Steam Gets 'Editorial' When We Weren't Looking

It sneaked up on all of us.

[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading the Game Discoverability Now! newsletter, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t.]

Well, this was originally going to be a ‘Tales From Discoverabilityland’ roundup - which will now be coming early next week. But its lead item ballooned into a full newsletter, since I’m not sure anyone has brought the trend into full perspective.

With the LudoNarraCon ‘digital festival’ on Steam happening for the second time later in April, I thought Valve’s greater moves towards (someone) editorially picking what gets featured on their platform was worth remarking on.

Adding to this trend, I talked about some of the Steam (Spring) Game Festival results in the last Discoverabilityland newsletter. Well, now the Summer one (timed for E3’s original dates, & again co-organized by Geoff Keighley) has been announced:

Since the last newsletter, I also found more evidence that the Steam Spring Game Festival was really good for many of the featured games:

If you’re to believe some averaged ‘magic number’ stats out there, that could be as much as 16,000 extra sales of the game in its first year. That’s just from being featured in the Festival.

Of course, you can argue that people may have been mass wishlisting & the conversions might not be as strong. But 8k extra wishlists ain’t nothing!

Side note: it looks like demos/’short playable experiences’ are mandatory for the Summer Games Festival. ‘When The Past Was Around’ did have a demo in that Festival - and also has a standalone ‘Prologue’ with 289 Steam reviews, trend fans! But not every game in the Spring Festival did, I don’t believe.

The great ‘editorialininining’?

Overall, my point is this. Previously, Steam had publisher-specific features/sales for larger indie and AAA publishers, and large-scale ‘time of year’ game sales that everybody could participate in. And you tend to sell - well, commensurately with whatever wishlists you already have.

But - with a few exceptions - it’s never really had ‘somebody thinks this game should be included in a feature, because it looks great’. And I’ve identified this before as a problem. Here’s a quote from my article about the state of Steam a while back:

“Apple has always had prominent editorial features for interesting ‘premium’ games. This means that - in my view - they have historically got less complaints over being an ‘uncaring, money-hungry’ platform. Why? Because people believe that they are trying to make a difference for high quality titles, not just top-grossing ones.

But premium games don’t necessarily sell that well on iOS (or Android) - even features aren’t a fortune-changing boost on their own. And most platforms (save maybe Itch) are in the absolute abstract equally uncaring, because those harsh, harsh capitalist market forces win out.

So this is as much a dev community relations issue as anything. Although Valve continues to believe that it’s algorithms - rather than dedicated editorially-focused picks - that should determine what people see on Steam. Which naturally makes Valve seem less lovable as a company, even if some of those algorithms are handcrafted. We’ll see if that changes in the future!”

So it looks like this is softening - a tad! And Steam is looking more benevolent as a result. There’s now Ludonarracon going into its second year, and the Steam Game Festival getting more established. And there’s some other examples coming soon, such as an Indie MEGABOOTH going-away for now sale coming up this May.

It’s interesting that ‘curation by third parties’ is chiefly the way that this is being introduced into Steam sales or features. (Though perhaps the Steam Game Festival is having its games picked by Valve internally going forward? there’s a note in the dev submission area about an artist statement which says “Your text in the Artist Statement is for internal use at Valve only and will not be shown publicly.”)

But hey, anything to improve things for the masses on discoverability, beyond the recent Steam Labs work. And I do think that Valve’s typical ‘a great game with lots of reviews gets featured more algorithmically’ tactic doesn’t help discoverability for the average title. Though it might maximize player happiness. Sure, it helps sell more copies of Rimworld, but c’mon, Tynan Sylvester, do you even need any more money at this point? :0

Crucially, getting featured for an unreleased game - kinda important to potential success - was almost unheard of until Steam Game Festival & some of these other nouveau features came along. (Presumably, pre-release hype is part of the reason why so many people are doing the ‘free prologue as separate Steam ID’ demi-hack.)

Finally I’d showcase the current Devolver Digital sale on Steam as the more sophisticated template that Steam is moving to for features/sales. It has a mix of on-sale, ‘free demo’ & unreleased games - and even some full-price ones in there. Also, live-streaming is being woven in intelligently. It’s way more sophisticated than Steam sale templates were a few years back.

And I think there should be more ‘editorial’ showcases using this more sophisticated sale model in general - like LudoNarraCon. They’re helpful for up and coming games, and the ecosystem as a whole!

This should definitely be possible, since Valve is not (that) beholden to big publishers, or selling heavily discounted copies of AAA games to the exclusion of almost anything else. (Looking at you, Sony and Microsoft and big publishers, and, um, console gamers. I’ve got a newsletter for you soon.) And, uhh, good work, everyone involved with these newskool Steam features/sales.

Take care, all,
Simon.