alike to multi-million dollar lawsuits against YouTubers in its burbling cesspit—I worry that giving more power to a very particular group of Steam users could have unintended consequences. Already, there are folks out there who dedicate serious time and energy to keeping what they perceive as crappy games off Steam. This is, by its very nature, a small and self-selecting group of people with particular tastes and tendencies.
Steam Explorers may or may not end up being the same people—and there will likely be more of them, given how prominent I imagine Valve will try to make the system—but still: we’re talking about Steam power users who probably won’t be representative of your average player. Giving these folks keys to the kingdom could easily lead to many “good” games getting passed over, simply because they don’t live up to a certain set of standards for what constitutes a game, or they explore themes people find objectionable or something. On top of that, what’s to stop developers from trying to work with Steam Explorers and coordinate efforts to boost their games? I hope Valve comes up with a damn good plan to weed out that kind of thing.
I’m also skeptical of the idea of giving curators information on how they’re affecting sales. That seems like a system rife with potential conflicts of interest, where abuse is just one busted moral compass away from happening. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for Valve providing people with more information. As a critic, though, I don’t want to know how I’m helping or harming a game from a monetary standpoint—not directly, anyway. I want to tell people what I think of games, and considerations like, “How will this affect a game’s sales?” could get in the way of that.
I imagine, though, that Valve will be monitoring how all of this plays out very closely, even if actual changes end up occurring in Valve Time. Oh, but there’s a twist this time around. Apparently, Valve also added that they hope to be more open and communicative about the future of the platform going forward. That’s an admirable goal! I will, however, believe it when I see it.
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