Valve slaps Wandersong, a very real game, with fake-game restrictions

Valve’s commitment to keeping illegitimate games off Steam has led to increased vigilance over the last six months. A series of restrictions put in place to ward off these so-called “fake games,” however, has caught at least one totally real game in the crossfire.

The delightful musical adventure game Wandersong launched to cult acclaim in September and last week received several nods from the Independent Games Festival Awards. (It was also one of my personal favorites of 2018.) Yet Valve has marked it as under review, leaving players unable to access regular Steam features for it, like trading cards and achievements. It’s the victim of a policy that launched last June, made to explicitly combat games that were intentionally “inflating achievement and game counts for users to display on their profiles.”

A sidebar on Wandersong’s store page includes a note that “Steam is learning about this game,” which comes with a dialogue box to actually explain what that means.

“Until more players have interacted with it, some features will be restricted,” it reads. The list includes limitations on achievements and items, as well as preventing players from adding it to their favorite games lists. All of these are meant to dissuade people from publishing games that serve no other purpose than to award players with stat-boosting achievements and the like.

Developer Greg Lobanov tells Polygon that Valve first flagged Wandersong when it launched in September; that its veracity remains under deliberation is a surprise.

“I figured it would clear soon, since, I mean… the game is obviously real … and other games I checked that had launched just before us had passed … so I left it at that,” Lobanov says about the lacking Steam features, which first came to his attention in October. An automated message from the platform’s support services assured him that all games went through this process, he tells us.

He now knows that’s not quite the case. Even as user reviews climbed, pushing the game’s review average to “very positive” (there are only three negative reviews out of 269 at time of writing), the Steam version of Wandersong remains at Valve’s mercy.

The reason for this could actually be better than it sounds, according to Lobanov.

“We’re just so statistically anomalously popular with users, Valve’s algorithm thinks we might be a scam game that hacked hundreds of accounts to make it look like we’re this popular,” he says. “It’s a good-ish problem to have.”

We’ve reached out to Valve about if and when it will determine whether Wandersong counts as a legitimate game. Lobanov isn’t especially optimistic about that happening — “the algorithm guides all decisions and no human will intervene until the algorithm deems us worthy” — but at least he has critical acclaim and several nominations to write home about.

Wandersong is now available on Nintendo Switch along with Mac and Windows PC.