Jun 24, 2016

Posted by in Editorial, Featured | 0 Comments

Steam Sales and Mismanaged Recommendations

I’m not the only one with a beef regarding Steam’s “recommendation engine”.

And I’m pretty certain this sentiment extends well across the Internet. As gamers, we love and love to hate the Steam Sales because while we like getting things we’re interested in at a steep discount, we also hate that we’re so susceptible to impulse buying when we’re talking sometimes pennies on the dollar.

At the center of this push-pull relationship our wallets have with Steam sits their recommendation engine. Ideally, it would show the products that Steam thinks we’d like to buy, because even though we moan about spending more money on the platform, given the right product we’re more than willing to take advantage of a good sale.

Instead, we get a constant stream of product highlights that are chosen for less-than-fitting reasons, it seems.

TodaysDeals

This is my Steam storefront page from this morning (by the time you read this, it will have changed, or maybe the sale will be long since over). Now, I’m looking at this and squinting in that “how should I make sense of this nonsense?” kind of way that people my age are known for. Aside from the few titles I own, I’m not entirely sure why some of these titles are chosen (I’m looking at you, Vanishing Realms, a VR-only game being advertised to someone(s) without VR capabilities).

What’s the deal, Steam? As Bel mentioned, you have a wealth of info on every single user, and I’m sure that’s just the info that we can see for ourselves. For example, here’s some of my own stats:

MyStats

Right there, Steam has a good amount of info about me and my habits. Each of those 342 games has a genre assigned to it, either officially, or in the form of community tags. Steam should be able to look at all of the games I own, cloud the genres and tags, and figure out where my interests lie when generating a front page or a recommendation queue.

I shouldn’t have to mention the wishlist, because although mine is particularly anemic right now, it contains pretty much exactly the games and types of games I am interested but do not yet own.

Beyond these obvious data points, I’d like to mention that although I’m not a wide-ranging friender:

FriendCount

I did survey the top six users who were in my friends list on the Steam website and among those lucky users, determined that the average number of games they own is around 300 each. Now, personally, I like to fill my friend lists with people who share my general interests, so I think it’s safe to assume that the games that they buy might cross paths with the kind of games I would buy. The essence of crowd-sourcing is to use statistics in our favor, so if each person on my friend list owns one game that would never show up on the front page, that’s a whole 29 games that I would be interested in having recommended to me.

So why can’t Steam pull from all of this data that they have so we’re not getting stupid reasoning like this:

Popular

I’m open to buying games that are popular, but this reason crops up with a frequency lying somewhere between “all the time” and “all the time”. There’s a lot of people on Steam, and chances are that I do share interests with a majority of them. But I don’t know them, and therefor I don’t necessarily trust them. I have a friend list; I’m telling you exactly who I trust. The desires of the great unwashed masses might be great for Valve’s bottom line, but they certainly don’t make me want to jump on that bandwagon just because everyone else is. There’s more than enough data that I’m willfully (i.e. don’t have much of a choice) providing, but it doesn’t seem to be used in any way except to allow me to marvel at where all my money goes.

I am fortunate enough that I can buy many games, even just in the hopes that I remember that I bought them in six months when I’m complaining about having nothing to play, so I look forward to buying things during the Steam Sales. Surfacing recommendations “because they’re popular” might be working for Valve, but there’s a whole sub-surface catalog of titles that might fit my personal preferences and could be identified based on my past purchase history, or because it’s a good bet that if my friends like it then I’ll like it as well (or would at least consider it). When I have money to spend, I don’t want or need to know that tired franchises like Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty are on sale; Everyone already knows about those games. I want to know about the games I don’t know aboutTHAT is the purpose of a recommendation engine: to show people the items that they’d otherwise have missed because they aren’t AAA or crowd-pleasers (which when you think about it is a self-perpetuating cycle powered by a lame recommendation engine).

Look into my data, Steam. Get smarter about shoving items in my face that fit my profile. I’ve got a loaded wallet and I’m not afraid to use it, but there’s just too much stuff to dig through manually, and it doesn’t really make sense to have to do so when you’ve got the stub of a useful recommendation system that’s currently not living up to its full potential.

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