Today, Steam did something. That alone is a monumental occasion. But unfortunately, as is too often, Steam either didnt think very hard about what it did or didnt 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 Im already sounding snippy, you can probably tell I donot think it was good.
Theres cries that people who paid money have less biased opinions, cries that Kickstarter backers are like investors and shouldnt have a say, that review copies are free keys and shouldnt be eligible for, erm, review.All of these are incorrect or downright stupid and Ill cover them one by one. But first, lets account for who can actually get a Steam Key and why.
Table of Contents
- Fixing The Wrong Problem
- What Are Steam Keys For?
- Stomping On The Little Guy
- Games With Under 50 Reviews Are Hidden?!
- Free Games?!
- Buying a Game is a Bias
- The Crime of Kickstarting
- Steam Has Better Things To Do
- Dont Make Lemonade. Get Mad!
Fixing The Wrong Problem
Heres my biggest problem with Steams statement, which Ill address before I even bother to get to theother 50 problems with Steam and other peoples 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, weve now taken action by banning the false reviews and will be ending business relationships with developers that continue violating our rules. Steam
Theyre basically admitting that they already had an extremely effective tool to locate mass abuse and punish it. This arbitrary change ison 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, isnt this fine? Dont people who paid have more right to review? Arent 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 isnt the best argument against them.
As a bit of disclosure, I happen to fall intoall 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 werebought direct from Steam, so reviewing games on Steam no longer feels like it has any purpose.
And the irony of devaluingreviews fromreviewers because they gotreview 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 theypaid for.
To make matters worse, AAA games really arent likely to be affected by this at all. These changes disproportionately affectsmall 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
Games With Under 50 Reviews Are Hidden?!
This might be new to you, but yes. Steams 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
Theres a semi-secret threshold on Steam where games with under 50 Reviews have significantly reduced presence in the storefront and cant receive Mostly Positive ranking or above regardless of actual positive/negative ratios. Theres a second threshold at 500 reviews whereOverwhelmingly 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 Steamwell, youre 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 cant actually find official confirmation of this weighting system from Steam, but its been discussed many timesand you can readily find games with 100% positive reviews, but less than 50 reviews, and theyll be Positive not Mostly or Overwhelmingly so.
Steams lack of communication is extremely pervasive so its certainly not your fault for not knowing the ins and outs of the byzantine system. But its 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 arebiased, right? And bias is the single most important thing in the world! I mean, reviewers get
How outrageous! Howbiased! How crony-like! How Machiavellian! Surely reviewers who got free gamesinvalidates 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 heres the thing, reviewers arent the same as players, and review copies arent 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 contentbefore 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 theres the volume. Even asa small/medium-sized YouTuber (10k subscribers) I get a pretty decent amount of review copies. Almost one a day, very often from games Ive never heard before, companies Ive never heard before. Things I didnt ask for. This helps me do my job of reviewing games, but it also means I get alot of games I dont care about, wont play, or simply dont havetimefor.
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. Im 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, muchof the games I play arefree anyway.
So now that we understand that free review copies arentthat free and arent that impactful on my enjoyment of the games themselves, lets talk about the sanctityof buying a game.
Buying a Game is a Bias
So being a reviewer isnt allfree games and YouTube Millionaires. But surely people whobuy the game are less biased about it than people who got it for something at least reasonably approaching free, right?
The Sunk Cost Fallacymeans 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 isnt just mediocre anymore, it was a waste of your $15! How dare they! A game thats only kinda good but you finished up to make sure youdidnt 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. Its extremely difficult and often pointless to argue what is less biased, and paying money certainly doesnt make youless biased.
The Crime of Kickstarting
One of the more absurd points Ive 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 earnequity, generally the only reason anyone would invest money. For most, to even Kickstarters own chagrin, Kickstarter is an elaborate pre-order store where if enough people dont pre-order the thing it wont happen. Yes, theyre risk, yes, theres 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 gameon 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. Theyre 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 lets not forget, the first hundred or thousand players for a Kickstarted game will befrom 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 doingwell, 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 actuallydo a lot more impactful and indicative of priorities.
Steams developers have a huge problem in G2A, but Steam has done nothing to stop G2A, even though theyalready 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 Steams willingness to allow external stores to sell Steam keys has often been part of why theyre considered PC gamings benevolent dictator. But todays change is just another step toward being as malevolent as all dictators become.
Steam could be solving real problems like G2As massive scam ecosystem (Im not going to repeat myself, read the above article and its sources if youre unfamiliar). Instead, theyre 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 isnt a priority either.
As I hope were in agreement, the problem here isntreally bias. People who pay money for games simply have a differentkind of bias, Kickstarter backers and external store customers are still paying customers, review copies are generallynot 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, Steams 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 doesnt help anyone. It doesnt hurt Steam, which is why theyre during it, but it hurts developers. Consumers who dont understand the situation will likely be pleased, but hopefully after youve read the actual details of the issue, youll be quite displeased.
Dont Make Lemonade. Get Mad!
Steam can be changed. They toppled on Paid Modsafter overwhelmingly negative response, as have many game companies this year. Im 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 wont 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
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Gaming guide writer, content creator, streamer, UX designer, web developer, and a bunch of other stuff. View all posts by SirTapTap