Steam: Valve Discusses The Challenges Of Making A Store That Works For Everyone

With its many thousands of games and more than 125 million users, Steam is a giant the PC gaming space. Developers use the platform to reach a wide audience, but as Valve acknowledges in a blog post, one of the challenges of Steam as a storefront is that it “has to serve so many players whose tastes and interests are not only different, but sometimes complete opposites.”

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A successful Steam store, in Valves eyes, would ideally meet the needs of all the different groups of people who spend time with it. This includes the following groups, defined by Valve:

  • Players who are highly connected to the online game community & conversations, and players who are totally unconnected
  • Players who browse the store looking for a game, and players who arrive already knowing the title they’re looking for
  • Players who come to the store once a month, and players who visit multiple times a day
  • Players who just want to buy the latest AAA title, and players who want to search for hidden gems
  • Players who want to play titles earlier in their development, and get involved in their evolution
  • Players who want games with specific attributes, such as a type of gameplay, support for a specific technology, translation to their local language, etc
  • Developers with AAA titles that have large, existing fan bases, and developers who are barely known, yet have a game that would be a hit if players found it
  • Developers who want to build deliberately niche games, and have them find that niche audience
  • Developers who want to get community feedback earlier in the development process

In a perfect world, the Steam store would treat all of these players in a “fair” manner, Valve said, but the tough part is that “these groups often have competing interests.”

“So it’s important to understand that if we’re not doing exactly what one group wants, it’s probably because we’re trying to weigh it against another group’s interests,” Valve said. “It might seem obvious that developers have some competing interests, but it’s also true on the player side–some players specifically enjoy exploring Early Access titles, while others never want to see them.”

Overall, the Steam store is a “design challenge,” Valve acknowledged, adding that it does not want to take the easy way out when it comes to its ambition to address everyone’s interests.

“We could make the problem a lot simpler by choosing to ignore some set of players or developers, but we think there are already stores that have chosen to do that, and it’s much more interesting to try and figure out how to build a single store that works for everyone,” Valve said.

Valve has already taken steps to improve the Steam store. The Discovery update helped players to find games that align with their interests, while Steam has also added refunds, reviews, and a curator system in an effort to create a more complete and consumer-friendly store.

A major part of what drives Steam is an algorithm that spotlights the games that players want to see based on a number of feedback points such as a purchase history and what past buyers have said and gone on to play later. The problem with the algorithm as it stands, Valve said, is that “it’s hard to know when they aren’t working as intended. Did we not show a game to a player because the algorithm correctly guessed that the player wouldn’t be interested in it? Or because there were other games it thought the player would be more interested in? Or just because of a bug?”

To improve things, Valve is planning to roll out “some features,” including one that is out now: a section on the game page that explains why the algorithm recommended what it did.

“This section will let you see inside the black box, and understand what the Store is thinking,” Valve said. “We hope it will be useful whenever you’re exploring the Store, but in particular, whenever you’ve navigated from an external web page directly to a specific game’s Store page. In those cases, this section will help you understand whether or not this game is something the Store would recommend to you. In other cases, you might be more or less interested in something the store recommends if you know exactly why it’s recommending it.

“For instance, knowing that a particular friend or curator likes or dislikes a game might make it clearer whether you’d like it. Finally, if the store recommends something you know you’re not interested in, you’ll be able to see where its decision making is going wrong, and tell us about it.”

Valve is planning at least two more blog posts that will cover the company’s vision for what the Steam store should be. The next post will talk about how “bad actors” have been taking advantage of the platform’s algorithms by confusing them and driving players to a product they may not want.

The third post will talk about the publishing fee for the Steam Greenlight replacement, Steam Direct. This was announced in February, and at the time, Valve said surveyed developers suggested prices ranging from $100 to $5000 per game. Presumably, Valve will announce the final fee value soon.

We’ll report back with more details as they are announced.

You can read Steam’s full blog post here.

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