Hey, Steam Got A New Update That Makes Playing Games On Steam Better!
Recently, Steam hosted another edition of its Next Fest event. During this promotion, developers, primarily smaller indie outfits, paraded various demos and prototypes for projects they have been toiling away on for years. Outside of Steam's seasonal sale events, Next Fest is one of the most valuable and beloved promotions Steam hosts, short of the handful of lotteries they run where you have the off-chance to nab a Steam Deck or free games. And why wouldn't you like Next Fest? It's one of the best opportunities to explore new games and interact with developers as they probe you and others for input on how to go about the development process with their passion projects. The motive is to place you in a positive feedback loop on a marketplace that sends you deluges of notifications and updates about sales and games you might have on your wishlist, and if something during Next Fest catches your attention, then you're going to add into that feedback loop.
However, before we get into the existential, let's also commend Valve for not only hosting an event to ring up some much-needed positivity in this industry but also for introducing a new and appreciated update to their marketplace. Whether or not they timed this update to coincide closely with Next Fest or the Summer Sale is a matter of pure speculation. Still, considering how several of these new features, like user notes and reliability improvements to Big Picture Mode, have been asked for, for quite some time, I don't think it's a matter of pure coincidence. Nonetheless, this update proves that everything I will complain about shortly is fixable. Unifying the code to the desktop client, Big Picture Mode, and Steam Deck? That's no easy task, yet the minds at Valve did it on top of introducing other UI/UX improvements that make searching for and finding new and upcoming games far easier. They are also showing signs of listening to the input of their audience as they have mercifully finally addressed the issue all of us once had with Steam Notifications popping off every goddamn minute. Now the default is for these notifications to trigger if something about a game is genuinely new. Likewise, the notification feed is vastly improved and far easier to process than it once was.
Nonetheless, the most significant additions to Steam, beyond the front page just being far easier on the eyes, involve the introduction of user-made notes for all games. By allowing users to create custom notes or pinned windows, you can navigate games and the Steam marketplace client without fear of losing your train of thought. With notes, imagine, if you will, a life or work obligation breaking up your recent game session with a two- to three-day break. With this feature, you can write a quick note pinned to the corner of your game about what you were doing at the time and where you need to go next; it's a game changer if I say so myself. There's also no denying that the new custom features related to font size, window opacity, and color will make the readability of Steam better for those with vision issues or other general disabilities.
Unfortunately, while all of this is positive in terms of the direction of Steam, there's been an annoying precedent Valve has set regarding their Next Fest event. Every year, Valve introduces new search parameters, modifiers, and demo aggregation tools that only appear when there's a Next Fest event for reasons still unknown to anyone following the industry. This quandary is far from breaking news and even something I have written about before on the site. Next Fest started after Valve decided to rebrand their Steam Game Festival after their brief partnership with Geoff Keighley ended in 2019. It remains an excellent idea, but it also annoyingly continues to be the only time when you can use the desktop client to show you the most played demos on Steam or provide you with handy easy-to-click green buttons to download free playable builds of games. I'm not joking here. Being able to search for new or the most popular demos? That's gone now that Next Fest is over, and so are hundreds of helpful sub-genre filters that make filtering out exploitative trash on Steam all the easier. Likewise, with Steam placing a greater emphasis on user streams by the minute, pinning or notifying users when developers are hosting streams or providing handy VODs on any game's page after those streams end remains an endlessly frustrating issue. But again, this is all familiar territory, so let's jump into it.
Seriously Valve, All Of These Handy Search Tools And Modifiers Would Be Great On The Main Storefront!
Let's slay the giant dragon right from the get-go. If someone from Valve reads my weird opinion editorials, which is highly unlikely, and they want me to stop complaining about their post-Next Fest decision-making, make following and tracking new and popular demos on the desktop client a permanent feature. I'm not asking for anything unreasonable here, as dozens of other dropdown menus and lists already exist. What will one more of those titled "Most Popular Demos" or "New Demos" do? You may be worried that having that one extra tab will cause the processor on the Steam Deck to short-circuit. Okay, but HOT DAMN, every time a Next Fest rolls around, simply modifying the genre settings and search parameters for what I am looking for and then seeing which top demos fit has led me to discover new and exciting games more often than using the Discovery Queue. You may appreciate the Discovery Queue, and my blog last year saw a non-zero number of you chiming in that you enjoy using it. Still, there's no denying that it requires a much higher time investment than simply clicking a genre tab and then seeing what the most played demos for that selection might be.
And I know that some of you are wondering why it's such a sore point to me when I can do that on the current page with new and recent releases and even recently discounted games. My counter-argument to that is two-fold. First, Next Fest sees countless "exclusive" sub-genre search modifiers that never get added to the main store's search engine. As a result, if you find a winning combination of search modifiers that consistently draw in big and small games that tickle your fancy, there's a chance you can't repeat that formula the minute Next Fest is over. To highlight how annoying that can be, let me give you a common situation when Next Fest ends. Let's say you find a demo, something outside your wheelhouse, or even a genre you don't usually play. If you make this discovery during Next Fest, Steam shows you the more specific sub-genre modifiers you can use to find similar titles, and its custom search engine will even allow you to search by tone, mood, and game length on top of all pre-existing ones. Many of those usability features disappear when Next Fest ends, and it's baffling.
Yes, this loss is not the end of the world, as the current search tools get the job done, and there are other ways to find new and emerging game projects on Steam beyond Next Fest. Nevertheless, what harm is there in merely adding the ability to search for demos? Steam Next Fest is the only time that ability exists, and the only workaround when the event is over is to search for new games or ones listed as "Upcoming" and pray they have free playable builds on their store page. However, that becomes problematic because it inevitably leads to you finding an endless list of "Early Access" games that may or may not have game demos. This point opens up my other grievance about Steam automatically deleting the demos you downloaded during Next Fest. I understand that the developers often ask that the demos they design for Next Fest not stay up in perpetuity. However, the consequence is that if you read about games during the event after the fact, there's a chance that you are shit out of luck when it comes to giving that title a whirl. It also would help if I could search for demos using the general Steam search engine. There are enough modifiers that I can often cobble together a template that provides the same rewarding discoveries I experience during Next Fest. Still, until Steam allows me to add a "Demo" tag, I always end up with games with no free playable content to test before making a purchase or have paywalled Early Access pages with no demo available. Even if you consider some of my requests unreasonable, we can all agree having a list of popular demos or allowing people to search for them doesn't present Valve with a massive engineering task.
The Helpful UI/UX Features Steam Next Fest Gets STILL Have No Reason To Disappear When The Event Is Over
At the time of the initial publishing of this blog, we are amid another yearly Summer Steam Sale. Like last year's summer sale, I wonder how better navigating the Steam storefront would be if some of the features or standards showcased during Next Fest were permanent. For example, a few games caught my attention when the sale started, and after clicking their pages, I had to re-remind myself where to find developer-led livestreams that showcase how to utilize game-specific mechanics. A similar but distinct issue involves the inordinate number of games that I discovered while fanning through the "On Sale" portal but found out that the only playable build the developer had available was gated through Early Access. In those cases, there often wasn't a freely accessible demo. Steam has to allow for some of these scenarios, as each developer's situation will differ. Still, my issue is that I can't filter these games out of my queue or feeds because there are NO demo-related search modifiers.
And I must return to how arbitrarily hidden demos are on Steam's currently formatted game pages. Why Steam doesn't let you toggle Next Fest's helpful green "Download Demo" button the minute you pan to a game portrait shown on the front page is a mystery. Again, I understand that not all developers should be expected to take the time to develop or edit a game build to fit the desired format of a standard game demo. However, for the many developers that put in the time and effort to do that, they should be allowed to have an option that seamlessly helps interested consumers to download and interact with a free game build if one exists. Part of the reason why so few people download demos on Steam is that they either don't know where to find them, don't know how to determine if one exists in the first place, or there is so little buy-in by the developers of their genres of preference to create demos in the first place. My proposals don't remedy the last of those, but they would make the first two immediately less of an annoyance.
As endlessly silly sorting games by mood may have felt during Next Fest, the reactive nature of that search experience is still immensely better than scrolling through pillars of games highlighted through the default "On Sale" or "Upcoming" dropdown lists. While the revision made carousels snappier, the fact that you still need to hope and pray that Steam surfaces valuable items into those carousels inevitably leads to disappointment. I get that using the Discovery Queue can help fill those carousels and change which ones you see, but do you know what would be faster? Me being able to customize which ones are there in the first place. On top of that, while the dropdown lists are likely one of the most common ways the average Steam user discovers new games and titles on sale outside of Wishlist notifications, they are getting increasingly clunkier and less valuable as Steam becomes inundated with games. Again, overall, I like the new Steam revision and especially the direction Valve is taking with unified OS updates, but putting a shiny coat of paint on the storefront will only work for so long. At some point, there needs to be a fundamental re-assessment of how to best surface recommendations and new and emerging titles.
Steam's Growing (And Sometimes Annoying) Emphasis On Livestreaming
Let's not beat around the bush. During Next Fest, the number of streams Valve put on the welcome screen to the event caused it to chug to a crawl at times. The current Summer Sale also has its share of performance issues, but that's likely not something that can be squarely pegged on streaming. In fact, the number of streamers seen playing around with massively discounted games or much-ballyhooed releases is significantly less than what we experienced during Next Fest. Nonetheless, both events had the same two fundamental problems when it came to surfacing streamers: 1) the notifications/reminders for developer streams are awful, and the visibility of their VODs is even worse, and 2) unless you are part of the streaming zeitgeist from morning to night for every possible genre, you have no idea who to trust or why the people streaming on Valve's platform are people you should care about. The first has the most straightforward solution: developer stream archives should be pinned in either a "Streams" tab on a game's store page or in the image and trailer carousel.
Compared to others, I am okay with the pre-recorded stream videos at the top of many store pages. While I agree it is annoying that they auto-play by default, those videos do an admirable job of showing you what a game looks like when it's in motion. They need to be better integrated on their associated pages, and with developers sometimes streaming upwards of ten to twenty snapshots of their game's core mechanics and gimmicks, the default carousel is starting to feel clunky, and accessing that information after the fact needs to be more intuitive. Some developers break from the standard format of having one auto-playing video and then an assortment of contextless screenshots on a game's top carousel, but that is far from the norm. If developer-led videos and streams had their own visibly marked tab or portal, Valve wouldn't have to rely so heavily on Next Fest to opt them into their burgeoning streaming ecosystem. The game store pages' default video and image carousel also show their age. They consistently chug whenever you attempt to display higher-resolution media or play HD videos, and this issue is not new.
However, the situation with developer videos and streams seems secondary to the growing initiative from Valve to push user streams on game pages and their desktop client. During Next Fest, and this problem exists even today on the main storefront, you must scroll through five or six user streams to explore game-specific community hubs or pages. The first issue is that Valve and Steam do nothing to filter these streams, making it difficult to figure out who to trust or which streamers even fit your style. Say what you will about Twitch and YouTube, but their bank of search modifiers and tags makes locating streamers that aren't yelling at you from beginning to end, if that's not your thing, a possible task, but that's far from the case on Steam. Likewise, the streamer biography pages are so rudimentary on Steam you usually end up making more leaps of faith than on any other modern streaming platform.
Then, there are the technical issues that crop up whenever Steam tries to show you more than five streams on the same page. Twitch is currently in its weakest state regarding its community's confidence in its leadership. Even then, we have seen this before where Valve tries to opt big names into streaming directly on Steam, but those efforts prove fleeting. With Next Fest and the current Summer Sale, you get the sense that Valve wants Steam to be more integrated with a streaming future, but if that's the case, the architecture currently isn't there for that to happen. And if Valve goes that route, how much of a distraction would that pose to the expected functions of Steam being a place to buy games? It does seem likely that we will all be migrating to watch streamers there from time to time because it seems inevitable that there will be a big name there who is handing away free game codes after securing a contract with Valve. Nonetheless, I've been wrong about this stuff before, so what do you think?