Are We Even Making Horror Games?
[Okay, so this one is more of a stream-of-consciousness blog post rather than the usual. Be warned.]
Funny that Twitter discourse this week comes back to Steam reviews. Again. It is an infinite well of discussions and differing opinions. I've personally been discussing this with some media recently (we've been invited to talk about our games and company by podcasts and blogs more and more, and I'm always willing to do it, it's great!) and I've started to be able to articulate something that's been bothering me for a while : it's about the impact of negative reviews on Steam and what our appropriate reaction to them should be. Some arguments in favor of negative reviews are rightly convincing, but I've seen a lot of people online add a caveat to them : "Oh yeah, negative reviews don't necessarily hurt sales, except for niche games". Just so happens I think we do make niche games, and our recent misadventures with releases on Steam has confronted Somewhat Soft's productions with the harsh realities of large gamer audiences, expectations and negative reviews.
I sincerely believe negative reviews are hurtful to small indies and sales, and that a lot of negative reviews are unjustified. There's enough analytics out there proving that once a game comes out of a 'Mixed' standing to reach 'Mostly Positive' on its Steam store page, there is a significant positive impact to the sales, discoverability and perception of said game on the platform. Leaving a negative review has a dramatic impact on a small game, a bigger impact than those reviewers might imagine.
Now, some negative reviews are justified. Some players were robbed of the optimal experience of playing I Make Saints - Steam Edition because of a game-breaking bug on release, and we absolutely deserved the flack for that. The game currently stands as 'Mixed' and it properly reflects its life thus far on Steam. Fair enough. For our new release, The Shape On The Ground - Steam Edition, the first few reviews are again divided between positive and negative comments, and is well on its way to receive the same 'Mixed' standing. But the reviews this time feel like they are more about player expectations and how their gaming experience compared to those; they don't necessarily feel like they are about the quality or craftmanship behind the title itself. I like to believe our titles are more competently made than ever (especially the Steam Editions, correcting a lot of mistakes and errors made on the original releases), so those reviews come mostly from whether or not the player has enjoyed playing them. It's relatively easy to find positive journo quotes to compliment and sell our games on the store page. Critics have been very kind to our work so far, which stands in opposition to some of those player reviews. Are the critics that much disconnected from the players? The problem might be communication of game contents to the larger audience of Steam. TSOTG is a tough sell of a walking sim, and it has been difficult communicating what the game is about and how to properly approach it, in the store page. Also, turns out most people do not read the Steam store page for your games, as evidenced by the community hub posts asking questions easily answered by just examining the bullet points lists in the store page itself. So sometimes even the most finely crafted store page will not communicate anything clearly to the player simply because it is being ignored.
Ideally, these players would've been informed beforehand that the game was not for them. That way, they never would've bought the game, and never given the opportunity to be disappointed by the game and never left with the desire to write a negative review. Everybody has wasted time, energy and emotion (and money, if they do not refund the game) in that scenario.
And you may ask yourself
So the question I inadvertently ask myself is : what have I done wrong? Am I communicating about the game the wrong way?
More to the point : Are we even making horror games?
Because I believe this is the crux of the issue. I want to make horror (or at least, my own brand of horror, which is subdued and obtuse) and thus we label the games accordingly on the distribution platforms we sell our games on. But our titles do not contain crazed killers, enemy AI, nor weapons, all of which might be part of players' expectations out of a horror game. We make horror-themed narratives, horror-adjacent walking sims. So is it fair to the larger audience to categorize them as 'Horror' or 'Psychological horror', using the pre-determined tags offered on Steam, for example?
Are we ground breakers, pioneers, trying to redefine what the 'horror' tag means on Steam? I do not see Somewhat Soft as trying to do that, or at least it is not an intentional effort on our part. But at the same time, my ideas for games are of the non-violent-horror-themed-exploration-games variety, which falls in-between labels and categories. Should I make more explicitly horror games, with a protagonist wielding a rusty pipe to monster's heads in order to face their internalized guilt? Sounds boring, if you ask me. Nobody needs one more of those.
I guess the tone with which we communicate as a company hasn't been fully defined yet, and this causes the issues I mention above. I'm fine with negative reviews as a system, of course, but I feel we might be making games that do not benefit from such a binary system. That, and our audience might not be on Steam. And our games on Steam might be labeled in a misleading way, although not deliberately so. Sorry I do not have a solution for this whole thing at the moment. Working on it. Food for thought, I guess.