Following the circulation of an email that appeared to exhort Insel Games employees to purchase copies of its hack-and-slash MMO Wild Buster: Heroes of Titan and review it positively—or else—Valve has announced that all of the publisher's games have been removed from Steam.
The email, sent in mid-December (reportedly by the studio CEO) and posted to Reddit yesterday, pointed out that Wild Buster only had six user reviews on Steam at the time, far fewer than the number of people who work at the studio. Furthermore, some employees had apparently indicated that they weren't actually interested in purchasing or reviewing the game at all.
"Frankly, this leaves me pretty disappointed," it states. "Of course I cannot force you to write a review (let alone tell you what to write)—but I should not have to. Neglecting the importance of reviews will ultimately cost jobs. If WB fails, Insel fails, IME fails and then we will all have no job next year."
"So I am asking you either [to] do the following: Buy the game and present me with the receipt until Friday night for which (together with a claim form) you will be reimbursed within 24h or explain to me tomorrow why you do not wish to do this. I would like to discuss this individually and privately with each of you and follow up."
The Reddit post quickly came to the attention of Valve, which launched an investigation into the claims and found "unacceptable behavior involving multiple Steam accounts controlled by the publisher of this game."
"The publisher appears to have used multiple Steam accounts to post positive reviews for their own games. This is a clear violation of our review policy and something we take very seriously," a Valve rep wrote. "For these reasons, we are ending our business relationship with Insel Games Ltd. and removing their games from our store."
Insel Games confirmed in an email that the December message posted to Reddit was in fact sent to employees, which it said number about 20 in total, but denied that there were any ulterior motives at play. "It was meant to rally people’s support, including advertising the game to their family and friends, in the hope to simply get more reviews," the company said.
"It was never intended to threaten anyone but just state the importance of reviews for the whole company. No staff has received penalties for not buying the game or writing a review. There also never were texts or instructions provided for reviews. We sincerely apologize for the misleading wording in the email and the practice in general."
People who own any of Insel's games on Steam will still have full access to them, and Insel said it's in discussions with Valve, presumably with the aim of having its games restored. It also said that it will continue to develop its games and maintain their availability "through other channels," although obviously losing access to Steam is going to hurt
It could also lead to further confusion and headaches for Insel and gamers alike: Wild Buster and Guardians of Ember remain available for purchase on the Humble Store, for instance, but whether the provided Steam keys will continue to work isn't known. I've emailed Humble for clarification.