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Steam alters review system, irritates indies

Storefront only allows copies it sold to be used in aggregate review score, hiding opinions of scammers, crowdfunding backers, bundle purchasers, and more

Steam has changed the way it handles review scores, and not everyone is happy about it. The company detailed the changes in a blog post yesterday, saying they are intended to improve the usefulness of the review score system and thwart attempts to manipulate a game's aggregated user review score.

"We know this review score has become a valuable shortcut for customers to gauge how well the game is matching customer expectations," Valve wrote. "But the review score has also become a point of fixation for many developers, to the point where some developers are willing to employ deceptive tactics to generate a more positive review score.

"The majority of review score manipulation we're seeing by developers is through the process of giving out Steam keys to their game, which are then used to generate positive reviews. Some developers organize their own system using Steam keys on alternate accounts. Some organizations even offer paid services to write positive reviews."

To limit the impact of such tactics, Valve is changing the way it calculates the overall review score number at the top of a game's product page. From now on, that score will only reflect reviews written by people who purchased the game through Steam directly. Anyone who activated the game on Steam using a product key--whether they got the key through a giveaway, bought a copy from a different online store, received it through a Humble Bundle or as a Kickstarter backer reward--will not have their feedback included in the review score. They can still leave reviews that will be visible individually on the game's store page, but they won't impact the game's top-line score.

Valve said it found "at least 160 titles" across Steam that show significant discrepancies between the percentage of positive reviews from those who redeemed Steam keys and those who purchased the title directly from Valve, but it also noted there are legitimate reasons why that could happen. As of this writing, Steam lists over 10,700 games for sale, which puts the number of games with glaring differences at about 1.5% of the total. The new rules will adjust the review score category for about 14% of games on the service.

A number of developers have taken to Twitter to express their concerns with the change. Death Ray Manta developer Rob Fearon said his game retained its "very positive" rating, but is still hurt by having the number of reviews determining that score reduced by about a third.

"Anyone who has crowdfunded loses reviews, anyone who has an existing support base through direct sales loses out, anyone who bundled early," Fearon said in a series of tweets about the move. "And I would not care except Valve have made user reviews such an integral part of their storefront that I have to care about them."

Larian Studios developer Kieron Kelly echoed that thought, saying, "The new Steam Review policy will hurt. As a Kickstarter dev, your most passionate fans are now silenced." Larian is releasing the Kickstarted Divinity: Original Sin 2 into Early Access this week.

Maia developer Simon Roth said direct sales, Kickstarter, and Indiegogo backers have accounted for 16,000 users who are now unable to influence the game's score on Steam.

"Maia's review score just dropped to 45%," Roth said. "Which means we are now unlikely to sell another copy. Time for me to give up probably."

Chris Dwyer, who works biz dev and PR for indie storefront, saw the change as a good time to remind developers of the dangers of having a single point of failure in their business plans.

"It is a vicious, vicious jungle so- idk, be safe and diversify your success and never take one aspect of digital sales for granted," Dwyer said. "I can at least promise you that is a safe and incredible space for your direct sales, that's the least I can try and help with. You can build rapport and community at @itchio and then you aren't at the whim of an unpredictable giant who always shoots first, asks later."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.