When Too Many Multiplayer-Focused Games Meet Jerk Reviewers on Steam
There is this negative synergy that is becoming a toxic intermix on Steam, and other platforms where users (gamers) are allowed to write reviews about a game. Reviews that definitively influence the potential future sales of that game to other customers. In this race to make the next big multiplayer-focused game at the expense of single-player, whether it be the next MOBA, Battle Royale, or anything in-between, some reviewers are including the server population of the game as criteria to judge whether the game gets a positive or negative review from them. I’m not onboard with this and it is damaging to the developers. Worse, it creates a self-fulfilling failure prophecy, and I don’t get why people don’t get it.
Here’s how it goes. Gamer X buys MP-Focused Game Y. Let’s say these are Tier 2 Games; games made by studios with some degree of financial backing above being a small indie shop, but not having the backing of one of the major publishers. The games I’ve been playing that fall into this bucket are games like Dreadnought and Laser League. Give me some latitude here and let’s not anchor tightly to the quantification of the definition; it’s subjective. Once Player X gets past all the tutorials and minimum mandatory missions and finally gets access to multiplayer matches, they have a tough go finding populated servers and matches. There’s a lot of times when the matchmaking spiral ball fails out, so they get thrown into a match with one other person. For games like the two that I mentioned, you wind up in a game with bots 90% of the time. Player X is understandably disappointed. And in retribution, they lash out at the developer by writing a negative, 1-star, 1 out 5 review, whatever is the flavor of blasting a product in any given review framework, predominantly citing the lack of players as the reason for the low score. So the next gamer who comes along, sees a bunch of negative reviews, promptly says, “Well I’m not going to buy that...” and moves on. Meanwhile, the same people griping about there not being enough people on the servers, are left playing a game that no one wants to buy because of negative reviews saying that there is no one playing the game.
I do not understand how this makes any sense to anyone. You could, I guess, try to claim that the game isn’t good enough and that’s why it is not instanteously popular. But that’s a stretch. It’s much more about market saturation and the fact that none of these games are going to reach critical mass without a big grass-roots campaign to buoy them through the Twitch and Mixer veils of discovery. And I am not, by any means, saying that gamers should lie or obfuscate. You should indicate in your review that there is an issue with server population. I would hope, that if you do cite an inability to find matches, that you also try to join the online community, read the message boards, and make at least one effort to find matches above just hitting the “Find Match” button. But even if you don’t, my issue is that I don’t think it’s appropriate, in fact I think it’s an outright jerk move, to say that the game is “bad” because it doesn’t have a lot of players. The review score, IMO, is a reflection on the game’s design, it’s graphical and audio quality, its systems, the number of defects, story (where and when it is appropriate), and the game’s success in measuring up to what it purports to be.
How many people are playing a game is significantly influenced by forces outside of those elements I listed above. And therefore it feels very churlish to dissuade gamers that come after you from playing a game with a low review score, because there are so many gamers who only look at the score or aggregate trend indicated on the Store page. I am all for the many people who title their review “Great game, but no one is playing it...” and then giving the game a score based on its actual merits. Let’s stop down-scoring games because they are not popular and score them on the merits of their design. If it’s something in their design that is causing them to not be popular, that’s different. Unpopular games that have good design actually need gamers to commend their design and implementation in order to ever have a chance of becoming popular. And grok knows there are tons of popular games that have crappy, child-level complexity designs, but simply got taken up by ego-seeking masses for their quick rewards systems and ease of troll-level access. It would be nice if we could find a way to reward developers who create elegant multiplayer games that just don’t become the most popular kids on the playground.