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In a bid to curb the tide of low-quality video games hitting Steam in recent years, Valve will ask users of its digital distribution platform to sift through recent releases to find and highlight hidden gems. The company’s new program will recruit “Steam Explorers,” asking them to play through queues of Steam games, and giving them the chance to flag any they find promising. The more flags a game gets, the more visible it will be on the platform.
That’s according to Jim Sterling and John “TotalBiscuit” Bain — two prominent gaming YouTubers invited to Valve’s Bellevue head office to talk through the changes coming to the platform. Both detail the Explorer program in lengthy videos, describing how it will help Valve combat what the company calls “fake games” — derivative, broken, and poorly made titles churned out by potentially unscrupulous developers looking for quick cash.
Explorers, Sterling and Bain say, will focus on games that haven’t been selling well, digging through Steam’s vast catalog to ensure that interesting titles weren’t overlooked in a deluge of releases. Any Steam user can become an Explorer, and that those who do sign up will get their own forum.
The introduction of the Explorer program will also come with tweaks to the existing Steam Curator system. At present, Curators can simply list their favorite games on the platform, but Valve is reportedly adding a swath of new features. They’ll include the ability to embed videos, make smaller, discrete lists, and let users sort game selections by different metrics.
Most interestingly, Curators will also be told how a game’s inclusion in their list impacts its sales, and may even receive financial incentives from Valve itself. It’s not clear how Curators would earn or receive payment, but the company specified that it would now give game keys to Curators via Steam itself, not through email.
And it’s not just Curators that will get more information about game sales. According to Sterling and Bain, general Steam users will also be able to see how many page impressions a game on the Steam store has — acting as a vague gauge for its current — and they’ll be able to see exactly why they are being shown specific titles.
Valve announced in February that it would be shelving its Greenlight submission program in favor of a new system, called Steam Direct. Where Greenlight let users vote on any game submitted to the platform, Steam Direct forces developers to register with Valve, before paying an application fee (an undecided figure Valve says will be between $100 and $5,000) to get a game on the service.
The new system serves as Valve’s answer to complaints that Greenlight was filling Steam up with games that didn’t deserve to be on the platform. Users can, of course, elect not to buy these “fake games,” but with thousands of titles given the go-ahead on Greenlight, it has become harder and harder to find quality among the deluge of survival sims and Minecraft clones.
Many of these games recycle cheap or free assets, enabling the rapid production of “fake games.” The company also confirmed to Sterling and Bain that it would be overhauling its trading card system, specifying that many of these games made their money not from sales, but from percentages earned on card trades.
There are some worries with Valve’s new direction, though. As yet, Steam Direct offers nothing to stop Explorers from being manipulated (as some Greenlight users have been) into flagging specific games after pressure from their creators. In receiving more detailed breakdowns of their impact on a game’s sales, Curators may also be able to quietly charge publishers for a game’s inclusion in their lists, judging their rates by the boosts in revenue they’ve previously provided.
Potential problems exist within Steam’s current user base, too. While some of the platform’s users have already mobilized into quality-control groups, a particularly vocal faction is vehemently against certain titles they deem to not be “real” games, including calmer, gun-free experiences like Gone Home and Firewatch. Valve’s proposed flagging system could mean that similar games aren’t pushed down the charts by such users, but entrenched views may see them remaining overlooked.
It’s also strange that — at the same time that it makes Steam’s inner workings more transparent and expresses a desire to be more open with its users — Valve relays its plans through two YouTubers, rather than announcing them outright.
But Steam does need a solution for its current problems. Steam Direct’s financial barrier should make the developers think twice before submitting such games, and the new Explorer program could double down on that practice, burying bad games while interesting and enjoyable experiences released in the same week float to the top of recently released charts. With Greenlight off the table, perhaps the only other option would be to have Valve curate its platform entirely in-house, as it did before — but that method would be even more labor-intensive than it was when it was jettisoned in 2012.
Rather than forming a monolithic bloc, a network of Curators and Explorers could also reflect the varying tastes of Steam’s users, serving as points on a spectrum that users could follow. In its choice of YouTubers, Valve has already hinted that it wants varying viewpoints: Bain and Sterling are ostensibly similar figures, but both have made their differing predilections and their politics clear over their careers.
Valve has yet to confirm exactly when Steam Direct will come into play, specifying only that it was targeting a Spring 2017 rollout. Given Valve’s history with release dates, that may change, and it’s not clear whether the Explorer system will come as part of its initial launch, but it could make the biggest platform in PC gaming a whole lot more user-friendly.
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