Steam for Mac: still a UI disaster

Back in my dark ages of computing, when I only had a PC and I pirated just about every game and application I used, Steam was launched, promising to revolutionize the gaming industry. It did not, at least not at the time. When all you wanted to do was use a CD-Key and no-CD Crack from mega-games or GameCopyWorld, a distribution platform forcing its users to actually pay for a game was ridiculous and threatening.

Despite this, even then, I knew there was something there. Why? Because just like iTunes, Steam allowed its users to accomplish all the goals of piracy (save the cost), without the piracy: download and play right there, with even less hassle than piracy! Cool… I’d be willing to pay for that. And in a few years time we were all doing it!

Fast forward eight years and Steam is the most prevalent game distribution platform around, at least most certainly for PC gaming. After the port to Mac, Steam was actually pretty decent, slowly releasing Mac titles and offering cross-platform purchase translations. I loved it! All those games I had for Windows were suddenly available for Mac without paying a penny more. But despite all this work to transition Steam for Mac, they still somehow don’t quite get what Mac users like about having a Mac; it’s in the details, always has been, always will be. So where does Steam for Mac still go wrong?

Smooth Scrolling

You’re unlikely to be using a trackpad or MagicMouse for your gaming, but these days I find myself browsing steam for new deals at least once every few months, often just purchasing games for others. But browsing in Steam is like taking a step back to my PC days back in 2004. I constantly lose track of my position because every time I scroll it behaves like the second hand of a clock; chunking its way up or down in jarring intervals.

It’s a frustrating phenomenon when all of your devices are designed for the natural smooth progression in scrolling that the Mac experience typically offers.

Aqua Widgets

Mac OS X Lion has been out for four months now and was available for developers to play around with for many months before that. Despite this, the red, orange and green buttons for window management are all still presented in Leopard/Snow Leopard style. Because of the shrinkage that was applied to those widgets in every single other app I use, this makes Steam feel completely out of place. Valve! Update those widgets already!

Snow Leopard




Overall Layout

Although dozens of critics have hated on the Steam general UI, I’m not a hater. I like it because I like different designs. But I’m also happy to admit when I see something better and this tweaked design by Cocoia is gorgeous. It’s been around for a long time; too bad Valve hasn’t hired this guy.

Gift Certificates

This one isn’t a UI complaint, but one of missing functionality across all platforms. It’s way more fun to gift a particular game to someone, but sometimes your friends haven’t filled out their wishlist. Then what? How about offering gift certificates! I can’t think of a better store that desparately needs gift certificates than a completely online-distribution system. iTunes does it, Kobo does it, Amazon does it, Netflix does it, and just about every single digital distribution system in the world, except Steam.

Still Gaming?

I may not be gaming as much as I used to, and these UI annoyances aren’t enough to take all the blame for that, but they may make up a small portion of it. It would be nice to see Valve putting a bit more thought into the work they do to get the little things right. I have a lot of respect for app developers, but only when the quality of their applications are up to snuff.

When a developer has placed his or herself in the shoes of their users, you always notice these things because they make their app the way you would make it. I’m not talking about the coding per se, but the experience of using the app. Through a great, engaging experience, you can really appreciate the work they’ve put into their application. The next time you discover a new feature and it works in a brilliantly simple and elegant way, you notice. (E.g.: pull to refresh by Atebits found for the first time in the Tweetie Twitter client). When an update comes out, making things you do every day easier than ever, you notice (e.g.: Foursquare does this regularly. Facebook does not).

I want to be engaged by Steam, to keep me coming back to play more games, but it’s entirely up to the devs to put thought into the details to make that happen.


  1. Jon on December 21, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    I tried to install TF2 today on my mac…. HORRIBLE.

    Steam crashes, then says it’s done. Then when I try to play, it goes back to download, then crashes again. Repeat.

    • Jordan on December 30, 2011 at 11:09 am

      I’m lucky enough to have not received many crashes since it first was released for Mac, but it goes to show that they don’t have that focus on details like other Mac app developers.

  2. Marc on May 19, 2012 at 2:50 am

    And still the smooth scrolling has not been fixed as at the middle on May 2012.


    On a PC it seems to use IE for everything. On a Mac why does it not just use Safari embedded in the app for all windows, then all the gestures would work?

    Besides this, I think Steam for Mac seems as good as on PC.
    Portal, Prtal 2 and Amnesia seem to play just as well, and to be honest, I’ve had more problems with Steam on my PC than on my Mac.

    Be nice if it was fixed soon as the scrolling just becomes confusing.


    • Jordan on May 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm

      The funny part is that technically it does use Safari (to an extent). Steam makes use of the WebKit rendering engine for displaying websites, the same that Safari uses. I think they even transitioned to WebKit on Windows too!

      But sadly the rendering engine itself doesn’t control how scrolling works, that’s all in the UI of the app making use of the WebKitView. And since the Steam devs opted to completely custom develop their app from the ground up, they’re not making use of standard Cocoa UI components that would naturally have smooth scrolling built in.

      It’s really quite silly. You’d think they could at least use the built in WebKitView (which, I think, would give them smooth scrolling by default) but they choose not to.

  3. Dylan on November 23, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    i installed tf2 and shift tab is not working

    • Jordan on November 24, 2012 at 10:36 am

      I suppose keyboard input relates to the UI, though I was intending it to mean mostly visual interface. Any chance the Steam forums have a solution for that?

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