Yet again, the gaming community has to mull over another batch of seasonal video game sales making a massive dent in their incomes. Steam's Summer Sale is at the forefront of this phenomenon with another flashy minigame and thousands of ridiculous markdowns on big and small games. It's interesting to look at the Steam storefront now and remember how it was annotating demos for indie games and livestreams of people playing them just two weeks ago. Seriously, do you remember the June 2022 Steam Next Fest? Shit, I barely remember what I ate one week ago, let alone temporary digital events! Nonetheless, while one of these events is a cluttered mess designed to get you to pull the trigger on games you are on the fence about, the other is all about providing smaller developers a platform to pitch games to a community of millions. Before we move on to my next point, I'll give you a minute to think about which one is which.
There's something to be written or said about the current state of Steam's UI/UX these days, especially whenever it decides to parade around thousands of games on sale. However, I always find it curious how Valve showcases a far easier-to-navigate version of an event-oriented Steam Marketplace during Next Fest. The windows that play the community streams are moderately sized and inoffensive. Sorting games by genre is not entirely a pain in the ass. Finally, the most notable feature is a tab that chronologically annotates, by release date, games that have gotten demos. That one feature is something fellow moderator Chaser324, and I joke about whenever there's an upcoming or active Steam Next Fest. Every time Valve does one of these events, Chase, a person with design and programming experience, has to remind me to check out hundreds of game demos before the event ends. Because, after a Next Fest ends, it becomes virtually impossible to discover new shit, especially demos, that might tickle my fancy from smaller developers. Worse, that convenient tab that lists demos by date? Yeah, that disappears because, for whatever reason, it is an exclusive feature to Next Fest.
The reason I feel passionate about this topic isn't exactly a new idea or concept, but the current Summer Sale has made it all the more apparent. Most developers now know that putting a game perpetually on sale makes it recommended on the storefront's frontpage in perpetuity. At this point, I see the same bullshit zeitgeist or clout chasing knockoff games every waking hour I log into Steam. Worse, Steam now limits its ignore feature to 100 developers or curators, and with the marketplace constantly flooded by bullshit, that limit is not enough. The number of developers and curators actively abusing Steam's low barrier to entry or curation rules is ridiculous, and I reached my cap years ago. Yet, I am still seeing dogshit video games in my recommendations. So, please, Steam, make it easier to find and track indie games and demos for games I give a shit about; please, for the love of God.
Why Is Steam Next Fest The Only Time Steam Has A List Of Demos From Newest to Oldest?
I have to issue two points of clarification before we continue. First, Steam isn't the only digital gaming marketplace that desperately needs a "New Demos" tab or platform for independent developers to release miniature versions of game builds. GOG, for example, has this same issue. On GOG, the only reliable way I can track or follow game demos is to go to their store, click a genre, and then sort games "Price (from lowest)." Then, and only then, can I peruse a list of game demos and locate new releases of demos because the price of demos is programmed to be "$0." The second concession I need to make is that Next Fest is not a perfect event. The event's billed purpose is to give indie devs a unique event wherein they can share their games in their current state, collect input from players, and return to making their games with a treasure trove of free information. Instead, the current goal seems to be "Let's get people to follow or wishlist some games because there's no other way to track how well people are reacting to these games."
With that in mind, it is still a vastly superior UI/UX experience than what the current storefront or the much-ballyhooed Summer Sale provides. I tell you what, I got a big kick out of this year's Summer Sale minigame/gimmick, but not for the reasons that you might think. I was belly laughing when, as I fanned thorough nigh unnavigable slide decks, some of the actual games I could buy with real-world money seemed as ridiculous or more than the fake games Steam was asking me to find. Furthermore, I think I speak for most when I say I do not enjoy navigating Steam to find games without using the search feature. The slide decks and panels do not work as intended, and worse, the swings you can experience with a single click are simply bizarre. In one case, I looked at Resident Evil VII right next to a shovelware VR game and an obscure anime visual novel from 2008 in a panel listed as "Critically Acclaimed Horror Titles." I think this was Steam's attempt to try and recommend titles that match my purchasing habits or browsing history, but I don't know. I thought I ignored enough VR titles to tell the system I do NOT have a VR headset. Maybe Steam's trying to help out smaller developers by placing them next to tentpole AAA titles? If that's the case, someone needs to do a better job of making sure to separate the chaff from the wheat, but that battle was lost years ago on Steam.
That's why I think Steam could benefit from making Next Fest's demo search and tab features a permanent fixture. A visible "Check Out These New Game Demos" tab on the front page would also greatly alleviate the often overwhelming nature of Steam sales. Likewise, while Steam always directs you to "Wishlist" a game, this only goes so far. Usually, all making a wishlist does is send notifications on your phone when a game goes on sale. Why not ping users when new demos are released, or the developer is testing a new build for the game? And if that's all too much, how about just putting one more tab or search parameter that allows me to locate newly released game demos I was unaware of until recently? I'm not lying when I say I discover more new games I want to follow through Next Fest than any E3 presentation or Summer Sale. And yet, I can only do that for a week, three to four times a year.
Deleting All Demos After The Event Is Over Sucks
I mentioned earlier that Next Fest is by no means a flawless event. One of the most infuriating aspects is how many of these demos I have thus far glowingly praised disappear once the event is over. And when I say "disappear," I mean it. When the first Next Fest happened, and my job prevented me from using a weekend to get my fill, I downloaded around a dozen demos with the hope of playing them another time. Unfortunately, I was unaware that when Next Fest ends, Steam and the developer will delete the demos designed for the event from the marketplace and people's accounts. As a consumer, I'm not too fond of this. It puts many people with busy or seasonal schedules at a disadvantage in taking advantage of Next Fest. Also, this "feature" means that even if I read an article on a gaming publication or forum about the best games to check out during Next Fest, those recommendations are fleeting. Some of the demos stay around, but the vast majority disappear until the developer feels more comfortable sharing a larger slice of the game. Even if a demo for the recommended titles reappears, there's no guarantee it will be the same demo or slice of the game.
However, I understand why developers will likely push back on me regarding this point. The solution to my complaint would require devs to stop pulling the demo at the end of the event, and that's unlikely to change. Next Fest is a widow in which Steam opens itself up to smaller indie devs, and those teams might not want what they whipped up for the event to be their benchmark. If I were a member of a small design team, I might not be happy having a mid-development demo out there, which might not be representative of my post-alpha or beta work. The event intends for developers to collect input that they can practice in future builds and releases. Any notion of permanency defeats that purpose. However, while I understand not having a working demo available after a specified date, outright deleting downloaded content from people's accounts seems a bridge too far to me.
I also must address the big "elephant in the room," Steam Early Access. Having a hub for demos is not something I envision replacing Early Access. I understand that Early Access is a significant moneymaker for most developers, and demos can present a drain on developmental resources. However, plenty of people like myself are not interested in buying into a development process after paying an entry fee that can take upwards of two to five years to complete. Others want free ways to opt into a game or its community before taking the plunge. Thus, demos are a more suitable and palatable segue into discovering whether or not a game is worth buying. Most itch.io releases do as much, and I have a hard time envisioning a world where Steam cannot match itch's practices. And when it comes to developers, not everyone can physically or emotionally subject themselves to the rollercoaster that is Early Access. Yes, Early Access allows developers still in progress with a game to collect input and QA data while filling their coffers. However, the quality of that input is sometimes questionable, with most consumers still buying into Early Access games and expecting completed products.
I Understand The Importance Of Timed Events
When I passed by some of the ideas of this blog by a friend who is an active member of the indie dev scene, they felt I needed to be more careful about not fully advocating for the end of timed events that provide attention-grabbing platforms. Events such as Next Fest rouse up attention because they are "special," and Next Fest is one of the few times when a major digital marketplace makes itself openly welcoming to smaller developers. It's tricky; I agree that making Next Fest permanent would make the games that take advantage of it stand out way less. However, I do not think it is impossible to have Next Fest's event-like nature and improvements to demo search features as well. Having a "Steam Next" hub for demos and then running these Next Fest events every four to six months seems the best course of action.
However, I want Steam to set monitored guidelines for what gets posted in this proposed "Steam Next Demo Hub." I already have to wade through enough bullshit as it is just trying to find AAA video games I know I want to buy. Before you decry this as an unreasonable request, Steam already does this for Next Fest. The demos during Next Fest have to be a certain length and activate a handful of user-input features that allow users to feel like they are a part of the development process. Not every developer can invest the physical and mental resources necessary to publish a game via Steam's Early Access program. However, the ability to collect user input should exist beyond seasonal events. Also, I would prefer if only smaller developers were allowed to take advantage of the feature. I know this makes people uncomfortable, but I think it is high time for Steam to make it easier to find non-AAA titles by providing them with a safe and siloed space. I know Steam already has a global "indie" tag that you can click when shopping for games, but that tag is a depression factory.
Let's not forget that Steam is a profit-making enterprise, as with all video game storefronts. Nevertheless, if Steam wants to make money, they should make it easier to navigate their goddamn store's front page. Why is finding new games that might excite me by searching by genre or theme so shitty? If you want me to invest in the old wishlist program, maybe don't make it feel so pointless towards curating what I see or are recommended to check out? Steam is far from being the only or even worst digital marketplace for surfacing valuable information to its users. However, it is frustrating to see them experiment with new interfaces during temporary events like Next Fest, and none of that translates to the central marketplace where most of us will be on a day-to-day basis. Some will say that they don't mind this current version of Steam as they have taken the time to use the customization features tucked away in your settings. However, how many of you genuinely use these features? If you have used the "Discovery Queue" more than once or twice, please, drop a comment. Anything that currently exists to make your user experience even marginally better is either thoroughly tucked away in obtuse menus or downright impossible to figure out on your own. And with this current Summer Sale simply beating the same tune previous events have played repeatedly, it doesn't look like things are getting better soon.