Meet the Hackers Fighting to Customize Your Steam Client

Do you like the look of your Steam client? It’s a question many of us don’t even think to ask. But in a world obsessed with technology that allows us to customize everything from your phone background to your colorful internet browser, it only seems fair to take notice.

Still, the process of customizing your Steam client is far from intuitive – in fact, if it weren’t for a few intrepid hackers and niche Discords, it would hardly exist in 2022. time, patience and a bit of research to use correctly. And given Valve’s outsized presence in the PC gaming community – and how basic this feature is – it seems like it should be a lot easier.

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“There is no longer support for this,” says Jonius7, the developer of Old Glory, a popular Steam skinning tool. “It makes you wonder what Valve thinks about all of this.”

Apparently, Steam has supported custom themes (or “skins”) for over a decade now. All you have to do is download the skin and create a new folder called “skins” in your main Steam directory. Then drop the skin files there, select it in the “interface” menu of Steam, restart, and presto: you have a new look.

Although it may seem quite simple, the truth is that many popular skins for Steam, such as Metro and Air, have mostly been broken for several years now. Specifically, they only revise the outer edge of the Steam client itself – although many of these skins originally replaced the entire Steam client, this feature was removed by Valve piece by piece.

Sadly, the days of easily modding your Steam to look whatever you want are over.

According to the skinners, these issues all started when Valve overhauled the Steam client’s friends list in 2018. While these changes brought a host of new features, such as a favorites section and better support for the group chat, they also broke existing support for skins for social features. . Skinners were horrified to see their custom friends list and chat windows blacked out by default in the Steam client, and with no easy way to override them.

The same thing happened when Valve released the fancy new Steam library later in 2019 – it left the existing skin support for “the old library” in the dust in favor of a new web-based design. . Considering your game library and social features are what most people use Steam for in the first place, Steam skinners have lost interest in the platform.

“When the beta of the friends list came out and people saw that Valve’s existing skin support didn’t apply to the friends list, it really hurt the motivation of the skin developers. “, says PhantomGamers, a software developer in space. “However, I think if Valve changed their stance on skinning, there would be a lot more interest in the future.”

Today, you’ll need to download third-party plugins to enforce your will on Steam’s library and friends list. PhantomGamers is the developer of SFP, the sequel to SteamFriendsPatcher, a program that modifies your Steam installation to customize these finicky bits. A Steam forums user named Darth figured out how to manually edit the files, but the procedure was so onerous that he inspired PhantomGamers to create a program to automate it, to save other game lovers time and effort. skin. While he admits that the first version of SteamFriendsPatcher was less than ideal – it stubbornly refused to work for some users – the developer mostly sanded down its sharp edges. However, while SFP does its job quite well, it is still a niche plugin ultimately.

“Many skin authors don’t even know that SFP exists as an option for skinning the friends list and library,” says PhantomGamers. “Some of them don’t want to worry about it because they’re not comfortable with a third-party program to apply the skin.”

While SFP lets you make drastic changes to your Steam client, like making it look like its green 2004 version, many of the most popular skins are more subtle. Jonius7’s Old Glory program is a collection of highly customizable tweaks that allow users to play with their Steam library, such as changing default game images from portrait to landscape, pushing your friends’ activity boxes down from the page and show more game titles per column. . Jonius7 says his motivation for doing Old Glory was pretty simple.

Only real gamers are brave enough to use OG Steam.
Only real gamers are brave enough to use OG Steam.

“Honestly, I think the default layout sucks,” he explains. “I wanted to change the columns on the game page so I could see my achievements and my friends playing first, rather than the news. And the tweaks only grew from there. I wanted to make the library more usable for everyone, and I think I succeeded in that.”

Today, the classic Steam skin Metro lives on, but it’s much more complicated to set up than at its peak in 2018. There’s a comprehensive multi-part guide on how to use the skin in 2022, which involves using a combination of SFPs and a litany of fan patches by well-known developers like Shiina to restore its original functionality. There is also a Discord with more detailed explanations. Some of these tweaks require a degree of CSS knowledge in order to achieve your goals, which will likely discourage some users. For my part, however, I was able to set up my own favorite OG-Steam skin and library using SFP in about half an hour, although I ran into a few hiccups along the way.

From a larger perspective, while it’s nice that these hackers managed to find workarounds, it’s strange that Valve didn’t exploit these themes for their own purposes. For comparison, Discord lets you choose custom themes from a decidedly unofficial applet called “BetterDiscord” – I was able to set up a variety of themes in less than 5 minutes. Given the outsized impact Steam Workshop has had on the PC modding community, you’d expect Valve to find a way to incorporate these themes into their storefront in a more natural way. As PhantomGamers points out, we’ve seen Valve experiment with this before with custom keyboards for the Steam Deck. Why not the main customer?

“I would just like to say to someone at Steam, ‘you support your game modders. Why don’t you support us?’ I think all we really need is a line of communication with Valve,” says Jonius7. “It doesn’t even have to be that big or official. Just a little communication would be nice.”

“I think Valve would only be interested in bringing back the full functionality of the skin if they could monetize it in some way,” says PhantomGamers. “Perhaps having a system in place for creators to create their own skins and get money for their hard work would benefit everyone. Skin developers have put a lot of work into the initial creation of their skins, but they also have to update the skins every time Valve changes the Steam client.”

Overall, although Steam skinning is much more difficult than before, the bottom line is that you can customize it if you’re willing to do the job. Personally, I’m very fond of my OG-Steam skin and plan to do whatever it takes to maintain it for the short term. However, there’s no doubt that Valve has plenty of room to make things easier for these theme developers, while potentially making a profit for themselves. As such, we can only hope they take the time to reevaluate the Steam skin in a future update to make your library even more vibrant and fun to use.

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