As you might’ve spied yesterday, Valve has made some pretty significant changes to how Steam’s user reviews operate. In a bid to clamp down on incentivised and/or paid-for reviews, only those who’ve purchased games directly through Steam will now be able to leave reviews that affect said game’s overall score.
"Steam keys have always been free for developers to give out or sell through other online or retail stores," reads a statement issued on Monday. "That isn't changing. However, it is too easy for these keys to end up being used in ways that artificially inflate review scores."
The statement can be read in full here, however this in essence means those playing games via keys purchased from third-party sites, or those that’ve been handed down from developers, cannot contribute to the game’s overall rating—even though reviews filed in this way will still be universally visible. This will inevitably result in some scores changing—so how do developers feel about the new system?
X-Com creator and Chaos Reborn mastermind Julian Gollop takes a pragmatic view of the adjustments. “I was worried that our review scores for Chaos Reborn might be negatively affected due to the exclusion of our enthusiastic Kickstarter backers from the overall score, but this doesn't seem to be the case,” Gollop tells us. “It's a shame that people are trying to game the system, but I think Valve are doing what is necessary to preserve the integrity of the review score system.”
Naturally, the changes to the review system will affect some developers negatively. Luckily for Prologue Games, the opposite is true of its detective adventure Knee Deep, however the game’s writer and designer Wes Platt is nevertheless unsure of Steam’s blanket policy. “In the short run, the new Steam policy actually improves the average review score for Knee Deep,” says Platt. “That's good, I guess. But some indie devs woke up this morning to find most—if not all—of their reviews suddenly no longer counting. It feels like Steam took a machete to a problem that called for a scalpel—and maybe some warning.”
Dan Marshall—the developer responsible for The Swindle and Time Gentlemen, Please! among other games—ties the Steam review system’s failings to the iterative nature of the medium. The fact that reviews aren’t updated in concert with game updates and patches and the likes, has led Marshall to believe the system requires an overhaul.
“While reviews are undoubtedly a vital tool for gamers, by-and-large I think the review system as it stands is so open to abuse it can be damaging for developers and no use to customers," Marshall tells us. “What's more, this isn't like an Amazon review of a microwave, or a film/ book—in a world of instant patching, a review left today might be factually incorrect tomorrow, and yet there it hangs for eternity, because people simply don't update reviews.
"I'd suggest rather than endless tweaking, the whole review system needs a complete rethink and radical redesign to better suit the unique ‘product’ developers are creating."
Maia’s Simon Roth echoes a similar sentiment, however goes one step further by offering a potential solution that would help separate technical support and genuinely helpful game reviews—something he feels is lacking in the current setup.
"I think the problems with the Steam review system go down to the core structure of it. The system needs to focus on giving detailed information to players and demand that from reviewers. Such a system would remove all the ‘funny’ reviews, low effort ones and also reduce the issues of scammers as it would no longer be a viable business model for them.
"A level of Valve-managed light community moderation on top of that would filter out the rest of the chaff. Users should be given the choice to directly message the developers before writing a review. So many reviews are just tech support problems in disguise.”