Game Studio Threatens Employees' Jobs If They Don't Write Positive Reviews Of Own Game, Then Steam Pulls Game Entirely

from the backfire dept

It’s no secret that Valve’s Steam platform is the dominant marketplace for PC video games. Much comes along with that status, including the strategies and metrics studios must employ to get their games noticed on Steam. One of the important metrics for recognition is Steam reviews. And it’s not just the review scores themselves that are important, but actually getting reviews — any reviews — to begin with is a big deal.

So it’s no surprise that game studios strategize on how to get their games in enough customer hands to generate reviews. Still, one studio’s strategy has massively backfired. Insel Games out of Malta recently released Wild Buster, it’s latest title. Sadly, in the all important initial release window, the game was not generating enough reviews to result in a general review score on the game page. Those scores are often used by consumers to quickly decide whether a title deserves their attention at all and a lack of a score can indicate that the game isn’t good enough to even warrant a look. Insel’s CEO, Patrick Steppel, decided to address this with a strongly-worded email to his own staff insisting that they all buy the game and review it, despite having had a hand in making the game. If employees refused to do this, Steppel warned that it could mean that they would no longer have a job at the studio.

“I had [sent] an email earlier but I was told that some of you announced to colleagues that you do not want to make a purchase of the game and/or a review. Frankly, this leaves me pretty disappointed. Of course I cannot force you to write a review (let alone tell you what to write) – but I should not have to. Neglecting the importance of reviews will ultimately cost jobs. If WB fails, Insel fails, IME fails and then we all will have no job next year. So I am asking you either of do the following: buy the game and present me the receipt until Friday night for which (together with a claim form) you will be re-imbursed within 24h or explain to me tomorrow why you do not wish to do this. I would like to discuss this individually and privately with each of you and will follow up.”

Corresponding with the timing of this email was a deluge of reviews suddenly washing over the game’s Steam page, all of them glowingly positive. This, as many of you will know, is a form of astroturfing and it’s plainly unethical. The point of reviews is for Steam customers to get a sense of what other Steam customers think of a game so as to inform their purchasing decisions. It is not a place for those who made the game to surreptitiously fool customers into thinking a game is better than it is by posting reviews from a clearly biased source. For the CEO of a studio to suggest employees do this at the end of a pointed employment-gun is all the more galling.

And, ultimately, ineffective, given that Valve has responded from pulling every single Insel Games product from its marketplace.

In a post last night on the Steam forums, a Valve representative wrote that as a result of this new information, the store has pulled all of Insel Games’ products. “The publisher appears to have used multiple Steam accounts to post positive reviews for their own games. This is a clear violation of our review policy and something we take very seriously. For these reasons, we are ending our business relationship with Insel Games Ltd. and removing their games from our store. If you have previously purchased this game, it will remain accessible in your Steam library.”

Laughably, Streppel has publicly admitted to sending out the email while also insisting that he will appeal Valve’s decision. What the basis of that appeal could be, given his admission, is anyone’s guess. Streppel also insists that he didn’t mean to threaten anyone’s job and that he has not punished any employee that refused to write a review or buy the game, although that kind of gaslighting likely won’t find much purchase in a gaming public that doesn’t look kindly upon this kind of subterfuge.

So, the lesson is that game studios should take the efforts they would spend conniving over how to fool customers and just make great games instead. Otherwise, the backlash may be more than they can handle.

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Companies: insel games, valve

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Comments on “Game Studio Threatens Employees' Jobs If They Don't Write Positive Reviews Of Own Game, Then Steam Pulls Game Entirely”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Did not think that one through

So in an attempt to boost sales of one game, they end up having all of their games pulled from the service and no longer available to buy, and torpedoing any reputation they might have had along with making any future positive reviews they might receive on other platforms suspect at best.

There’s shooting your own foot, and then there’s jamming your foot in the barrel of a cannon and lighting the fuse such that there’s nothing left.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: "EA isn’t this stupid."

EA’s willing to permaban people who complain too much about EA games, regardless of the legitimacy of their critiques. EA’s also willing to nag players of their mobile games for five-star ratings, and then try to divert them from rating if the player wants to post less than five stars.

So I’d say EA just is more subtle about it, and knows how not to commit blatant fraud…usually.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 When EA was less evil

I was fond of some of EA’s franchises, such as The Westwood Studios stuff like C&C Generals or Battle For Middle Earth and the Maxis stuff like The Sims 2. Lots of good work was published under the EA label.

Design quality plumeted (even when graphics and production values continued to escalate) right when EA mandated Origin service. I refused to accept its one-sided ToS even for a sequel of a franchise I was following. But I’m sure others are more devoted fans and would not blame them for falling victim to EA’s failure of integrity.

I’d love to play current Star Wars games (for which Disney gave EA exclusive liscense) but they’re EA, require Origin and lousy with microtransactions and whale-fishing, and I don’t go near that stuff and advise my friends to avoid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 "EA isn’t this stupid."

Unfortunately, as much as it is enjoyable to watch people get their just desserts, cheering EA on in this manner has the negative repercussion of justifying the furthering of their terrible and predatory tactics for the rest of us. That’s why we see the game industry going full forward with every terrible thing they can get away with and why we’ve come to the point where you have to pay to pay (sic) the game.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 "EA isn’t this stupid."

“That’s why we see the game industry going full forward with every terrible thing they can get away with and why we’ve come to the point where you have to pay to pay (sic) the game.”

You’re absolutely right. That’s exactly what they’re doing, and they’re doing it because gamers are stupid enough to keep falling for it over and over and over and over again. So why not? I mean, if you were evil, and you victimized someone and they came back for more, why wouldn’t you do it again? You’d be a fool not to.

Gamers could end this relatively quickly by doing nothing. Stop buying EA, stop reviewing EA, stop using EA, and so on. Just make them disappear. But they won’t. Gamers are so pathetically weak and stupid that they can’t even DO NOTHING. They lack the self-control to sit on their hands.

So EA will do this again, and so will some other gaming companies, because they’re watching and if they have any sense at all, they should realize that they can get in on the fun.

Keep in mind: gamers could stop this any time they want. I’ll be one of the first to applaud them if they do.

But my bet is that it’ll never happen.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 "EA isn’t this stupid."

Once again, stop being an asshole and attacking the people who are boycotting EA in the same breath as you attack those who aren’t. You just look like a dickhead and achieve nothing.

Also, you’re wrong. Read up on the backlash to Star Wars Battlefront II. The issue is getting non-gamers to pay enough attention, and you don’t get that by randomly abusing non-mainstream audiences.

“Keep in mind: gamers could stop this any time they want. I’ll be one of the first to applaud them if they do.”

So, why are you choosing not to applaud and instead lie about a large population of people who are doing what you want them to do?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 "EA isn’t this stupid."

Here’s the problem: the major studios could care less about the hardcore (or even quasi-hardcore) crowd that has the issue awareness needed for a boycott. Instead, they rely on suckering large numbers of casuals who come for a franchise (particularly if it’s connected to a well-known IP from outside the gaming world), as well as dominating popular media coverage. (Compare to your typical indie sleeper game — this will be drawing players primarily from hardcore/quasi-hardcore folks in its genre, spreading by word of mouth and reviews, but not drawing in casuals in great numbers for the most part.)

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 "EA isn’t this stupid."

“the major studios could care less “

Could not care less. I have no idea how a phrase that means the exact opposite of the intended meaning became so popular, but if you can care less than that means you do care. It’s when you can not care less that means you don’t care at all. Sorry, pet peeve…

“Instead, they rely on suckering large numbers of casuals”

Exactly, which is both why attacking regular gamers is so idiotic and counter-productive. The reason EA gets away with so much is because the people who buy into their flagship sports & licensed franchises don’t buy much of anything else. They need mainstream attention to change behaviour, and they don’t get much of that.

Probably because mental midgets keep attacking the gamers who are taking action instead of addressing what’s really going on.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 "could care less"

My guess is that the phrase arose from people parsing "I could not care less" as meaning something like "of course I care this much, how could you possibly think I could care any less than that?" – i.e., as the phrase not stating or implying anything about what level of caring the indicated minimum is, only that the speaker cannot go below that level.

The idea that that level is still positive doesn’t reflect the intended implication, that the only possible way for it to be impossible to go below a level is for that level to be zero – but I think it’s still a technically valid interpretation of the words of the idiom.

I agree that "I could care less" is still worse, though; where the most that can be said of the other is that it doesn’t explicitly rule out the wrong interpretation, "I could care less" explicitly states the wrong interpretation, and that rubs several parts of my psyche the wrong way.

(The only way "I could care less" makes any sense to me is as an elision from "I could hardly care less", which makes sense from a how-language-develops perspective but is no less wrong for that fact.)

Anonymous Coward says:

This has been going on so long with games, I no longer trust reviews. Mostly it seems to all be hype to sell a game that more often than not isn’t worth spending the money on. As a consequence of gaming reviews, threatening reviewers with lack of access to early releases if they don’t write glowing reviews, and stupid stuff like this article suggests, I no longer buy games new.

I’ll wait a year or so and see what the public thinks of a game, long after the hype has died down. My decision to do so is strictly the result of gaming houses trying to game the system. Since I can’t trust reviews to be truly honest in their evaluation I can’t see wasting money on games just coming out.

This is a direct result of gaming reviews. So having been burned enough times I no longer trust any review. The integrity of such reviews, especially early reviews, are now all suspect no matter who does them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You’re absolutely right: the review system has been completely overwhelmed by astroturfing and cronyism.

But: this isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. Oh, not for game buyers: for game sellers. They WANT it this way, which is why they’ve worked very hard to make it so. (Example: early access to reviewers.) At every step, they’ve shaped and molded the review system to favor it’s hardly a surprise that it does.

And your response is absolutely write: ignore the whole mess, wait a while, see how things look in a year or so.

But that’s very much a minority view: most gamers are stupid, so most gamers still rely on the review system that everyone knows is corrupt to the core.

So (a) kudos to you for being far smarter than the majority and (b) fuck the majority: they deserve to be ripped off.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Reading the reviews

I’ve noticed it helps if one reads the reviews first to get a sense of why people like or dislike a particular game. While this is by no means perfect, it does help your decision-making process as to whether to plop down hard-earned currency for a product.

It also helps if there’s a consistent factor as you why the reviews like or don’t like a certain product. For instance, many people didn’t like the ending to Thimbleweed Park. I was actually expecting something like that because Thimbleweed Park was made by Ron Gilbert who also made Monkey Island 2 and I didn’t like the ending of that game. Moreover, I actually preferred the ending to TP over MI2. Some other reviews would mention graphics or gameplay. Or maybe obnoxious DRM. So that’s how those reviews help me make more informed purchases.

That being said, sometimes it gets abused. And sometimes people read only the summary (like "Very Positive" or "Mostly Negative" or "Mixed") without further context. Or sometimes crowdfunding pledgers are encouraged to leave positive reviews (which isn’t anywhere near as unethical as this). But that doesn’t mean reviews can’t guide you in the right direction.

A. Cross Tick says:

Not an employee of Insel

Many people play video games and hope they will be good.
You can’t always get what you want,

But if you try sometimes,
Ooh, you get what you need.
So perhaps this will give you
Some satisfaction.

Most other video games lack something,
And this video game is certainly unlike other games.
Did you know that the title doesn’t use any repeated letters,
Especially the letter e?

Maybe you’ve been looking for something that
Everyone else wants to play as well.

Wild Buster is the bestest game evah!!! 111 !!!
Right down to the efficient use of pixels,
It reduces photonic bleed at
Edges of

The screen and that keeps the environmental people
So many ways.

Really, this game is so good that
Even the programmers who wrote it have bought copies.
Very few people would do that, so
I think that says
Everything about why you should buy this most bestest game evah !!! 111 !!!
Wild Buster gets my completely legit 5 Thumbs Up

Anonymous Coward says:

Streppel's Appeal

“Laughably, Streppel has publicly admitted to sending out the email while also insisting that he will appeal Valve’s decision. What the basis of that appeal could be, given his admission, is anyone’s guess.”

Oh I think the basis of his appeal is pretty obvious.

“Please oh god please don’t ban my company for life please oh god oh god I’ll do anything you say, ANYTHING, just don’t ban me pleeeeeeeeeeeeease!”

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

I threatened my staff to pump up the game!

Because the idea of him taking a cut in pay to push advertising wasn’t free.

Bet he has lots of free-time coming up.
He destroyed the company & somehow thinks that Steam will back down because he is a CEO.
He screwed up big & if he thought there would be lay-offs without tons of astroturfing, getting tossed off a huge platform for your antics will hurt the bottom line more.

John Smith says:

Section 230 strikes again

Thanks to Section 230, websites are not liable for false advertising, which means you can’t really believe what you read since no one is going to go after each individual company that might mislead people.

Of course, those who BELIEVE fake reviews are the true threat to the species, and should be sterilized and/or executed.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Section 230 strikes again

“Thanks to Section 230, websites are not liable for false advertising”

Erm, no. They are not liable for false advertising by people over whose actions they have no control. They would still be liable for actions by their own employees.

That’s as it should be.

“no one is going to go after each individual company that might mislead people”

If true, why should that be Vavle’s problem?

Sarah says:

Steam needs a free trial

Steam needs something like a free trial, especially for unknown studios.

Maybe they could even provide a middleman for developers to give away free copies for review purposes, and Steam be in charge of handing out keys to people, under the condition that they leave a review. This way, people can rest easy knowing that if they leave a bad review, the game publishers won’t be able to blacklist them.

Daniel Audy (profile) says:

Re: Steam needs a free trial

While Steam doesn’t technically have free trials they will refund almost any purchase for the reason ‘This isn’t what I thought it would be’ which allows for users to be a little riskier in trying out titles that sound interesting but they would otherwise pass on due to lack of knowledge of the developer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just leave negative reviews for all the good games so that the prices come down.

Notice how all the well-reviewed games stay at higher prices for longer times –even though they are digital copies and there is no supply-side to the equation?

It’s only fair that if content producers can game the system the we should be able to game it too. Astro-turfing (hello nearly every Asian game) is real. Let’s do some carpet-bombing.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Negative reviews to lower prices

Generally, I don’t begrudge the prices of games that I know are good. Curiously, AAA games which are $60 + DLC + Microtransactions are seldom worth the cost.

I’d been writing about Far Cry 5 (regarding Ubi’s effort to not actually comment about rural America and doomsday cults) and would like to actually play the game to make sure I have my facts straight (and to find out details like the height of the hilariously tall statue) but I don’t want to pay Ubi full price for a half-baked game attached to Uplay.

But I would pay the EFF $60 for FC5 if Humble would let me put all of a store sale to charity (rather than a bundle sale). I asked. They won’t.

Granted, people are even poorer than I am. But that’s what high piracy is for.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Negative reviews to lower prices

“Generally, I don’t begrudge the prices of games that I know are good. Curiously, AAA games which are $60 + DLC + Microtransactions are seldom worth the cost”

That’s me as well. I’m not normally interested in being the first to play a game, and I don’t really care about online play, so I’ll dip into new games that interest me when they get to a reasonable price (30 euros or less usually, depending on my existing backlog). The last game I bought new was Assassins Creed: Origins, and even that was only because there was a cheap deal on CD Keys the month after it came out (40 euros instead of the usual 70 euros or so for new games here). I haven’t bothered with any of the non-free DLC, and likely won’t until it comes down significantly in price. I usually only game on consoles except for retro titles, so the DRM/uPlay isn’t such a killer as it would be, but I would not have . bought the game full price.

I probably still spend more of games in sales than I ever would if I had to buy everything full price, but that’s also why I generally still try to support physical media where possible – sales on digital content tend to be very erratic. I can name at least 2 games where I’m still waiting for reductions on DLC prices years later, because I refuse to pay more for it than I did for my physical copy of the full game.

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