Steam's Store is a Hot Mess

By Luke Plunkett on at

Steam is great for so many things. Online play, copy-protection, silly sale prices. You know what Steam's not great at? Being a store.

I'm not talking about knowing knowing what game you want to buy, opening up Steam and buying it. That's easy, and not even Steam's gross design and cluttered UI can stand in your way. I'm talking about those days where you fire up your PC, have £10 to spend and want to check out what's new or interesting.

PC gaming isn't like console or handheld gaming. It's not pegged to a release schedule of major games. In 2014 PC gaming is a wild and varied thing, with blockbuster releases joined by a seemingly never-ending flood of indie games and early access experiments.

Steam's Store Is A Hot Mess

This variety and volume of content means Steam's marketplace has evolved into something closer to the kind of offerings you find on Apple or Google's mobile marketplaces. Huge volumes of new titles that, if simply laid out as they were released, would overwhelm the consumer.

But Steam's client design has not evolved with it. And that's where the problems come in.

Those mobile stores may be inundated with games - many of them small in scale, and let's be honest, not that great - but they both have ways of tackling the volume of content and presenting the consumer with a clean, clear and useful means of choosing what game to buy.

First and most importantly, they curate content. Teams at Apple and Google are testing out these games and recommending which ones they like, placing those recommendations in a prominent area on their store. Their tastes might not automatically align with yours, but when someone's job is to recommend games, whatever they're picking might at least be worth a shot.

They also clearly and easily organise recent releases into genres. Visit the App Store, for example, and (at time of posting, at least) you'll see, there on the main front page, perhaps the platform's most popular type of game, the "endless runner", given its own section, with new and classic entries included.

Google's store even gets proactive and will prominently recommend content to you based on your rating and purchase history.

Now look at Steam. It's primary PC client is a mess.

The two-column arrangement is distracting and inefficient, with content on the smaller right side of the screen often lost as consumers scroll down the page.

It's also too heavily slanted towards major, promoted releases. Those games - the big ones, the ones that can afford to splash advertisements across the stop of the store - will and should be given top billing. But they don't need to be taking up the entire screen when you first start the client.

When you finally get to the "meat and potatoes" of Steam's main store page, the new releases section, it's a joke. This is the part where a lack of quality control or a desire to curate store content really hurts. Steam simply lists the most recent games released, in order of release, with a tiny thumbnail and no description of what the game actually is or does.

Steam's Store Is A Hot Mess

This is daunting for consumers, who are presented with a stream of games that, let's be honest, look like garbage. Ports of iOS games, broken early access titles, there's a lot of crap to wade through. It's become very similar to Netflix, in a way; it looks like there's a lot of stuff to buy, but the volume of content that's of questionable quality ends up cluttering the service and becomes an annoyance.

This design isn't just overwhelming for customers, I think it's hurting indie developers as well. Placement on the "new releases" section might be only time a small team gets any kind of widespread promotion for their game. If it's an awesome game, one that deserves a wider audience, and it gets buried under a flood of iOS ports that's a damn shame.

To its credit, Steam does have a number of useful features that could, if better-implemented, alleviate this. It will recommend games to you, only this is stuck behind a tab (it really needs to be part of the main store page), and pushes perhaps its most useful aspect - your friends' most-played games - to the bottom of its page. Note that this is a mechanical recommendation, not a curated one.

It also lets you perform a search for games, letting you burrow down and filter by genre and even metascore, but again, this is clunkier than it needs to be. If Steam knows I like strategy games, and have played a ton of them, can't it automatically recommend to me, prominently and on the main store page, 4-6 of the best games that have never entered my library?

So what's the answer? Well, a redesign would be nice. Steam is ugly as sin, and a streamlining of how the content already there is displayed couldn't hurt.

Smarter (and more prominent) recommendations would also be great. If Steam's store database can track genre, developer, release date, price change and metascore, surely there's a more helpful way it can recommend content than it does currently.

Anything more extensive than that, though, would require curated content. Someone (or a team at Valve) actively playing new games and highlighting the best ones.

For Apple and Google, that's easy, because neither of those companies really makes games. They're acting as a third-party.

Valve, on the other hand, makes games. Would Valve be that keen to personally recommend a game that, say, does what DOTA 2 does, but only better? Or improves on what made Left 4 Dead such a hit? Advertising and placing a game on a store is one thing; giving a game a personal stamp of approval is something else.

However Valve choose to improve the store, I think we're at the point where it needs to be done. Steam, as it stands today, was designed for a time when games were released slowly. A few prominent titles a week, a few big ones a month. It could keep on top of it all.

Today, it can't.