Steam Goes Social

The games platform’s “Discovery Update” enables curators to share their recommendations—and challenges game-makers to reinvent their marketing strategies.

Change was in the wind when Valve rolled out a slicker, cleaner Steam interface to its users earlier this year. The old, familiar gray was replaced with a deep, inviting blue to match the couch-friendly Big Picture mode, and users were given a cleaner and more flexible interface for viewing and cataloguing their game libraries. But one thing was missing: a long-awaited update to its storefront, which was growing increasingly hard to navigate in the eyes of many users.

Aside from a fresh coat of deep-blue paint, this week’s Steam Discovery Update delivers a significant redesign to the storefront and introduces some crucial new features. Instead of static featured sections and charts, the Steam storefront now gives prime real estate to contextual recommendations based on your wishlist and the suggestions of Steam Curators: game tastemakers that users can choose to follow.

In brief, here’s why this is happening:

1. Valve recognizes that Steam’s traditional store interface can’t keep up with the rapid growth of its library.

2. Steam also acquired 25 million new users in the last nine months - a 33% net increase. Its userbase is growing and diversifying far faster than before, which means there’s an increased focus on making sure purchase and engagement rates rise as well in order to monetize as effecrively as possible.

3. Print publications wither and online gaming publications struggle to survive, while YouTube personalities and livestreamers capture hundreds of millions of fans who look to them for guidance on what games to play. As traditional critics and Metascores grow increasingly irrelevant to the marketplace, Valve recognizes that its users want editorial parity within the point of sale: Steam.

My take is that this is a wise move for Steam, a nod of acknowledgement to independent voices in gaming, a potentially great thing for the majority of users, a moment of panic for traditional publications’ accounting departments and a wake-up call to a whole lot of game developers and traditional publishers. I’ll do my best to address each of these points of view, bearing in mind that I’m simultaneously a Steam user, a list curator (which you should follow!) and a developer interested in publishing on Steam.

Steam

With this update, Steam’s visual language is once again internally consistent. The store looks like the library, and the library looks like Big Picture mode, and that means we’ve got a platform that finally looks like it’s past the chrysalis stage of design.

This also represents a big bet on how Steam users can be monetized most effectively, but I’d argue it’s a pretty conservative and safe bet at this point. Steam is a network as much as it’s a store.

Independent Critics and Content Creators

As of this writing, more than half of the top ten curators are independent broadcasters and critics famous on YouTube and Twitch. Only three curated lists come from traditional publications.

As of this writing, more than half of the top ten curators are independent broadcasters and critics famous on YouTube and Twitch. Only three curated lists come from traditional publications.

Another reason this change was necessary is the exponential increase in game releases year over year. Steam’s library has grown by 35% in 2014—up to 3,700 games. Even an armada of blogs, podcasters, journalists and critics can’t keep up with this relentless release schedule, and the practice of dropping a carefully coordinated slew of reviews on release day is now a luxury reserved only for the biggest triple-A releases.

However, independent content producers (hey, that sounds like us!) have a strong and single responsibility to their fans. That enables them to skip the games that don’t matter to their base and focus on discovering and highlighting the things they specialize in. As fan tastes continue to diversify and be refined, so too do the perspectives of the curators.

Valve is putting its cards on the table, and it believes these voices are the most powerful in driving engagement and purchasing. At the same time, it’s not shutting out traditional media—but they’ve got a lot to learn about competing in this space.

Users

From a user’s point of view, the changes are striking. The storefront’s design flow remains largely unchanged for the consumer, with featured games splashed at the top and a descending priority of information from there. But wishlists and followed curators now dramatically influence the content you see. For example, games that are already on a user’s wishlist will now display a tiny badge alongside the game’s store placement, reminding users that at some point in time—whether in conscious anticipation or during a brief lark of intoxication—he or she had elected to queue this game up for a potential future purchase.

Steam now also automatically generates a queue for each user that’s composed of “the new, popular, and top-selling releases on Steam.” As with many of the new sections, this is largely customizable.

Below the queue is a list of recommended games from the curators you follow. It’s hard to tell how this section works at this point (especially because the “What is this?” contextual help link is broken right now) but games featured here appear to be chronological, so the most-recent recommendations will be shown first, rather than delivering a balanced mix of all the curators you follow.

And below all that, at long last, are the familiar elements: featured discounts, new releases, top sellers, and all the other heavy-data, low-real estate content we’re used to.

This has a couple of big effects on users. First, we’re encouraged to dig deep into our own wishlists much more frequently and to populate them with new discoveries and upcoming, anticipated games we hear about through the sources we follow. Second, we’re given a strong reason to find and follow curators to help populate our store pages with new, interesting recommendations—in effect, to curate our own choice of editorial content. Think Flipboard but for game suggestions.

Traditional Media

The games press probably still doesn’t know what to make of Steam Curators. Of course, lots of publications have already jumped on the bandwagon, and Kotaku and PC Gamer currently hold two slots in the top ten. But for the first time, they’re competing for trust and attention in a space they don’t own—and they’re up against content creators whom, up until recently, many traditional writers had preferred to ignore or imagine as hobbyists or enthusiasts instead of direct competitors.

Polygon’s beautiful feature articles, eloquent writers and rich design don’t matter on Steam. Here, it’s all about brevity, brand and trust. It’ll be interesting to see which publications figure out what makes this system tick and which ones miss the boat altogether.

Game Developers

Well, this changes things.

Unless you’ve got the benefit of a massive marketing budget backing your game, discoverability is often the biggest factor determining whether your game is a success or a flop on Steam. And with this update, Steam is effectively transforming how discoverability works.

Game developers—and indies in particular—will need to think hard about how to spend their precious marketing budgets. Who will you reach out to with Steam codes, interview offers and livestream permissions? How will your pre-launch campaign drive wishlist adoption and hype generation on Steam? How important is it for your game to pick up enough scored reviews through traditional media to register on Metacritic?

Closing

The curator update represents the biggest shift in Valve’s monetization strategy in years. Valve is banking on word-of-mouth and user-determined editorial generating the greatest trust and purchasing motivation, and traditional publications and game developers will need to learn to adapt quickly to stay relevant within this marketplace.

One last thing to consider: this also represents the biggest step away from console ecosystems that Steam has made in a long time. While the new Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft consoles all feature rudimentary social signals that may have a small effect on purchases, they all decisively eschew user-generated content in favor of maintaining strict control over store placement and promotions.

In essence, Valve is taking a bold and potentially risky step of elevating content creators above the whims of game publishers. If nothing else, it further cements Steam as the most-democratic games platform available. Whether or not that resonates with its audience remains to be seen, but if Tron taught us anything, it’s this: the good guys always fight for the users.