Valve has recently unveiled it’s update to the Steam store, and one of the biggest additions is the new Curator system. Any steam group can set itself up as a curator and create a list of games it recommends, in a way similar to GOG.com’s “GOGMixes” feature or Itch.io’s collections feature. This comes after months of criticism aimed at Valve for the way the Steam storefront is handled – a lot of old re-releases of games have been featured on the front page and there has been very little perceived quality control since Valve launched Steam Greenlight, which have both been common sources of complaints.

The system is fundamentally a good one.  I like making lists of games I can recommend to my friends and already use both GOGMixes and Itch.io collections a fair bit. I can now do the same on the service where I have the most games. Being linked to Steam groups also allows for some great niche lists that give attention to some games that would otherwise never get their time in the spotlight. Plus, while it is still early days for the feature, we still do not know the real effect it has on developers. Some are reporting a drop in sales, while others are noticing an increase.

However, I think the curator system may be getting more positive attention than it really deserves and could have some implications for curation on Steam that were not expected. It also seems to undermine a lot of the additions Valve have added to steam in recent years.

Journalists, YouTubers and Streamers already have a massive say in the success of games, with many games already living and dying based on the opinions of these critics. It is not inherently a problem that journalists and YouTubers have more sway, it’s a natural part of having an audience. For the most part though, this influence has been kept out of Steam. The Steam reviews are written by regular players of the games and give you obvious information such as how much time the person has played the game and whether they recommend it or not.

The user reviews system was a fantastic update because it didn’t give preferential treatment dependent on how many followers a person has, but rather on the merit of their review. It also collected multiple opinions into one, easy to access page rather than forcing the user to rely on a single person’s opinion. It is not a system without flaws; quick jokes can quickly reach the top and there is the ever present problem of users who’ve clocked thousands of hours in a game only to not recommend it. Despite this, I think it is a solid feature that has helped guide people’s purchasing decisions.

The curator system in its current form is the antithesis of that. In the top 10 most “followed” curators: three are YouTubers, three are websites I have heard of and there is one well known journalist (all of whom I do respect). This means that the ordinary user’s opinions are no longer valued as much as those who can amass a large follower count, as is how it works on the rest of the Internet. The result of this is that gimmicks have to be used to see any of the success of these big-leagues (for example, the Hodor curator, where every review is simply “Hodor hodor hodor”, in the same style as the Song of Ice and Fire character), and these gimmicks ultimately make finding high-quality curators more difficult. After all, how can the average player compete with someone with over one million YouTube subscribers?

Another problem that can arise from this is that it cannot be guaranteed a personality or famous website’s curated list is actually any good. An unknown player could amass a very large and detailed list, or a group could curate a helpful list of niche titles, and still be buried under a famous website’s list of ten games everyone and their mother has heard of. Popularity does not automatically mean quality, and so ranking curators by their popularity seems nonsensical to me.

I don’t believe that the fault lies with the successful curators like TotalBiscuit or Jim Sterling. It is a part of having a large audience and they cannot be faulted for wanting to make it easier for people to find the games that they recommend. However, blame can be placed on Valve for giving high-profile individuals more space than others.

Itch.io’s collection system is not ranked and not made public to anyone other than who the creator of that collection wishes to share it with. It serves the purpose for I believe these curator lists should really be for – a simple tool to share your recommendations with your friends or your audience. Currently, the way Steam is doing it is very similar to a “celebrity endorsement” function.

The curators who have added a game to their list are shown at the top of a game’s store page, before the user reviews and even the actual description of the game. The biggest curator of that game will also have their short thoughts of the game shown.  It’s giving more power to specific individuals who luckily appear in that game’s curators section than I believe they really deserve.

There is one really simple change Valve can make to improve the system to reduce the celebrity endorsement or box quote vibe. randomise who appears where, and remove all the ranking. Remove the follower counts, do not use that number as a decider for whose opinion appears where on the store page and instead show random curators who have added it to their lists, regardless of if they have 20 followers or 200,000.

Making this change not only gives a fair chance to every player to have their opinion heard, it also immediately shuts down one prediction I have seen from multiple sources – people paying to be on curator lists, be it monetarily or with free steam keys. Being on a top YouTuber’s curation list would not be as advantageous if they were given equal exposure to a small niche community’s steam group, minimising the effectiveness of these tactics.

It is early days for the Steam Curator system, and I do believe it could be a force for good. Sharing what games I like with my followers is a really appealing thing, but it is being pulled down by the execution. Curators feel more like celebrity endorsements giving box-quotes than genuine lists to share, and it is giving a small group of organisations a much larger say. This is very uncharacteristic for Valve given their recent history with Steam Greenlight, user recommendations and the review system. These do not take the popularity of the voter or writer into account, just what they have written. With some simple changes it can be a massively positive thing for Steam users, but I don’t think we’re there just yet.

About The Author

Former Managing Editor

Joe Parlock is an opinionated pop culture writer from the British midlands with 3 years of experience and a passion for being a general grump about games. Starting out before he could walk with a Sega Megadrive and a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, his favourite genres of games includes platformers, stealth, fighting, roguelites and the budding survival sim genre. Joe also writes not only about games, but also other areas of pop culture such as film and TV.

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