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While the Popular Upcoming list on Steam is a great place for developers to get their games noticed on the front page, the system might be causing more harm than good.
The issue was brought up by No More Robots' Mike Rose (a former Gamasutra editor), who explained how the feature could potentially be manipulated (intentionally or not) by developers to create an unfair advantage.
Steam takes the release date for each game set in the Steam backend and then lists all the titles with a fair amount of wishlist numbers, in order of when they are supposedly coming out.
Rose points out that this is where manipulation can come in. "Here's the thing: You can set *any* date for your game's release in the Steam backend, and it means nothing," he writes.
"You can set a date, and let it go by. Then you can set another date, and let it go by again. Setting this date has no meaning -- except for appearing in the Upcoming list."
Developers could manipulate the system so their game shows up over and over on the Upcoming list, leaving titles which are actually coming out soon to be pushed back from the list on the front page. He lists Steel Division II as an example.
"This is a genuine issue, because as we all know having your title on the front page of Steam, even in an Upcoming list, can be a big deal for wishlists/sales," Rose continues.
If the Upcoming list doesn't actually show upcoming games, it hurts other developers.
Tom Giardino, who works on the Steam Business team at Valve, chimed in and said that it's an issue the company is aware of and wants to fix.
"This was a big topic of discussion yesterday, and it frustrates us for the same reasons it frustrates you. But it's also super important that devs get to control their own release timing so we don't want to mess with that," Giardino said.
"I'm very wary of making promises or setting incorrect expectations, but: We also care about this and are trying to fix it in a way that makes Upcoming Releases more valuable without hurting games that wish to shift their release date."
Only time will tell if the system will be tweaked or not.
Update: A representative of Steel Division II developer Eugen Systems has publicly refuted Rose's claim that Eugen intentionally manipulated the game's release date for promotional purposes, noting in a Twitter post that "We didn't manipulate the system. The release date has been set on Apr 4, 2019 in Steam backoffice [sic] for a long time. We have no idea why 'March 5th' is still po[p]ping."
War for the Overworld developer Scott Richmond jumped in to share a screenshot of independent Steam-tracking tool SteamDB which purportedly shows that Eugen changed the release date of the game weeks ago, and to suggest that this issue may in part be due to confusion caused by Steam's backend having both "Store" and "Steam" release date values.