The Steam Summer Sale is going on, and yet somehow I can’t find any games to buy. Even at these giveaway prices, I don’t see anything that strikes me as interesting. I’m sure there are games that would interest me, but finding them means going through the hassle of finding the gems amid the swirling garbage pile that is the Steam storefront.
A Library of Neglect
It’s not that I need more games. I have 604 games in my Steam library. Of those, 185 of them are completely unplayed. Almost a third of my library consists of games I have never even launched. This is in addition to a couple of dozen games that I’ve played for less than five minutes.
I suppose I need to give some context for these numbers.
A small percent of my games library came from review copies of games. That was pretty common back in 2010 or so when I was putting up content three times a week at The Escapist, but now it happens about three times a year. (And never for AAA titles.) Maybe it’s because I’m no longer part of the Escapist, or maybe it’s because marketing is really focused on video content these days. In any case, I’d guess review copies account for less than 5% of my library.
I write about games for a living, so of course my needs are going to be a little different than those of the average consumer. I might buy a game I know I won’t like if I think I can get an article out of it, or if I’ll need it for screenshots, or if I just need a better understanding of how the genre works.
I’ve actually played some of those 185 ignored titles, except I played them on a console. When I got rid of my PS3 and my Xbox 360 died, I picked up a few favorites on the PC while they were cheap, just in case I ever found myself in the mood to play them again.
A lot of my games came as part of bundles. For example, at some point I must have purchased the Prince of Persia collection. That’s five more games in my library, and five more games that (as far as Steam knows) I’ve never playedI’ve actually played all of them except for Warrior Within and Forgotten Sands..
The Storefront Feels Like a Warehouse
So yes, my library numbers are inflated and distorted. But even with such a large backlog of titles I still find myself drawn to the Steam storefront, only to be rebuffed by the hassle. Every week or so I dig through the Steam storefront looking for something interesting, and I always come up empty. Steam has a “discovery queue” supposedly designed to help you find new titles, but as far as I can tell it’s just a service to show me an endless catalog of half-finished open-world multiplayer PvP survival sandbox games with crafting and abominable graphics. I’m sure there are good games in this massive list, but I have no way to find them.
As of this writing, there are over 15,000 different games on Steam. That is not a small number! The Steam storefront is a great example of the long tail in action: A handful of blockbuster titles, a few dozen popular ones, a few hundred niche titles, and then thousands upon thousands of shovelware titles, achievement dispensers, abandoned projects, asset flips, horrible clones, and other dross that doesn’t interest anyone. If you’re like me, then perhaps 1% of the Steam catalog is interesting to you, and the rest is just noise. Finding those needles in that great big haystack requires really robust browsing tools.
Sadly, Steam’s storefront is not robust. It’s a frustrating, convoluted mess that’s always trying to sell me the same dozen things, with very crude tools for digging through the other 15,000.
Let’s Go Hunting for Games
I enjoy good pixel art. Sometimes I’ll buy a 2D pixel art game just so I can gaze at the artwork. How can I search for a game with good pixel art?
First you need to find the link to search by tag. The link for this seems to move around a bit sometimes, but if it’s not on the front page then go to the drop-down menu at the top, go to “Games”, then go all the way down to “See Popular Tags”. Once you’re on that page, switch over to the tab that lists global tags instead of the useless page it has you land onIt’s supposed to be “your most popular tags” but it’s broken for me. A year ago it decided the only tag I’ll ever care about is match-3 and no amount of tag-searching will break it out of this rut.. The tags are listed in order of popularity, not alphabetically, so good luck finding what you want. It’s probably best to just hit Ctrl-F and search the page for it. Which sort of makes you wonder why you had to click through three different pages if you were just going to end up typing what you wanted into a search box anyway. Why not just make searching by tag a thing on the front page? Aside from searching by genre, it’s your only tool for searching for unknown titles in a desired style, so it really ought to be easy to find and convenient to use.
In any case, once you find your tag you can click on it and you’ll be taken to a page that will show you all of the new releases and top sellers in that category. This is pretty daft, since if I wanted to see new releases and top sellers I could have found them on the front page! Why would I dig all the way down here if I was looking for things found on the surface?
You’re probably ready to jump in here and tell me I’m doing it all wrong, because there’s a “better” way to get to your tags. But that’s part of my gripe. There’s three different ways to do everything, and they all lead to pages that seem to be the same idea with a different implementation. You might find a button that promises you’ll be able to “See all 958 titles” in Pixel Graphics. (Or however many are in your chosen tag.) That sounds promising, but it actually takes you to this stupid page:
Ignoring that this page is now burning two large chunks of real estate trying to sell me the same game that was already prominently featured on several previous pages, look at these useless tabs. Is there any appreciable difference between “New and Trending” and “New Releases”? Wouldn’t top sellers just be a mix of “Trending” and “Specials”? Most importantly, what do I click on to view ALL? Let’s assume I’ve already seen the hot items and I just want to browse the catalog of 958 titles it hinted at on the previous page. You can’t do that from here.
But whatever. Fumble around long enough and you’ll find a list of games with the desired tag. What you’ll get is a listing with many, many pages to thumb through. I’m not sure how Steam chooses the ordering, but it seems to be another page driven by popularity. Which means page 1 is going to be the same crap it’s already showed you six times in the last two minutes. Page 2 will be the same thing, except it will be the darlings from last month. Page 3 will still be popular stuff, except a little older. Basically, if you’re looking for something you haven’t seen before then you’re going to need to tediously step through this list a page at a time until the new stuff shows up.
This list has always made me uneasy. Sometimes I’ll see an item on Page 1, then again on Page 2. Is this two different versions of the same game? Or is Steam shuffling the list as I browse? I’ve even had it list the same game twice on the same page. It’s absurd. Worse, it makes me worry that the new stuff I’m looking for has been moved to one of the previous pages where I won’t encounter it.
But fine. So we’re painstakingly paging through this giant list that may or may not be in a deterministic order. Now we just need to find something interesting. You can hover over a title to get a summary, but the summary doesn’t actually tell you what you need to know. It shows you rotating screenshots, but not the text describing the game. You need to click through if you want to know what it is. Am I really supposed to click through on all 900+ entries, read the desription, and then hit the back button to return to scrolling the list? Can’t we have some sort of info box that can be expanded to show more, as you find on Netflix / Amazon? These pages are not particularly fast and this process is already slow enough as it is.
Or maybe you’ll see something you know you’ll want. Sadly, you can’t just add it to your cart from this listing like you’re shopping at Amazon. You must click through to the page for the game in question. And adding it to your cart will take you to yet another page. In the past this would prevent you from going back to the list with your tags and search terms intact, so if you wanted to keep shopping you’d need to start over and find where you were in the list. That seems to be fixed as I write this, but I can’t promise it will stay fixed.
This is a simple thing I’m trying to do. This is like walking into the bookstore, going to the “Sci-Fi” section, and browsing the available titles. This task should be easier and faster on a computer, and instead it’s a mess of UI dysfunction and hassle.
Some people dislike that Steam offers so much crap. They would rather Valve hired someone to curate the list and scrape out all the asset flips and shovelware. Other people want an open storefront where any bedroom programmer can compete with the AAA studios. I have no idea what Valve’s goals are, but they seem to be failing both groups. We don’t get the convenience and clarity of having a small catalog to sort through, because there’s 15,000 titles of dross. But we also don’t get the benefit of having an open storefront because browsing that dross is inconvenient to the point of outright deterrence.
I’m not asking that Valve put the crap on the front page. But I think we can do better than we’re doing now. It should be possible to please both groups. We just need a clean, possibly-curated front page with all the big sellers, and then a few basic search tools for sorting through the deep parts of the catalog.
And because I know people will bring up GoG in the comments:
What About GoG?
I like GoG better in almost every way. It’s a better game client from a nicer company. I like that their game listings show 25 entries instead of Valve’s embarrassingly limited 10, and that you can browse through additional groups of 25 titles without needing to reload the entire page.
But GoG isn’t interested in an open storefront, which means they have a much smaller catalog. It’s a good place to go if you want the classics of yesteryear, but it’s not a good place to look for offbeat indie fare. Yes, GoG doesn’t have ten thousand Day-Z clones, but it’s also a place without the screwball meme-spawning insanity of Goat Simulator, the surreal silliness of I Am Bread, the satirical amusement of DLC Quest, the one-note joke of Five Nights at Freddy’s, or the polite adequacy of Good Robot. Steam has a terrible system for dealing with fringe titles, while GoG makes no effort to offer fringe titles.
In the coming weeks I’m going to go through those neglected titles in my library, spend a little time with a few of them, and report my findings. A lot of them are mystery games that I don’t remember buying, so this should be amusing.
 I’ve actually played all of them except for Warrior Within and Forgotten Sands.
 It’s supposed to be “your most popular tags” but it’s broken for me. A year ago it decided the only tag I’ll ever care about is match-3 and no amount of tag-searching will break it out of this rut.
Final Fantasy X
A game about the ghost of an underwater football player who travels through time to save the world from a tick that controls kaiju satan. Really.
The No Politics Rule
Here are 6 reasons why I forbid political discussions on this site. #4 will amaze you. Or not.
Quakecon Keynote 2013 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
A video discussing Megatexture technology. Why we needed it, what it was supposed to do, and why it maybe didn't totally work.
Crash Dot Com
Back in 1999, I rode the dot-com bubble. Got rich. Worked hard. Went crazy. Turned poor. It was fun.