If you're a Steam user, you may have noticed a change-up in the way the Customer Reviews section looks like on the site today. That's because last night, Valve adjusted the system across all stores with an aim to make it more legitimate.
Under the previous system, Steam customer reviews came from two sources. On one hand, you had reviews from customers who had purchased the game on the platform. On the other hand you had users who had obtained CD-keys for the game. There are plenty of legitimate ways to obtain a key, for example, from the developer for backing the game on Kickstarter, or as part of a Humble Bundle. But the fact is that there exists a black-to-grey market where keys are given out for the purposes of manipulating reviews.
Valve Attempt To Wipe Out Review Score Manipulation With A Steam Update
The majority of review score manipulation we're seeing by developers is through the process of giving out Steam keys to their game, which are then used to generate positive reviews. Some developers organize their own system using Steam keys on alternate accounts. Some organizations even offer paid services to write positive reviews. - Valve official statement
This was the problem.
Theoretically, developers can generate as many keys as they want, give to all their friends, family, employees etc. and request them to make positive reviews. This can also be done with dummy accounts, and on a larger scale, there exist communities willing to spam a game with positive reviews for a fee.
This kind of astroturfing can lead to some strange developments, some of which came to the attention of Valve, such as when games get overwhelming negative reviews from customers who purchased the game, but almost all their positive reviews from key owners. Or even when all the positive reviews for a game seem to come from the same country where it might be easier to recruit a large pool of spammers for little money.
In the updated system, only customer reviews from Steam purchases will count towards a game's overall score. CD-key holders will still be able to leave their reviews but they won't affect the main score. Users looking at reviews also have several filters to help them control for potential abuse, such as being able to view the customer reviews and keyholder reviews together or separately, and being able to filter for their native language.
Valve has stressed that there are plenty of legitimate CD-keys out there and that the point isn't to discourage users from buying the game on platforms other than Steam, but to combat abuse from shady developers. But the fact remains: keyholders don't count quite as much in the Steam community as direct purchases, and if gamers are turned off by this, it has the potential to harm smaller publishers and indie developers, many of which depend heavily on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms to fund their games, and reward their backers with Steam keys.
Some developers have also pointed out that they see more harm coming from fraudulent reviews on the players side. Generally users are more motivated to leave negative reviews than positive ones, with a silent majority of happy players often just getting on with playing the game and not taking the time to leave feedback .
Negative review bombing from players can come from personal grudges, but also, as was the case with this year's Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear expansion, be motivated by bigotry or culture-war controversy.
While I think that Valve has their heart in the right place when it comes to giving their users more control over the reviews they listen to, it doesn't necessarily put a hard stop on unethical practices from developers or players and I personally feel that one must still exercise a healthy amount of caution with user reviews. Valve will no doubt keep a close eye on their community feedback, where the changes are likely to be controversial.