I'm going out of town tomorrow, so I don't really have time to be working on anything useful. I should probably be packing and prepping right now, actually... but lolpackingandprepping.
I talked about some of this stuff on Twitter, but I think it deserves a blog post.
First of all, I read every Steam review of my games. Every...single...one. Sometimes I skim them. It depends what sort of mood I'm in. Point is, if you post it, I read it. And today, I read the following negative review of my latest game, The Music Machine:
"It was interesting, but at its core the story was weak. Additionally,
there was little horror and more of a "I wonder if something is going to
happen." type of feeling. Some may highly enjoy this game, but it felt
luke-warm for me."
Pretty standard negative review fare. But for some reason, this one bothered me. And not in a "I'm sad because someone doesn't like my game" sort of way... rather, in a "ending on Twin Peaks Season 2" sort of way--tell me more, darn it! See, I think I did a pretty good job with The Music Machine, story-wise. I'm of the belief that I crafted a good mix of compelling characters, rich mystery, and thought-provoking themes. I mean I wouldn't have released it if I thought otherwise. So, I'm quite interested in knowing which one of those things didn't work for Vague Review Guy, here.
Or Vague Review Girl I suppose.
I was curious enough to comment on the review, and hopefull V.R.G will be good enough to expand on their opinion. Regardless, though... I'm not the only small indie dev that reads their Steam reviews. Michael (dev of The Lady, who I'm currently working with on The Grandfather) even goes so far as to personally thank every reviewer for purchasing his game, regardless of whether the review was negative or positive.
My point here is that vague statements like "at its core the story was weak" don't help us in the slightest. Knowing that one random stranger doesn't like my story is useless. Even knowing that a hundred random strangers don't like my story is useless, without knowing why they don't like it. Did the characters not click? Was the pace too slow? Was the narrative too confusing or fragmented? Were the themes offputting? Was the prose uninteresting or too dense? These are the questions I have, as I'm working on my next game, naturally looking to improve on anything I got wrong last time.
Let's take a moment to follow a rabbit trail. This isn't to say that I'd take more detailed feedback from V.R.G to heart. People (especially people who are criticising someone else's work) love to go on about how developers have to listen to critique to improve future products. And yeah, that's true. But I don't have to listen to your critique. In fact, it's literally impossible to take every piece of critique to heart. I never realized (and I don't think a lot of non-developers realize) just how many pieces of conflicting feedback you get as a developer. Stranger A loves something, Stranger B hates it. Online Journalist A this this bit is brilliant, Online Journalist B happily soapboxes about how it's part of a larger "problematic" trend. Youtuber A is literally in tears at the end, Youtuber B spends the whole time complaining about textures.
Oh, and on that note, it's actually kind of hilarious just how polarizing Youtube comment sections can be, depending on the Youtuber. Go to any of Bowlingotter's videos of my games, and you'll find a comment section filled with adoration and praise. Go to Sexbad's Let's Play of Fingerbones or Jim Sterling's unsolicited roasting of The Moon Sliver, and you find hordes of wannabe Yahtzee Croshaws bemoaning the fall of indie games and trying to out-meme one another.
I get mutually-exclusive feedback constantly--about both specifics and general quality--from people I know absolutely nothing about, whose opinions I have no reason to value, or to dismiss. The fact is, I don't even have the slightest clue whether my games are good or not. Maybe it just happens that the right people are playing them.
Getting back to the subject at hand...
You might say that Steam reviewers don't have a responsibility to provide useful feedback to developers, and you'd be right. You have just as much right to post "0/10 IGN would not walk around again" as you do to post several paragraphs of insightful critique. I'm not telling you what you have to do. I'm telling you what you should do, if you want to do more than just inform the world of the fact that you didn't like a game.
Giving details, give reasons, argue for your position. Convince the developer that yours is an opinion worth listening to, and give them something to work with. That's how you make negative reviews into something positive.