Steam is shaking things up again in its attempts to properly curate its massive library of games. This time around, the concerns are how user-written reviews are collected and the overall score the measurement spits out for the game. Steam has a pretty simple system: games are generally regarded as positive, mixed or negative. It makes things easy to digest quickly and have consumers make snap decisions during a sale or what have you. These sorts of things are very important for such a community-driven marketplace, and the reviews/overall rating absolutely matter in terms of a game’s visibility, sales and overall success. So here’s the thing. Steam now considers anyone who did not straight-up purchase a game to be a non-factor in rating a game. That means if a person gets a game for free, perhaps as a gift or over a free weekend event wherein a game is available in some limited fashion for anyone to temporarily try out, if they subsequently write a review it will not count towards the overall score calculation. This is not good.
I’m trying to wrap my head around why this is even a thing that’s happening. How does not paying for a game invalidate the experience that user has with it? How in the world does that make sense? Even if the logic is a free weekend with limited access to the full game doesn’t facilitate a fully-fledged opinion, why does that also translate to people who received the full game as a gift? Also, what is the difference between someone who played Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare online for two days on a free weekend versus someone who paid thirty bucks and only played online for two days before jumping to the user review page to scream about how it sucks?
There isn’t a difference. This decision is illogical and stands to do more harm than good for both Steam’s quality measurements and the developers relying on the distributor to give their games a fair shot. To me, this is almost as bad as Steam Greenlight devaluing the Steam marketplace as much as it has over time with its cavalcade of quality assurance troubles. I won’t hesitate for a second to argue that not paying money for a game does not invalidate a review, and especially versus paying money for a game somehow validates one. I’d even argue the opposite in most cases.
Spending money has a psychological effect on people. You see it all the time if you look for it. Spending money is, for many people a difficult thing to do, especially if we’re talking about dropping $40 to $60 on eight to ten hours of fleeting entertainment. There’s an innate desire, or even need, to justify that money. If you see someone dumping on that game you just spent a pretty huge chunk of cash on, by instinct you want to defend it. Otherwise that random person you don’t know is indirectly telling you that money was wasted.
Getting a game for free, however, relieves you of that burden. It’s often the reason people like me, game critics or critics of other media, are provided access to materials by public relations. Game companies want reviews, because they want mindshare, and game critics who take themselves seriously want to jump into an experience as free of outside factors as possible. Bias is human, but whatever mindset one might have going into an experience, coupled with “damn it, I had to spend 60 bucks on this,” is easily and preferably avoidable in this specific context.
I’m not saying everyone who is gifted a game on Steam is on the level of a game journalist when it comes to critical analysis and discourse. I am saying, again, that the idea of someone getting a game for free means their opinion is sullied is laughable. It’s nonsense. User reviews are a shabby metric for how good a game is already, but removing voices for arbitrary reasons is not going to help. Anyone can jump into a game and hyperbolically praise or criticize it. Paying for the ability to do so doesn’t make it more valid.
When you look at a game on Steam, you see the customer reviews and its Metacritic score. You don’t see individual scores from outlets or review blurbs unless the developer/publisher includes them in the game description. There’s no perfect way to curate games with reviews. But if your service is a platform people’s creative output lives or dies on, and you’re in the position to make these kinds of decisions, don’t draw arbitrary lines. Either make the user reviews count or don’t, or have somebody clean them up when they aren’t good or helpful. Bumping people off because they didn’t happen to purchase the game in question is silly.