Valve recently updated Steam's review system to focus more on the here and now. The review section gives more weight to recently published reviews, and there's a new "recent" percentage score. On paper, it seems like a good idea, but it also brings with it new problems. Case in point: The Culling. It's a Hunger-Games-esque multiplayer game that launched in Early Access earlier this year, largely to positive critical reception. Recently, though, issues with combat balance and the game's technical performance have angered portions of the community. Cue the flood of negative reviews, some of which are literally drawings of a butt shitting on the game's developer. The game's "recent" review percentage is not looking too hot, and the review section "summary" tab is a disaster zone.
If I were a prospective buyer, I'd look at all of that and NOPE my way to the next section of Steam's infinite video game Valhalla. The question here, though, is whether or not temporary troubles in otherwise good/great games should be able to have such a powerful impact on their bottom line and, ultimately, their future. It's one that even incensed players of The Culling have been debating.
On one hand, it sucks to buy a game, only to find that it barely runs on your machine, or that combat needs another balance pass, or what have you. But it's not like The Culling has been in this state forever, and given developer Xaviant's diligence in releasing updates and hotfixes, I doubt it will stay that way for much longer. Plus, it's an Early Access game. Change is inevitable, and not all of that change will immediately make players happy. If developers are afraid to make changes their games need because they might accidentally stumble over an anthill or 200, that doesn't bode well. Where once a landslide of negativity over a small (or large) issue might not bury an otherwise well-received game, Steam's new review system makes that a real possibility.
Now, of course, the counter argument to all of this is that once issues are fixed, people will just start posting positive reviews again. No harm, no foul. But the problem is, again, that a) this gives irate people the ability to push back against changes that, perhaps, a game actually needed, and b) people are more often galvanised to action by rage, rather than good feelings. Ultimately, negative reviews will recede and give way to newer reviews, but the current system gives people a lot of power to cause short term damage.
Perhaps, in the case of The Culling, the system is functioning as intended. People can voice their grievances and warn away other potential players until the game is in a better state. Early Access games might still be in development, but they have a price tag on them. People deserve to know what they're in for.
I do wonder, though, what will happen when, inevitably, a game makes a change that some players are fine with and others despise, whether it relates to gameplay, thematic content or something else entirely. Something akin to Darkest Dungeon's corpses and heart attacks, Overwatch's booty pose or Baldur's Gate's trans character. Or heck, there was that whole dust-up between the developer of Titan Souls and Totalbiscuit a while back. Titan Souls got hit by a deluge of negative reviews, many of them only tangentially related to the game's content. Sometimes, people organise large-scale negative review campaigns against games like these. Recent reviews now have significantly more weight, which means campaigns have significantly more weight to throw around. Will Steam's new review system give developers — especially smaller, more financially dependent developers — pause, or will it be business as usual?
On the upside, The Culling's developer seems to be taking it all in stride.
"We always want to maintain a dialog with everyone in the community and your input is extremely important to not only us as developers, but the good of the game at large," a Xaviant dev wrote on Reddit. "In order to deliver big changes, we'll need to take some risks. There will inevitably be some missteps, but we hope that you appreciate that we're always trying to deliver improvements that benefit the game. Tweaking, adjusting and updating are elements that are perpetually in the cards, so if we don't get it right today, there's always a the ability to utilise your feedback to hit the mark."