GUEST:

I was target of a review bombing campaign years ago, when I released Telepath RPG: Servants of God on Desura. I had committed the sin of pricing a role-playing game higher than what some players wished to pay, and the offended crowd took it upon themselves to down-vote the game en masse. They hadn’t played it for as much as 10 seconds, but they felt entitled to let the world know that the game was not worth its asking price, badly damaging its score in the process.

Regrettably, review bombing has not gone away, with Firewatch developers Campo Santo serving as the most recent high-profile target. I was excited to hear that Valve had finally decided to undertake measures to combat this corrosive phenomenon on Steam, but the actual proposal quickly tempered my enthusiasm. I’ll be blunt: Valve’s chosen solution makes little sense and is unlikely to succeed.

What Valve wants to do

Valve presents two goals that it ostensibly wishes to fulfill: (1) to eliminate the distorting effect that review bombing has upon a game’s review score, and simultaneously, (2) to ensure that players are not stopped from voicing their opinions.

I use the word “ostensibly” here because, shortly after setting out these two goals, Valve summarily rejects a solution which would satisfy both of them. The solution: a system whereby, in periods of abnormal reviewing behavior, players can still post reviews on a game’s page but those reviews will not contribute toward the game’s review score.

Valve asserts that employing such a system would restrict the ability of customers to voice their opinions. However, this is clearly untrue: A player posting their opinion in a review is, by definition, not being prevented from voicing their opinion. The opinion is right there, voiced publicly, readable by anyone who visits the game’s page. The only limitation is that this opinion is not being used to distort the game’s review score. This is, in short, the exact set of circumstances that Valve claims to want.

Valve’s excuse for not employing this measure here is doubly strange because Valve has employed this exact measure before, and in even stronger form! One year ago, Valve stripped all Kickstarter-backer reviews from having any power to impact a game’s review score on Steam — not for a limited time period in response to an anomalous pattern of reviews on a given game’s page, but permanently, across the board.

No one asked Valve to neuter Kickstarter backer reviews. Valve supposedly took this step of its own accord in order to ensure that review scores remained an accurate gauge of consumer happiness with the games on Steam. Valve was willing to do this to avoid artificial inflation of game review scores; it stands to reason that Valve should be willing to use this very same solution to avoid artificial deflation of game review scores. And yet, inexplicably, Valve is not.

An insufficient solution

Instead, Valve proposes a far less promising solution: Placing a histogram on each game’s page charting the ebb and flow of positive and negative reviews over time. One need not even go outside of Valve’s own blog post to see why the histogram solution will not work.

To begin with, Valve admits that purchasers want review scores so that they have a summary available, and thus, do not have to actually read through each game’s reviews. Indeed, Valve writes that they considered removing review scores from all game pages as a possible solution, but rejected it precisely because Valve anticipates that future players will merely demand that these summaries be brought back again.

So here is my question: Why would the multitude of players who had (and in the future, will have) no interest in actually going through and reading all of the reviews for a game in order to inform their level of interest instead spend their time trawling through some manner of abstract visualization looking for anomalous patterns, then verify them by … y’know, consulting reviews?

The answer, of course, is that they won’t.

What’s more, even if 100 percent of visitors to any given game’s page actually did end up using a histogram to track down and account for anomalous reviews, this would still prove laughably insufficient to undo the damage. It is a well-documented fact that a lower review rating on Steam drastically hurts a game’s discoverability. So after a review bombing, there will be fewer players arriving at the impacted game’s page to undertake such detective work in the first place!

In practice, a game that has been targeted with a review-bombing campaign will suffer from a one-two punch of both reduced traffic and a reduced conversion rate for as long as it takes for the review score to right itself (assuming that it ever does, an event which Valve concedes comes to pass only part of the time).

Ultimately, Valve has sent a terrible message with this update: when it comes to calculating a game’s score, Valve is willing to ignore the opinions of Kickstarter backers who enthusiastically support a game, but not those of online mobs with an axe to grind. Nothing about this stance makes sense; Valve can and must do better.

Craig Stern is a veteran indie game developer, founder of IndieRPGs.com, and president of the Chicago-area indie game developer organization Indie City Games.

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