Valve cuts ties with publisher for planting positive reviews (update)

Valve has removed all titles from Maltese publisher Insel Games from Steam, after finding that the company allegedly pressured its employees to leave positive reviews for the company’s games on the marketplace.

“The publisher appears to have used multiple Steam accounts to post positive reviews for their own games,” wrote Valve release manager Jason Ruymen on the store page for Guardians of Ember, one of Insel’s recent 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.”

Valve’s investigation into Insel Games’ review scores concluded just days after a Reddit user called out the publisher for impropriety in a widely circulated thread. Appropriately named user “nuttinbutruth” shared an email screenshot from December that, according to them, came directly from Insel Games’ CEO and co-founder Patrick Streppel. In the email — which has all personal information redacted, including Streppel’s name — the CEO noted that the studio’s most recent game, the crowdfunded MMO Wild Buster: Heroes of Titan, has had lackluster sales thus far.

“One of the major issues: the fact that we do not have a review score,” Streppel wrote. “I [sic] fact, we have currently 6 reviews. If I alone count the people in IME and Insel… I count more than 6 people.”

He goes on to encourage staff to purchase a copy of Wild Busters and leave a positive review for the game on Steam. If anyone expressed reservations about doing this, Streppel requested that they “discuss this individually and privately.”

Redditors then pointed out that several users had left highly positive reviews in December, shortly after the email was supposedly sent out. These accounts had only recommended Insel Games’ titles on Steam, lending credence to nuttinbutruth’s screenshot.

Publisher-planted reviews are in strict violation of Valve’s guidelines for developers who upload games to Steam. The rules for the review system, as given in official Steamworks documentation, instruct company not to “attempt to abuse or artificially manipulate the review system.”

Despite this, Valve has caught other companies violating this policy in the past. Ruymen has left similar messages about Valve’s decision to remove developers’ games from the store as a result of these investigations, several of which involved repeat offenders.

Update: Insel Games has issued a statement regarding the circumstances around the removal of its titles from Steam. You can read it in full below.

At the day of EA launch in December an email was sent to everyone in the company telling staff (about 20 people including freelancers) how important reviews are in the Steam ecosystem and that a failure of Wild Buster would mean the company was in jeopardy. It was meant to rally people’s support, including advertising the game to their family and friends, in the hope to simply get more reviews.

It was never intended to threaten anyone but just state the importance of reviews for the whole company. No staff has received penalties for not buying the game or writing a review. There also never were texts or instructions provided how to write the review. We sincerely apologize for the misleading wording in the email and the practice in general.

We, the complete team behind Insel Games, will keep working on improving Guardians of Ember and Wild Buster which are still available through other channels. We hope to regain the trust of players through our future actions and are further in discussion with Steam about this incident.

Until then current Steam owners or those in possession of a Steam key can continue to play normally.

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