Opening the valve: Steam Curators rule the front page

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Opening the valve: Steam Curators rule the front page
Ask a hundred independent developers what impacts their sales most and you'll likely get a hundred different answers, but among the more popular ones will be the topic of discoverability, the ways in which prospective buyers are able to find lesser-known video games. Platforms like the App Store and Steam see a lot of foot-traffic in their featured sections, and even brief visibility for independent developers can make for a massive difference in their bottom line.

As more games have made their way to Steam via regular release, Greenlight and Early Access, it's become vastly more difficult for a new game to be discovered. Enter Steam Curators, Valve's means of placing the weight of game recommendations on those outside its walls. The service launched this week and allows any person or brand (such as your friends here at Joystiq) to compile lists of games their followers should play, shifting the scope of the store's front page to include recommended games and a section for popular curators. Given Steam's incredible popularity and its status as a "must-have" piece of PC gaming software, Steam Curators is a major step for the service, and developers hope that it might heavily influence independent game sales.

"Front page promotion on Steam, or any digital store, is incredibly important," Retro City Rampage creator Brian Provinciano said to Joystiq via email. The thought was echoed by others, such as Ethan: Meteor Hunter producer Olivier Penot, who said that "having a front-page spot and having nothing [else] is doing 95 percent of my sales, if not 99 percent. As a small indie dev with little community, having a banner on a store front is very important."

Likewise, Robot Loves Kitty launched Legend of Dungeon just over one year ago "before Steam Greenlight's floodgates were opened and batches of a mere 10 to 20 games a month was the norm," as artist Alix Stolzer put it. "Based on what I have heard from dev friends releasing similar scope games on Steam in the last few months, Legend of Dungeon sold something like 500 to 600 percent more during its release week." The length of visibility on Steam's storefront is seen as a massive difference-maker to the developer.

Among the most popular Steam Curators is TotalBiscuit, the brand of PC gaming videos created by John Bain. Bain leads the Steam Curators list by a wide margin, with over 100,000 followers. He said the scope of his influence in the marketplace is "surreal," but expressed some frustration that the number of followers on Steam's new service is the only piece of data offered to Curators. "What I'd love to know is, this is the number of people that purchased or already own a game that you recommend that are following you," he said. While the system seemed "very barebones" to Bain, he felt it's "great to have the presence on the Steam store, that's something that we never had before."

The lack of clarity on Steam Curators is concerning for developers, too; even the service's introduction was a surprise to some. "We basically try to understand the new rules on the go," Penot said of Steam's changing discoverability methods. Developers may be able to draw vague conclusions on whether the recommendation system works for them, of course. "I can say that the change in Steam's front page to include recommendations has more than doubled our normal daily sales this morning alone," Stolzer noted. "I believe this may have a bigger impact for all games compared to the curators, which may benefit only a small selection of titles."

The battle for visibility could clear up a bit with Curators, which Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail said "is something that I've been hoping for for a long time now." In his eyes, Valve's experiment "might allow niches to find a home somewhere." Home creator Benjamin Rivers hopes Curators will "allow more games to potentially get that exposure," which he said is "only good news for developers."

Take Stealth Inc. developer Curve Digital as an example. The studio published Iron Fisticle on Steam last week (seen above), and "the day we launched, it was nearly pushed off the front page entirely by a glut of re-releases of games released over ten years ago and DLC for some F2P titles," Marketing Manager Rob Clarke said. "Any opportunity to get our game back up on that front page without simply dropping a huge percentage discount is good news."

Over the past year, Steam began introducing a higher volume of software to its platform through Greenlight, and the doors opened further with Early Access and now Curators. Valve head Gabe Newell said in January that Valve's "goal is to make Greenlight go away. Not because it's not useful, but because we're evolving." That fell in line with Newell's DICE keynote discussion from February 2013, in which he contemplated that "there's nothing that says we should have any curation at all in our stores ... this notion that somebody is acting as a global gatekeeper is sort of a pre-internet way of thinking of that."

Should Newell's vision of Steam becoming open "network APIs" that allow anyone to launch a curated store reach its full potential, then the front page of Steam as we know it may fall by the wayside. "Even the idea of one unified Steam 'front page' is going to get more and more archaic as we move forward," Clarke said. "Put whatever you want on Steam, our users will sort it out from there," Bain said of Valve's approach to Steam and its front page. "And I don't really agree with that necessarily, I think that Valve still has to have some responsibility for what goes onto its store." Even now, "the days of 'getting rich off of the front page' are truly gone, I think," according to Ismail.

Providing the system successfully bolsters sales for games, there's another major concern developers have for Steam Curators' future, as Rivers put it: "One potential wrinkle might be that exposure and favor can be doled out easily, and often for the wrong reasons." Valve may be forced to "deal with lists including or exclusively existing from paid curation," according to Ismail. Bain's own curated list originally featured Planetside 2, which he later removed because "there's a very real perception of impropriety there because I was heavily involved with that game."

Bain addressed the inclusion of Sony's MMO on his curated list on Twitter, later saying he was glad his followers brought it up immediately. "I need to be very careful about what I put on that list," he said, after having removed Planetside 2 from it. "I'm actively looking to make sure that I'm not seen as putting up things like sponsored content. And I've put up a policy on that now, and I intend to stick to it." While the YouTube channel's presence on Steam is "potentially huge for the business," Bain also admitted it "poses a number of pretty ridiculous ethical quandaries."

The general outlook on Steam Curators as the next major change to Steam is mixed, and the system will take time to sort itself out. "I'm excited by these new angles for discoverability and eager to see the longer term data on how they affect sales," Provinciano said. Likewise, putting the "right games" in front of the right viewers is "a step in the right direction" to Clarke. "I think it's a safe bet that this isn't the end of Steam's plans for the storefront, both in terms of new features and iterations and improvements on the ones that have recently launched."
[Images: Valve, Curve Digital, Sony Online Entertainment]
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