A Call for Responsible Steam User Reviews in 2016

A Call for Responsible Steam User Reviews in 2016

As a fan of indie games, I find the lack of thought in many negative Steam user reviews disturbing. As a marketing consultant who has helped numerous indies launch their titles on Steam and seen the impact these reviews have on sales, I find this apathy appalling. Perhaps it’s the desire to be the “class clown,” or a love of shock value that motivates Steam users to leave negative reviews like “It sucks,” “Waste of time and money” or “Your mother is an alcoholic.” But as someone who is well versed in the effect of these reviews, I have to chalk it up to ignorance so I continue believing people are inherently good.

When I say that negative user reviews impact sales, it’s an understatement. Through my analysis of my clients’ Steam sales data and how it’s affected by variables like negative user reviews, external promotion, Steam featuring, etc., negative user reviews are one of, if not THE, major negative influencers on sales. To illustrate how much of an impact these reviews can have, consider one of the more extreme cases I’ve worked on: When the game received its first negative reviews after launch, my client’s conversion rate (CVR) from visits to its Steam game page to purchase of its game dropped by 68 percent. This drop occurred while all other variables remained largely constant. And while this example skews toward the extreme, statistically significant drops in CVR after receiving negative customer reviews is a correlation I’ve observed across the board on multiple platforms.

This correlation can also be observed in the context of a game’s overall user review (e.g., Overwhelming Positive, Very Positive, Mixed, etc.). When examining the data from two past client games—one with a “Very Positive” and the other with a “Mixed” overall user review—the game with the Very Positive overall user review had a 73 percent higher CVR during the two-week period after launch than the game with the Mixed overall user review. There are other variables at play, but the correlation between sales performance and overall user review is significant.

 

Purely Negative vs. Constructively Negative Reviews

Before anyone assumes that I’m advocating for Steam users to stop leaving negative reviews altogether in favor of helping developers’ sales, I want to make it clear that this is NOT the case. User reviews, whether positive or negative, are a critical part of buyer and developer education…which I’m 100 percent for. However, there is a difference between purely negative and constructively negative user reviews. The latter is what I’m advocating.

 

Purely Negative Reviews

purely negative steam user review

Above is an example of what I’d call a “purely negative Steam user review.” In this review, the Steam user gives neither prospective buyers nor developers specific or constructive feedback to inform buying decisions or development updates. Instead, he gives the impression that the game is just bad. But, because this reviewer gave the game a “thumbs down,” Steam counts it toward the game’s overall user review and it will be displayed on the game’s page. As a result, it could negatively affect the game’s sales.

Perhaps even more harmful than its possible effect on sales though, is that this review robs the developer of the opportunity to act responsibly and take action quickly. Without reaching out to this Steam user and hoping he responds with specifics and fast, the developer has no way of knowing why its game is disappointing and therefore cannot even attempt to turn this customer’s experience from negative to positive. In turn, by not providing constructive feedback, this Steam user is lowering his chances to see the improvements he wants made to the game and thus robs himself of getting a better value for the money he spent.

 

Constructively Negative Reviews

Constructively Negative Steam Customer Review

Here is a screenshot of a “constructively negative Steam user review” taken from the same indie game as above. In this review, the Steam user does three things very well to make his review constructive. First, the user identifies what he takes issue with in the game. Second, he explains why he takes issue. Third, he offers a suggestion for how this issue could be improved or even fixed.

By doing these three things, this Steam user is giving the game’s developer actionable feedback. In addition, he is providing other users with information that is specific enough where an informed buying decision can be made. If the user said something like “the sailing aspect is boring,” other users may dismiss the game as boring in general and not make a purchase. However, because this user specifically states why he believes sailing is boring, other users have more information to determine whether they too would find sailing boring for this reason, or whether this reasoning should even factor in their buying decision.

 

The Teams Behind Indie Games

Before I move onto suggestions for being a responsible Steam user reviewer, I want to take a moment to talk about the teams behind these indie games. While I can’t speak for all indie games published to Steam, I can speak to those I’ve worked on. The teams behind these games are incredibly talented, passionate, dedicated and ethical. Most notably, however, they are small. The majority of the teams I’ve worked with are comprised of five or less people, all of who have made enormous sacrifices—financial and otherwise—to do what they love. And because of the sacrifices they made, these teams take enormous pride in their work and care deeply about what their customers think. This is not only because they want to make great games, it’s also because the revenue they make from the games they publish often dictates whether they can continue developing their own games at all. Getting positive reviews is a big part of earning revenue. The indie teams I’ve worked with recognize this and are highly motivated to create great games at launch and to continue improving them based on customer feedback. Note: This is not meant to persuade you from leaving negative reviews out of charity, but rather promote the merits of being constructive if you plan on leaving a negative review because developers are personally invested in customer satisfaction and eager to improve their games based on what you think.

 

How to become a responsible Steam user reviewer?

  1. Understand the impact your review could have and take it seriously.
    Before writing a negative review, remind yourself of the kind of the impact it may have on that indie game’s sales and the team who’s counting on those sales. Use your knowledge to take your task seriously.
  2.  

  3. If you’re going to write a negative review, make it constructive.
    Sharing your experience with a game is a great thing, but if you’re going to write a negative review, make it constructive. Constructive reviews allow developers to improve their products for the benefit of you and the community, as well as help other Steam users make informed buying decisions.
  4.  

  5. Be open to adjusting your review if the developer addresses your issues.
    The goal of a constructively negative review is to help Steam users make informed buying decisions and give developers feedback to improve their games. If a developer addresses your issues based on the feedback you gave in your review, it means your review was effective. It also means the developer is acting in a responsible way that’s worthy of support. Take some time to reward this effort by giving the game another shot and revising your review if the issues you raised were remedied.

 

Final Thoughts

My hope from sharing the above data and thoughts is that I’m able to paint a very clear picture of how negative Steam user reviews impact indie game sales and the teams behind these games. I hope Steam users who are considering writing a negative review of an indie game do so responsibly and respectfully. If you played an indie game and didn’t enjoy it, fine, but understand that your negative review could impact someone’s livelihood and career. In your negative reviews, be constructive. Give developers the chance to improve their product by (1) clearly identifying what you disliked about the game, (2) why you disliked those aspects and (3) suggestions for improvement. Reviews with these three components will also provide other Steam users specific enough information to make informed buying decisions.

As we move into 2016, my wish is that enough Steam users adopt this philosophy to not only help developers improve their games on an individual basis, but elevate the quality of indie games on Steam as a whole. And, for those of you who are on the fence with this philosophy and need better reasons to stop writing purely negative reviews, I’ll simply refer you to Wheaton’s Law.

Emmy

Emmy Jonassen is a marketing pro who helps indie developers build adoring fanbases. Marketing people who love buzz words call this "lead generation."

22 Comments

JeFawk

about 8 months ago

This seems to be a decent call to action, but sadly I think way too few PLAYERS read your post; I would think it's mostly people that can relate to indie game development or that consider it. A player interested in this topic already probably tries to encourage it and provides a healthy amount of relevant feedback. So how could your post affect more players that just play the games and leave 1 line reviews? :\

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Emmy

about 8 months ago

Hi JeFawk and thanks for the comment. Your point is certainly valid: The indiegamegirl.com audience is largely comprised of devs and as a result, might not be the right platform for this blog to reach Steam users. However, I have submitted it to Gamasutra and am awaiting moderation. If featured, this message will get more exposure. As far as how it could affect players who just leave one-line reviews: In my opinion, constructively negative reviews don't have to be long. They just have to be constructive. My hope is that this post makes Steam users more aware of the effect their negative reviews can have and how to make the most of them. If a Steam user would rather write a one-line review over committing to writing a long review, that's totally fine. But I'm hoping this post motivates them to craft that one line in a way that is both respectful and beneficial to customers and developers.

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Rudi

about 8 months ago

Great article Emmy! As a part-time indie dev with a game on Steam, we have had some negative reviews, of course, and as a game developer, we really appreciated the ones with constructive criticism. For example, one guy gave a thumbs down and just wrote "poop", where the other gave a thumbs down, but actually took the time to write something constructive, it actually really helped us! Sadly, the internet is filled with trolls as well :( I do, however, sincerely hope lots of people reads your article, and it makes them think next time they write a review on Steam

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Emmy

about 8 months ago

Hi Rudi and thanks for sharing your experience. I'm glad that at least one of your two negative reviews was constructive and that you and your team were helped as a result. This is a positive thing that I like to hear! As for the trolls. Yes, the are sadly out there. However, I have high hopes that with enough education and advocating, we can convert a lot of the pointless negativity in user reviews into more constructiveness.

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JeFawk

about 8 months ago

Some people just don't care :( Did you consider the idea of rewarding people that leave constructive reviews? Be them positive or negative? One way MIGHT be for example a Steam achievement. However it's not easy to implement since it would have to be awarded manually after you check the review out and such...hmm....it's an idea that's been on my mind for a while. Do check the Steam TOS and language rules and maybe you can report players that curse in the comment section. Might sound like a crap move from the developer if other people find out about it but...so i'm not sure....

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Princess

about 8 months ago

Anything that could be remotely construed as a developer censoring the community is going to end badly. Threads accusing developers of censorship and unfair bans blow up on /r/Steam almost every week. Not saying it's a good reality, but it's not something to try if you value your reputation.

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Logan

about 8 months ago

I really do believe that something should be done with Steam reviews to help mitigate the current state of troll-like reviews. It's hard thinking of a solution, other than spreading awareness to players and getting them to better understand how much they are actually hurting developers with reviews that aren't constructive. Not only in sales numbers, but also in helping games improve (early access games are a great example). Personally, I've recently had a very negative experience with Steam reviews. One of my clients recently had a free weekend on Steam and going in, they had a "Mostly Positive" average review score. However, during the free weekend, a massive amount of players who didn't meet the minimum system requirements would leave negative reviews, simply because they couldn't run the game. After the free weekend, we now sit at a "mixed" review score and it's definitely having an effect on our sales. I also believe the addition of Steam refunds has been an overall failure, but I will hold back my rant here :) Anyways, thanks for the productive post. Your blog has been incredibly helpful over the past year and I always look forward to reading your new posts!

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Jep25

about 8 months ago

Thank you so much for posting this! It really is so detrimental when people simply write negative reviews w/o providing any basis as to why, or any specifics that might help to improve the experience. However, I have a quick question: Do you think that Valve should implement some sort of moderator system like what reddit has? By that I mean, they will review reviews, and if they are purely negative review as you call them they should tag them w/ a certain label. If this happens, do you think this type of control might scare off the players, or negatively effect the steam store's ethos?

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Primož Vovk

about 8 months ago

That was a really nice reading and to the point. I was thinking about writing one for a long time but you already did everything I had on my mind. Jefawk has indeed a valid point but big stuff always starts with the minority. We as the developers need to be aware of the problem and start doing the right thing and maybe others will follow by the example. There will always be those who just don't care and write 1 line negative review for whatever reason. Once again, well done Emmy I have my fingers-crossed for the Gamasutra approval.

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Djamel Berkaoui

about 8 months ago

Hey, thanks for your article. I agree about the demand of more qualitative reviews. Unfortunately this is not only a steam related problem but can be seen on all platforms where players can rate and comment on a game. This is a general issue. If someone is interested to read some related information. I've wrote an essay about this issue in general. Happy reading :) http://satyre.weebly.com/blog/essay-2015-do-we-need-a-gaming-revolution

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Josh

about 8 months ago

More often then not it goes the opposite of what you've posted. I see terrible games get really positive reviews all the time, despite not being worth the $10 that's being charged. Steam is flooded with clones and games that havent been developed at all. Walking simulators with nothing to do, minecraft clones on clones on clones, rpgmaker games with default assets and a knock-off final fantasy story. And quite often these games have mostly positive reviews. That's way more irresponsible, often causing more users to download and pay for a game that they wouldn't have if it had been fairly reviewed. Developers love asking people on facebook / twitter / youtube to review their game in a positive light, and so often, its just not deserved. From a gamers perspective, I think short, non-constructive negative comments are the least of our worries.

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Zuurix

about 8 months ago

If my game, when it will be on Steam, will get a purely negative review, I'll reply and put link to this article.

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Marc

about 7 months ago

What about a minimum word count per comment + rewards for reviewers that reach "positive thresholds"? Steam would need to invest in the system, but they would also reap the reward of an ecosystem that promotes good dev's work & good user behavior. Steam users that do not participate in the reviewing process but do take it into account when looking for their next game would also benefit from well constructed reviews. Tri-Winning! :)

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Vedran Klanac

about 7 months ago

Hi, this is really good article and it shows the core of the problem. Thing is that people who tend to post negative comments have their own motivation to do so, and that will always be that way. Educating players on Steam how to provide constructive feedback, I think, should be somehow role for the Steam to chip in. Right now, you have mechanism where players can "trash" your game by leaving bad comments, they can then refund, but the comment will still stand there. Even when you fix the issue and go back to the person saying "we have released the update with the issue fixed, and that person still doesn't remove or change the comment. I got one review, negative one, which sais "I don't like.". When I reached to the player directly over the chat, and I asked what particular thing he/she didn't like, so that I know what we need to fix, I got response back "I don't know why I posted it, you know I'm just a kid". And I have number of those. That particular game of mine, has overall very good comments and those which are negative I can say we go 20% of those which are constructive and we fixed 90% what was reported via such comments and then still, players didn't change them anyway. That part is really frustrating. I understand that guys at Steam can not go and review every single "flagged by developer" review as they would have to employ hundreds of people and that is not realistic to expect. However, there needs to be a better way to handle these "non-constructive" feedbacks. They are even not feedbacks, because they don't provide any info back to the developer.

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Cedric Markwatson

about 7 months ago

Awesome! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

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Voqar

about 7 months ago

I agree but this extends to positive and supposedly funny reviews too. I don't find the funny reviews to be helpful at all. The "I barfed on myself, would buy again 10/10" kind of "reviews" are a waste of space. Valve makes an ungodly amount of money doing next to nothing to facilitate game downloads and I don't think it would be asking too much for reviews to be moderated, users to get banned from making reviews to encourage quality (3 day bans are not a big deal but send a message), and so on. You don't want to stifle player reviews but at the same time, people who post garbage or childish attempts at weak humor are not helping other players figure out if a game is worth buying.

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Voqar

about 7 months ago

I also think Steam should require users to play a game for a certain amount of time before being able to leave a review. How can anybody play a game for a few minutes and know enough to form any useful opinion?

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Pete

about 6 months ago

I imagine it will difficult to change the way people behave on Steam reviews directly, unfortunately, as the type of people who leave these kind of reviews aren't the type of people who'll be reading this. The only people that will be capable of solving the problem will be those as Steam itself, but I believe pleas like these help put a bit of pressure on them. It doesn't necessarily mitigate the problem, but gathering positive reviews on other better moderated community sites like plebgamereviews.com or asking for reviews at places like gamecritics.com at least helps dilute down the appearance of trolls for when someone search for your game.

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tead

about 6 months ago

i hate the ones who write "10/10 would ....blah blah blah" i always downvote those.

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Steven Long

about 4 months ago

This is a great post, and something I've thought about too. Knowing how hard it is to build a game, I rarely give negative reviews. It makes me feel guilty. And when I do write a negative review, I usually include a section that addresses the developers directly, so they know why I didn't like their game.

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