Can you cheat to get ahead on Steam?

We... would not recommend it.

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Welcome back to another action-packed week in world of video game discoverability and platforms! The Steam Festival is still up and running, things are starting to happen around summer game events like E3, and a whole heck of a lot of other stuff is going on.

But let’s start out with a mini-investigation - is there any way to ‘get ahead’ in less than ethical ways on Steam? (As you’ll discover, it’s tricky, dangerous, AND has little upside!)

Steam & the review bot problem

So, back in early December, the GameDiscoverCo Hype charts that we run for Plus subscribers picked up a weird anomaly. A game called Emoji Evolution, which seemed to be some kind of Doodle God-style ‘alchemy’ game, had showed up in the Top 5 for the next week. But its stats were way off:

As you can see, despite being unranked on the ‘top unreleased wishlists’ chart, and having no Steam forum traffic about the game, it had a whopping 7,900 Steam followers. That was 3 times as many as the Medal Of Honor VR game being released a day later!

So, to me, this looks like incented or ‘bot’ followers to try to increase interest in the game. (Can’t prove this, but we also caught the game going from 1,800 to 5,300 followers in a single day, after being static at 1,800 for multiple days. Seems statistically improbable.)

In general, we at GameDiscoverCo haven’t noticed a lot of obvious pre-release bot/incented traffic like this. This is partly because I’m not sure Steam followers are actually a criteria being used by Valve to decide if a game gets in Popular Upcoming.

Anyhow, the game came out on December 10th for $4.99, and within 2 weeks, had balanced itself at 37 positive and 9 negative reviews. Yes, that’s just over the 80% threshold for ‘Very Positive’. And it hovered there, as some ‘real’ people came in to say that the game actually wasn’t that great (“about half an hour to complete.. boring and frustrating”), and even accuse the dev of using bots to review the game.

That Steam forum poster is suggesting that the folks behind this game are adding positive reviews to offset negatives. Look at these recent reviews, and particularly how generic they are and the amount of upvotes for them:

I would be surprised if 96 people spontaneously turned up to upvote such an incredibly vanilla review, given the number of total reviews the game has. And not sure how these reviewers are getting 3 - or even 35.7 - hours of playtime from it.

Whoever is allegedly boosting Emoji Evolution is relatively subtle, and at least for reviews, are humans (not AI or bots), which makes it harder to detect. For example, this enthusiastic reviewer bothered to buy two other 99c games and do two single sentence reviews, all on the same day, before submitting a (longer, more positive, very generic) review for Emoji Evolution. Hmmm.

In recent days, the game went on a 50% off sale, and the title got into a ‘The Community Recommends’ feature, which is when I remembered it again. The ‘generically positive’ reviews have had trouble keeping up with recent & more authentic negative reviews.

One of the funniest things we noticed for Emoji Evolution is the name of the developer and publisher that the people behind it decided to use. Borrowing a JPG from a GameDiscoverCo Plus Discord server user:

So yes, I guess they’re hoping that players will scan the review ratings while only half paying attention and say ‘oh, neat, this game is Very Positive!’ As opposed to… developed by Very Positive. Hilarious.

Anyhow, I imagine Steam will take a look at this game after these comments, and see if they can see anything wrong. And in general, this isn’t a slam on the platforms. In all these cases, ‘somebody’ bought the game and then reviewed it on Steam. Other review-driven marketplaces have the same issue. If you’re following the Amazon ‘brushing’ reviews issue, thats just another example.

But I know that Valve definitely investigates a lot of games and developers on a regular basis for things like review manipulation, and it’s not discussed much. In fact, if you look at Madjoki’s Steam ‘banned’ game list (ignore select entries and all of the Chinese-language games, some Steam China-related updates are screwing things up), you’ll see all of the less subtle folks who have been banned in recent months. Some for other reasons, but I bet many for review manipulation.

Even one or two more reputable devs have fallen foul of this. And let me tell you, it’s terrible for your business when all of your games are permanently banned from Steam! The creators of Suicide Guy were one of these, a couple of months back:

It looks like the dev admitted - in a now-deleted forum post - to trying to help his game out by adding some extra positive reviews from alt accounts. And that’s definitely a bad idea. Which brings me to my conclusion, actually.

I don’t think review manipulation is a major issue - in general - on Steam because it requires a lot of work to get right. You actually have to buy the game on each account to do it, and the upside for this whole caper seems very incremental to me. This alleged example is probably the one I’ve seen get the furthest.

But how much money can the Emoji Evolution folks even have made from this? Let’s say 1,000 people bought the game because of the positive reviews at $5 (or $2.50) each… that’s like $2,000 after Steam’s cut, minus 30% for taxes probably. And you have to pay $100 per game for Steam setup, plus buy a few copies of the game. It seems unwieldy, to say the least. Perhaps - perhaps - if you can do the same thing over 30 or 50 apps, you start to get somewhere. But I presume Steam will catch you way before then.

Nonetheless, it might be good for Valve to have an internal tool that tracks ‘review to purchase ratio’ and flags games where it’s significantly off - if they don’t have this already. I bet this game would jump out on that axis, using a tool.

And for the rest of us? Look at the downside for getting it wrong, and look at the upside per game if you miraculously get it working. Not an amazing incentive. So… let’s just all stick to making good video games, eh? And leave the disinformation campaigns to politics.

Hype Chart - coding help needed!

Just wanted to see if any GameDiscoverCo readers (or friends of readers) were interested in helping, as we look to expand our Steam Hype chart codebase - tracking unreleased Steam games - further.

For Steam Hype context, you can see a recent Top 10 Plus newsletter here, since we made it free to all. The Hype charts were originally coded by Lars Doucet (of GameDataCrunch fame!) but was always intended to be a one-off project - he’s working on his own stuff like Playfully Automated with Ichiro Lambe now, woo. (We do have someone helping us with maintenance and bug fixes, but not new feature development.)

So we’d love to have someone help out for a few hours a month (paid), as we look to add more filtering, CSV export, and other clever features. Ideally a game data fan! The Hype code uses PHP for pages, MySQL for DB, Python for web scraping, and has a front-end that uses HTML / Vanilla JS + Twitter's Bootstrap framework. Please reach out if you’re interested in collaborating.

The game discovery news round-up..

As often happens, some brand new ‘interesting’ news appears just as we’re about to send one of these newsletters out. So maybe we’ll return to it on Wednesday, but here’s the headline news of the day, regarding Steam China:

So yes, Steam China is up (with review scores linked to regular Steam, by the way!), but has its own domain and is only for government-approved titles. But looks like Chinese users can still access and buy ‘unlicensed’, non-govt approved Chinese-language games via the regular Steam website/client. For now. More to come… and let’s round up everything else:

  • Something to keep an eye on - carmakers are getting hit by chip shortages, due to the massive demand drop & then ramp-up that COVID spawned. And Bloomberg is suggesting game consoles might also get affected: “The game hardware industry is bracing for supply to get worse before it gets better in 2021, potentially even affecting the next holiday season, people familiar with the mater say.” Big possible issue to monitor.

  • More summer physical events are going digital, with leaked E3 2021 information revealing a digital-only festival. Sounds like those who want to pay to play can “remotely stream playable game demos to the media across “thousands” of scheduled meetings”, but “at least one major games company VGC spoke to indicated that it would continue to run its own separate digital showcase, rather than paying the six-figure sums required to join E3 2021’s [official stream] schedule.” We’ll see how it goes, especially with Geoff Keighley’s Summer Game Fest confirming it’ll be back.

  • Think this might be the first of its kind for the platform - Epic Games Store has added a Spring Showcase and Sale, starting off with a Twitch stream on February 11th with “a collection of new announcements, gameplay and extended looks”. Followed up by… a bunch of games available for cheaper than normal! Will be interesting to see if any games get announced from scratch in that showcase.

  • The retail-centric video game research companies don’t have the most complete data (because of the opacity of digital), but GSD & GI.biz have a round-up of its view on European game sales in 2020: “123.7 million games were sold, which is a 19% jump over 2019. 58.7 million of those games were downloaded, which is a rise of 47% over the year before. Despite lockdown restrictions causing High Street stores to close, 65 million boxed games were sold across the various markets, which is a rise of 0.8%.”

  • The folks at game funding outfit Kowloon Nights just unveiled a slate of 23 new games, with some impressive mid-sized indie names attached (Thunder Lotus, Night School, etc), and it’s clear they are making a PR push as “a true alternative to traditional publisher relationships”. Some fairly pointed digs at publisher terms in that press release, about branding, platform relationships, IP ownership and more. If you feel like you can make noise on your own as a dev, I do think the ‘funder+’ model they’re running is tempting. YMMV.

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? You can subscribe to GameDiscoverCo Plus to get access to exclusive newsletters, interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and lots more besides.]