Two weeks ago I dumped on Steam’s horrible store interface. I started to write a follow-up article criticizing the Steam UI in more detail. By a strange coincidence, this past weekend I ran into this headline: Steam UI overhaul incoming, Valve presentation confirms. We don’t know exactly what the changes are, but someone snapped some pictures of the slides in a presentation and from those we can see what sorts of things they’re thinking about. It’s all pretty vague, but I’m glad to see they’re aware that something needs to be done.
In the meantime, here’s a wishlist for the changes I’d like to see in this eventual update.
The screenshots in the linked article have me a little worriedWorried as in, “Oh no, the Steam interface might continue to be not very good!” So, pretty mild levels of worry, all things considered.. I see lots of great big icons with no words. This is the opposite of what I want. It actually reminds me of the overhaul Netflix did a couple of years ago when they decided to make their site touchscreen-friendly by making it more desktop-unfriendly. At the time I thought I was just suffering from New Interface Blues. I’m sure Netflix assumed the same thing when people complained. But after putting up with this for a couple of years I can tell that, no, this is actually a massive downgrade.
The thing about desktops is that they have enormous high-resolution screens and incredibly precise pointing devices. You can pack a lot of information into a very small area and interact with it in very specific ways. Computers are really good at searching, sorting, and showing data. So it would be a real shame to turn the desktop Steam interface into a container for gigantic icons.
Yes, those huge icons look pretty. But sooner or later I’m going to want to stop looking at the interface and start using the interface, and that’s when I want to clutter up this idyllic arrangement with ugly things like INFORMATION and CONTROLS. Fine, have your twee little Pinterest-style interface for mobiles or whatever. But I’d like to have an option to drop into boring old “spreadsheet mode” if I’m on a desktop.
Steam knows the title of a game, when I bought it, when I played it last, how many hours I’ve played, if it’s installed or updates are pending, and how many achievements I have and have not achieved. What I’d like is to have a table view where I can sort by any of those columns. This sounds frivolous if you think of “games library” as a collection of 10 or 20 AAA titles, but once you’ve got hundreds of titles these are exactly the sort of tools the user needs. Since we’re obliged to join this creepy always-connected dystopia of social integration and data harvesting, can I at least have some rudimentary tools for managing my own data?
Ideally, you’d want to have something like a Windows explorer window where the user can select what fields are displayed. (And yes, I realize how strange it is to hold up Windows explorer as a positive example.) If you’re out of hard drive space, it would be really nice if you could sort the list of installed games by size to figure out which games you should uninstall first.
Better Game Synopsis
When you select a game within Steam, it shows all the info I don’t care about and none of the info I do care about. It’s always seemed like the screen for a game should be roughly equivalent to the back-of-the-box stuff you’d see with a physical copy. There should be a bit of artwork, a blurb describing the game, the release date, and other “Product Synopsis” type things.
“But Shamus, if the game is already in your library then shouldn’t you already know what it is?”
Sometimes you get a game as part of a bundle. Or you impulse-buy it on sale. Or you bought it years ago and can’t remember it now. Or it’s a gift or giveaway of some sort. Or it’s part of a series and you can’t remember which particular entry is which. There are a lot of situations where I might not know what a game is, and it’s really awkward to have to switch over to the store page to look at it, and then jump back to the library to interact with it.
Ideally I think that a tabbed interface would make the most sense. One tab would be the back-of-the box stuff, and another tab would be the news / achievements / social integrationHere is who owns this game on your friend’s list, and here’s who’s been playing lately. Because privacy is SO last-century. screen we see now. The user is probably either browsing for games to play (back-of-the-box view) or looking for more information (news & achievements view) on the selected game specifically. A tabbed screen would let them see the information they’re most interested in without needing to scroll past the stuff they don’t care about.
In the old days there used to be an alternate “light background” skin available. That vanished years ago, although you can still see the vestigial one-option selection box in the interface.
Yes, I’m sure there’s a link buried somewhere that would let me get alternate user-made skins. But browsing, downloading, and installing skins takes time. I’m not asking for a library of 1,000 terrible abandoned user-made skins to rummage through, I’m asking for one properly designed and maintained skin that features a light background.
Here are a bunch of mild gripes:
I really wish Steam wouldn’t re-enable “Automatically log in to friends List when Steam starts.” when it updates. That’s super-annoying. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does happen it usually happens several times in a row.
I’m not sure how feasible this is, but I’d love it if there was an option to have Steam stop counting hours played when I’m alt-tabbed and doing something else. I tend to leave games running in the background while I write, which means my “hours played” numbers are all ridiculously inflated.
In the library view, if you switch to the list of “recent games” it will show a list of all your games with the most recently played at the top. That’s great! Except, the scrollbar is positioned in the middle of the list for some unfathomable reason, meaning you have to scroll all the way to the top if you actually want to see the most recent stuff. The entire point of this list is so that you don’t need to scroll to find the one game you’ve been playing lately, so this sort of defeats the purpose of having this view at all. The fact that this oversight has existed for years is a testament to just how neglected the UI has been.
Once you play a game, the interface will no longer show you when you purchased it. Instead, that trivia will be replaced with the last time you played. I think there’s room to display both of these. Also, for some reason installing a game counts as “playing” it.
If a download gets stuck or fails, the help files will often tell you to delete a file with a .blob extension in your Steam directory, because it’s been corrupted. Assuming you can’t just fix this bug, can’t this be automated so the file is automatically nuked if something goes wrong? Barring that, can’t this be added to a right-click menu? Given that a corrupt .blob can stop the entire download system from working, it seems like this measure ought to be a little more accessible.
There’s a little “mail” icon in the upper-right. This is used for lots of things: New items in your inventory, friend requests, invites, etc. There really needs to be a “mark all as read” without the user needing to click on every piddly little event.
Valve has a mobile app called Steam Guard that uses two-factor authentication. You need your name and password to log in, but then you also need to enter a code from Steam Guard. This is used to combat fraud when putting this up for sale on the community marketA common fraud tactic is to log in to a victim’s account and then put their high-value items up for sale at a super-low price, then quickly switch back to your own account and buy it. Assuming you mask your IP, it’s impossible for Valve to PROVE you didn’t buy the item in good faith.. That’s fine and reasonable. However, once you enable Steam Guard, it’s enabled EVERYWHERE on your account, not just for the market.
Two-factor authentication is a bit of a pain in the ass. In the past I used the market to unload all those stupid Steam trading cards for a little bit of money, because I don’t care about trading cards. But it’s already a huge hassle to sell things on the marketSO MANY CLICKS for each stupid nine-cent item. I’d throw the damn things away if the interface let me., and TFA makes the process so much more time consuming. If nothing else, it would be really nice if Steam would skip TFA when selling items with a market value under a dollar.
TFA caused a meltdown for me about a year and a half ago. My phone broke, and while I was waiting for a replacement Steam decided it needed to re-authenticate my clientProbably in response to a Windows update.. The result was that being unable to use my phone effectively cut me off from my entire Steam library. Fixing this was beyond a hassle and I never wanted to have to deal with that nonsense again. Sometimes phones break, or they get lost, or the batteries die at in inopportune moment, or you find yourself in an area with lousy reception. It happens, and I never want to compound my woes by also being locked out of my 600+ videogames. So I disabled Steam Guard.
It’s the classic security problem: Making security measures onerous to use means people won’t use them, which means less security all around. There’s a limit on how much of MY time I’m willing to waste to make things easier for the people running Steam, and that limit is very low.
What Did I Miss?
Since this is Valve, there’s no telling when the changes might appear. It might happen an hour from now or a week after the release of Half Life 3. But we do know it’s being worked on. Or that they’re considering working on it. Or that they’re making slides in preparation for considering working on it.
I’m sure the stuff I whined about above is just a fraction of the problems people have with Steam. My list is focused pretty heavily on the needs of a desktop user. I’m sure I’d run into other headaches if I was using multiple computers, sharing one computer between multiple accounts, didn’t have admin access on my machineBecause I’m a kid and the machine belongs to my parents or whatever., or playing on a laptop.
So what else is wrong? What interface shortcomings annoy you or create problems?
 Worried as in, “Oh no, the Steam interface might continue to be not very good!” So, pretty mild levels of worry, all things considered.
 Here is who owns this game on your friend’s list, and here’s who’s been playing lately. Because privacy is SO last-century.
 A common fraud tactic is to log in to a victim’s account and then put their high-value items up for sale at a super-low price, then quickly switch back to your own account and buy it. Assuming you mask your IP, it’s impossible for Valve to PROVE you didn’t buy the item in good faith.
 SO MANY CLICKS for each stupid nine-cent item. I’d throw the damn things away if the interface let me.
 Probably in response to a Windows update.
 Because I’m a kid and the machine belongs to my parents or whatever.
The Biggest Game Ever
How did this niche racing game make a gameworld so massive, and why is that a big deal?
A Telltale Autopsy
What lessons can we learn from the abrupt demise of this once-impressive games studio?
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?
Quakecon Keynote 2013 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
A game I love. It has a solid main story and a couple of really obnoxious, cringy, incoherent side-plots in it. What happened here?