See if you can tell what's weird about this image:
(Ignore the "Hello Patrick" part, a way for the developer to confirm to me they were legit.)
One of the fastest ways to gauge whether a game is worth playing on Steam is by glancing at the "recent reviews" and "all reviews" section snuggled next to the game's trailer and description. The text is hard to ignore, and that's on purpose: your eye is purposely drawn to the brightly colored text. Blue is good, orange is mixed, red is bad. You don't have to read the word "positive" or "negative" to immediately understand what's being communicated.
You know what's also blue on a Steam page? The developer and publisher. It's blue by default, and recently, someone figured it was, in theory, a way to exploit the system. What would happen if you, for example, named your developer and publisher "Very Positive"? Isn't entirely possible someone might confuse the developer with the game's actual reviews?
That someone was the developer of the simple puzzle game Emoji Evolution—until very recently, anyway. Over the weekend, Steam unsurprisingly banned Emoji Evolution and suspended its developer account for "review manipulations," per the game's developer.
I originally stumbled upon Emoji Evolution while reading former Gamasutra editor Simon Carless' excellent newsletter, GameDiscoverCo, which focuses on why people buy games, how developers can use data to sell their games, etc. Carless pointed out the absurdity of what the people behind Emoji Evolution were up to, and I quickly turned that into a tweet:
Soon, the developer of Emoji Evolution, who declined to reveal their name fearing blowback from their decision could potentially impact their career, got in touch. They confirmed ownership of the game by altering its Steam page. For this story, we'll call them Mike.
"I knew that reviews have a huge impact on the customer's decision," said Mike over email last week. "I noticed that the publisher/developer name is located really close to the reviews and has the same color, and I decided to use it for my purposes."
Editor's Note: English is not Mike's first language. We have lightly edited some quotes for clarification and readability purposes.
Most people laughed at the situation's absurdity and tipped their virtual hat at someone pulling off a UI heist. The unexpected attention prompted Mike to keep on tweeting.
"I don't think this will be an issue with Steam," they told me at the time. "Valve fully understands how minor this trick is. It's more important to have a famous brand name like Obsidian there."
The theory: Valve only cares about the accuracy of the name. Insert hmm emoji.
Still, Mike was enjoying how many people were paying attention, saying it meant "more to me than these couple of potential dollars."
Emoji Evolution was, Mike told me, the byproduct of a conversation with their wife, about how emojis have become such a common part of Internet culture that they could also be at the center of a game, too. The popularity of emojis is such that artists have even produced royalty-free emojis for people to use, so the core art of Emoji Evolution didn't cost a dime.
Mike wrote a design document, gathered the assets, and paid a coder to string it together.
"I don't think this is a great game," said Mike, "but I needed something cheap and attractive."
When it came to marketing, Mike claimed to not have done much research, but argued people do not spend much time looking at all the data available on a Steam page. One of the most important elements, they concluded, was the positivity of reviews. That's when Mike realized the reviews were slotted next to the information about the game's creators.
"They [Steam users] make conclusions about information when seeing familiar words and don't spend much time reading all the words," said Mike.
Mike's probably right. I do this all the time while scrolling through the "new" and "popular" sections on Steam, looking for games to play or write about. I always glance at the reviews.
The tweets continued, especially as various news outlets wrote up Mike's prank.
There's a good chance Mike and Emoji Evolution would have skated under the radar, like a lot of garbage on Steam, ignored because Valve abandoned curation long ago. But articles written up on GameSpot and Kotaku are a good way for someone working on Steam to take a closer look, which is why it wasn't shocking to see Mike eventually banned last Friday.
Recently, Mike tweeted that they're only guilty of "a really bad game" and that banning Emoji Evolution makes no sense when CD Projekt RED was allowed to release Cyberpunk 2077, a game roundly criticized for being profoundly unfinished when it arrived at the end of 2020.
In Mike's case, however, he was deliberately poking the bear.
"Last week was really funny," said Mike. "It's a strange feeling—I've made a hit but without any profit for myself or my future products."