Last week’s introduction of a concrete refund policy on Steam was an obvious win for consumers. Valve used to issue refunds for Steam purchases only in extreme situations, but now there’s a blanket policy offering a money-back guarantee for any game purchased in the last 14 days and played for less than two hours (Valve will also “take a look” at refund requests placed outside this window).
Like many busyexecutives, Sean Ammirati, a partner at Birchmere Ventures in Pittsburgh, had a habit of firing off a series of tired emails after his kids went to bed. Slogging through your inbox late in the evening is so common in the technology industry that some call it the third shift. But recently Ammirati realized just how mindless–and possibly ineffective–those emails were. All it took was a new piece of software called Crystal. “Be concise,” it urged him as he composed a rambling email to an entrepreneur. “Be logical,” it said of another missive. With each message the software suggested to Ammirati phrases to use and avoid, all tailored to his intended recipient.
Launched two months ago by a Nashville-based startup of the same name, Crystal knows the email style and preferences of just about everyone in the English-speaking professional world. It knows that Ammirati prefers short, blunt language and that I like sarcasm. If you’ve ever written anything on the Internet, Crystal probably knows how you like to correspond too. By analyzing data from publicly available sources like social media and private peer reviews on its own site, Crystal categorizes professionals into 64 personality types and extrapolates their work and communication styles from there.
Ammirati was skeptical when he installed the Crystal plug-in for Gmail, which starts at $19 a month for individuals to use. (It will cost $99 for companies.) But after a month, he’s sold. He estimates that around 80% of the 100 emails he sends each day are “semi-warm,” or sent to people he doesn’t know well. “I found it to be amazingly, magically accurate,” he says. It’s hard to measure whether his emails are actually more effective with Crystal–perhaps the introduction he wrote would have been well-received despite it–but it gives him confidence that his intentions will be properly understood. In today’s mobile-first world, anyone can dash off an email without much thought. A tool like Crystal forces the sender to think more about the person on the other side of the screen. It’s like spell-check for empathy.
Such technologies are increasingly important as work communications move away from in-person meetings around a conference room table and toward virtual chatrooms and instant messages. A friendly smile makes it easy to deliver a joke to your boss in a live professional setting. But in a digital environment, should you compensate with a smiley face emoticon or an “LOL”? (The answer, for me, is no. Crystal says Fortune editor Alan Murray prefers a formal grammatical structure and dislikes casual greetings. My sincere apologies for all those emoji, sir.)
Companies have used personality assessments to standardize hiring and training since the invention of the Myers-Briggs test in the 1940s. But social media and its tsunami of data have made that information easier to get, no tedious test required. A new class of companies–including Knozen, a quiz-based personality app; Conspire, an email-analysis service; and Crystal–spit out similar workplace insights based on employees’ daily activity and input from peers.
The rising interest in this kind of information coincides with the economy’s migration from blue-collar jobs to knowledge-worker positions. It’s especially prevalent in the technology industry. Human resources departments, elevated to the C-suite with titles like chief people officer (or the Silicon Valley version, chief happiness officer), have swelled in influence, and they’re more willing than ever before to embrace data to make personnel decisions. That’s a dramatic change from the 2000s, when companies had little interest in adopting HR software, says Knozen CEO Marc Cenedella, who at the time led finance and operations for Hotjobs.com. Today, he says, “it’s almost flipped. They are interested in every new tool there is.”
Beyond HR departments, Crystal has seen adoption among salespeople communicating with clients, business-development executives doing outreach, and managers who want to strengthen their relationship with their teams. Crystal founder Drew D’Agostino believes his company’s personality data can help in any work situation–not just with email. Personality differences seep out in high-pressure situations, he says: “Crystal can give us the opportunity to step back and say, ‘This is how I approach problems. This is how you approach problems. Let’s keep that in mind when we solve this.’ “
But first some of us have to get past the creepy Big Brother factor. Must Crystal broadcast, for example, the fact that I’m frequently late? It may be true (okay, it’s definitely true), but I’d rather not have a scarlet “L” permanently attached to my professional reputation. D’Agostino and Knozen’s Cenedella each say that my reaction–embarrassment followed by swift indignation–tends to happen when the data-driven assessment is dead-on. In other words, if an algorithm can use my digital exhaust to determine that I am habitually tardy, it’s probably not a secret.
“The view existed whether or not we were there to reveal it,” Cenedella says. “Our point of view is, Isn’t it better for you to know, so then you can do something about it?”
I would still prefer to ruin a first impression on my own, thank you very much. But I may be an outlier. It’s more common for Crystal users to be proud of their profiles and share them, flaws and all, on social media or with co-workers, D’Agostino says. For him the reaction validates Crystal’s goal to improve people’s understanding of one another.
“People email me, saying, ‘It now makes so much sense why I had this argument with my wife, or why I hate when my boss does this,’ ” he says. “It’s going to make relationships healthier.”
A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline ‘Empathy, Thanks To Algorithms.’
The anticipation for Valve’s first virtual reality solution, the HTC Vive, comes with a different set of issues than impending launches from the likes of Oculus and Sony. Vive users will need to dedicate a serious amount of floor space to the system, since SteamVR will require its players to stand up and walk around in virtual space. Thus, virtual reality freaks looking to build the ultimate VR room in their house will want to check out the details that emerged as the first wave of developers got their free Vive dev kits over the weekend.
reddit users pulled the Vive’s setup instructions from a recent SteamVR update over the weekend, but Valve officially posted the booklet in PDF format for all to read on Steam’s website on Monday. The guide shows two Portal-styled characters following SteamVR’s 32-step setup procedure—the last step of which is a cheeky, color-loaded finale that simply states, “Enjoy VR.”
From the look of the instructions, Valve wants its users to mount the Vive’s two Lighthouse tracking base stations to opposite walls at a height roughly one foot taller than its users. Thankfully, the base stations, er, bases have camera-mount screw openings. The dev kit boxes contain a few wall mounts as well. Hopeful SteamVR users should prepare to set their systems up in a room with at least two convenient mounting points. The instructions also reveal the maximum play space that can be covered by that tracking system: a 15-foot diagonal between the two laser base stations, which works out to a roughly 9’x12′ rectangle.
HTC and Valve are playing catch-up a bit with Oculus in terms of getting their virtual reality headset out in the wild, but today they began shipping their developer hardware, which by all accounts is much further along than Oculus VR’s first kick at the can following their original Kickstarter campaign. The Valve/HTC Vive developer kit includes a Vive headset, along with two Lighthouse… Read More
After years of announcements, Valve’s line of Steam Machine hardware finally seems well on its way to becoming a real thing this holiday season. Today, the company announced a November 10 launch date for the $50 Steam Link in-home streaming box and the $50 Steam Controller. Steam Machine boxes from Alienware and Cyberpower (starting at $450) will also be available on November 10. Those who pre-order any of those items “while supplies last” will get access a few weeks earlier on October 16.
Pre-orders for the Steam Link and Controller are available today from Gamestop or from Valve itself in the US. GameStop, EB Games, Micromania, and GAME UK will be offering the same pre-order program in Europe and Canada. Cyberpower’s machine will only be available from its own website, while Alienware will sell through its website and Gamestop.
Alienware’s Steam Machine is highly similar to the Alienware Alpha, a Windows-based living room “console” launched last year. The low-end configuration for Alienware’s box starts at $450 (with a controller) and comes with an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive. Going up to $750 nets a Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard drive. All Alienware’s configurations come with GTX 860M+ graphics cards.
For more than a decade, Valve has only offered refunds inextremecircumstances for downloadable games purchased on Steam. That ends today, as Valve has announced a new refund policy that applies to every game on the service.
“Maybe your PC doesn’t meet the hardware requirements; maybe you bought a game by mistake; maybe you played the title for an hour and just didn’t like it,” the policy reads. “It doesn’t matter. Valve will, upon request via help.steampowered.com, issue a refund for any reason, if the request is made within 14 days of purchase, and the title has been played for less than two hours.” What’s more, games that fall outside that 14 day/two play-hour range can still be submitted for a refund request, and Valve says it will “take a look.”
DLC can be refunded in the same manner as long as that DLC has not been “consumed, modified, or transferred”—so third-party DLC that “irreversibly levels up a game character” won’t be eligible, for instance. Valve will also be offering a 48-hour refund window on non-consumable in-game purchases for games it develops, and it will enable third-party developers to offer similar refunds on their in-game purchases.
Only four days after Valve Software launched a new paid-mods service on digital gaming storefront Steam, the company officially changed course on Monday and removed pricing from its Steam Workshop pages, all while admitting “it’s clear we didn’t understand exactly what we were doing.”
A Monday blog post at the Steam Community site confirmed the rollback and stated that anyone who paid for a mod in the Steam Workshop storefront would receive a full refund for their purchase.
As of press time, all mods listed under the game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim—the only game that had been affected by Valve’s change this past Friday—are back to being free. That means add-ons and updates for that game, like new weapons and levels, no longer come with either static prices or pay-what-you-want options, nor can mod creators post new content with pricing attached. (However, the announcement page for paid mods remains online, at least for now.)
When Valve introduced the ability for developers to offer paid mods through Steam last week (with Skyrim as the guinea pig), the fan reaction was swift and overwhelmingly negative. After receiving 3,500 messages about the change over the course of a flight up the coast, Valve CEO and cofounder Gabe Newell had one thought: “Looks like we did something to piss off the Internet.” This weekend, Newell addressed the community concerns in a Reddit Ask Me Anything thread, “to make sure that if people are pissed off, they are at least pissed off for the right reasons,” as he put it.
Many in the modding community seem philosophically opposed to the idea of charging for mods, but Newell sees the ability to sell mods through Steam as a way to encourage higher-quality content. “The option for paid MODs is supposed to increase the investment in quality modding, not hurt it,” he said, citing a number of modders who were only free to focus on their craft full-time once they were hired by Valve. “All of them were liberated to just do game development once they started getting paid. Working at Waffle House does not help you make a better game.”
“Our view of Steam is that it’s a collection of useful tools for customers and content developers,” he continued. “With the Steam workshop, we’ve already reached the point where the community is paying their favorite contributors more than they would make if they worked at a traditional game developer. We see this as a really good step. The option of MOD developers getting paid seemed like a good extension of that.”