As the West’s largest source of downloadable computer games, Steam has faced immense scrutiny for just about every one of its practices. Among its less controversial choices is one of its most dated: the “Steam Library” tab, where you find and load the games you’ve already purchased. What could be sensational about that?
But if you’re interested in usability, this might be Steam’s most offensive element. This interface, which revolves around a collapsible plain-text list, has remained the same since Steam’s 2003 launch. It might have made sense in Steam’s early years, but anyone who owns more than 50 games—a reasonable count after 16 years, between standard games and crazily discounted ones—knows that this interface does more to hide your oldies-but-goodies than to expose them.
The 2012 launch of a TV-friendly “Big Picture” mode didn’t resolve this issue; if anything, its (wholly optional) oversized icons and text compounded the problem. But now, as the PC game-launcher space begins rapidly heating up, Steam has finally followed through on a promise to smooth over its game-launcher interface. Behold: the brand-new Steam Library, coming as an opt-in beta on Thursday, September 17.
The story is largely told by the above gallery. It includes one snapshot of the existing Steam Library interface and is otherwise loaded with the interface’s upcoming changes. The core concept is left somewhat intact. A left-hand sidebar is full of collapsible lists of games, and a wider, right-hand interface gives out information about particular games.
But the original interface always dedicated the right-side chunk to a single column about a single game. “Friends who own this game” was the top item, then achievements, then a plain-text dump of news. If you don’t select a particular game, this space now becomes a home for “shelves,” or regularly updated bumps in news and activity about games you already own. You can delete these if you want, but the default interface includes a few useful sorting mechanisms: games with recent news updates, games you recently played, and games that your friends recently played.
Below those, by default, are your own custom “collections” of games. A static collection can be built by dragging and dropping game names into their respective collection box. This mimics the existing, buried option to create “categories” in your games list. More interesting is the dynamic collection option, which lets users type and select whatever descriptive tag they want (“single-player,” “RPG,” “turn-based,” “split-screen multiplayer,” etc.) to have Steam pick out all matching games in your library. Dynamic collections will automatically add any new purchases that match the criteria you’ve set.
Notice that none of this is designed to push games you don’t already own. The “Store” tab is a click away if you want purchase recommendations. Steam Library, on the other hand, remains focused on software you already own (though that can include game makers announcing paid DLC or even sequels and other software).
And, yes, once you’ve selected a game, a slightly more familiar-looking interface comes up. Like before, these game-specific listings come with relevant news updates and information about your friends’ play. But now everything has been re-ordered in a more logical manner. If there’s a big live event, tournament, sale, or other time-limited announcement, that can appear at the very top, as per a developer’s discretion. A few more game-news updates follow that, and then a split-column view shows more relevant information: friends’ uploads relating to the game, personal achievements, trading cards, and a new “post-game summary” view that rounds up gameplay details not only from your most recent session, but from the past week, past month, and more.
You can’t see it in the gallery, but many parts of the interface include new visual flourishes, such as a depth-of-field effect when you expand a news post and some 3D-animated icons when you mouse over achievements and trading cards. It’s all subtle, handsome stuff. Valve reps say they built this Steam Library update with low-end hardware in mind, but users can still disable the new flourishes via a “low performance” toggle, should they wish to (particularly to save laptop battery life).
More news outlets, more events… and more Steam Store changes?
Valve also announced new tools for game developers to take advantage of this update, which go live later today (assumedly to populate the Steam Library beta with flashy update posts, once it goes live in nearly two weeks). The primary initiative is called “Steam Events,” which lets game makers and publishers schedule game-related announcements and flesh them out with video and streaming embeds, Steam store entries, and even a pipeline to import translation-related text.
In related news, Valve has also announced plans to completely overhaul Steam’s syndication of magazine and blog content. The company told Ars Technica:
Any [press] outlet could show up to players who want to follow that outlet and receive that news. We need a system that can support any language. All six current outlets [in the existing Steam Library] only serve a particular audience, and they only speak English. Soon, any outlet can show up in there based on who’s following them, and then we can support different languages.
During the announcement presentation, Valve acknowledged worries that the Steam Library system might be gamed by enterprising game makers who post a barrage of Steam Events. “For each player, the Steam Library’s posts are personalized based on what they play a lot, recently, and in the past,” Valve developer Alden Kroll said. “An update from an unplayed game is less likely to pop up. We’re implementing rate limiting to prevent six updates from the same game at the same time. Still, we want feedback from players on this.”
The announcement event revolved entirely around the Steam Library, as opposed to the Steam Store. But Kroll did say that the two systems are inherently intertwined. “A bunch of what we’re doing with the new Library will inform a lot of changes in the Store both visually and structurally. A bunch of that will inform the next steps of Steam Store.”