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Game User Reviews: Power, Degradation and Overuse

Posted by on July 25, 2017.

The Importance of Customer Reviews

The revolution of online shopping has been a long-standing demonstration that user reviews improve sales, encourage repeat web traffic and significantly boost a website’s search engine ranking. Even without unanimously positive reviews, websites which feature user interaction and feedback have been shown to promote engagement among users and increase a business’ visibility. Forbes places Amazon’s use and encouragement of user reviews as a significant factor for the online retailing giant’s success.

Video games, despite being a digital product, are no different, and there is definite correlation between a high aggregated user score on Metacritic and high sales on Valve’s digital distribution platform, Steam. While on an individual level, user reception is no guarantee for a game’s financial success, sales metrics show that a higher-scored game is far more likely to sell well, and that games scored at 90/100 or above are nearly guaranteed a decent sales performance.

As important as the presence of user feedback might be in and of itself, a numerical or five-star model has faced criticism from some analysts, pointing out the tendency for users to rate only in extremes – either one star or five stars, with middle rankings rarely seen. A suggested alternative model for user feedback is a simple binary, yes-or-no, positive-or-negative approach. Since 2013, this is how Steam has handled user feedback for video games sold on the online platform, aggregating the total number of positive reviews for an at-a-glance percentage score, which it displays along with the game’s Metacritic rating if applicable.

Weaponised Feedback

What puts gaming, and especially Steam, in a unique position as far as user reviews go is the way the community interacts with the option of providing feedback. On both Metacritic and Steam, a culture of mass, targeted reviewing with extreme negative scores has emerged, a practice known as ‘review bombing’. Often these concerted efforts to damage a game’s rating are done to ‘punish’ a perceived anti-consumer move by the developer or publisher, or to express displeasure with an individual associated with that game.

On platforms like Steam, these review-bombs can be remarkably powerful. Gamer outcry was so strong when Valve began allowing player-made mods to be sold for money – rather than exclusively for free as they had been – that one of the most heavily-modded games, Skyrim, had its ratings sink more than 10%, from an above-95% ‘overwhelmingly positive’ to around 84%, despite already having well over 100,000 positive reviews. When Square Enix bungled the Chinese release of Nier: Automata in April, Chinese gamers doubled the game’s number of negative reviews in a single day, giving it a recent score of ‘Mixed’ during May.

Bigger than these examples by far was the review bombing of GTA V, when the publisher, Take 2 Interactive, with no warning, sent cease and desist orders to the creators of popular 3rd-party game modding tool OpenIV, which had been allowed to operate unopposed for nearly a decade – effectively taking down years’ worth of community-made content for the game. The fan backlash against this move was so severe that GTA V’s user rating on Steam fell to ‘mixed’ on its overall lifetime ratings, despite being one of the best-selling and most critically accoladed games of the decade.

While many were pessimistic – GTA V had already sold so well that it seemed unlikely Take 2 would care about any negative press so long after the game’s release – the publisher reversed its decision just two weeks later, under pressure from GTA V’s development studio, Rockstar Games. This creates an interesting dilemma as it shows that developers and publishers still value the user score enough to take notice of consumers when it’s under threat, but it has also resulted in the game’s score being influenced not by the quality or execution of the product, but by the public’s perception of executive decisions.

Anger isn’t the only motivation acting to subvert the concept of user product reviews, especially on Steam. Valve’s platform has developed an almost alarming culture of ‘joke’ reviews – short, flippant and usually with a positive rating, many games on Steam are now flooded with such non-critiques. Steam has made at least some sort of effort to respond to this by allowing reviews to be rated as ‘funny’ as well as ‘helpful’ or ‘unhelpful’, but most users simply rate these joke reviews as ‘helpful’ anyway. Lower-budget games, those which are ‘jokes’ themselves and those which have received little to no coverage among critics are common targets for this sort of review.

b (that’s the game’s full title, lower-case included) is a prominent example – a free game in which the user controls a crudely-designed bee on a very small map with no objectives or direction for gameplay. Despite the visual and interactive simplicity, the grass and the fuzz effects on the bee have made the system requirements extremely high, perhaps due to the developer’s inexperience or intentionally for humorous purposes. The game currently holds an 86% positive user ranking with its store page featuring a slew of sophomorically humorous, positive-rated user reviews, while the only thing that could remotely be called ‘media attention’ it has received is a vitriolic and dismissive video from Jim Sterling.

Humorous reviews aren’t unique to Steam, but their sheer ubiquity is unmatched with other online retailers. Certain Amazon products might be targeted for sarcastic or satirical reviews if the product itself has an element of innate humour to it, or if product information is not required (most people will already know what to expect from a ballpoint pen, for instance), and don’t tend to drown out genuine customer feedback.

Blunted on Both Edges

Developers are playing a role in the erosion of the value of user criticism as well; YouTube’s notoriously abusable DMCA takedown system has resulted in repeated instances of indie and mid-level game developers attempting to censor critical comment on their products. While these developers allege that they are protecting their copyright and only pursuing YouTubers who monetise footage of their games, they often allow more positive comment to remain online and continue to earn the uploader advertising revenue.

On Steam itself, some studios have faced accusations of trying to censor negative reviews in a similar way by marking negative press as ‘abusive’ – this doesn’t delete the marked review but it does prevent users from reading the review on the game’s front page, even if it is otherwise rated helpful by the community. Even forum comments, which do not influence a game’s ranking at all, are sometimes apparently subject to developers deleting critical topics and banning users who display a negative opinion of the game. As well as this, there exists a practice among some developers of offering free activation keys to gamers willing to give a positive review to their game, adding another element that can skew the overall score from user feedback.

Steam has attempted to address the issue of trading free game keys for positive reviews by making only those reviewers who purchased a copy directly from the Steam store count towards the overall aggregate score, but this has only served to make a new problem. Indie developers, especially those who finance their games with Kickstarter, have found their scores plummeting after all their early backers’ reviews were taken out of consideration. Just as the addition of a ‘funny’ rating for reviews failed to mitigate the influence of joke reviews, this does nothing to differentiate between genuine feedback and attempts to manipulate the review score.

It cannot be denied that review-bombing can hold a great deal of influence, and provides a way for gamers to give at least a smack on the wrist to large publishers who usually operate with complete impunity – companies like Take-Two and Paradox have swiftly reversed their decisions once their games received such intense backlash. However, review bombs only carry such power because of the innate importance of user reviews to the success of their products. If user reviews become nothing more than a political tool to influence developers, the very thing that allows consumers that modicum of power could easily be eroded – and between joke reviews, developer manipulation and censorship, respect for consumer criticism of video games is already beginning to diminish.

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Submitted in: Expert Views, Josh Townsend |