Steam Labs Experiment 010: Browsing Steam amounts to nothing less than the biggest potential change to Steam Discovery we've seen since the launch of Steam Direct.

Full disclosure: I worked on this feature, and not just a little bit. I was a contractor working for Valve on Steam Labs experiments up until about six months ago. This particular experiment, spearheaded by Valve designer Christen Coomer, represents nothing less than the fulfillment of every single other project I worked on at Steam Labs. When I left I had no idea when or even if it would ship, and now that it's public I'm incredibly excited to talk about it.

Okay, so what is Experiment 010?

It's a big 'ol browse menu right on the front page of Steam. It's in beta as a Steam Labs experiment and you'll need to opt-in to it with this link.

It looks like this:

Valve wrote a gigantic blog post about it which I highly recommend you go ahead and read right now. I'll wait.

This new update completely overhauls Steam's main browse navigation. To understand it better, let's take a step back and look at the status quo.

If you go to the standard browse interface on the front page, you will see a few tabs – Your Store, and Browse have their own sub-menus, the other three are just links.

"Your Store" has a list of various recommendation engines and tags from games you've played recently:

Browse is broken down into a couple very high level and broad categories:

The existing interface isn't particularly well organized and mostly just serves up big, generic, top-level categories. It also doesn't seem particularly well aligned with how market research indicates customers want to browse the Steam store (are enough people really shopping for productivity software on the world's biggest computer game store to dedicate an entire column to it?)

The new design cleans this up significantly, replacing "Browse" with two new top-level tabs: New & Noteworthy and Categories.

New & Noteworthy features various lists of relevant new things, but the blog post claims it "also provides direct access to the biggest events currently running Steam—including game festivals, publisher sales, and other seasonal celebrations". So any limited-time events, whether it's a global Steam promotion or something organized by a developer or publisher group themselves, will presumably appear here.

Categories is a big whopping menu:

...which is itself broken down into Special Sections, Genres, Themes, and Social & Players.

According to the blog post, these menus & sections are more aligned with the kinds of "entry points" players are actually looking for.

Clicking on any of these links will take you to a dedicated home page for that category, that is basically its own "miniature Steam front page":

These hubs are more than just a flat list of games. It gives you all the typical steam page structure:

  • Highlight / feature carousel
  • Top lists:
    • New & Trending
    • Top Sellers
    • What's Being Played
    • Top Rated
    • Upcoming
  • Current specials / games on sale

It's fairly basic for now, but it's easy to see how this could be expanded. You also have a little cluster of "Narrow by Tag" selections that let you drill down further.

Now, some of you will have noticed the title of the given hub – "Building & Automation Sims". There is no specific steam tag for that concept, what you're looking at is a cluster of concepts that forms a larger category.

The blog post goes into great detail about how and why these categories were chosen (seriously go read it now) – it was a mixture of numerical analysis, intuition, and methods drawn from library science / knowledge organization research (much thanks to Allan Christophersen of the Royal Danish Library for tutoring us on this subject)

This new menu does a couple of things:

  1. It exposes the fact that there are a lot of different niches on Steam
  2. It gives every significant category of game on Steam a proper home
  3. It increases the surface area of Steam's catalog visible from the front page
  4. It invites players to discover, become fans of, and bookmark entire new categories of games

You see, so far the approach to discovery has mostly been oriented around showing the right individual titles to players, when Steam should also be thinking about properly highlighting the categories themselves.

The average Steam player might not even know that "City Builders" or "Automated Factory sims" are a "thing" on Steam. This new feature opens their eyes to that and invites them to come see all that each category has to offer.

Ask yourself – what's your chance of being #1 on a top seller list? #5? #10? Even for a day?

Not great, right?

Now, let's say you're making an Action Roguelike. What's your chance of being #1, #5, or #10 within that category?

Plausibly achievable, right? You can at least imagine it happening.

And if you can gain some measure of success within your category, you can build off of that and work your way onto the front page itself. And at the very least you have a concrete achievement you can justifiably brag about next time you're looking for funding.

Why This Matters

Look at this scary graph -

What you're looking at is a graph of new reviews posted in the given month, for every game on Steam.

(The regular spikes correspond to the dates of the Steam Winter and Summer sales, and the really big spikes starting in 2016 probably correspond to nomination periods for the Steam Awards, which are based on user reviews.)

Reviews are a (very rough) proxy for sales performance, so what you're basically looking at is how Steam has grown over time and who has benefited the most from that growth.

Each colored segment shows what share of the monthly reviews went to different performing percentiles of games on Steam:

Black top 0.1%
Red top 1%
Gold top 5%
Blue top 10%
Pink bottom 90%

If you crunch the numbers you get something like this:

~30% of all reviews go to the top 0.1% of games
~70% of all reviews go to the top 1% of games
~90% of all reviews go to the top 5% of games
~95% of all reviews go to the top 10% of games

...which means that the bottom 90% of games on Steam are carving up about 5% of the reviews amongst themselves.

Reviews ≠ sales, but we know they are roughly correlated and we have every reason to expect that revenue follows a similar power law distribution.

I don't think Steam is particularly different from any other platform in this regard. Yes, it's open admissions policy means it has a lot more low performing games that might steepen the graph a bit, but I'm confident a graph of sales on PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch will obey the same power law.

But as Winston Churchill never said, "Steam is the worst platform, except for all of the others." Have you used a major console store lately? If your game isn't actively featured, it's practically invisible. Steam has an opportunity to break away from the pack and properly grapple with it's ever-increasing catalog size by leaning hard into Experiment 010.

Just imagine what a difference it could make if we flattened this curve by even a few percentage points. The bottom 90% of games on Steam are making such a small percentage of the overall revenue that even a tiny change could double or triple their annual revenue. Heck, the same might even be said for the bottom half of the top 10%.

To put this in perspective, here's a recent twitter poll I asked of my many gamedev followers:

In other words:

  • 32 developers would go bust but for $1,000
  • 32 developers would go bust but for $10,000
  • 21 developers would go bust but for $100,000

It's just a twitter poll, but the results jibe with what I've seen in real life cases from developer friends. And I've lived it! I definitely remember years not so long ago where but for $2,000 or $5,000 I'd have long since quit the industry.

And no, these struggling developers aren't just "garbage shovelware developers" as I expect some will allege. Even if we could agree on an objective standard for that (which we can't), people forget how many extremely talented developers are living on the margins, or are based outside of the US and Western Europe where cost of living is much lower. Moving the needle just a tiny bit can make a huge difference.

And if you don't care about the fate of tiny devs, keep in mind that tiny devs that don't die eventually grow up to be big devs.

Fall Guys was Mediatonic's ~130th game.

InnerSloth, the developer of Among Us, includes veterans from the Flash scene. The Flash ecosystem, to which I and countless other developers owe our careers, was once a glorious "minor league" of game development where a medicore game could make a medicore amount of revenue and you could slowly and steadily earn money while growing your skills. Now it's totally dead.

These two recent hit games became hits because their devs managed to live long enough to eventually beat the odds. Move the needle just a bit in the wrong direction and they'd never have happened at all.

Moving the Needle

Experiment 010 is still currently an experiment, and players have to opt-in to even see it. The real proof in the pudding will be to see if it can actually drive sales and flatten the power curve, but we won't get a chance to see that happen unless it graduates from Steam Labs and becomes a public feature for everybody on Steam.

And for that to happen, Valve needs to get feedback that this feature matters to developers. Yes, Valve should do a better job with outreach, and maybe not release crucial experimental features on the same day as Cyberpunk 2077's earth-shattering launch day.

All that aside, the fact remains this feature can make a big material difference in the lives of smaller developers and that makes it our problem to make sure Valve hears us loud and clear.

So please, please, plase, send Valve your feedback. And that includes critical feedback! Having worked on this myself, I'm well aware of the ways it isn't perfect and I can think of many ways it could be improved, and I'm sure you can too. So please do one of the following:

  1. If you have a Steam rep, email them
  2. If you don't have a Steam rep, tweet @Steamworks on twitter
  3. Either way, leave a comment on the blog post

Postscript

Yes, I know a lot of you have comments to make about the quality of Steam user tags. Suffice it to say I can and will write an entire article on that subject. I spent nearly a year working on improving tags on Steam, I take classification extremely seriously, and now that I'm independent I'm even running my own experiments.

On my site GameDataCrunch I'm using trained, paid, human-powered classification to slowly clean up Steam's tags & metadata. My budget is tiny and the hours I can give my staff are limited, but initial efforts have been promising – see this tweet thread for a fun case study with "Cooking" games with a surprise happy ending.