Steam and the Trouble with Consumer Game Reviews

In the world of online marketplaces, consumer reviews are nothing new. Most reputable mostly reputable online marketplaces- Amazon, eBay, Google Play- all have systems in place for users to write reviews of products they’ve purchased on the platforms where they’ve purchased them. Consumer reviews have never been perfect (neither have been reviews produced by “professionals”, though that’s an argument for another article), but generally speaking, if you know what to look for, they can be quite useful.

https://xkcd.com/1098/
https://xkcd.com/1098/

For Steam, Valve’s video game digital distribution platform, a proper user review system was released in November 2013, about ten years after the platform was first introduced. If this seems a bit late, you should know that “Late” is Valve’s middle name; they have a reputation for being slow to implement important changes, but they manage to succeed in spite of this; when it comes to reviews on Steam, perhaps their implementation was just a little bit too late for them to avoid some serious issues.

How It Happens on Steam

It’s been three years since Valve introduced user reviews to its platform- unfortunately for Valve (and Steam users), in those three years, these Steam reviews have varied wildly in quality. If you’re wondering just how the system works, here’s how users can review games:

  1. User Acquires a Game – In order to prevent people from leaving reviews of games they’ve not played, Valve requires users to at least own a game before they actually review it.
  2. User Reviews Game – Yep, that’s it. There’s no sort of vetting process, no required length of playtime, no minimum word count, no other requirement for writing a review- just own a game and tell the world what you think.

That’s all it takes to review a game on Steam. After a user writes a review, other users can vote as to whether or not it’s helpful- unfortunately, this doesn’t always help the most incisive or informative reviews reach the top of the page.

The simplicity of Steam’s review system is pivotal to actually acquiring reviews in the first place. If it weren’t easy to post reviews, fewer players would do it. This would lead to largely negative reviews b eing placed on store pages- why? Think of it this way: when you go to a good restaurant, you’re more than happy to leave a good review online (so long as it’s convenient), but you’re probably not going to leave a very long or informative review.
“The tamarind shrimp was tasty, waiters were very friendly. Good restaurant.”
Now, consider what happens when you go to a bad restaurant, and it’s really, really awful– your experience was so bad that you feel as though your money’s been stolen. What do you do? You go online, and you write a bad review, listing everything that you hated about the restaurant.
“It was a muggy, idyllic summer afternoon, the sort during which a person as myself may stroll about town in the light of the setting sun in search of diversion. My stomach grumbling, I decided to step into the establishment- as soon as I set foot in the restaurant, however, I knew that I’d made a mistake. The smell hit me like a wave of death (I had to throw away my favorite t-shirt because the stench wouldn’t wash out)- maybe the stink of the place should’ve been warning enough but, alas, I was foolish enough to take a seat and wait. And wait. And wait to be served- I’d waited no less than eight minutes until finally, an incompetent waiter with untrimmed nails and unstyled hair asked me if I’d heard about the house special.
I’ll show you a house special, buddy,” I thought to myself as I requested a menu.
About four minutes later, he handed me a greasy, beaten slip of paper.
“I’ll take the reuben,” I said.
My sandwich arrived, and it was hands-down the worst experience I’ve had all year. After eating it, more than just my stomach was grumbling…”

Here’s The Problem

There’s something cathartic about writing a bad review- it offers an abstract, psychic reward. You might not be able to get your money back for a bad product, and there’s no way to refund lost time. In a way, writing a bad review feels like a way to get back at the thing that upset you. Your review might be enough to dissuade somebody from buying something- that’s power, and believe me, it feels good.

Personally, I don’t enjoy giving bad reviews (or, at least, I won’t admit to it) but I will when necessary. Ever notice how few reviews there are of mediocre restaurants? Much of the time, user reviews are either overwhelmingly positive or negative. People will review things that they feel strongly about- hence the value of Steam allowing anybody to review a game. Find your favorite (relatively popular) game on Steam, and look only at the negative reviews of the game. This might make you angry, but notice that the negative reviews are largely from people who really hate whatever it is that they’re writing about- it could be for an arbitrary reason, or because something that a game’s creator has done offends them more than the contents of the game, or what have you- if the process to put negative reviews on Steam was a bit more involved, some of these negative reviews would still be there. Angry people would still go to the effort of relieving themselves in the review section, as they always do.

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That’s not to say that writing a positive review can’t feel good either; there are few things I love more than discovering a small, great game and realizing that I can help other people to find out about how good that game is. There’s an abstract reward there, too- like you’ve become part of something bigger- it’s not so immediate and cathartic as the feeling that comes from tearing something down- it’s more cumulative, like building something- and over time, it feels amazing.

That said, positive reviews aren’t entirely without issue- when the forces of fanboyism get involved, the resulting positive reviews may be terribly misleading. The issue here, in case you don’t feel like reading my editorial on why people become fans of things (and why it leads to trouble in the world of gaming) is that when people purchase a thing, they’ll often look for confirmation that the thing they purchased was worthwhile. In some ways, people feel validated when they’re told that their decisions were, in some way or other, “correct”.
Hence, a positive review from a fanboy will be blind to the flaws of a game, which is a large part of why negative reviews can be helpful. Even if a negative review fails to mention the positive aspects of a flawed game, it will point out the game’s flaws- whereas the game’s fanboys will talk about the game’s good points.

Hype is another factor worth considering- marketing hype plays a part in fanboyism, but when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. Case in point? No Man’s Sky. A relatively recent example, this space exploration game was hyped to the moon and back, and when it was actually released, it wasn’t everything that the players were expecting. There’s been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the game regarding whether or not it was falsely advertised– whatever happened with the game’s marketing, let’s try and look at the situation objectively: the game was hyped, the game was released, and the game didn’t nearly live up to the hype. Due to this, the game was hit with a rash of negative user reviews.

Were these negative reviews warranted? Players, after all, are certainly entitled to their opinion about a game, and if the marketing of No Man’s Sky was deceptive, then players are absolutely entitled to getting their money back. Trouble is, many players are basing their reviews on what they wanted No Man’s Sky to be, and not on what it is. To be clear, No Man’s Sky is by no means a bad game- if you were to show it to a player who had no idea of what to expect, surely they’d enjoy it for what it is?

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Again, to be clear, professional reviews can be influenced by marketing hype in very similar ways to consumer reviews- it’s not a problem exclusive to consumer reviews, but it seems to be especially rife in that space. Further, if a game makes promises through its marketing but goes on to break them in the finished product, that absolutely warrants mention in a review- but not at the expense of the review’s honesty. A good, honest review will point out the positive and negative aspects of a game- its purpose should be to aid potential consumers to come to a well-informed decision- and if that review can clear up misinformation from marketing, that’s fantastic.
Personally, I’m not really sure what can be done about counteracting the effects of marketing hype for consumers, besides education. When gaming as a consumer, it could be beneficial to ask oneself if a game- any game, really- fulfills the promises laid out by its marketing. Ask yourself, is this living up to the hype? Then, too, if you’re looking at some oft-criticized portion of a game, it may warrant further examination as to if that element of the game is really quite so awful.

Basically? Think critically about games, and think critically about criticism- then, make your criticism.

So, writing reviews can feel good- negative reviews offer catharsis and a sort of instant gratification, whereas a positive review might fill you with something warmer and fuzzier- but it’s harder to create a worthwhile positive review.
If there were higher barriers to writing reviews, it might result in higher quality reviews, but it may also lead to more negative reviews, thus making a good game look mediocre, and mediocre games look atrocious.

There’s a third sort of review, and it’s not usually helpful: the joke review. You may have run across these- look, for instance, at the reviews on Amazon for the Sigma 200-500mm telephoto lens– an expensive piece of machinery, most people couldn’t purchase one as a joke- but that hasn’t stopped the joke reviews. Joke reviews are sometimes positive and sometimes negative, but they’re hardly ever helpful. They have a lot in common with the cathartic negative review in that it may feel good to write them- much of the joy of a joke review comes from the attention you know you’ll receive from people who come along and had a laugh.

sigma-200-500-amazon-reviews

The same thing has happened on Steam. While the requirement that users actually own a game has (likely) reduced the number of joke reviews substantially, it hasn’t completely eliminated them.

delky-tf2-review

Much of the time, joke reviews are inside jokes- for instance, a review of DotA 2 that starts out in English and slowly begins transitioning to Russian is an amusing joke for English-speaking players who’ve been part of the game’s community awhile, as for a period of time there was an issue with Russian players in the English servers. Unfortunately, that review isn’t useful for somebody considering the game.

civ-v-steam-reviews

For the people writing the joke- and the people who understand it- it’s a way of interacting with the game’s community. Think about it- you feel included in a way when you read and chuckle at an inside joke. By using a review to make one, it makes both the jokers and their audience feel included in something, but it comes at the expense of the more informative reviews below.

Politics – Game Review as Protest

Video games do not exist in a cultural vacuum; from their earliest days, they’ve affected and been affected by real-world politics; when it comes to user reviews, unfortunately, it seems that too often users will let the politics of a developer get in the way of their giving an honest review of a game.

There are a multitude of instances of this happening, and in the interest of keeping this article neutral, we’ll be pointing at an imaginary scenario.

January 1, 2017 – Developer X has released an Apolitical Jigsaw Puzzle on Steam. It sells surprisingly well and receives generally positive reviews from players- about 95% of players have given the game a positive review.

January 8, 2017 – Developer X says that he supports a certain set of political views. This is controversial, and draws much ire.

January 9, 2017 – 45% of the reviews of Apolitical Jigsaw Puzzle are positive. Most of the players are attempting to dissuade possible future players from buying the game due to the developer’s political views.

January 12, 2017 – 65% of the reviews of Apolitical Jigsaw Puzzle are positive. A number of new players have purchased the game, not because they’re interested in the game, but as a political statement, an extension of their own views.

I’ve seen this scenario play out a number of times around a number of games. Interestingly, it’s not something that happens around any one set of political beliefs, either- the only way for developers to really avoid this sort of backlash is to never express any sort of political opinion. Is there something that Steam or any other distribution platform can do about this?

That’s hard to say. On the one hand, video game reviews are very definitely free speech- as in, you ought be free to say what you want with one. However, it’s entirely possible to moderate free speech- you can’t swear on the radio, and Valve has no legal obligation to guarantee that every review on its platform is completely apolitical and unbiased. What happens when politics are a critical element in a game? Should criticism of the game include criticism of its politics, or criticism of the way that it presents those politics?

Then, too, imagine the blowback that Valve would receive if they began removing user reviews for making political statements- people would be up in arms about Valve censoring their fundamental human right to whine on the Internet. Even if Valve did start removing reviews based on their being more about the politics of a game than the games themselves, where would this start and end? Would users be punished for mentioning that a game features politics that they disagree with?

Take a look at the reviews for the Poland Civilization and Scenario Pack, a piece of DLC for Civilization VI– nobody’s protesting the inclusion of a 14th century Polish monarch, but these reviews are largely complaints against the fact that this DLC contains a single civilization- not multiple civilizations, as was the case for the DLC of the previous game. The users, generally, take no issue with the quality of the content of the DLC, but that it represents a shift in business model for the franchise- their reviews could be seen as a protest against this change, because they’re not a criticism of the content of the DLC.

civ-vi-poland-reviews

Would it benefit Steam users for these reviews to be pruned? In this case, I think not; it’s an evaluation of the monetary value of DLC- that’s a valid form of review- but it should also be recognized that these reviews aren’t indicative of the DLC’s quality.

To be clear, politics and user reviews have clashed in other arenas, and continue to; the movie The Promise has been bombarded with negative user reviews prior to its release due to its subject matter- the Armenian Genocide. Now that video games are becoming an increasingly important part of the cultural landscape, it’s unsurprising that they’re more frequently being considered in political contexts.

Valve Is Aware of the Issues – What Now?

The substantial and seemingly neglected issues with Steam’s review system aren’t an unknowable mystery to Valve. For instance, in order to deal with joke reviews, there’s an option to vote a review as “Funny” instead of useful. This hasn’t done much to quell the flood of jokes, but it shows that Valve knows that the system is flawed. Further, it’s possible to flag reviews that violate the service’s terms of service or community guidelines, so a review that’s abusive or somehow illegal can be removed.

Unfortunately, Valve hasn’t lately done much else to improve its review system. There has been a relatively recent change- new reviews are listed next to the top, most popular reviews- thus making it clear if an influx of negative reviews is due to something that the game’s developer said or did rather than the quality of a game- or if a sudden influx of positive reviews is due to a substantial change to the game’s quality thanks to an update.

Perhaps the best change that Valve could make to their user reviews is a system of karma- essentially, if you write a large number of joke reviews, you’ll wind up with a clown icon next to your username, warning other users that they shouldn’t take your reviews seriously. If you write a large number of reviews that are neither useful nor amusing, Valve will offer some sort of warning- or perhaps, they’ll offer nothing at all.

Instead of punishing users for stupid reviews, maybe they could offer users rewards for being insightful and helpful? As Valve has proven, time and again, users will do anything for virtual hats and profile badges, such as clicking on the same spot over and over and over again– perhaps Steam users could be rewarded for writing useful reviews with profile badges, in-game cosmetics and other such things? This is a fine line to walk; what would be the criteria for what constitutes a good review? Would Steam users do a good enough job deciding what constitutes a useful (or useless) review? Fanboys, inevitably, would leave positive (but inaccurate) reviews- and then they’d vote these reviews as being useful and insightful- even if they’re not really.

Even if Steam users could be convinced to vote useful reviews to the top, would their evaluation of useful reviews be consistent? Many of the issues that exist with the current system- fanboyism, political meddling, jokes, hype- those things could all prove influential.

 

Offering incentives for good reviews is theoretically a great idea, but in execution faces a number of challenges. The path to fixing user reviews is littered with pitfalls, but ultimately? I don’t think that it’s impossible for user reviews to be improved; they’re a critical part of the video game cultural landscape. As video games are being released at an ever-increasing volume, user reviews are becoming more and more valuable to indie devs, who struggle to obtain any sort of coverage for their games. If you’re an independent game developer trying to reach the press, might I suggest taking a look at Playing the Press: How to Reach Game Journalists? Written by Yours Truly, it’s a brief, handy guide to catching- and keeping- the attention of game journalists.

So, what do you think about user game reviews- do they need reform, and should that reform come from the systems hosting them, or from the gaming community at large? Do you have your own ideas about improving user reviews? Sound off in the comments below or hit us up and follow @1RuleBeCool on Twitter for all the greatest game editorials; be sure to follow me for my own views. Did you enjoy this editorial? If you’d like to support the creation of more, you can back us on Patreon here.

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