Indie beat 'em up Brok the InvestiGator, released this week on Steam, wasn't on my radar until its official Twitter account pointed out something strange about the reviews coming in from Steam curators. In a thread (opens in new tab) posted on Sunday, developer Cowcat claimed that it was targeted by fraudulent curators who wrote bogus reviews after not even playing the game.
After looking it over, the studio's reasoning is sound. Of the 150 user reviews of Brok the InvestiGator published as of this writing, 99% of them are positive. As of yesterday morning, the only negative reviews had come from Steam curators (opens in new tab). In the case of several of these curators, Brok is the only negative review the account has ever given out of hundreds of games. It sure looks like a handful of Steam curator reviews, possibly posted by the same person, were written in retaliation to the developer. A day after Cowcat's thread was posted, Brok's negative curator reviews had turned into positive ones. Here's how it all went down:
Prior to Brok's release, Cowcat said it received "tons and tons" of requests from Steam curators asking for a review code. This is a standard practice for legitimate curator pages, streamers, and gaming sites alike, but it also opens the door to scammers hoping to score a free Steam code they can resell on gray market sites like G2A.
Cowcat hoped to weed out the scammers with a clever workaround. Instead of sending codes for the full game, it sent codes for Brok the InvestiGator's free prequel chapter, the idea being that legit curators would redeem the code and follow-up to ask for the full game while scammers would unknowingly sell the useless code on the gray market. Cowcat reckons this might have worked a little too well. According to the dev, "very few" reached out wondering why they'd been sent a code for a demo, suggesting that "most of those emails are from scammers who did not even activate those keys on their account before posting a review."
If that is the case, these scammers might've had to issue refunds after reselling the code, and then proceeded to write curator reviews with generic criticisms like "broken gameplay" and "lack of polish" to get back at Cowcat. It's circumstantial evidence, but it all started to sound less far-fetched after reading Reddit user darklinkpower's analysis (opens in new tab) of the Steam curators in question. They point out that the nine curators who left negative reviews share some pretty suspicious similarities:
- All of the curators share a common admin user who can control what's posted
- All were created on or near the same day
- All share a similar number of followers (averaging 23,000)
- All had just one or two negative reviews (including, at the time, Brok the InvestiGator)
It wasn't long after Cowcat and darklinkpower's posts gained traction that the curators edited their negative reviews to be positive. The same curator who previously stated Brok "lacks polish in all areas" apparently now believes (opens in new tab) Brok is a "wonderful cartoony detective adventure" with "perfectly integrated beat 'em up mechanics." Cowcat said it has reported the curators in question to Valve.
It strikes me as strange that this practice of revenge reviewing is even, in theory, possible. Individual Steam users can't actually publish reviews unless they own and have played the game in question, but curator pages don't have that limitation. That sounds like a loophole that should be filled, though it's worth noting that curator reviews don't seem to be weighed as heavily by Valve as user reviews. Curator reviews are actually sectioned off from user reviews with a small link that I'd never noticed until today and don't appear to factor into the overall score visible at the top of store pages.
Here are all the curator reviews for the game and you can notice there's a good chunk of "suspicious" negative reviews. https://t.co/E2AkLggKWe(1/16) pic.twitter.com/Bu0R1qymvBAugust 28, 2022
Cowcat is similarly skeptical of how much curator reviews ultimately matter, but thinks Valve could take steps to mitigate scammers. For one, Cowcat suggests Valve "stop forcing us to rely on keys and instead open Curator Connect for everything."
Curator Connect is a feature on Steam's backend that allows devs to send games directly to trusted Steam curators. Currently, devs can only send up to 100 copies of their game out. That, and the fact that curators have no way to request codes from devs, limits its usefulness.
I've reached out to Valve for comment and will update if I receive a response.