Valve have reversed some of their recent changes to Steam user reviews. Most notably, they've made store pages once again include all reviews, no matter how players obtained the game. Some developers we'd spoken to were concerned that excluding people who had got games by activating Steam keys - by backing Kickstarters, buying in other stores, and so on - could harm them by making their games seem worse and less popular. But some devs were glad for the change, an attempt by Valve to crack down on fake reviews. Well, now all reviews are once again shown by default, though overall 'scores' will ignore reviews from key copies.
Valve's changes last week cracked down on developers using Steam keys (which they get for free) to fuel fraudulent positive reviews, which boosted their scores, visibility, and sales. Valve explained that "it's becoming increasingly difficult to detect when this is happening, which reviews from Steam Keys are legitimate, and which are artificially influenced." So they made a grand sweeping change: all reviews from keys on all games would be, by default, filtered out from all the places reviews are shown and tabulated.
Goodbye fraudulent reviews (hooray!), and goodbye reviews from people who got keys by backing Kickstarters, buying games on Itch or the Humble Store, in Humble Bundles, and so on (oh). In short, some devs feared they were losing positive reviews by people who genuinely played and enjoyed their games.
Given that Steam is the biggest PC gaming shop and hub, problems for developers are problems for all of us - people who like playing neat games. Fiddling with visibility can make some good games harder to discover and therefore play. How it might affect developers financially is an issue too. Without devs we don't have games, and many of my favourite games have come from small developers who are heavily reliant upon Steam and Valve. This might only be one change but it's a fragile ecosystem, and we should be concerned.
Valve have now reversed part of the change. By default, Steam store pages once again include all reviews, whether players bought the game directly through Steam or got a key elsewhere then activated it on Steam. However, the aggregate user review score will only include reviews from copies bought directly through Steam.
Steam's 'scores' aren't numbers but rather ratings derived from the percentage of reviews which give a game a 'Recommended' thumbs-up or a 'Not Recommended' thumbs-down. These ratings - which are Overwhelmingly Negative, Mostly Negative, Negative, Mixed, Positive, Mostly Positive, and Overwhelmingly Positive - are displayed at the top of Store pages and in listings.
That means this is still a problem. Reviews are nice, but review scores are more prominent and more likely to be used in snap judgments. This is better but not ideal. Phoney reviews caused problems, absolutely, but so does this.
As Paul Kilduff-Taylor of Mode7 told us last week, "It's frustrating that the idiotic behaviour of a few unscrupulous people has, once again, forced changes to a system which affects everyone."
On the brighter side, Valve's announcement last night did also talk about filtering out the wakka wakka wacky reviews that some pranksters boost 'for the lulls'. They said:
"Our existing system just looks at the overall number of users that rated a review as 'helpful', but we're seeing this can produce unpredictable results. For example, sometimes unhelpful memes get rated as ‘helpful’ because people think it’s funny. So we're working on updating the system to consider more factors when deciding how to rank 'helpful' reviews so that it can generate better results."
Valve have changed the colour game pages use to portray a Mixed score too. It's gone from a dark orange (which had a pretty negative implication) to a neutral yellow matching the icon used in search results. Good-o.