Sunday, March 8, 2009

I purchased (with effort) World of Goo on Steam for $5

I've talked a bit in the past about Valve's Steam platform. My basic complaint is that it mainly appeals to hardcore PC gamers who are familiar with things like directory trees and who don't mind browsing, essentially, a tabbed web browser that is more difficult to use than standard browsers because it violates a number of web UI conventions. 

In terms of surfacing content, it doesn't do a great job of suggesting things that are popular in the community. This is weird because Valve is very open with their server data and if a user had the gumption to dive in to these data they could figure this out. Moreover, subjective player ratings data would be easy to collect and compile given the "constantly connected" status of the Steam client.

Anyhow, World of Goo was on sale for $5 and I wanted to pick it up. Good job, Steam for setting that price point because I was originally just going to buy the Wii version, but $5 was perfect for an impulse buy.

My critique of Steam this time around is more from a traditional purchase-pipeline perspective.

Thankfully the World of Goo sale was being heavily promoted. This meant that I got a huge "buy me now" pop up and welcome when I launched Steam. Other times I've had trouble finding the game I wanted to buy.

Some issues with the purchase pipeline include:
  • Default size of the browser meant that it was hard to find the primary "add to cart" action button. I needed to search the page and scroll down to find it.
  • After I added it to the cart I was taken to my cart where the primary action button was "return to shopping" instead of "check out". I hit "return to shopping" without really thinking because the "purchase for myself" button was hidden below the fold. I just assumed, because "return to shopping" was primary, that it took me to the place where I pay for the game. I understand the desire to get users to add more games and make a bigger purchase, but why not lock them in when they're ready to hand over the cash instead of letting them wander off and potentially lose interest. As much as I dislike the HUC ("High Upsale Cart") on, it is a very effective way to tease users with add ons without having them go back to the main product browse/search pages because the ONLY decision the player has at that point is to immediately add something to the cart or pay for the stuff that's already in your cart.
  • Steam should probably already know that I'm over 13 if I've made a purchase before and indicated as such. That said, I appreciate that the issue of minors using the system is tricky and hard to solve gracefully.
  • Steam should allow me to store my credit card info so I don't have to type it in every time. Moreover, the various fields are aligned in a bizarre way that make it hard to simply tab through and enter the appropriate data. I also had problems with drop down lists when they were located at the bottom of the visible screen (they popped down, off screen). And, not specific to Steam, I wonder when it's going to become standard to enter Zipcode first so that City and State are prepopulated automatically.
  • The actual "click to Purchase" experience was puzzling. I hit the button and its text was replaced with an animated "waiting..." graphic. But the rest of the page remained the same. I sat and watched and wondered what was going on, unsure whether to refresh the page, cancel out or just keep -- well -- waiting. If it's known that the wait can be more than a second or two then a less stressful user experience would be to take the user to a new page (proof that their command was being processed) and explain that the purchase request had been submitted and they just need to wait for the transaction to process. 
  • I was dead-ended at the purchase confirmation screen. Yes, there was an option box in the download pop-up that asked if I wanted to return to the game tab when the download was complete, but I never thought to check it. I just assumed that I would be dropped there when the game was downloaded and ready to play.
  • I went to the "game tab" and wondered where my download went. I have about 20 or so items on my Steam player list. At first glance I did not see World of Goo amongst the titles. Part of the problem is that games are listed alphabetically, so I didn't see the W title at first. Finally I did notice the yellow text (in the middle of the table listing) that was indicating download progress and looked left and saw World of Goo. Since users are likely going to want to play the game as soon as it's ready, it might be worth coming up with a more obvious recent purchase indicator.
In some ways, I think that one of the core limitations of Steam in terms of user experience is the fact that it is trying to emulate a web browser when it is not a web browser. I think this is also a source of frustration when trying to use the PSN market place with a console controller. I don't think of either platform as a web browser when I'm using them, so I don't think to try to resize the window (on Steam) or to scroll page up or page down (on either). Applications, especially gaming applications, contain all the vital information on one page and (should) have obvious primary action buttons that both educate the user as to what options are available and allow the user to take an action without lots of thought.

All that said, I of course still made the purchase and Valve continues to make huge profits off of its Steam service. Offering great content at great prices using a trustworthy and respected service means that you can get away with a certain amount of friction in the user experience of the content discovery and purchase pipelines.

But, remember: There are lots of folks out there who love games who don't necessarily know the titles of great content they might like, or who aren't familiar with Steam and the first person shooters that they make. These folks have lots of places to go and find games, and if Valve wants to capture a larger swath of this huge and growing market, it may need to pay a bit more attention to the more casual and less savvy consumer.

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