Tailored Discoverability on Steam
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
As a Steam user, my instinctual way of keeping current on potential game purchases is rather predictable. I look down the first 20-30 'New Releases' and see if anything sticks out at me. Then I click on the 'Top Sellers' and do the same thing.
Historically this was enough. I'd spot pretty much every game that ever appeared on New Releases. And even if I missed one, if a game was good, it'd tend to have sold well enough to stand out somewhere on Top Sellers after it was released.
The issue is that now Steam is changing. The doors have opened and while this is a great thing for those devs who have found it difficult to break into Steam back in the days it was a curated store, at the same time those same doors are open for a potential tidal wave of publisher shovelware, back-catalogues, cheap clones and other crap. While those devs who couldn't get through Valve's submission process before may be overjoyed to finally have a slice of the Steam pie, it's possible the potential future slice of that pie will be worth a tiny fraction of what it used to be, at which point it feels like instead of a lucky few indies benefiting from Steam's popularity, no one really does.
If your game is released and within a day it's already been pushed to page 3 of New Releases, or you're an Early Access game which does not appear there at all, then the New Releases tab discoverability is not something to be counted on.
The 'Featured' boxes are great, and do lead to an increase in sales, but I admit I never dial through these, and I'm probably not the only one. I'm stuck in the old pattern of checking New Releases and Top Sellers, despite being concerned of the issues of visibility myself, so I can only imagine there are many many more out there who do the same.
Being featured is not sufficient to provide your newly released game with the boost it needs to gain visibility in the other areas as often it relies on chance as to whether your item is first in the scroller when someone loads the page, before they scroll down to those tabbed lists usually with the featured box scrolling unseen off the top of the page. This is my experience anyway.
While we've been fortunate enough to push into the bottom of the top 10 on a couple of occasions, many other games perhaps more deserving seem to have a struggle breaking the top 100. This is now. I dread to think what the situation will be in the future if Valve becomes a truly open self-publishing platform.
A Possible Solution?
Recently we've seen user reviews added to Steam, and it's clear that the community feedback is becoming more central to Steam's ecosystem. What I'm wondering is if this can and will be taken further. It's not a new idea--you can't move on Amazon or similar store fronts without 'You may also like...' recommendations using user metrics, but as a store-front getting closer to a gaming platform than merely a distribution platform, Valve has a lot more metrics available to it to really tailor discoverability. This is just my own thoughts on it, so forgive the indulgence. Perhaps its a terrible idea, perhaps its too difficult to implement, or perhaps its obvious. I don't know, but here it is.
The key point is that those main tabs on Steam's front-page are where all the real action is. It's so engrained into the tens of millions of Steam users, that recommendations, reviews, categories, steam tags, even 'Featured', while all really cool features, mean squat relative to riding high in those 4 tabbed lists. I feel the solution revolves around having a new tab that contains a tailored 'trending' list that feeds into all the other aspects of the Steam community.
I like me a good Strategy game, which are a good example as they are a relatively niche genre all things considered. A few highlights from my Steam list:
Crusader Kings II: 340 hours playtime
Europa Universalis 4: 88 hours playtime
Civ 4: 144 hours playtime (not including pre-Steam obv)
Civ 5: 503 hours playtime
This is before you get into such things as how many achievements I've unlocked, badges I've obtained, how much of the DLC I've bought (while I believe sales should be given less impact, the % of DLC bought seems a valid indicator of how many people who purchased the game liked it), the length of time I've continued coming back to the game, and so on. While these figures may be low for 'favourite game' times compared to some people's, I don't know, its worth pointing out that I don't play games that often these days due to work and such.
But if you were to compare the playtime and general engagement of every game on my Steam list, one thing would be clear. I like strategy games more than any other type of game, and I do so by a considerable margin.
If I review a new niche strategy game with a play time of 30 hours, then my opinion means something. I'm certainly not a troll, a bot, a deluded fan-boy.
I've sunk 800 hours+ and more into several hugely successful strategy games, and therefore there is a good chance that everyone who has also spent hundreds of hours playing those same games may also enjoy a new strategy game I recommend.
If 1000 people like me do the same, then even if we are the only people ever to buy this game, this is a clear indicator that this game may have the potential audience that Crusader Kings II or Civ 5 have, just without the visibility--or the marketing budget--to ride high enough in the charts to get in front of all those Civ 5 fans on the lookout for something new. If 95% of Crusader Kings 2 fans who found this game loved it, then I think it's earned its chance to be judged by the rest who have yet to find it.
So taking my total play-time, of ALL games on Steam, and totting it up, let's say it broke down like this:
60% - Strategy
20% - RPG
10% - FPS
5% - Casual
5% - Puzzle
0% - F2P ( ;) )
This in itself means that not only should my opinion on strategy games carry more weight, but that other people's opinions of strategy games are of more worth to me than their opinions on F2P games. Of course the list above could have plenty of cross-over. Multiplayer vs single player, Early Access vs. Non-Early Access, and so on.
We achieve a kind of global weighting which can be applied to any game. I tend to mainly play multiplayer games, even when playing single player (which I view as practice for kicking my gaming buddy's ass), so a single player F2P strategy game would both be of less interest to me, and my own opinions on that game should carry less weight since it's not 'for me'.
Let's say a new game is released on Steam. It's a really really great niche strategy turn-based game with more focus on gameplay than on visuals. It's graphics are generally a bit ropey looking, but it's a real diamond in the rough.
Its lot in life is such that it'll likely never ride to the top of the best sellers, unless maybe it gets the attention of the right youtubers at the right time, but even so it's likely never to get the prominence similar AAA games would.
The game is just as good as Civ 5, in fact many say it's even better. It'd be nice to think cream rises to the top, but there are several examples of strategy games I feel should ride high, that everyone who enjoyed Crusader Kings II should give a go. For example, I somehow suspect Dominions 4's sales haven't close to grazed 1% of Crusader Kings II, despite potentially appealing to a huge percentage of those people.
Dom4 has only 162 Reviews (compared to CK2's 3499), but almost all are overwhelmingly positive. Only 9 negative reviews and most of these only disappointed about the only incremental and subtle changes since Dom 3. Anyone who FINDS Dominions 4 for the first time will undoubtedly get good feels from the customer reviews, but this is still predicated on people finding it in the first place.
Hypothetically, suppose I give this game a good review (I realise at this point I bought this on Desura, so whoops. Brilliant example there Lemmy) and have over 100 hours of play-time. Given the positive weighting for the amount of time I'd played the game, adding my own big weighting factor for being a strategy nerd, plus being a multi-player strategy game fan, plus playing a lot of the games with the 'Hardcore' steam tag Dom 4 shares with CK2 and EU4. I also have spent a lot of time playing indie games, so another tick there. I've unlocked a whole bunch of achievements, have posted plenty in the community forums. I even went out of my way to obtain a foil badge for the game.
At the end we have a value which represents how important my opinion is about this game. This is either deducted or added to an overall averaged score (this is important to stop the AAA top sellers from eclipsing any others, which defeats the point, though obviously sheer number should still count for something) from all the game's reviews based on if I thumb up or down (and further weighted on its % helpful score). Their total weight decayed over time, and what you have there is a value which represents the game's worth to those that reviewed it, based on how much the game is 'for them' based on their own metrics, and one that naturally tends to give newer games their moment to ride high.
Then Joe Blogs, another strategy game fan, logs onto Steam and next to Top Sellers is a 'Community Recommends' tab, right there in prominence. They click on it, and they receive a top sellers style chart based on those metrics, but then further modified by their own weighting in all those categories.
For example someone with a lot of Civ 5 play-time (a relatively mass market casual strategy, all things considered), but no CK2 and EU4 time ('Hardcore' steam tag, much deeper and more complex) would find that Dominions 4 was weighted down slightly, given its more hardcore leanings. Someone with 300 hours in each of CK, CK2, Hearts of Iron, EU3, EU4 would find it weighted up massively by these factors.
At this point, after all these factors are applied (and remember that as time goes by, their weighting decays naturally, though I'll admit how this would happen fairly is the least clear to me out of all this) you have yourself a value for each game with which to create a personalized chart that not only factors in what your game preferences are, but also the preferences of those that contributed to its score in the first place.
Games you already own would not appear on the list, so what you have is a best guess trending chart of games that should appeal to that Steam customer. A new game comes out, and it doesn't need 100,000 sales to get noticed, but just needs the demographic it is aimed at to respond positively to it. This will push it into the face of more of that demographic, and would hopefully allow games to snowball in ways that seem impossible for more niche titles when the top sellers list is 90% taken up by games on sale or big AAA titles.
Someone who plays mainly RPG and FPS games will have a list mainly comprised of those, with the potential for crossover into other genres that also appealed to RPG/FPS fans. Someone who exclusively plays EVE Online will likely have a chart full of MMOs, with those that were positively received by other Eve Online fans riding higher.
People who have played a ton of DayZ and has also clocked a good chunk of Civ 5 time would likely find the excellent NEO Scavenger, ticking both the survival and strategy boxes, riding at #1 right where it deserves to be, instead of relatively hidden in the depths of niche valley.
But over everything, the positioning on the tab on the main page is crucial. This list would need the same visibility and relevance as top sellers, and not be something that needs to be hunted for in a sub category.
With a system like this in place, I would feel more confident about the floodgates of Steam opening up, knowing that your game is not only going to get eyeballs on it, but get the right eyeballs on it. The ones who are more likely to care about your game and click the 'buy button'. Not only that, but the ones whose opinion will more likely thrust the game in more people's view.