There’s been a lot of talk this year about market issues and oversaturation, usually regarding steam, with opinions ranging from “my good game sold bad, indiepocalypse!” to “I still sold well, so its your fault if you didn’t!”. There is quite a bit of overreaction in both directions here, it’s naive to blame steam/external factors over why your game didn’t sell well, but it’s also naive to say there aren’t any issues at all with the market, or Steam in particular (since steam IS the market right now). As a developer with a few games on steam currently, and more coming in the future, I’d like to point out a few real issues with steam right now (from both a consumer and a developer perspective), and some potential ideas on what steam could do to fix them. So here is my 2016 Steam wishlist:
1. Make user reviews more useful
Search any obscure-ish newly released game on steam. If its not complete trash, it should have at least a “very positive” review score. There’s a lot of reasons for why this is the case, but the main one is devs have to find their own audience now, so you mostly just get people who are already interested in your game purchasing it, and only people with a strong opinion on it will bother to review. Small games will typically get <50 reviews, a sampling of the games biggest fans (those who bothered to buy it at launch, and liked it enough to bother reviewing).
I’ll admit, its a good feeling. Its awesome to look at Bombernauts and see 95% positive ratings. But the only thing it tells me is that there’s no glaring issues or crashes that cause someone to immediately go write a bad review. I don’t get an accurate idea of how good my game actually is (from review score alone, at least). But more importantly, neither does anyone else. A 95% positive rating doesn’t actually tell you if a game is worth buying. A 90% is even worse. On top of all of this, with low numbers of reviews a single negative review can have a massive effect on a games score (and it does have an effect on store placement and search results)
Valve doesn’t have any reliable metric of whether a game is great or not besides sales numbers. If review scores were reliable and meaningful, suddenly there would be a good way of finding “hidden gems”. Many of my future points here will reference this ability to find hidden gems, so its kind of the keystone to all of this.
My solution, simply, would be to just gamify writing reviews the same way they’ve gamified a lot of other things in steam. Offer a trading card or a coupon for being in the first 200 or so people to write a review for a game. Grant some gems for writing highly rated “helpful” reviews. Encourage writing reviews within steam (stick a button under “play” in their library for games they’ve played more than X hours of). Make a leaderboard for accounts with the most total “Helpful” votes on their reviews.
2. Hire more support and developer relations staff
Everyone knows this, consumers complain about it all the time, how long it takes to get a response from steam support if there’s a problem. Its the same for developers too. There’s a lot of communication issues with valve, and it seems like its almost entirely because they seem reluctant to grow their support / dev-relations teams at the same rate as they’re gaining users / developers. The easy solution to this one should be pretty obvious… hire more people! I also personally think valve should spin steam off into its own separate company, so they can get around valve’s unique hiring process and expand as much as they should be expanding.
Much like Valve should be communicating to consumers more about security and downtime issues, they should be communicating better to devs about upcoming market changes (such as refunds or paid mods) and asking for feedback instead of just letting us find out when everyone else does.
3. Lets make sales less stale
This is actually a really common consumer complaint with the major steam sales (summer, autumn, and winter) recently. The sales are stale. Sale burnout. Etc. “I already own every game on sale”. There are over 10000 games on sale for the winter sale this year, so that complaint isn’t entirely accurate, but there is a reason people feel that way. Part of this is because steam mostly features games that have already sold well, so there’s a much larger chance you already own what’s being featured. Part of this is its just impossible to sort through 10000 games to find ones you are interested in, same as how its impossible to sort through 10000 games when they’re NOT on sale. There’s too many choices, you don’t know what to get.
I have a bit more specific of a suggestion for this than other topics here: Themed sales throughout the year, based on the tagging system. One a week. Pick a new tag every week, and feature the highest rated games within that category in a themed sale. Keep the summer/autumn/winter sales the same way they are, as there absolutely still is a place for “everything is on sale” sales. I would love these as a consumer and as a developer, personally. “Here’s the highest rated Voxel games on steam! 50% off!” “Best Zombie games!” “Best ‘Great Soundtrack’ games!”. It would be new, exciting, and more about finding new things than just waiting for specific things to go on sale.
Also… hide sales and deals and features if you already own that game in your library. Give more obscure games “tier 2” and “tier 3” sales spots where they replace already owned featured games in the featured list or something. Allow people to “X” out featured games they aren’t ever going to be interested in and stick a new game in its place.
4. More curated discoverability
I don’t think anyone really likes algorithmic discoverability. I want recommendations hand picked by someone who can vouch, “I think you’ll enjoy this game”, not a computer algorithm which only really has some tags, sales, and unreliable review scores to go by. Basically, I want some hand picked features/recommendations. You could argue that theres too many games now for steam to hand review or hand pick new games, or that this is what the curator system is meant for, but there still remains an issue that stuff will get overlooked if someone isn’t checking every new release.
There actually are a few steam reviewers out there who are checking almost every newly released game on steam (or at least all the ones in a specific tag/category). I’ve never heard of them until they emailed me asking for a steam key after finding my game on the new releases list, because steam doesn’t really promote its reviewers. Hire these people! Pick them up and get them to be your game evangelists, who make recommendations to the steam team over which new games are worthy of featuring.
Back when Newgrounds was getting over 300 submissions a day, the staff there still managed to do a great job of hand picking features from new games without really overlooking anything. User ratings filtered out the crap, and the staff sorted through the stuff that floated to the top. Little lists of the highest rated games each day were a quick and easy way to figure out what’s worth checking out at a glance.
None of this means getting rid of the current sales focused charts and features, just that I’d really like an officially endorsed “steam curator” that has prominent placement on the storefront, and accepts responsibility in checking most newly released games for their qualities.
5. The Little Things
How about some affiliate links and discount codes. People have mentioned these before, so I won't bother elaborating too much, but as a quick reminder: Affiliate links are links were people can earn small amounts of money (preferably from steam's cut, not the developers) if people buy a game through the affiliate/referral link. Discount codes would be codes people can enter to get a discount (for a limited time, or limited number of copies), which you can easily get analytics data from. Selling on steam now requires gaining your audience externally, so where are all the tools to help devs in doing that?
Why are reviews and curators separate things? I personally think if you write a review it should automatically create a curator page for you and add your thumbs-up reviews to it. Or just let people subscribe to reviewers the same way you can subscribe to curators.
Use system specs and the hardware survey to warn people if they can’t run a game they’re trying to purchase. Use the hardware survey to help people send accurate system specs to devs when they need support. Steam knows what your hardware is, why not use it for all these very useful things instead of just some basic analytics?
Expiring steam keys (key is disabled if it goes unredeemed for X days/weeks) would also be a very appealing tool for giveaways or bundles or various types of promotions that are getting taken advantage of by key resellers (also Valve, please stop allowing Dota2/CS:GO teams to be sponsored by G2A).
I would also love some better analytics tools such as being able to see which specific steam keys have been redeemed to help assist in making marketing decisions (or say, which sales come from which external sources). It might be a security concern, but seeing which steam account redeemed a specific steam key would also be a very useful tool in combating youtube spoofing fraud or other types of key scams.
Well, that's my 2016 Steam wishlist. I don't expect steam to add all or any of these suggestions, but I do think most of these would have only a positive effect on the state of the market right now, whether you're a consumer or a developer.
Appendix: Since writing this article (and waiting for it to be approved, forgot about new years being a holiday), I made another observation relating to point number 4 above (curated storefronts). The app store on ipad/iphone actually has a really nice curated section on it, which has basically completely separate choices compared to their "Top Grossing" chart. The "Great Games for iPad Pro" list has 3 categories right now: "Gorgeous Games", "Fantastic Sounds", and "Big Screen, Big Fun" and features games such as Sworcery, Threes, Broken Age, and a bunch of other more obscure yet pretty good looking games.
I also know from talking to iOS devs that apple takes interest in promising upcoming games and plans for feature spots for them ahead of release (as opposed for waiting for a game to prove it can sell well before offering a featured spot). Apple is doing a really great job here, to the point where I often find myself just looking at their features if I'm in need of a good ipad game for a plane trip, something that I used to do on steam, but not anymore. Maybe "Steam is becoming iOS!!!" isn't such a bad thing after all?
In a way I think the prevalence of billion-dollar-grossing F2P crap on the app store sort of twisted apple's hand into actually curating their storefront, because nobody would be interested in a storefront that just continually featured stuff like "Candy Crush" and "Vegas Slots". These games sell just fine without apple's help, so its great that apple seems to be helping out the great games that actually need the help instead.