Today, Steam did something. That alone is a monumental occasion. But unfortunately, as is too often, Steam either didn’t think very hard about what it did or didn’t care very much about the developers on its platform when it did it.
You see, Steam decided to unilaterally demote all reviews posted by anyone who activated a product on Steam via a Steam Key. Some people think this is good. Since I wrote an article and I’m already sounding snippy, you can probably tell I do not think it was good.
There’s cries that people who paid money have “less biased” opinions, cries that Kickstarter backers are like “investors” and shouldn’t have a say, that review copies are “free keys” and shouldn’t be eligible for, erm, review. All of these are incorrect or downright stupid and I’ll cover them one by one. But first, let’s account for who can actually get a Steam Key and why.
Table of Contents
Fixing The Wrong Problem
Here’s my biggest problem with Steam’s statement, which I’ll address before I even bother to get to the other 50 problems with Steam and other people’s assessment of the situation.
But in many cases, the abuse is clear and obvious, such as duplicated and/or generated reviews in large batches, or reviews from accounts linked to the developer. In those cases, we’ve now taken action by banning the false reviews and will be ending business relationships with developers that continue violating our rules. – Steam
They’re basically admitting that they already had an extremely effective tool to locate mass abuse and punish it. This arbitrary change is on top of solving the actual issue, which should have been trivially easy to fix by some automatic abuse checkers (that they just clearly stated they already have) and giving developers a heads up that this is not okay and will not be tolerated.
In addition, Steam should really be giving devs better information on avoiding key scams, giveaways, low-quality bundle sites, fishy curators (actually just kill the curator system, nobody needs to know what “Official PC Master Race” or “WaifuHunter” think). The abuse vectors for steam keys are rather well-defined, and bulk disavowing all opinions related to keys is an extremely absurd over reaction to this well-defined problem.
But even ignoring their strange solution, isn’t this fine? Don’t people who paid have more right to review? Aren’t free keys evil nasty-nasties from biased™ sources?!
What Are Steam Keys For?
People who use a Steam Key include:
- Bundle purchasers
- Buyers on external stores like Itch.io, Humble Bundle and more
- People who purchase retail games, including limited editions, that include a Steam key
- Kickstarter Backers
Note that all but one of these categories requires paying for a game, with real money, no different from Steam. And bundle purchases, notoriously cheap as they are, can often match Steam Sale discounts pretty easily, so “they got it cheap” isn’t the best argument against them.
As a bit of disclosure, I happen to fall into all of those categories several times over, and I bet you fall into at least a few yourself. At over a thousand Steam games I cannot readily recall which were bought direct from Steam, so reviewing games on Steam no longer feels like it has any purpose.
And the irony of devaluing reviews from reviewers because they got review keys to a game is just so absurd I really do have to point it out in its own little paragraph for dramatic effect.
Another quiet but concerning effect of this devaluing of keys is that external stores are shafted as well. If your game starts on itch.io due to accessibility and you build up a community there, Steam deems your community worthless the moment they claim the Steam keys you provided to them for the game they paid for.
To make matters worse, AAA games really aren’t likely to be affected by this at all. These changes disproportionately affect small developers, more likely to have less reviews, more likely to have Kickstarted or started on a storefront other than Steam.
Stomping On The Little Guy
This change actually affects small developers a lot more than you might think, and not just because of all those Kickstarter reviews. You see, losing reviews is inherently more significant to indie, niche, or otherwise small developers because
This might be new to you, but yes. Steam’s review scale and store rankings are weighted with many things in mind, resulting in the following situation:
@retroremakes Fun thing: if something with 100% positive reviews drops under 50 reviews total, it's listed *after* all 80+% games with 50+.
— Ruari O'Sullivan (@randomnine) September 13, 2016
There’s a semi-secret threshold on Steam where games with under 50 Reviews have significantly reduced presence in the storefront and can’t receive “Mostly Positive” ranking or above regardless of actual positive/negative ratios. There’s a second threshold at 500 reviews where “Overwhelmingly Positive” is unlocked, presumably this also correlates with a store rankings bump.
This means that if you depend on Kickstarter backers to get your first 50 reviews on Steam…well, you’re SOL. External stores are now harshly penalized review-wise.
@glassbottommeg It has actually killed 10 of the 50 reviews my game had, bumping me out of a higher vis. bracket
— Hug Medic Kale (@DarkestKale) September 13, 2016
I can’t actually find official confirmation of this weighting system from Steam, but it’s been discussed many times and you can readily find games with 100% positive reviews, but less than 50 reviews, and they’ll be “Positive” not “Mostly” or “Overwhelmingly” so.
Steam’s lack of communication is extremely pervasive so it’s certainly not your fault for not knowing the ins and outs of the byzantine system. But it’s important to know how much of the system is secretive despite Valve pretending this latest change is going to make everything all hunky-dory.
But whatever if it affects small devs, right? Surely those review copies and Kickstarter backers are biased, right? And bias is the single most important thing in the world! I mean, reviewers get
How outrageous! How biased! How crony-like! How Machiavellian! Surely reviewers who got free games invalidates any potential opinion they had over whether a game was in fact, so-called, “good”.
“Free games” is a phrase that sounds super appealing, obviously valuable, and inherently less meaningful than paying for games, right? But here’s the thing, reviewers aren’t the same as players, and review copies aren’t quite “free games” in the same way the average player thinks of them.
As a developer friend of mine put it on twitter:
@SirTapTap I feel kind of skeevy when people talk about them being 'free games' like they're a gift, it's a means of providing access
— Tim Dawson (@ironicaccount) September 13, 2016
As a reviewer, review keys are just tools I use to be able to review games. My biggest reason by far for requesting a key is so I can play a game and create content before release to either release content the day of release, day of embargo, or before release, whenever the developer/publisher chooses (or in the case of no preference, my own choice). Releasing content day one is (unfortunately) extremely important in terms of views and engagement, so review copies give me that chance to cover a game in its critical period, whether my coverage is positive or negative.
And then there’s the volume. Even as a small/medium-sized YouTuber (10k subscribers) I get a pretty decent amount of review copies. Almost one a day, very often from games I’ve never heard before, companies I’ve never heard before. Things I didn’t ask for. This helps me do my job of reviewing games, but it also means I get a lot of games I don’t care about, won’t play, or simply don’t have time for.
Time is one of my most valuable resources, and with a Steam library of over 1,000 titles, a Playstation library to match it, and a scant few hundred on Nintendo and Non-Steam stores and platforms, a free game is not of any inherent value to me. I am not wanting for anything to play, and a review copy is as much an obligation as it is a game. I regularly find myself declining, ignoring or refusing to ask for review copies of RPGS I would probably enjoy simply because I do not have the 40 hours to dedicate to a review that would likely get the same views as a 15 minute quick look at a game that suits my taste and audience more readily.
Review keys do occasionally let me check out games I would not have purchased myself, to be sure. I’m quite happy to receive news about new games and keys, but the simple fact that a game is free really does not change my mind. A free copy of FIFA would not change the fact that I do not like FIFA, soccer, or most sports games period. It would simply go in my “will not cover” pile. Also, as a niche/alt game/flash game YouTuber, much of the games I play are free anyway.
So now that we understand that free review copies aren’t that free and aren’t that impactful on my enjoyment of the games themselves, let’s talk about the sanctity of buying a game.
Buying a Game is a Bias
So being a reviewer isn’t all free games and YouTube Millionaires. But surely people who buy the game are less biased about it than people who got it for something at least reasonably approaching free, right?
The Sunk Cost Fallacy means that people will often do illogical things and behave differently regarding something they paid for than they would over something they received for free. A classic example is subjects choosing to leave a bad movie they were allowed to watch for free, but staying to watch if they paid with their own money for the same movie.
Once you attach your real money to a thing, emotions grow stronger. Suddenly your advocacy is often much stronger, whether negative or positive. A mediocre game isn’t just mediocre anymore, it was a waste of your $15! How dare they! A game that’s only kinda good but you finished up to make sure you didn’t waste your $15 is going to leave a different impression than if it was, say, included in a $1 bundle and you decided to quit at the first boss because, hey, I got 10 other games from that bundle that look better, right?
Fact of the matter is everyone is biased, life inherently imbues upon us all biases toward and against various things. It’s extremely difficult and often pointless to argue what is “less biased,” and paying money certainly doesn’t make you less biased.
The Crime of Kickstarting
One of the more absurd points I’ve seen tossed around is that Kickstarter backers are “investors”, which is already wrong, and that they thus have less valuable opinions.
Kickstarter backers are not investors. Backers take on risk, but they do not earn equity, generally the only reason anyone would invest money. For most, to even Kickstarter’s own chagrin, Kickstarter is an elaborate pre-order store where if enough people don’t pre-order the thing it won’t happen. Yes, they’re risk, yes, there’s community feedback, but the reality of the situation is that most Kickstarter backers for game projects are simply paying money for a game and are disinterested in more involved, expensive rewards like dinner with the devs and so forth.
At the end of the day, a Kickstarter backer is a person who saw a game, paid money for the game, received the game, and maybe, just maybe, had an opinion on it. That makes them scarcely different from someone who saw a game on steam, paid money for the game, received the game, and had an opinion on it.
Kickstarters are neither billionaire Angel Investors from Silicon Valley nor Zarkoids from Planet Zebulon. They’re just people who bought a video game in a slightly different manner. There is nothing inherently less valuable or more biased about their opinions. If you think all Kickstarter backers have universally positive reactions you must not have heard of Mighty No 9 (or dozens of other controversial projects).
That's me probably going out of business then. My crowdfunders and direct sales were how I hoped to improve my score pic.twitter.com/pvxXGQhweL
— Simon Roth (@SimoRoth) September 13, 2016
And let’s not forget, the first hundred or thousand players for a Kickstarted game will be…from Kickstarter. Under this system, a massively popular Kickstarter game will effectively start with zero owners, making Steam reviews a place just a bit more divorced from reality.
Steam Has Better Things To Do
Steam gets a lot of flack for doing…well, nothing. They are an exceedingly sedentary company often content to gradually grow their riches from the position as what is effectively a monopoly. That makes every thing they actually do a lot more impactful and indicative of priorities.
Steam’s developers have a huge problem in G2A, but Steam has done nothing to stop G2A, even though they already had a tool to stop it. This is just another case where Steam is devaluing developers who happen to sell games on external shops as well, even though Steam’s willingness to allow external stores to sell Steam keys has often been part of why they’re considered PC gaming’s “benevolent dictator.” But today’s change is just another step toward being as malevolent as all dictators become.
Steam could be solving real problems like G2A’s massive scam ecosystem (I’m not going to repeat myself, read the above article and it’s sources if you’re unfamiliar). Instead, they’re busy throwing the babies out with the bath water.
Steam Reviews seem to too-often be jokes than reviews as well, but it seems this isn’t a priority either.
As I hope we’re in agreement, the problem here isn’t really bias. People who pay money for games simply have a different kind of bias, Kickstarter backers and external store customers are still paying customers, review copies are generally not about “free games”.
The problem here is developers giving away keys to shady curators and giveaway sites or even fake accounts to inflate review scores. Instead of actually addressing this real problem, Steam’s decided to do something that could significantly harm a large number of smaller developers and devalue a large number of customers’ opinions because they share a vague similarity to someone in a different state who might have committed a crime at some point in their life.
This doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t hurt Steam, which is why they’re during it, but it hurts developers. Consumers who don’t understand the situation will likely be pleased, but hopefully after you’ve read the actual details of the issue, you’ll be quite displeased.
Don’t Make Lemonade. Get Mad!
Steam can be changed. They toppled on Paid Mods after overwhelmingly negative response, as have many game companies this year. I’m not asking you to get mad in the hate-swarm “Worst Game Ever” sort of way, but Valve needs to hear loud and clear that this is a bad move.
But since this disproportionately affects small developers and less-informed gamers are likely to see it as a good thing, that likely won’t happen without players, writers, and developers doing what they can to inform others and tell Valve directly “this sucks, make it better”.
Also, Rock Paper Shotgun is collecting Steam developer quotes:
If you're a developer with thoughts on Steam user reviews that you'd like to share, get in touch with me. adam [at] https://t.co/NA3EYIpxQ3
— Adam Smith (@noneconomical) September 13, 2016