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Enhanced Steam: an interview with Jason Shackles

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Videogame company Valve’s online digital store is renowned for its ease of use, cost cutting sales and an ever growing library. For one man, however, it wasn’t quite as intuitive a user experience as he’d hoped. Jason Shackles is the mind behind Enhanced Steam.

screenshotIt all began during last year’s Steam winter sale.“At that time I already had a pretty sizable collection of games on Steam and I was hunting for some great deals.” Using the search page to sort by price and dig out many deals that never show on the store front, Jason became “frustrated having to click on each game to see if I already owned it, since I often get new games as part of cheap indie bundles, play them a few times, and then forget that I own them.”

The search for an extension or userscript – scripts that can make navigation easier and simplify common maintenance tasks – started and ended soon after with no success. “To my surprise, nobody had [made one], so I decided to make one myself”, he explained. And work then began on building a basic extension himself. The initial prototype soon blossomed as Jason “shared it with…friends who also had large Steam libraries, and before I knew it I was getting requests to add new features.”

Skip forward eight months and Enhanced Steam is now available for three Internet browsers, supported in ten languages, and continues to add new features and fixes.

“What are users asking for?”“I started coding in Javascript around 1996 but quickly moved on to other languages”, Jason explained when asked about his background. “I was a professional programmer for many years but on the Microsoft side: QBasic to Visual Basic to VB.NET, that sort of thing. When I decided to create Enhanced Steam I had no prior experience with user scripts or browser extensions and hadn’t worked with javascript in over 15 years”. These earlier skills allowed Jason to spend eight months understanding userscripts and implementing that knowledge back into Enhanced Steam.

Jason’s familiarity with programming brought him to ask one central question: “What are users asking for?” By focusing on what the audience wants, himself included, the changes of Enhanced Steam become more intrinsic. In some cases, it has even lead to indirect compliments, “one of the best compliments I get is when people mistake new features for something that Valve changed. It happens all the time.”

“For example, Enhanced Steam adds an “Add to cart” button on the user’s wishlist. It seems simple, but it begs the question: Why hasn’t Valve already done this?” Jason states. He goes on to explain, “I understand its principle: users are interacting with the things they want – they’re one mental step away from a purchase – why make them jump through hoops to complete the process?”

“3rd party DRM”As a consumer himself, Jason believes in using his work to provide the information required for consumers to make the right choices. He believes that it’s “important that [consumers] make their own informed decisions when purchasing a game on Steam, so I added red “Warning” banners to games that use 3rd party DRM. This information is already on these pages, but is often hidden down in the tiny legal print so it’s not readily apparent“. DRM (digit rights management) continues to be a controversial topic, though this isn’t solely a political stance as it ties back into a key concept of Enchanced Steam – ease of use. “Not everyone wants to make a “Games for Windows Live” account with Microsoft so that they can play Fallout 3 which is a single player game.”

Perhaps the most amusing/depressing/simplistic feature of Enchanced Steam is a running invoice of what you’ve bought, for how much, and the total amount spent. So what’s the feedback to this feature been like? Jason explained it using the five typical stages of grief:

Denial: “There’s no way I’ve spent that much money on Steam! It must be wrong!”
Anger: “I could have bought a car/boat/motorcycle/vacation for that much money!”
Bargaining: “If I turn this feature off in the options it’ll all be OK.”
Depression: “Why can’t I stop buying games on Steam??? I’m so weak…”
Acceptance: “It’s not so bad, that really only comes out to $X per game (or $X per month) which is cheaper than Y!””

“Don’t worry – everyone gets to acceptance pretty quickly” Jason joked. He’s spent a considerable amount on Steam purchase himself – though I won’t say state how much here – and he sees this in a positive light. “I’ll probably not be bored for the rest of my life. It’s not so bad, [it] really only comes out to about $2.46 per game which is cheaper than a Frappe at Starbucks!” And this leads into an unexpected competitive nature, “a lot of users are actually quite proud of their total spent and it’s common to see people online trying to “one-up” each other by sharing how much they’ve spent.”

“Cheaper than a Frappe at Starbucks!”“I’m currently looking for employment with Valve.” Jason is straight to the point when questioned about his end goal, and perhaps rightly so. His hard work and eye for spotting the obvious that might escape others has lead to a browser extension that is both friendly to use and helpful. “They [Valve] kind of have this reputation of being this big, monolithic, unreachable company”, Jason clarifies. “Users feel like nobody from Valve is listening to them when they make valid suggestions for improvement. This is where I want to come in – to bridge that gap.”

The one question he’s asked the most is “Can I use Enhanced Steam with the browser in the Steam client?” Technically that’s not possible as the extension works on browsers. “While I understand not all of Enhanced Steam’s features align with Valve’s business interests (such as price histories, links to other online stores and services, and free profile backgrounds), I do believe that the underlying reason behind users wanting these features could still be addressed.”

“Gabe Newell has my résumé; he just needs to make the call.”

You can found out more about Jason’s work at http://www.enhancedsteam.com/

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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