The Necessary Decentralization Of Steam

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I’ve already done a couple posts about the way Valve handles what it lets onto Steam and how it manages the store, but Valve seems to want people to know some major changes are coming. I’m also still trying to figure out how I even view Steam as a store and a platform at this point.

Before I pointed out why I didn’t really have a problem with Valve deciding not to curate Steam submissions by hand, as well as how I think having a monolithic storefront in itself might be the problem. In response to worries about outright fraudulent games and discoverability on the store, Valve is doing what a lot of tech companies like doing — letting algorithms and the community do the legwork. I’m conflicted about this. I’m starting to think companies like Facebook and Twitter put way too much trust in algorithms to fix human problems. On the other hand as I wrote before, Steam represents way too much of PC gaming in general for a small group of people to be deciding what is sold on it.

One thing Valve has planned — Steam Explorers, sounds like a space specifically for underrated and unknown games on Steam. I guess that sounds nice as another crowdsourcing solution. But it’s the other thing that intrigues me — how much Valve is evolving Steam Curators by giving them bigger spaces in which to do more things to promote games. Along with personalizing the storefront for each individual user, this is essentially decentralizing Steam, which is probably what needs to happen for a store so big.

I still think one store like Steam is too narrow a channel for apparently half of all PC gaming. PC gaming is just far too diverse for a single “new releases” column on the front of the store. Maybe the complaints happen because people used to browsing Xbox Live and the PlayStation Store aren’t quite used to the level of variety that occurs on an open platform. I think Steam Curators is rooted in an idea I remember Valve boss Gabe Newell mentioning years ago, where people sort of establish their own storefronts that connect back through Steam. Curators sounds like it’s sort of cutting Steam up into different “sections,” like one for RPGs or one for strategy games or one for visual novels.

I’m still interested in what might be the logical conclusion of that decentralization: a point at which the Steam store itself disappears and people experience Steam simply as a back end through which to install and update games they buy anywhere else. I say that though because I personally don’t find out about new games often by simply browsing Steam. Maybe other people are different though.

Maybe I’ve been “in the know” about gaming releases for so long I’ve forgotten the way “normal people” might just look for new stuff on store shelves. Maybe I also forgot that Steam’s storefront is what made it really big in the first place.

Valve started Steam as a way to facilitate the installation and updating of games, but it got really attractive when Valve figured out neat ways to engage the consumer base. Valve basically figured out how to sell digital distribution before a lot of other companies did, first through the underlying infrastructure, then at the sales level. Weekend deals were exciting in the early days, and the first few holiday sales were huge events. Eventually those reached a point of saturation, and now to me Steam is just about installing and updating games again.

Maybe most people really do want that experience of browsing a the store shelves for new games, except online. Maybe it would be better if Valve kept trying to provide that experience, but in the form of personalized and specialized stores for each user or each niche. Maybe that’s the next big innovation in digital distribution. The iOS App Store could probably use a similar brand of decentralization with the monstrous amount of software that’s released on it. Maybe even consoles could benefit from having multiple choices from which to buy digital games.

BULLETS:

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