It's about ethics in user reviews - how to get a positive Steam critique of your game for $5

Steam user reviews

"I'm interested in having you review a Steam game for me," I tell a seller on Fiverr. "Could you send me some sample reviews?" They oblige. Noticing that all their reviews have a thumbs-up accompanying them, I put it bluntly:

"Will the review be positive?"

"Yes."

We've been working on our own reviews engine here on PCGamesN. It's called BetterCritic. In the process of researching and implementing BetterCritic, we analysed how reviews work on Steam, and while doing that we came across a number of sellers on Fiverr who offered to write Steam reviews for $5.

If you don't know Fiverr, it's kind of like Gumtree for odd jobs. People post ads offering their services, from graphic design to translation work to really left field stuff, like this seller who'll make your wish come true for $5. Hey, don't laugh: he's "using some ancient secret techniques that I've discovered after 30 years of practice, study and meditation."

So, I created an account, and I got in touch with every seller offering a paid-for Steam review. I sent them all the same message:

Fake Steam reviews

A couple of things about this. I've asked sellers to review "a Steam game," not "my Steam game." I also didn't make any attempt to mask my identity. My username on Fivver is - well, my name and the company I work for, and the email address associated with it is the one I use for this job. So this wasn't about approaching people pretending to be Gabe Newell with a Steam key for Half-Life 3.

Secondly, I'm offering to provide a Steam key because that's the done thing. Every seller stipulates that the game must be provided to them gratis, so I'm getting with the program.

Every seller got back to me, most of them within the hour. Nearly all of them linked me to their Steam accounts too, which is what I was really looking for. Because if you can see all the Steam reviews pages belonging to each of these sellers, you can start to build up an idea of which games they've written paid reviews of by finding the titles that keep cropping up. 

In total: 20 games cropped up.

20 titles appeared in more than one seller's reviews page. A couple of them - Counter-Strike: Source and Super Hexagon - are super-popular titles that would appear in nearly anyone's Steam library. It seems incredibly unlikely that anyone would need to pay people to leave reviews of these games given their success, so using some common sense to eliminate them from the paid review conversation, that leaves 18 games. 

Fake Steam reviews

We'll get to those games, and what we can extrapolate from their frequent appearances in Fiverr seller's accounts. First, let's establish what $5 actually buys you when you pay someone to review a Steam game. 

Some sellers have multiple accounts and offer two Steam reviews. Others guarantree they'll log at least one hour with the game before reviewing, and offer a further 10 hours if you pay them more. But the wording of these services is very careful. Some postings at least allude to the review being positive, but no one is coming out and saying it:

Fake Steam reviews

"I will write a great Steam review for your game" here, and  "I will genuinely play, review and rate your game" there. There are mixed messages being conveyed by sellers, some suggesting they'll leave an honest review, others suggesting they'll give a thumbs-up if you pay them.

Having had surprising success with the route one approach up to this point, I decided the best question to ask the sellers I'd contacted was the most direct:

Fake Steam reviews

I asked that exact question to all 13 sellers. Of that group, just one said that he couldn't guarantee a thumbs-up:

"I guarantee only that my review will be honest," he replied. "If you're looking for those kinds of fake reviews, there are plenty on Fiverr who provide such a service. However, I would suggest that you take great care because while in the short term such schemes may make your product look good, it usually ends up doing more harm in the long run."

He also writes a disclaimer in italics at the beginning of each of his Steam reviews, stating explicitly how he got his copy of the game, and advertising his services on Fiverr. Of the ten reviews on his accounts, eight carry the disclaimer. All of them are positive. 

I got a similar message from another seller, although this one did offer me greater assurance that my money would go towards that all-important thumbs up. It was a message of contradictions:

Fake Steam reviews 4

Everyone else who replied - six sellers - told me their review would be a positive one. "Of course!" someone told me. "Yes, all my reviews are positive," assured another. 

What all that has established is this: for a small amount of money, you can pay someone to leave a positive review of your game, or in fact any game, on Steam. Is that a problem? And if so, why?

Well, because Steam reviews are generally such a good indicator of a game's quality. Not everyone who plays a given title feels compelled to leave a review on its Steam page, but those who do have generally logged significant hours with that game and leave succinct, honest opinions about their experiences.

Those Steam reviews hold value because they're percieved to have been written without any agenda. They're another voice in a critical conversation once dominated by media outlets, who some percieve to have exactly that: an agenda. One driven by advertising deals, or business relationships, or personal politics... but all linking back to money. Paid journalists have been the focus of significant attention and scrutiny for the last few years, so the value of independent, impartial voices outside the media contributing to game criticism is higher than ever.

Fiverr 

So if there are people taking money to write positive reviews of Steam games, that's a problem. 

It isn't a problem created by the sellers alone though. They wouldn't be advertising their services if there weren't interested parties out there who are actually prepared to pay for reviews. I'll be honest here - aside from the reviews carrying 'I was paid for this' disclaimers, I wasn't able to conclusively identify the titles or publishers who have definitely used Fiverr to buy positive reviews. That would mean getting confirmation from the game developers, publishers or PR agencies themselves, and no one I reached out to provided any comment to that effect.

However, by identifying the games that keep showing up in the reviews of each Fiverr seller I've contacted, and the publishers whose names keep appearing, it's possible to make an educated guess about where they're coming from. So, here's the list of titles that appeared in more than two Fiverr seller's Steam review pages:

AdvertCity
Apocalypse Hotel
Areeb World
Blood of Magic 
Cat Simulator
Centauri Sector
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive 
D3DGear
Egyptian Senet
Epic Character Generator
Epic Showdown
Garfield Kart
Gods Vs Humans
Home Design 3D
Hospital Manager
Moto Racer Collection
Nostradamus: The Last Prophecy
Prehistorik
Shiplord
Super Hexagon

Like I said before, I find it unlikely to the point of absurd that anyone's paying to have positive reviews of CS:GO or Super Hexagon, so I'm going to go ahead and discount them. There are patterns to observe and conclusions to be jumped towards when observing the list of reviews and their corresponding games in detail, but there are two things you can say about them conclusively.

Firstly, they're all positive. Every review of the above game written by the Fiverr sellers I contacted, including those who told me they couldn't guarantee a positive review, was positive. 

The second is just how striking they are in contrast to CS:GO and Super Hexagon - they're games few people are likely to have heard of. Whether or not certain individuals were paid to write positive reviews of them, it didn't suddenly gift them Dota 2's active users, or put them on the fast-track to mainstream exposure. 

And it is important not to make generalisations or jump to conclusions here - that list doesn't tell us that anyone associated with those games are paying people to leave positive reviews. But as you join the dots, you wonder how and why they would appear so frequently in seller's review pages if they weren't. 

Some are published by the developers themselves, others are published by companies who have no website, social media footprint or contact details. None are represented by major publishers, or for the most part anyone I've heard of during my time writing about games, for what that's worth.

I reached out to everyone I could find contact details of for comment, and also directly asked if they'd paid for, or hired any external PR agency who might have paid for, positive Steam reviews. You won't be too shocked to hear that I heard very little back. Just1337 Studio, creators of Shiplord, had this to say:

"Sorry but we don't pay for reviews, we just gift alot of keys to Youtubers, forum users, random guys from facebook, etc."

Centauri Sector creator George Neguceanu told me: "I used Fiverr for translations, proof reading texts and others things on Centauri Sector. Reviews, only 2 or 3, from which only one was really good, the rest not so much."

Richard from D3DGear simply asked: "Do you need a free license to review D3DGear?"

In the absence of a meaningful dialogue with a Steam review buyer, I returned to the sellers. I felt it was only fair to ask them directly if they felt there was anything wrong with the service they were providing.

"No, there is nothing misleading or unethical about the reviews," said one seller, who'd previously assured me I'd get a thumbs-up for my $5. "The review will be positive and will make other people satisfied about buying the game."

Another seller - I'm blurring out everyone's names because unlike their Fiverr profiles, the emails they sent me weren't intended for the public domain - hopes I make the right choice developing my game, playing the ethics of Early Access development at the fore instead. 

Fake Steam reviews 10

Generally the responses I got to that question conveyed that the sellers genuinely don't see anything wrong with the service they provide. They're supporting independent developers by getting some attention for their game. "If i found myself enjoying the game... I will post the positive review on Steam, says another. "If there's a lot of things needed to implement/change i'll attach the review in the format of .doc file in this conversation/order because i don't want my review to detrimental to the success of your game."

Just one seller - the one who adds disclaimers at the start of his reviews, and told me he couldn't guarantee a thumbs-up - gave me anything other than a straight 'no.'

"I don't believe so," he tells me, "but then, who sets out to be intentionally misleading or unethical? I'll admit that I have a lot of experience with alpha testing and betas, so my standards for a game are far more realistic. I don't expect GTA V-caliber story, graphics, maps, and gameplay in a $5 Early Access game, for instance. If there is fun to be had and the game has promise, such is stated in my reviews; I point out bugs and issues I run into in the same reviews."

StarCraft II

After hearing people on both the buyer and seller side of paid-for Steam reviews discuss the practice openly and often nonchalantly, I found myself regularly asking the question: "is this a big deal?" The games that appear in several seller's user reviews aren't well-known, nor are the developers and publishers behind them. As far as I've been able to ascertain, it's an industry populated by twenty or so sellers, with as many games possibly implicated. The impact on the industry then, realistically, seems to be minimal at this point. It's not Watergate - but it is important, I think.

User reviews exist for those who want to bypass the games media, and any possible agendas it might have towards a given game's coverage. So the discovery that some user reviews have been written, in exchange for $5 and a Steam key, for what amounts to marketing purposes, is unsettling.

There's also the scale of the issue to discover. We happened to stumble upon one site on which ten or so peope were offering this service. Honestly, I don't know if there are other places you can go to buy a positive user review, other games whose Steam reviews have been written with an unspoken financial incentive. All I can say is that it's currently possible for this practice to occur at any scale as buyers and sellers dictate, without any explicit guidelines from Steam to deter review "sellers' who fancy themselves as entrepreneurs.

Sign in to Commentlogin to comment
Chaz avatarPhil Iwaniuk avatarCozy avatarPush avatarExtraCheesy Cockanoodle avatarjustaguy avatar+6
Cozy Avatar
4
5 Months ago

Hey

I made that account just to say that I worked on one of the games listed here, published by Anuman/Microids (there is several of them in the list). And yeah I can definitely confirm that they are doing it, having mentioned the process a few times when I was working with them.

4
timsandtoms Avatar
1
4 Months ago

I run a Steam curator group to track games that do shit like this, and I would love to try to verify as many of these games as possible. Would there be any chance that you could either add me on Steam, or email me on my gmail account, steamacpreport, with some kind of verification that you worked for Anuman/Microids? I'll keep you confidential, but some anonymous dude in an internet comment section isn't a strong enough claim for me to add a game to the list.

http://store.steampowered.com/curator/10451722-Anti-Consumer-Practice-Report/ is the curator group.

1
Thane Avatar
3
4 Months ago

Hi Guys,

This is George, the developer of Centauri Sector.

1) When i've been contacted by Pcgamesn in February about fiverr review thing, and i replied this:

"""""Hello X,

I used fiverr for translations, proof reading texts and others things on Centauri Sector, reviews, only 2 or 3, from which only one was really good, the rest not so much. Why you ask? Also can u give me some links to that showcase with Centauri Sector on Fiverr, i checked my Dashboard i dont seem to find those users that show Centauri Sector in their examples/showcase.

Thanks""""

No answer to this day to my reply. The person toke whatever he needed for their context and went to write his weekly article.

2) Now lets move onto reviews. While i applaud some "investigative" journalism, i am afraid its not all black and white.

My game, Centauri Sector is my first solo game developed for PC. I have been working in the industry for many years, but only recently (2014) decided to go on my own. In the first day of the launch, i did bought 3 reviews from Fiverr, just to not have a empty page and engage other people to leave theirs reviews. After that the rating came from players, friends and reviewers. This is a common practice in the industry more than you know. The big companies buy huge amounts of reviews on Steam, Metacritic and so on, at launch day, and on mobiles (google play, ios) they actually buy a large number of installs to rank up in the first days. Of course we don't hear much about this, since they are big companies, indie companies don't fight back and also indie companies don't buy full site advertising :)

For a small game to get 2-3 reviews/ratings on launch day on Steam, i don't see a problem, i could've asked 2-3 of my friends to do that and it was the same. Would that influence the outcome of the overall rating? No, because Steam has a helpful/not helpful system, so even if you buy a tons of reviews, the players will rate them down and get you a realistic rating of the game. Just check any game on launch day, and then wait a week and see the real rating.

At the same time Steam is not review proof since at some point i needed additional testing, and some group offered to test it for me. We didn't talk about reviews or anything related. One day later i received a huge negative review (which i agree with 50% of what he said), and after 1 minute, 50 of the reviewer friends came and put that review as helpful without playing the game. That was the testing group.

Is it morally right? No, is not, and to be honest i don't plan to do it for my next game since not all the reviews are objective, or detailed, but not because some site wrote about it, because i prefer real reviews from players even if their reviews are negative. But keep in mind, on some stores, you have no choice, you have to start with a few ratings/reviews, friends, colleagues or bought ones, to get the real players come and play and leave their reviews, since that's the way their discovery algorithm works.

Until November 2015, my game was sitting at 7/10(positive) from that point on, went down to mixed(6/10) and so it is today. Why i haven't bought more reviews? First that was never my intention to keep a positive rating and at the same time the players have spoken and i agree with them. For a first solo project, the game is interesting, but is too short, lacks in certain departments, and i lost the focus on design: tried to do too much trap. But this gave me a lesson that i have to work more on the next project, to make it a bug free as possible and polish all features. I am not gona advertise here what i am working now, since this is not a PR piece, its a response and opinion, just like in some way like the article above.

3) Yes. If things would be black and white, buying reviews should be banned and i agree with it, but its not all black and white. These days you have to compete for discovery with a Greenlight that accepts any game, with triple A companies that buy huge amounts on reviews on stores and gaming sites + they get huge discovery on home pages, and as a indie you try what you can. But you will say "make a good game and people will play it". In theory yes, in practice if people don't know about it, not so much playing will take place. The market has no morals and it promotes this kind of practice.

4) Is it a big deal? Yes and no. On steam, the overall rating balances itself after a few days, weeks, on other stores it can be a big problem, but a cultured and mature gamer will be able to make the right choice alone and not guided by the invisible hand of press or user reviews. Those are just a certain view on a specific subject and quite subjective to start with.

This is my view as a developer and consumer/player. Its not all Black and White folks, even if some of us would like that in some certain mediums.

Thanks for reading.

3
Chaz Avatar
140
5 Months ago

Hey would you mind me linking this over to Jim Sterling? He's fairly well known for reporting on the bullshit behind these shitty steam games.

2
Phil Iwaniuk Avatar
44
5 Months ago

Of course not, go ahead!

1
Chaz Avatar
140
5 Months ago

Forwarded it over via his ask.fm. This practice is incredibly shitty and needs as big a light shone on it as possible imo.

1
ExtraCheesy Cockanoodle Avatar
1

Jim has already talked about fake reviews in a few of his videos where he plays similar games. I think he actually mentions a few of the reviews being fake in his Cat Simulator video.

Although a dedicated video to this would be awesome, I want another Slaughtering-Grounds level shitstorm.

1
Push Avatar
2
4 Months ago

Honestly I dont see why this is a surprise, or really an issue. I'm sure this will not be a popular opinion, but reviewers across all sorts of platforms, for software, hardware, clothing lines etc, all have incentive to provide good reviews. Here's why, the average reviewer recieves his copy of the game, or piece of hardware etc gratis, the same as these fiver reviewers. No company that you continually provide bad reviews for will keep you on their mailing list for new product.

Does that mean every review everywhere is biased? No, but it means a majority are, even if they arent glowing 5 star reviews, no one wants to bite the hand that is feeding it, and since reviews are a matter of personal opinion, its easy to defend a 3star review on a 1 star product just by saying, its my genre, or I love this kind of gadget.

I dunno, I just dont know why anyone would be surprised.

2
MrAptronym Avatar
340
4 Months ago

I don't think it is surprising either, I don't think anyone is presenting this as though it is a surprise. It's just cynical posturing to act like this is equivalent to major review outlets though.

Professional reviewers do tend to carry a bit more resistance to being bought out, and there is rarely outright collusion like this. Ideally, the business and editorial sides are separated. I don't think games reviewers really have the industry weight or independence that film or music critics do to push back and remain neutral though. That is something that needs to be changed. (as does the quality of reviews overall.) But you will not find the people buying the reviews openly offering to make a game look good for money, and most reviewers take their job seriously.

2
Phil Iwaniuk Avatar
44
4 Months ago

I certainly agree that there's a wider issue concerning product reviews beyond the games industry, but I think this instance is significant in that individuals are explicitly selling positive reviews, and people are buying those reviews. There's nothing tacit about it, as I established above.

I've never found the "why are people surprised?" stance terribly persuasive. I'm sure no one was surprised to hear there'll be another COD this year, either. It's not the job of the games press to surprise, but to report on events within the games industry.

1
NihlusGreen Avatar
537
4 Months ago

Hopefully Digital Homicide don't see this!!

A quick glance of these titles showed some regularly occuring reviewers

1
Jenks Avatar
185
4 Months ago

Holy crap

Garfield Kart is a game that exists

1
MrAptronym Avatar
340
4 Months ago

Really solid article. I'm glad to see some reporting on this. I wonder if this is going on through other, larger channels as well though.

1
TROOPER181st Avatar
7
4 Months ago

wow this is a heavy article! very good ~! You guys opened the box of pandora!

1
justaguy Avatar
1
4 Months ago

I can relate to this article very well, the creator of ShipLord randomly added me and offered me a code to his new game and wanted me to review it, and after I did he sent me a code to the game ShipLord to review.

I believe he's just going around passing codes to people in hopes that people will leave positive reviews since it's essentially a free game for them.

I know I left a positive review for his game, but I'm starting to think maybe I should edit it to be completely truthful.

0