Summary: Steam's sizable share of the online PC gaming market has placed it on the verge of dominance for years, despite a number of upstarts attempting to challenge its lead. Given the size of its market, it's no surprise Steam has taken several steps to prevent its system from being gamed, whether by bogus reviews or bogus purchases.
One move Steam made was to limit the visibility of reviews written by players who didn't actually purchase the software through Valve's online store. The new system, which removed reviews from people using Steam keys, rather than direct purchases, was one of several new optional filters added for Steam users. But it was also the new default option -- something many users likely had no idea was now filtering out reviews Steam didn't want them to see.
Part of this was a response to reports of game developers using sock puppet accounts to write favorable reviews or handing out game keys in exchange for positive reviews from players. And some of it had to do with making visible reviews appear more trustworthy, using something similar to Amazon's "Verified Purchaser" program to ensure the most visible reviews were from users whose purchases had been verified.
While this may have discouraged gaming of the review system and tempered "review bombing" efforts, it also put some indie developers at a disadvantage. Those that had used other platforms (like Kickstarter) to fund and develop their games handed out keys to backers. Unfortunately, the new filtering process lowered the visibility of reviews written by supporters of these developers simply because they didn't make an actual purchase from the Steam store. What was supposed to keep dishonest developers from padding their review scores ended up hurting a lot of honest developers who relied on multiple platforms and direct backing from supporters to make a living.
Decisions to be made by Steam:
- Should reviews by verified purchasers be highlighted? Or is it simpler to make unverified reviews less visible?
- Can review spam be combatted without changing the way reviews are filtered by default?
- Does this solve the problem of dishonest reviews without having to expend additional funds on human moderators?
Questions and policy implications to consider:
- Is it possible to deter dishonest tactics without causing collateral damage to developers/users who don't use the system in expected ways?
- Does maintaining a blocklist for devs/users achieve the same objective without harming developers who rely on crowdfunding?
- Does implementing a filtering system like this make it less likely independent developers will offer their games through Steam?
- Have there been any observed "exits" from the Steam market to other game sellers as more platforms arise?
Resolution: This filtering method has remained in place despite the problems it has caused for certain developers. Steam's dominance in the marketplace has likely helped it absorb the losses caused by its moderation effort. Like all review systems in heavily-trafficked online markets, problems continue to arise and shady developers still manage to find ways to abuse the constantly-reacting system.
Written by The Copia Institute, March 2021