Libraries, games and books

There’s no need for physical media any more, not really, not unless it is a beautiful and delightful object that requires physical existence in order to truly accomplish what it sets out to do.

I am thousands of miles away from my McSweeney’s quarterlies, my copies of the Codex Seraphinianus and House of Leaves, but I kept them, when we moved; they live in boxes in my parents’ spare wardrobe along with the textbooks and miscellany I couldn’t bear to get rid of. Since we landed I’ve bought three books: The Norton Anthology of Poetry, a Bible-sized chunk of literature that I pick up maybe every week or so for a hit; a field guide to Australian birds, because it helped me feel less like an alien if I could identify the stuff in the sky here; and S., a gorgeous full-colour library book full of fake marginalia and individually-produced inserts. A formal experiment of the sort I can’t devour enough of.

I can’t remember the last time I bought a physical copy of a game for the PC. Digital downloads have supplanted physical games for the PC, and in doing so they’ve freed a vast multitude of new, small, interesting games from the strange tyranny of the physical product. (Except possibly in Australia, where you can actually buy things like The Basement Collection on disk, presumably because the internet here runs about the same speed as a smoke signal.)

Now Steam sales and Kickstarters have turned my PC gaming library into the same sort of collection as the bookshelves I tore up before we moved to Australia. It’s loosely organised by genre and by ‘feel’, in a way that’s intuitive to me but makes little to no sense otherwise. Its construction and contents reflect a lot about me; the things I’ve chosen to dedicate time to, the games I want close at hand for replaying.

It’s also full of games I probably won’t play to completion, in much the same way as the Shelf of Shame I used to keep my unread books on. For most of those games it doesn’t matter – the concept of ‘completion’ is pretty fuzzy on games without linear narrative – but there are more that I haven’t started than I feel entirely comfortable with.

That never stops me from buying more. It reminds me in some ways of the glory days of the PS2, when publishers produced the most astonishing array of strange and wonderful (and often utterly awful) games, and you could pick them up relatively cheaply knowing you would get a flawed but often interesting experience. (The collection of interesting PS2 games is also in London; the bad ones we traded in, so some other poor sucker has the joy of playing Air Rescue Rangers and America’s Top Ten Most Wanted now.)

I’m also now part of the friends and family sharing system, which means I tend towards buying games that I might have been on the fence about, so I can share them with others who will probably get as much from them as I will. But it also means my Steam library has an extra 200 or so games in it that I didn’t put there, that don’t fit the system. Like merging books with housemates or lovers whose tastes overlap but don’t entirely cohere. I had to make a new category for games I don’t want to play – not the same as games I haven’t played yet but will, one day. Games I just don’t want.

But that sharing is a joy, and not just because we don’t need to pay twice for two people who share the same computer to play the same game. It’s joyous because I get to explore and discover games I’d never have thought to try, and because I also get to explore someone else’s library, the way I used to wander through bookshelves when I visited friends. It’s joyous because that library even in its barest form – as a list of names without categorisation – is a sort of access to someone’s identity, a carefully chosen stack of media that says, at the very least: this is how I like to spend my time.

Media consumption, especially conspicuously, is a way of constructing identity; it follows then that Steam sales are cheap ways of being people.

11 quick thoughts on the new Steam reviews

Steam reviews are a thing now, apparently.

Now it’s easy to see what other Steam users think about a product before you buy. With Steam Reviews, you can browse for reviews that others have found helpful, or write your own reviews for titles you’ve played on Steam

A few quick thoughts in no particular order:

  1. Valve is displaying the time you’ve spent on a particular game next to your review. That’s interesting; that suggests they might also use it as a ranking factor for your review. It certainly means people will judge your review as less helpful if you’ve spent less time in the game than others. For positive reviews maybe that makes some sense; for negative reviews maybe it doesn’t, so much, because I don’t need to play 20 hours of Duke Nukem Forever to know it’s awful, or more than 5 minutes of the PC port of Fez to know it’s unplayably crashy on my setup, for example.
  2. They’re also flagging up the number of things you’ve bought on Steam, even ahead of your Steam level (which is to some extent a proxy for money spent). That’s an even more interesting choice, because it is almost certainly going to affect how people see the review on a subconscious level.
  3. You have to launch the game via Steam in order to review it. So I can’t review some of the games I’ve played most, because I didn’t buy them on Steam. Platform lock-in. But I also can’t review games just for the sake of hating on them from a distance, which deals with some of the Metacritic & Amazon swarming problems.
  4. But what I can do, if I want to game this system, is launch the game once, leave it on overnight to gather Steam cards & game cred, and then review it. Whether anyone will care enough to actually do that is an open question at this point.
  5. The only ranking factor they specifically mention is time – ie more recent reviews will be visible on game pages – and that’s framed as a good thing for the devs. But there will be others – game time and helpfulness are the obvious ones, but Valve would be daft not to include things like friendship data, similarity of game libraries etc in personalising reviews for individual readers.
  6. They’re defaulting to post-moderation, removing or hiding things when flagged, and not giving devs the ability to hide things directly without moderator input. That makes some sense (hide all negative reviews won’t be a valid strategy) but is also potentially concerning (we don’t yet know how much moderator support they have, or the moderation guidelines by which they’re operating, or the speed with which they’ll respond, or… etc).
  7. This could be a serious Metacritic competitor, because of Steam’s metadata about who’s played what games for how long, which could tie into an authority system using upvotes and activity more generally…
  8. …but (at the moment) they’re not including a scoring system, just recommend vs not recommend. Thankfully. Any numerical system would be exactly as open to abuse as the current Metacritic system is, with all the existing issues about people only looking at the score when purchasing or devs’ pay/bonuses being dependent on numerical scores that are, let’s be honest here, based on spit and whimsy and nothing more.
  9. The language stuff – allowing users to review games in their own languages and search for reviews in particular languages – is great for users especially in areas underserved by games press. And potentially a nightmare for devs, if they can’t translate.
  10. Helpful vs non-helpful is a nice way to harness the middle bit of the 1:9:90 rule.
  11. Mutualisation is interesting. I wonder how many devs and users were clamouring for this feature.

Gamifying games: Steam trading cards

The Summer Sale cards drop when you vote on games you want to buy, or spend money on games. Subtle.
The Summer Sale cards drop when you vote on games you want to buy, or spend money on games. Subtle.

As part of the Steam summer sale, which ends tomorrow, the service has released publicly the trading card system that’s been in beta for a few months. It works like this: participating games have a ‘badge’ that you can acquire for your profile, and that contributes to a recently introduced level system. You get the badge by collecting cards – virtual items that land in your inventory – and crafting them together, and in the process you might get a special emoticon you can use in chat as well. You can get up to half the cards you need by playing the game, and the rest you have to trade with friends or buy on the community market. You can make the same badge multiple times, earning you more experience points towards your level and getting you a new image. And if you’re high enough level, you have a chance at getting booster packs that contain several cards, or foil cards that can be combined for an extra special badge.

Let’s be absolutely clear here: we are talking about .jpgs on screens. Collections of pixels.

Every time someone buys a card, Steam gets a cut – and I assume so do the game devs. People who don’t care about the cards get a chance at making some very easy money – pennies at a time, perhaps more if they get a rare drop. People who care a lot can plough time and money into buying rare pictures. People who feel like making money off this can play the market – that’s already happening with the summer sale cards, as they’re high enough volume to sit at a stable price, but folks are only making a penny or two at a time. But once the economy starts to settle down, some folks will get good enough at it that they won’t need to pay real money for games ever again. Some people will most likely write bots to autobuy items below a certain price, too, once prices start to stabilise more broadly. If it’s successful – and it looks successful, right now – it’ll become its own market, the way MMO trading posts do, algorithmic trading and all.

At the moment, badges aren’t tied to achievements – special pictures unlocked when you do something specific within games – so there’s no gameplay tie. In part that’s likely to be because achievement cheating is so common, devaluing achievements as a participation mechanic. But the flip side is that you can get card drops just by having a game open – you don’t need to be actively playing it – so plenty of people are leaving their computers on with card-dropping games open, and idle. Games they’ve not yet played, or games they’ve played to death and don’t want to have to go back to in order to get the new special picture. It’s not a bad way of making a bit of pocket money.

But it’s almost certainly not what the system designers wanted, unless the whole purpose was just to get players to open up games more often. It’s definitely a way of getting a game’s ‘hours played’ stats up, if that’s a metric you care about. A lot of people buy games in Steam sales then don’t play them (I’m guilty of this) – this might be a way to trigger collector types into at least opening them up for the sake of collecting something else. But because of the current implementation, it’s not actually incentivising play: it’s just getting people to sit on menu screens while they do other things. Activity levels in Steam are going to go up very fast, but people won’t actually be playing. It’s a gamification system that offers incentives for a behaviour that the designers probably don’t actually want. (Well, the game designers at least. I can certainly imagine that a lot of transaction fees and inflated activity metrics aren’t a particularly bad thing for Valve.)

Incidentally, the :weed: emoticon, which drops from the Port Royale 3 badge, is going for $10. People really, really like special internet pictures.