Steam is a howling vortex of games both brilliant and terrible. Steam curators were supposed to be part of an effort to cut down on the chaos. I can't help but feel like the system failed.
For those who don't really pay attention to Steam curators (I get the impression that's a fair number of people), they work like this: anyone can be a Steam curator. Just make a curator page, and boom: you've got a sparkly new title for your resume, business card, or tombstone. From there, you create a list of games you recommend, complete with brief synopses or reviews. Naturally, there are a lot of curators — 4172 pages' worth (as of writing), to be exact.
And yet, only a handful of those regularly appear on games' Steam pages. How? By being popular. It's a numbers game. The more followers curators have, the more likely their blurbs are to appear on games' Steam store pages. Already, you've got a problem: Steam curation is a system where popularity breeds more popularity, where you're either at the pinnacle of the pyramid or you're lost in the catacombs beneath.
There's not a lot of middle, is what I'm saying. Rare, in this day and age, is the curator who can go from zero to hundreds of thousands of followers. If you had your foot in the door early, awesome for you. If not, well, it's doubtful that many people will ever find your page, no matter how novel the concept. The end result is a series of similar voices curating the biggest Steam games, with other points of view nestled multiple clicks away, where — let's be honest — few actually seek them out.
In short, Steam curators — an attempt at cutting down on Steam's discoverability problem — have a discoverability problem.
Most of the time, however, that all leads to a single, usually uninteresting (but relatively innocuous) endorsement taking center stage, like this one on Ark: Survival Evolved:
Other times, though, you get something like this, which had the video game Twitter-sphere all a... [welp I guess there's no word for it] earlier today:
Disclosure: the game in question is Read Only Memories. I'm friends with a couple of its developers. However, I have nothing to say about the quality of the game, as it's not relevant to this article.
There's, uh, quite a lot to unpack there. Generally speaking, though, it's not a great look to have an AIDS joke smack in the center of an otherwise professional-looking store page, from something as official-sounding as a curator — especially when the game its referring to frequently concerns itself with LGBTQ characters and issues. But so-called "joke" reviews slip through the cracks of Valve's system from time-to-time, because it's not really moderated in any substantial way.
That's unfortunate, and it's an issue that's led to a fair number of user complaints. So Valve built a solution into the curator system: developers, if they so please, can simply hide specific curations from their store pages. That Read Only Memories curation, for instance, has since been removed. Cool, right? Except for the part where that is a TERRIBLE solution.
Is it good for smacking down rotten vegetables hurled by the peanut gallery? Sure. But, in theory, it also allows developers to pick the most positive curation they can find, even if it's not the most indicative ever. I feel like, if a system's failsafe against potential trolling is that drastic — leaves that glaring of a hole — you might need to consider revamping it.
When I'm looking at Steam curations on games' store pages — the first evaluatory thing that pops up on any store page, I might add (see the above image) — it's hard not to think of those two ends of the spectrum. "This could be someone trolling or otherwise misrepresenting the game," says my brain. "Or it could be the developer's favourite, a process-of-elimination selection by the most biased party in the entire equation." Neither is good or useful. I'm not saying those things happen all the time, but the fact that they can is a big problem.
Of course, there are other places on Steam where curations come into play. If you scroll down the home page a bit, you'll find a selection of games recommended by curators you follow. That's handy (especially for older games that might not otherwise appear on Steam's front page anymore), but again: it's hard for new curators to emerge and lend their voices to that space.
Moreover, I find that if I'm trying to figure out whether or not a new game is worth buying, user reviews are usually faster and, broadly speaking, more indicative. Individually, some might stink to the highest heavens — leave traces of faecal matter in god's infini-beard — but there are often a lot representing multiple points of view, sometimes before any curations are live. Oh, and while some curators aim to update their curations, plenty are out of date. Sorting through user reviews is easier, too. The "positive/negative/funny/recent" tab system, while not the most elegant thing ever, gets the job done better than jumping between curation pages and scrolling to the game you're interested in.
At the very least, Steam curation, a system that gets such prominent placement on Steam, needs better moderation — or perhaps some kind of reputation system. Honestly, though, in its current form Steam curations feel stagnant and redundant, both in terms of content and as a system. I'm not entirely sure what an ideal Steam curator system would look like, but I know it's not this.
A second disclosure: Kotaku has a Steam curator page. We should probably update it more.