Steam’s user reviews debuted in 2013, and have since become an important component of Valve’s PC games platform. But reviews have also become a big problem – perhaps not for Valve so much as the developers trying to get their games noticed in a catalogue that now includes more than 30,000 titles. Angry users can bombard a game with negative reviews for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the game itself, lowering its discoverability and potentially dooming it to financial failure. So, what if they actually worked?
The first big problem with Steam reviews is the one they share with professional reviews: aggregation. Sure, there’s a certain appeal to the idea of looking at a single number that neatly summarises a huge set of opinions about a new game, but crucial information and context is lost when even one review is reduced to just this, let alone many of them. A critic hasn’t spent 30 or more hours playing and thinking about a game simply to generate a number between one and ten in their head. There are reasons for each score, and each outlet assigns them in its own way. It’s simply not possible to capture those nuances in a number, much less a Metacritic aggregation of dozens of such scores, which may reflect wholly different standards and methods of criticism across sites.
Similarly, while many Steam reviewers also put a lot of time, thought, and effort into the evaluations they post, the only meaningful metric is the one generated by the aggregation of all reviews posted about a game. That can be ‘mostly positive’, ‘overwhelmingly negative’, or whichever descriptor Valve has assigned to the particular ratio of positive to negative reviews the game has received.
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