If you game on PC, you probably use the Epic Games Store, if not for their exclusives then for the barrage of free games they offer every week. For a few years now Epic Games have been working to upend Steam’s long-standing monopoly, and that’s pretty cool. There’s nothing wrong with some healthy competition, especially when the corporate power struggle benefits broke gamers.
In their effort to perfect their offering and make it in every way as good as or better than Steam, Epic Games are busy integrating new features. Their roadmap shows that one of those impending features is user reviews, and here’s where they stand to repeat a mistake Steam made a long time ago and never properly addressed.
For regular consumer products, user reviews can be quite helpful, because they essentially only untangle objective questions: Does this lawn mower work? How much beer can I fit in this mini-fridge? Does this lawn mower have a cup holder for my beer? Meanwhile, user reviews for games are rarely actual reviews, but more often subjective critiques, with the view of the game heavily obscured by things like nostalgia, personal tastes, technical circumstances, and influencer intervention.
Over the years, Steam has shown that user reviews can and will be misused by horrible people in horrible ways. Players will use them to review-bomb games for inane reasons, to meme, or even to argue with and counter-weigh others. Racists, misogynists and other human garbage will down- or up-vote both high and low profile titles based on how much they align with their own warped worldviews. Many misguided users just use them as a complaint-based form of tech support, posting scathing rants that boil down to “my rig couldn’t handle it”.
Reviews can also be bought – both in the conventional sense, and by paying streamers to love a game for a couple of days, creating a glut of positive fan-reviews that take a long time to adjust back to reality. And reality itself is a fragile variable for many reviewers, who might fail to notice the symptoms in their own writing.
The sad thing about all this is that it actually matters. Subjective or not, user reviews are not just voices in the void – they have real impact on the success of games. The emotional fluctuations of reviewers ripple into real life consequences, in some cases costing developers their jobs, and in others rewarding them for prioritizing marketing over game design.
Sure, I have focused on the worst things that could happen with user reviews, but what about the positives? There really aren’t any. Ultimately, there is very little point to user reviews for games. Like movies and books, games are personal experiences with no intrinsic value: their quality varies from person to person, and people are extremely subjective. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and both of those people’s reviews are trash for anyone else.
A user-friendly refund system completely covers all the potential consumer benefits of user reviews, and Epic Games plans to introduce this feature to the Store before adding reviews anyway.