Advice for Indie Devs:
Steam Curators: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.
By Chris Picone, 04 September 2022
Are the complaints legitimate? Absolutely. The Steam curator function has some genuine issues that Steam unfortunately doesn’t seem to care about. Should you give up on Steam curators altogether? Probably not, but there are some things you should know about how the system actually works, first – and there are definitely some traps but they’re generally not hard to avoid. I’ll go through all that in a fair amount of detail in this article, and also provide you with some practical advice.
(and why Steam Curation still has value)
Steam curation is a bloody brilliant idea but unfortunately Steam have implemented the system poorly and policed it terribly. I would have said Steam don’t police it at all as the biggest scammers have been on the system for years, they’re well known, and nothing has been done – but at least the scammers that targeted COWCAT copped a little justice recently. “Good” curators are few and far between, unfortunately.
I know it’s in poor taste but I’m going to put myself on a pedestal for a moment, as an example of what a “good curator” actually looks like. My following is small but genuine, and grown organically over time.
I have an “indie friendly” policy, the essence of which is that I post positive reviews publicly but I send critical feedback to developers privately instead of posting negative reviews. So you won’t see any negative curations on my account but, as you’ll note in the screenshot above, my curations are tempered and realistic. I also carefully craft mine to fit as much information as I can into the 200 character limit. I don’t believe simply adding a curation stub on Steam is enough so I also add a review from my personal account and share the curation on Twitter (and sometimes RPG Codex or other forums where applicable). Furthermore, the curations are also listed on my own website, where they’re consolidated with other games on itch and other platforms. And, although not every game gets the treatment, I also like to follow up by also adding longer reviews on my website, as well as interviews, articles, etc.
Hint: I’m not the only curator that does this. Most of the honest ones have something similar in place (EG: Steam curation plus Twitch streaming).
Although there are still plenty of honest curators out there, this is the other issue:
There are two probable reasons for this approach. First: There’s an understandable perception that curators might be either biased or “bought out” as we’re receiving free copies of the games. The other reason is an issue which has been created by Steam’s poor management of the curation system. Everyone knows the system is open to abuse and full of scammers, so no one trusts it, which in turn diminishes the value of the legitimate curators using the system. This is frustrating but, again, understandable.
So, are even “honest curators” worth the bother? Is there actually any benefit to using them? I’m still going to say yes. I already mentioned that many curators also double up as streamers and reviewers but I’m going to set that aside for the moment and focus on the benefits that directly relate to Steam’s Curator Connect system and how people actually utilise it. First, they’re useful for anyone that wants to follow a particular genre to keep an eye out for new releases and to get a short but trusted summary of those games. For example, I love role-playing games, so I follow RPG Codex:
Next, the “trusted reviewer” concept. Let’s say a new game comes out and I’m on the fence about it. Reviews are going both ways, what do I do? I check out my “trusted reviewers” – those that seem to have similar taste in games as me; if they like the game, I’ll probably like it too, and they’re also likely to flag those elements of the game that might make or break the purchase for me. In this example, I’ve clicked on the “recommended by curators you follow” button on Haiku’s Steam page, so I can compare what my trusted reviewers have had to say about it.
Finally, the “Store” page. Unfortunately, the lists function doesn’t work properly (seriously, Steam, you need to fix this stuff). But at any stage players looking for a new might game might think “oh, I wonder what CSH has been playing lately” and check out my most recent reviews. “New releases” and “discounts” are also pretty nifty tabs. Keep in mind that I curate niche games, which are difficult for players to keep tabs on – there are lots of amazing indie games out there, but there’s also a lot of garbage. I sift through the trash to find the treasure, so players actually do keep an eye on my curations and store page.
So are there honest curators out there? Definitely. Are they worth the bother? That will depend on your situation but I would suggest that if you’re an indie developer or creating a niche game, the answer’s yes.
Joke curators: Commander Shepard, Nep Nep Nep, Critiquing Doge, that ilk. These aren’t scammers exactly – they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are and if you choose to send your game to them, that’s on you. I’ve always wondered why developers would willingly send their games to these people. I assumed the thought process was that “a positive review is a positive review” but, according to Steam, curation reviews don’t work that way anyway (see screenshot at the bottom of the page) so you’re actually just giving your games away to these people for no reason.
Copy/Paste Curators: These guys put in even less effort than the joke curators, they just copy and paste games’ Steam descriptions as their “curations.” As above – you know what you’re getting with this lot, and if you willingly send them your games, it’s on you. However, given how Steam’s curation system works, there’s no actual advantage to doing so. But you do you, boo.
Scammers… so many scammers. There are four scams in particular to watch out for. The Groucho & Pretender scams can be effective because, although they are easy to uncover, developers are often spammed with hundreds of key requests and so the filtration process is often expedient
The Groucho: The scammer pretends to be a legitimate streamer. This can be effective because these can be missed when the developer is scanning the author and subject lines to filter out the obvious scammers.
The Pretender: These people aren’t even curators or reviewers, they just say they are to ask for keys, hoping the devs are too busy to check their credentials.
For those who aren’t developers, this screenshot of COWCAT’s inbox is pretty standard fare for any developer about to release a game. This is what they’re dealing with:
Game Collectors: This is a different scam altogether, and you’ll find it in Curator Connect rather than your inbox. GamingTaylor created an exposé video in May 2021 explaining how this scam works and I’d encourage you to go and watch that if you’re curious (link at bottom of page). The short story is, a number of game collectors have created curation accounts and bulked up their follower counts by paying third parties, using bots, and collecting other non-genuine followers via methods like Gleam giveaways. Many of these collectors run multiple curator accounts. This scam is extremely effective because when developers log onto Curator Connect, Steam recommends these curators at the top of the list because of their huge (but totally bogus) follower counts. And if you’re a well-meaning developer wanting to get your game out to the masses, why wouldn’t you try your luck with the big guys? And surely Steam is policing their system so they must be legitimate, right? (Spoiler alert: They’re either working within a loophole or Steam just doesn’t care.) Here’s a screenshot from the video showing the top reviewers on a developer’s Curator Connect screen. None of these are legitimate curators.
The Bullshitters: These scammers contact the developer, requesting keys because “reasons.” I’ve seen some absolute cracker excuses over the years but some are more believable than others. The top ones are:
• “I’m a Steam Curator but please send me a key rather than using Curator Connect because the review copies aren’t fully functional.” It amazes me that developers fall for this one but I see it regularly. You coded the game: How would Steam possibly limit the functionality? This is straight bullshit. Curator Connect copies work just fine.
• Anyone asking for 100 copies or some other ludicrous number as a “giveaway for my thousands of fans.” Bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, reviewers do legitimately run giveaways (I’ve sponsored a few), but a cold contact asking for bulk keys is always a scammer.
• Emails missing key details. “Dear <developer>, I would liek 4 keys of <your game> for my revew site kthx.” Bullshit. Even if some of these people are legitimate, what quality review could they possibly provide? Not worth your time, don’t even bother replying.
• Emails with outrageous claims. “Hi, I’m Joey from reviewsiteyou’veneverheard of, we have 400,000 followers!” And of course you can’t find a link to their review site. Bullshit.
• Emails asking for multiple keys in general. There are exceptions – some reviewers are organisations rather than individuals – but this is rare and should be easy to validate.
I’ve outlined the most common misconceptions I’ve come across below. Unfortunately this is stuff that if you don't know, you don't know.
• Curator Connect is actually a pretty safe system to use in the sense of not finding your review copies on the open market. The curator doesn’t get a key so they can’t on-sell. There is a way around this but involves adding third parties as moderators in the curation group, getting them to accept the game, and then presumably removing them. So there is scope for using this to snag free copies of games for mates but to actually sell games this way would involve using another system to make the sale in the first place, communicate with the buyer, and then go through all that rigmarole. It’s not really open to mass abuse.
• Developers can only send 100 copies via curator connect. Although I can understand the principle behind this, the only thing it actually achieves is pushing developers to send keys out manually. Dumb. Fix it, Steam.
• Curators cannot reach out to developers using Curator Connect to request keys, forcing us to rely on third parties like Woovit, Keymailer, Press Engine, etc. – or, more often (since developers aren’t always on every platform), email. Dumb. Fix it, Steam.
• Curator Connect only allows games to be sent, it doesn’t actually open up a communication channel. There are good reasons for that but if you’re a developer and want reviewers to be able to reach out to you, keep it in mind and ensure you send your contact details through with the game.
• Curators are not obliged to post a review on games they receive. This might annoy developers but it’s for good reason. For example, it allows curators like me to enact my “indie friendly” policy; sometimes “no review” is my review.
• Curators can post reviews on “unowned” games or with “zero hours” logged. This is open to abuse but again, there’s a good reason for it. First, the curator may own or have played the game on a different platform or on a different Steam account. Second, curators aren’t necessarily an individual person; a big curator like PC Gamer, for example, must experience staff turnover. Third, Steam doesn’t log hours accurately when the client is offline. Finally, sometimes games come out in stages where an early version of the game may be revoked and then a final release version might come out – the hours and ownership don’t transfer.
• Curators have a review limit – we can only review 2,000 games and then to add more we would have to delete old ones to make room. Again, I understand the principle behind this, and it seems like a large amount, but I’m only a small-timer and I’m pumping out a couple of hundred reviews each year. Anyone in the game for the long run will eventually hit this limit and bigger curators must reach this very quickly. Steam: Maybe change it to a yearly limit?
Steam rarely put anything in writing but they did actually respond to COWCAT regarding the Brok episode so I’ve included a copy of their reply below so you can compare my comments against the horse’s mouth:
What are my other options?
Woovit: I’ve not had any personal experience with Woovit as I’m a text-based reviewer and Woovit currently only swerves Twitch streamers & Youtubers. However, I’ve also not heard any complaints so I assume what they’re doing is working. Just keep in mind it does lock out reviewers who run their own websites or utilise different platforms.
Keymailer: Sadly, I can’t recommend Keymailer at this time. I gather they have done some good in the past and hopefully will again in the future, but at the moment there are some issues with their systems that I can’t look past. For example, I once saw them offering keys to a friend’s game, except when I asked him about it he was surprised because he hadn’t signed up to Keymailer. So were the requests just going to the void? In any case, I’m not a fan of that sort of dishonesty so I stopped using their service. GamingTaylor also flags Keymailer in his exposé video (link at the bottom of the page).
Press Engine: I can happily recommend Press Engine, which is very similar to Keymailer but not presenting the same issues. They’re new to the game and I’m sure they’re not perfect but they do at least offer a “coverage rating” for reviewers, which compares the number of keys received against the number of (related) articles created. And they do follow up. For example, although I’ve always done the right thing, when this system was first put in place my website wasn’t spidering properly and I didn’t realise I had to manually post links to my articles into the system so my account was flagged and I was sent this email:
Obviously I’ve since updated my coverage tracker and they’re happy with me again but I just wanted to include this as proof that they do actually monitor us reviewers and hold us accountable.
Indie Game Collective: I’m one of their reviewers and can’t recommend them highly enough. The actual IGC admin team is dedicated, professional, and they hold their reviewing teams accountable. Reviewers aren’t automatically given keys, they have to apply for the games they actually want to review. And the IGC team always monitor reviewers to ensure reviews are actually being published and in a timely manner and follow up if that’s not occurring. If you choose to work with them you’ll be assigned a case manager who can work with your particular needs. Don’t be scared if they ask for multiple keys; the actual reviewers are independent – it’s a collective, not a business.
Publishers and Community Managers: This is your other main option, but this one comes with a price (literally or via contract arrangement). These PR services come with their own lists of trusted reviewers & curators. I know because I’m on several of these lists. Each service has their own quality control measures in place according to their particular policies. You need to do your research here.
Recommendations: Pay attention to the content creators you and your friends and colleagues watch. Like their work? Consider sending them a copy. Alternatively, seek recommendations from other developers or find vetted lists of trusted curators like this one (link at the bottom of the page):
So what should I do?
First of all, don’t feel locked into taking only a single action. There’s no reason you can’t send your Curator Connect copies off, and also put your game up on Press Engine, and still respond to reviewers’ requests in your emails. Now I’ve already talked about other options above so this section is about helping you find trustworthy curators and suggesting methods for protecting yourself.
If you’re going to use Steam Curators, for the love of Pete filter them and do some research.
• Dodge the joke and copy/paste curators.
• The really big curators? They’re probably scammers. Treat them with suspicion and do some research – check out the sort of curation they’re providing, try to find their social media or website, that sort of thing.
• Scroll down a bit and you’ll find curators with genuine followings and that are writing honest reviews. Give them a go.
If you’re going to accept cold contacts via email (keeping in mind that although this is the favoured method for scammers, it’s also often the only method for honest reviewers & curators to approach you), process them systematically. This can be time consuming but effective filtering will speed this up.
• Before you even open any emails, scan the authors & subject headings.
• Start by filtering out the obvious scammers – those with clearly dodgy email addresses, terribly written requests, don’t even know the name of your studio or game, that sort of thing. Bulk delete.
• Filter out the Bullshitters (see “The Ugly” above). Essentially, anyone asking for multiple keys for your game (particularly those asking for bulk copies), and anyone claiming to be a Steam Curator but asking for a key. Also, any emails that don’t include links to the reviewer’s website or portfolio. Delete, delete, delete.
• Start actually digging through the emails – your inbox should already be much smaller so this shouldn’t seem as overwhelming a task now. There will be some requests that just aren’t the right fit for your game or your gut’s telling you something isn’t right; delete them and don’t feel bad about it.
• You should be left with a “short list” now. Your next step is to validate these. Any content creator worth their salt should be including a link to their website/Youtube/Twitch/Steam Curator/whatever in their introductory email (and you should have already deleted anyone who didn’t). So, go check them out. If the link goes to a different page or a bogus website or the details don’t match up (4 followers, not 400,000), or anything else out of place, delete.
• Check out their page while you’re there. Have they been active recently? Are the reviewed games similar to yours? You don’t have to actually read/watch their reviews but do they look legitimate? If not, delete.
• Finally, while you’re on their website, find their contact details. Do they match the details used to email you? If not, delete. Example:
Looks legit, right? The links in the email, the name, the profile pic, it's all real.
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the real Partisan Spy, a legitimate reviewer.
I won't post his email address here but there's no "z."
Anyone left over should hopefully be legitimate. If they’re a Steam Curator, send them a key using that system if you can.
• If you can’t send a copy via Curator Connect, consider sending them a bogus key. Steam Keys can’t be checked without claiming them. This means that if the person is a key seller, they’re going to put a dead key up on the market, which should generate complaints and affect their review scores on that website.
• If they email you back commenting that the key didn’t work, go ahead and send them a real one. This person should be legitimate but the worst case scenario is that you’ll have lost a single key. That’s a mitigated risk.
One last thing: Don’t waste your time responding to any “reviewers” you don’t plan to send keys to. This may seem impolite – no one likes being ghosted – but keep in mind it takes scammers nothing to shoot out an email whereas any time you spend replying is time you could have been working on your game or dealing with honest reviewers.
11Bit’s thread: https://twitter.com/11bitstudios/status/1565665851013046280
The Brok thread: https://twitter.com/COWCATGames/status/1563958001467379719
GamingTaylor video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSx3ez70Rlg
My vetted indie content creator list: https://twitter.com/i/lists/1387016653070770177