You may have heard that recently a particular trio of Youtubers were invited by Valve to visit their offices in Seattle. The trio were John Bain (also known as Totalbiscuit), Genna Bain (CEO to CynicalBrit and wife of John) and Jim Sterling. Unlike what is expected of most game company visits, their invitation instead led to a 6-hour meeting regarding the future of Valve’s digital distribution platform Steam.
Both John Bain and Jim Sterling have made a video a regarding their impression of the meeting and what has been discussed within it. They also clearly state that neither of them are under any NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) for this information and are free to share what they have been told.
For your convenience, we’ve compiled for you what has been mentioned in both videos. An important point to start with was that the attendees, besides the aforementioned trio, also included Senior staff from Valve, including Robin Walker. This early on made clear that Valve seems pretty serious about tackling the issues that plague its platform. It’s also important to note that Totalbiscuit was in contact with people from Valve months before this meeting, and that they reached out first and wanted to have a conversation.
There are three main topics described, each of which were dug into in detail. The topics being Steam Direct, Steam Curation and the current state of the Steam Store. Included were also a few ideas for features and programs. All of these were subjects Valve wanted help for in the form of feedback and consultation.
Starting off with Steam Direct, an upcoming feature designed to replace Steam Greenlight, requiring developers to pay a flat fee before being permitted to submit a game to the Steam store.
Jim Sterling, who has dedicated a vast portion of his Youtube videos towards exposing terrible games and asset flips on Steam Greenlight, started out with asking why titles such as Air Control can manage to get on Steam. The Valve staff answered that they like to be “surprised”, citing that visual novels were the reason for this as they were unaware how popular this genre was and would furthermore prove to be later down the line.
While Jim notes there haven’t been any specific numbers yet on the monetary charge for Steam Direct, Valve is considering lower numbers, possibly up to a 1000$, though he doubts that will be the case. The idea is to keep it affordable so there are doubts it’ll change much from 100$. Valve also happened to mention that, while most developers pushed for the amount to be lower, a few developers were actively pressuring Valve to push the amount higher for a submission, but Valve shared no names. Finally, he states that Valve is aware whenever a developer wipes their steam forums clean. This is particularly interesting when considering that most developers that are intent on silencing criticism, have been known to do this.
The main concern regarding Steam Direct (and in extent, the Steam Store Frontpage) is discoverability. Steam for a long while has had several discovery systems in place, including a discovery queue and recommendations based on an algorithm that includes curators you follow and tags of the games you’ve been playing, among others. Valve considers it functioning relatively well, but admits there are improvements to be made.
Valve would like to further improve it by providing you almost every piece of data that lead to you being recommended a certain game if you so desire. This data won’t include sales data, but rather through what means or impressions it was recommended to you, giving you the specific information such as distribution between it being recommended by friends, curators or it simply befitting the tags the store has associated with you because of the games you play and for how long.
They also stated therefore that it would be easier to show to their users that terrible games aren’t getting as much attention from the steam store as was suspected and whether any impressions came from external sources such as videos, Tweets or Reddit posts using them as a platform for comedy or mockery. However, if genuinely terrible games were getting attention through the Steam store somehow, they would then be able to deal with that by showing this data to everybody. In other words, if a terrible game is recommended to you, you’ll be able to visit a page showing where the impressions or recommendations are coming from, allowing you make any necessary adjustments if so desired. This data is said to be real-time and accessible by anyone.
The stated end goal would be that everyone’s steam page will be different and personalized perfectly to them based on the data that they have i.e. if it works you’ll never see a game you’re not interested in, ever again. Totalbiscuit remarks that doing this in a precise manner for someone who ‘may not even know what they want themselves’ is a huge challenge. However, he counters that with the argument that, instead, these data-driven algorithms with consumer behavior can predict what a customer may like that they haven’t even thought of yet. He calls it a “taste maker” of sorts, letting users experience and discover titles they otherwise wouldn’t have thought of themselves, broadening their horizon and potentially experience something outside of their comfort zone.
Jim notes in his own video that Developers will no longer be marked as anything special on Steam either, just as a regular user, stating that Valve apparently wants to clear the playing field on the Steam Community pages. He was also directly informed that his coverage of bad games did not translate to increased sales of those games.
Another new feature that was shared was called the Explorers program. Once launched, it will be a sign-up or opt-in program where participants get shown an exploration list of games that fit certain criteria, the criteria being the games that failed to reach a certain cap of exposure within their first couple of weeks of sale. This system would allow these Explorers to dig through and find any hidden gems that deserve more exposure than they otherwise would have gotten. This list they are presented would be based on the users’ specific habits and tags they have selected. These Explorers can then buy these games and assess them.
Valve is unsure on what to do with the assessment yet and is toying with ideas such as a survey after a certain amount of play time. Other data such as how much and for how long you’ve played the game, possibly in one sitting, could be collected too.
Two important things to note for this. First off, Explorers will still have to pay for the actual product with their own money. However, one of the possible perks that Valve is thinking of in terms of incentive is to instead permit Explorers one refund a week. No questions asked, no strings attached, no maximum time played and it will not count towards your regular amount of refunds you’d normally be limited to. Totalbiscuit likens it to a free review copy.
Valve was also given suggestions regarding rewards, such as badges and other little perks to apply to your account. Included in the discussion were exclusive (properly moderated) forums where the Explorers can discuss various titles, compared to a book club of sorts where Explorers can have meaningful and helpful discussions. Valve further states that the sort of person to partake in the Explorer program would be different from the average user, typically users that are often out looking for something new and out of the ordinary in the intent of digging up a hidden gem. They believe that these participants should be rewarded for their efforts but don’t want it to be something that can be easily abused.
As a result, any games that are flagged as worthwhile by Explorers would then be pushed towards more discovery lists and get more attention on the front page of Steam. This would be based on the tags that you select or your previous gaming preferences and such. The Valve staff said that this was their hope with Steam Greenlight, but that they recognized that there was no incentive for it, leaving them to watch the usage drop off. Realizing early on that Greenlight wasn’t going to work, they had been gradually working towards a replacement of it as they knew interest and engagement would wear off. They, however, had no idea how corrupt the system would become with various small companies and groups setting up specifically to game the system.
When the topic moved over to Curators, Totalbiscuit stated that Curators simply didn’t have enough tools to do their job properly, with their submissions only showing to the people who follow the Curator in the first place. He recognizes however that some people may not want to see recommendations from Curators they don’t follow. One of the suggestions was that if any Curators have commented on a game but the user on the page in question is not following any of them, that it would then inform said user that there have been comments on it, suggesting that they have a look at what they are.
Another suggestion would be to improve the tag system, giving Curators their own dedicated cloud of tags that they can apply to games, separate from the main cloud of tags currently in use. This would be useful in cases where Curators such as Totalbiscuit make a significant distinction between terms such as RogueLite and Roguelike. As RogueLite is largely underrepresented on Steam, with Totalbiscuit believing most are erroneously tagged as RogueLike, this would prove to be useful for followers of his Curator that deem that distinction important. He describes it as an “ecosystem within an ecosystem”.
Totalbiscuit later states that Valve has also shown a mockup of a system being worked on where Curators can form their own lists of suggestions that the curator themselves can make and curate as they so desire. A few examples of this are top ten of a specific genre, but it may also become possible to automate some of these in case of a Steam Sale or such.
Furthermore, they’ve also thought of Social or Information feed integration. Despite what it sounds like it, he urges it doesn’t mean the user will be spammed with Facebook or Twitter posts. Instead, a curator will be able to use these pages to directly deliver information to you. Another idea was to also be able to follow a Curator without having to be part of the Steam Group they are associated with. Finally, there were also some smaller quality of life improvements mentioned such as being able to play a linked video directly in the page without having to navigate away or open a new tab.
Finally, they asked Totalbiscuit for a ‘laundry list’ of desired fixes in terms of the back-end for curators. He states that he hopes these improvements will encourage others to set up their own Curator themselves, as more Curators will result in an overall improvement of the steam store. Valve added that they intended to give Curators far more influence for discovery queues and front page appearances.
Starting off, one of his suggestions was letting the “read the full review” button contextually change when it actually links to a video. He would also like for Curators to have more advanced editing tools for existing entries, as it currently takes far too many clicks to do and finding older entries will prove an even more arduous task for Curators who frequently put in entries. Furthermore, he’d like there to be incentives to be a curator, including rewards, a level system with unlockable perks, and data transparency that will tell curators the statistics of their influences such as how many people were lead to a game page through the Curator page. Dedicated Curators will feel more useful when they can see the actual impact of their actions.
A final incentive for Curators is the Keymailer system. With it, developers will be able to give access to their games to people directly through the steam client without having to e-mail a key. There are several benefits for this system.
First off, with curators having more tools to properly represent themselves and their interests would lead to developers being able to more effectively give access to dedicated groups that will more likely be interested in playing the game. Curators that are dedicated to a specific genre are more likely to be interested, as opposed to the process of developers strewing keys around and hoping someone ‘bites’. Finally, Totalbiscuit suggests that developers try not to throw their ‘keys’ at large channels or Let’s Play channels that focus more on the personality playing the game, and instead opt for channels that have dedicated coverage of specific genres, which more often than not happen to be smaller channels as well.
Secondly, it also will help crack down on Steam key fraud. Currently, there are third party gray market websites that obtain keys through often illegal means. While much of this happens through credit card fraud, many are also obtained through what is called ‘social engineering’. The latter largely happens when someone impersonates a specific media figure such as a famous Youtuber and requests a review copy through e-mail. If instead, a developer can directly provide access to their game through the Curator system, the risk that they will be tricked by a scammer will be greatly reduced.
For Curators and Developers to make optimal use of this system, they would be required to properly tag their games and/or their interests, including a filter for Developers to help sift through appropriate curators. Reversely, Curators would then be able to tag specific genres they have absolutely no interest in. When giving out access, Developers would then be able to provide a short “elevator pitch” to help convince the curator to try their game. Besides the pitch, they would then also include any screenshots and embargo dates if applicable.
Larger Curators and media figures will mostly not benefit from this system, as they generally will get any key they desire anyway, and larger companies generally don’t need the system to properly advertise their game. However smaller curators and indie developers will benefit far more, as indie developers can more directly share and give access to more targeted audiences while smaller and more dedicated Curators will be preferred as they will provide more specific and useful information for their audiences.
Informative Curators would be rewarded as well, however. Curators recently have been able to mark their submissions as positive, negative or informative. Valve has recognized several of these curators and found value in their submissions as well, such as a curator specifically dedicated to informing whether there are fan dubs available for a specific game and where to find them.
The Good, The Bad, and The Fake
Finally, Valve stressed that they consider curators as key to making sure good games get attention while bad games will become invisible. However, they added that they didn’t want to be “arbiters” of what is a good game and what isn’t, as that it in many cases proves quite subjective. They don’t want to deny a game that may have an audience, from finding that audience. Totalbiscuit even calls them gunshy when it comes to that.
However, Valve is very much aware of there being games that are very obviously worthless. These include games that are scams, asset flips or even used to simply launder money and ‘mill’ trading cards. Valve has given them a category of its own called “fake games”. Steam Direct will serve to make these games unprofitable and unable to make money.
The main motivation for the creation of these games is to make any amount of profit, no matter how small, and most of the time they are created in a short amount of time using assets bought or pirated from the Unity store. Once made and released, they quickly have trading cards made for them and put up for sale at 99 cents. Some of the ideas presented for this include a minimum cost for access to trading cards or a minimum number of sold copies.
What is also revealed is that Valve has employed several companies to support them on various tasks. One of them does basic QA where they test whether the game has an .exe, runs, has a virus and whether it loads or even has an actual game within it. They, however, do state that they can’t determine whether a game is an asset flip, and hope they can rely on curators to spot these. While unwilling to provide a report button for these games in order to request removal of the store, they were more open to providing a set of rules that developers would have to follow under the Steam Direct system. Any offenses are punishable, with punishments including removing from the steam store altogether. This would largely be used for abusive developers who have shown a tendency to abuse copyright or trademark law, with the debacle between Jim Sterling and Digital Homicide being the most appropriate example for this. Valve also mentions that companies with a tendency to take down criticism on third party websites will not be exempt from punishment either.
When it comes to games that are just simply ‘bad’, they consider it a subjective matter and feel that the improved discovery and curation system will make sure users don’t see them unless they go out and explicitly seek them out. They won’t be banned and will very much be able to be played, as they don’t want to dictate what kind of games you can play.
When it comes to support, Valve also had a few extra things to share. They’ve revealed that they have also hired two external companies to provide the vast majority of frontline support with issues (so yes, steam support does exist). They consider that most of the tickets are being answered in a reasonable fashion at reasonable speeds and that any with further problems can usually solve it with the automated refund system.
Valve adds that despite that, they still have a dedicated division within Valve for tickets that the outsourced companies can’t deal with. Totalbiscuit stresses that he has seen this division with his own eyes and that they are actually, physically there.
It seems that Valve certainly takes its own store page serious, understanding their position within the video game market and showing that they are aware of the wreckage that Steam Greenlight has left behind. Both in terms of a store saturated with bad games and the aforementioned “fake games”, as well as the wreckage that remains of the trust many of its users had before. There was a time where landing on the Steam Store was almost a pipe dream for beginning or indie developers, a place where only the best titles appeared and landing on it would guarantee you shipping copies, even if you barely advertised your game.
The way forward is the only way accessible, and Valve seems to have convinced both Totalbiscuit and Jim Sterling for now that, while there is still much work to be done, these ideas certainly seem like a step in the right direction. But as is stressed before by both, these ideas run on ‘Valve-time’ and can take any variety of time before they arrive, but they do add that Valve wishes for at least a large part to be ready by the time Steam Direct launches.
Totalbiscuit finally adds as well that, while the freely available data will be very useful as a long-term solution to help better Steam, that Valve in interim still intervenes in specific cases. Cases such as asset flips, blatant ripoffs, games that don’t qualify as games at all, and games that infringe on copyright or intellectual property. In the past, it took extreme actions from developers before Valve was urged to step in and stop doing business with a company, with examples such as the case with Digital Homicide directly subpoenaing Valve, and an actual death threat towards Gabe Newell.
It’s not every day that you see Valve reaching out and opening up their offices and their ears for input from outsiders. But at some point even they had to recognize that what happened with Steam Greenlight and abusive Developers was something they could no longer stay silent about. What I am positively surprised by is how it appeared they kept going beneath the surface to come up with ideas to improve their service. Stressing that they are very much aware of what goes on, but perhaps do not have the liberty or courage to act upon or make statements in a quick fashion.
Valve is in a difficult position, one that no other video game company has been in before. Treading new ground constantly, it would appear that they recognize that every action can have long lasting consequences. If their intent shows that they wish to help improve, grow and mature the PC Gaming market as a whole, then I would consider that commendable indeed. And while you may understandably have criticisms about the personality and presentation of either Totalbiscuit and Jim Sterling as a person, I feel it may prove to be a far harder argument that they are disingenuine when it matters. Here’s to hoping this is a new, positive chapter for PC Gaming, and Gaming as a whole.