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Steam's Payola Scandal and how Valve walked into it

Game Developers have been caught giving players gifts in exchange for Steam reviews, but Valve isn't entirely blameless.

Steam, Valve's insanely popular online PC gaming service, is a magical place where all sorts of games get noticed. Indie games are right alongside the big AAA titles and it gives smaller developers the chance to compete with the big dogs. It also gives players the tools and means to quickly and effectively sift through games to find what they are looking for.

*Pause for laughter*

The utopian, perfect world of Steam is something that can exist in theory, but as many users know, it's incredibly far from the truth. While Valve is a quality company (depending on who you ask), they seem to be completely out of touch with reality, and the latest Steam blunder only further proves this.

For those of you who don't know, the Payola scandal focused on record companies who paid radio broadcasters extra money to play their records on the radio. Not entirely unlike game developers offering users free gifts in exchange for positive reviews, the end goal was increased exposure and better sales.

Enter RosePortal Games, the developer of the RPG Epic Quest of the 4 Crystals. They were recently caught compensating players with free game keys in exchange for Steam reviews on their games.

But honestly, RosePortal isn't entirely to blame. Steam was kind of asking for it. 

What is Steam (Greenlight) and why do People Hate it?

If you don't know Steam and how it works, almost everything on the site is driven by numbers. For new developers or games, there is a 2 stage process - Steam Greenlight, and then the actual Steam store itself. If you aren't familiar with Steam Greenlight, it's Valve's user screening process that requires players to decide whether or not games are good enough to actually get onto the Steam store, or if they should stay in Greenlight. There have been a lot of games, and even more competition, on the Greenlight page since Valve launched the program, and a large majority of those games just plain aren't good. 

Once games actually do make it to the store, the competition only intensifies, and the battle to get noticed is fiercer. More positive reviews means your game is more likely to get a spot alongside the bigger games, and that is an extremely hard thing to do on Steam.

With this incredibly basic system, Valve has all but backed itself into a corner, leaving a lot of indie developers with no choice but to do exactly what RosePortal Games did.

Let's be clear, I am not saying I agree with RosePortal Games, or how they went about trying to get their game noticed, but what I am saying is that this is just another example of how Valve fails to anticipate any kind of real human behavior.

Steam's Policies & Valve's Reaction

Naturally, once Valve found out what RosePortal Games was doing, they weren't too happy. They wrote this on the game's forum:

It’s come to our attention that Aldorlea Games and RosePortal Games have given gifts or otherwise compensated some Steam customers to get them to leave reviews for the game Epic Quest of the Four Crystals. This is a manipulation of the user review system, which we don’t allow. 

So how did Valve react? Well, you'd think maybe just a slap on the wrist and a warning would have sufficed, but Valve took things to a whole different level.

Unfortunately, we cannot tell which reviews were manipulated in this way. To preserve the integrity of user reviews on the product, we’re deleting all user reviews to date. If you wish to repost your review, we welcome you to do so - we've emailed all affected customers and included a copy of their user review.

That's right. Since Valve couldn't tell what user reviews were biased and manipulated from RosePortal Games' gifts, they decided to take down every single review for the game to "preserve the integrity of user reviews on the product". That is a devastating blow to the game that it may not be able to recover from.

Valve had every right to do this, and gave users the opportunity to repost their review stating any kind of compensation, and many have. But the company's actions may have been a bit extreme, especially considering their policies.

Amidst Steam's incredibly long and dense Subscriber Agreement, it states

“If you use Steam services (e.g. the Steam Curators’ Lists or the Steam Broadcasting service) to promote or endorse a product, service or event in return for any kind of consideration from a third party (including non-monetary rewards such as free games), you must clearly indicate the source of such consideration to your audience.”

I'm going to go ahead and assume that 99% of Steam users haven't read every word to this agreement, so this policy is incredibly easy to miss. On top of this, the language in the agreement is a little ambiguous.

The biggest issue with all of this is that RosePortal Games wasn't asking for a particular positive or negative review in return for their gifts.

The Solution?

Once again, Valve has failed to anticipate how people would use (or abuse) their system, and it's leading to more and more cases just like this one. It is Valve's duty to be a little more transparent with their policies and regulations, and developers need to do their research and understand the rules and consequences of those policies.

If this same system persists though, Valve is going to have a lot more issues like this to take care of. Many indie developers need Steam to make even a ripple in the video game market. What RosePortal Games did wasn't inherently wrong in the grand scheme of things, as Steam's current setup almost forced them to, but that also doesn't make it right.

There needs to be a more conscious effort on Valve's end to understand what they are providing to developers and just how important it is to many of them. Hopefully once they understand this, they can and will want to start bettering their Steam services to benefit the little guy as much as the big companies . And then everyone can love one another.

 

Published Oct. 5th 2015

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