So I got beta access into the Steam iOS app. This is a weird situation: the app is quite good, very functional, and introduces no new functionality, so I really have no idea why this is in beta. Anyways.
Update (1:14PM): According to Joystiq, the app is out of beta. That was fast.
The app is highly functional. It does pretty much everything I wanted from Steam on iOS. It lets you chat with friends on Steam, browse their extensive catalog, make purchases, update your wish list, check the specials … the store even includes the warnings that you already own the game and lets you buy DLC. You can see who is online and what they’re playing, and even read the Steam Newsfeed (which is basically a list of daily deals) and some syndicated newsfeeds, such as the TF2 blog and Eurogamer.
Frankly, the only thing you can do on desktop Steam that you can’t do here is launch games.
The app is fast and responsive, but it does seem oddly slow for loading images. Thankfully, rather than loading all the screenshots for the game, it hides them behind a “Screenshots” button. For my test game (Sonic Generations) it took over 20 seconds for the first screenshot to appear, with the rest filing in at about one per five seconds after that.
But really, functionally speaking, there’s not much else to say. It works really well and does what you’d expect. It’s actually notably more responsive than their website and desktop apps, save for image loading (which is sort of a non-issue).
Overall, the app feels and works very much like Steam, ported to iOS. Visually, it’s absolutely unmistakable from Steam, with the dark greys and light blues you’ve come to love and expect. But I have to get really, really nerdy for a minute. Sorry.
The Steam app is absolutely inspired by the iOS version of Facebook in terms of it’s design. The overall layout is fairly standard and easy to learn, but if you’ve used the Facebook app, you’ll be oddly at home. Take a look:
For those who aren’t iOS nerds, look at the top of the first two images. Note that button with three horizontal lines. That pulls up the side menu, featured in the bottom two pictures. Note how in each case you can see a small sliver of the first screen on the right; when you do this in the app, the screen “slides” to the right to reveal the menu, as if it’s been sitting here the whole time. It’s a nice effect. So from this screen, we know that the box with three lines means ‘bring up the side menu’.
Then, Steam iOS pulls something crazy:
That’s the shop. Where’d the box with the lines go? It’s been replaced with a back arrow labelled ‘Friends’. In terms of iOS interface design, this is relatively egregious. Arrows that look like this are used all across iOS, in Mail, the iTunes Store, the App Store, the Music app … pretty much anywhere you’re likely to go backwards. The label indicates where you were previously, so if I take a look at Dustforce, the back button should be labelled ‘Catalog’. Tapping that arrow slides the screen to the right, revealing the previous screen on the left, as if it had always been there. Unfortunately, Steam breaks this convention in a number of ways:
- The menu is “on the left”. This is previously established in the Friends screen. This breaks the user’s mental “map” of how the application is laid out.
- The back button is supposed to bring you back. Always. That’s the point. There’s even an arrow pointing backwards. But we came from the menu. (And it always brings you back to Friends; there’s no way to go from the Wishlist to Catalog to get Wishlist up there. Steam always thinks that ‘Friends’ is the last screen you were on after using the side menu).
- Weirdly, to get back to the menu, you do have to tap through Friends first. So if you mis-tap Wishlist instead of Catalog, you have to go through Friends to get back to the menu.
- So your mental map is that you have the Menu, then Friends to the right of that, then Catalog to the right of that, and whenever you use the menu, you sort of pretend Friends isn’t there as the Catalog slides in from the right. Awkward. (The animation actually shows the Friends screen zooming by on your way to Catalog, but that’s tough to see unless you’re looking for it)
This back arrow gets broken all the time: if this sort of analysis interests you, check out Neven Mrgan’s post on the back button. But I never thought I’d say this: Facebook gets it right. The box with the horizontal lines is on every major section in Facebook, with profile pages and messages “to the right” of it, presenting you with the back arrow when you’re there. But the major sections don’t have the back arrow, they have the menu button.
Let me be clear: this isn’t a major issue. It doesn’t make Steam unusable, or even difficult to use, at all. But as a nerd who appreciates small details and likes analyzing design decisions, this seems like a weird oversight by Valve’s iOS team. Basically, Valve should change it so major sections (Catalog, Wishlist, Groups, etc) should present you with a menu button instead of a back arrow labelled ‘Friends’. Very simple fix.
Another weird interface issue, although I feel that this is a bug. The app lets you set your date of birth in the settings to skip the DOB warning for mature games (YES), but if you use your iPhone in landscape mode, it ignores how you’re holding it while you set your date of birth. Yep, I have this on video. I’m fairly sure this is a bug, and I did ping the @Steam_Games Twitter account about it.
I have another minor gripe, but this is so minor I almost didn’t mention it: Steam shouldn’t use different search method on different screens. In the Friends list, scrolling ‘above’ your friends brings up a search menu (just like in iOS Mail, Contacts, etc). In the Catalog, there’s a dedicated Search button (the magnifying glass) in the corner. I think it’s a good habit to pick one.
One final note. Gaining beta access is … weird. You have to attempt to login to the Steam iOS app (including Steam Guard authentication, if you have it). Then it informs you that you have to wait for Steam beta access.
When you get beta access, you don’t get an email or an iOS push notification. In your Steam desktop app, it appears as a message near the top, and it appears in your ‘Steam inventory’. I’m not sure why they structured it this way. I’m honestly not sure how long I’ve had access for, if I’ve had it since the first day or just now. I don’t log into Steam daily.
Overall, it is a really solid app. I’ve spent the better part of 1200+ words whining about a minor interface issue, but it’s highly functional, responsive, and nice looking. I’m really happy with it, and honestly, I would’ve been happy with just a chat client. Nice to see that we got much more than that. Thanks, Valve!