"A smarter storefront, personalized just for you." That's the tagline for Valve's new "Steam Discovery" update, which is the first major overhaul to the PC games storefront since the addition of Big Picture Mode back in 2012.
Steam Discovery is about...well, discovery. Ever since Steam Greenlight turned the once meticulously curated storefront into a morass of I-don't-even-know-what-the-heck-this-is-since-it-barely-even-works, it's been harder and harder to separate out what's worth playing. Plus with over 3,700 games on Steam, there's quite a back catalog waiting for you to delve into.
But it's hard. Time and time again developers have complained that being featured on the front page of Steam is the only way to make significant sales.
A new home
Well, hopefully that's no longer the case. It all starts with Steam's retooled homepage, which as Valve says has been "personalized just for you." The top-of-the-page Featured showcase as well as the New Releases and Recently Updated boxes below are now customizable, allowing you to (for instance) excise Early Access or preorder content from those sections of your homepage.
Search has been upgraded to take advantage of the massive database of user-sourced Steam Tags. Want to search for co-op games? You can do that. Want to search for games with Oculus Rift support? You can do that too. The results aren't always perfect, but it's a huge step up from the borderline-useless search feature before.
When you get to the "bottom" of the homepage--you know, the block of legalese that typically signifies "stop scrolling"--ignore it and keep on heading down. This is where Steam now keeps its personalized recommendations, based on games in your wishlist, games you play a lot, games your friends play, and even games you only viewed in the store.
Some of the suggestions are still a bit janky, such as when Steam recommended I buy three different versions of Counter-Strike because I like "Strategy Games," but those kinks will undoubtedly get worked out. Valve claims the list is "nearly endless."
And the best feature of all? Steam now tracks which games you own, so it'll stop recommending you buy Portal 2 when it's sitting right there in your library. In less personalized sections of the store (such as the New Releases tab) games you already own show up with a big "In Library" banner.
Now if only Steam would provide smarter sale prices on bundles prorated for games you already own, a la GOG.com, then we'd really be talking.
Also, "If you see a title you are not interested in, just click the 'Not Interested' button and Steam won't show that item to you in the future." Goodbye, Daikatana.
Valve's also taken a more hands-on approach to recommendations than the impersonal stream of games. Similar to Netflix's Max, except without that annoying stupid voice, you can now take a look at your "Steam Discovery Queue." I honestly don't know why they chose that name because it just makes me think of a Netflix-esque queue, which this is decidedly not.
Instead Steam recommends twelve games to you, be they popular titles or titles it thinks you might be interested in, and you simply go through and either add them to your Wishlist, say you aren't interested, or skip the suggestion and move on.
"There is only a limited number of items in each queue to give a clear accomplishable goal," writes Valve. "Every time you launch Steam you can explore through your queue and feel like you've gotten a good idea of products that may be interesting to you."
Once a product has shown up in your Queue, it will never surface again. "If you manage to look through all the products on Steam (quite an effort!) then you'll only be able to get a new queue when new games or software are released," Valve claims.
My little pile of games
Finally, there's curation. To be honest, this is probably the most important part of the update. Any Steam user can now create a list of recommended games and share them with followers, be it a website (a la our totally hacked together official PCWorld Recommended Games list that I made last night as an experiment), a YouTube personality (TotalBiscuit), a company (Devolver), or a random community member.
Steam's Recommendations are great, its new Queue system is great (if a bit odd), but Curators is where the system really shines--it's like having a friend tell you about some obscure game they found on Steam, plus a brief explanation of why you should totally check it out. Of course, the system is also currently flooded with crap, but like Steam Tags and Steam Reviews I expect that'll filter out over time as the novelty wears off.
In any case, it's a huge step forward for Steam. All of the small updates that seemed fairly inconsequential over the past year, especially Steam Tags, suddenly make a ton more sense. Now if only they could implement tabbed browsing within the Steam client...