Valve has spent this year slowly revamping Steam reviews, and the latest change is a biggie: by default, reviews written by people who obtained a game with a key (or anything else not directly within Steam) don’t factor.

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Valve explained that they made the change to counter fraudulent reviews and other attempts at score-boosting:

“An analysis of games across Steam shows that at least 160 titles have a substantially greater percentage of positive reviews by users that activated the product with a cd key, compared to customers that purchased the game directly on Steam. There are, of course, legitimate reasons why this could be true for a game: Some games have strong audiences off Steam, and some games have passionate early adopters or Kickstarter backers that are much more invested in the game.”

“But in many cases, the abuse is clear and obvious, such as duplicated and/or generated reviews in large batches, or reviews from accounts linked to the developer. In those cases, we’ve now taken action by banning the false reviews and will be ending business relationships with developers that continue violating our rules.”

It’s understandable that Valve would go after this kind of behavior, but many developers are worried that this is less of a surgical strike and more of a carpet bombing. Kickstarers, especially, stand to take a big hit in the reviews department, and reviews have a huge impact in terms of who buys games and in smaller, more intangible ways dictated by Steam’s discoverability algorithms.

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Jonas Kyratzes, a writer and designer on games like The Infinite Ocean, The Sea Will Claim Everything, The Talos Principle, and Serious Sam 4 said:

Kieron Kelly, a writer at Divinity studio Larian, explained:

Simon Roth, creator of colony-building game Maia, lamented:

Death Ray Manta’s Rob Fearon said:

David Pittman, who worked on Eldritch and Neon Struct, offered some perspective in regards to Valve’s priorities:

Dave Gilbert of adventure game studio Wadjet Eye gave anecdotal evidence of Valve’s changes in action:

That said, this kind of behavior isn’t exactly atypical of Valve, for better or worse. Alexis Kennedy, who wrote games like Fallen London and Sunless Sea (and now helps out at places like Paradox and BioWare), broke it down:

Sure enough, in a statement to Gamasutra, Valve said, “We are hearing lots of positive response to this update, and some criticisms. Like all updates we issue to our games and services, we will be monitoring the community reaction and incorporating that feedback into the next set of changes we make to improve the service for everyone.”

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Still, it’s a rough situation for many. Sure, Valve will probably refine the system over time, but some developers stand to lose sales and standing right now. I can understand their ire.

It’s also just a weird decision all around. For one, Valve cited 160 instances of games that “have a substantially greater percentage of positive reviews by users that activated the product with a cd key.” That is, by many metrics, A Problem. Thing is, Steam is now home to thousands upon thousands of games. 160 is a relatively small proportion of them, and a change like this stands to impact more legitimate developers than sketchy ones. I feel like Valve could’ve hired a small team of people to monitor games with suspicious review activity and, as Valve put it, “end business relationships” on a case-by-case basis. Apparently, however, they chose to nuke everything from orbit and, perhaps, Make A Statement.

The underlying message of this change is also bizarre. Back when Valve first opened the floodgates to Steam by way of programs like Steam Greenlight, they encouraged developers to cultivate communities outside of Steam. In recent times, Valve has discouraged developers from doing things like offering keys to people who boost their game on Greenlight in order to close loopholes, which makes sense. This change to reviews, however, directly flies in the face of philosophies that form modern-day Steam’s building blocks. Why go through all the trouble of cultivating a community outside Steam, only to watch their influence wither when it actually counts?

Then, of course, there’s the cynical take on the review brouhaha, which goes something like this: Prior to these changes, developers would often point their most dedicated fans to direct purchase options or other stores (as opposed to Steam) because they took a bigger cut of sales that way. Now they have an incentive to say, “Please make sure to buy our game on Steam,” which would naturally drop more coins in Valve’s pocket. I’m wary of viewing Valve that way, if only because—more so than most companies in existence—they’re not in any way hurting for cash. But who knows? Steam is dominating the market right now, but they’ve got competition. When you’re on top, all you can do is strengthen your stranglehold or, eventually, lose your grip and fall.

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