Review bombing is the age-old tradition in which Steam users will flood a game with negative reviews mostly due to factors outside of the game itself.
Maybe, for instance, a developer took a political stance they didn’t like, as is the case with Firewatch‘s developer Campo Santo recently DMCA-ing PewDiePie’s Let’s Play of the game after the YouTuber blurted out the N-word on stream.
Or perhaps Fallout 4 introduced a completely non-mandatory way to make a little extra cash that in no way would affect any player’s enjoyment of the game.
Well, these are the kinds of things that might trigger a massive review bomb by salty Steam users with way too much time on their hands, and the problem with review bombs, as Valve and many developers see it, is that games might not get a fair shake on Steam because of factors outside the game. That’s why Valve recently revealed their plans to combat this. Only, it’s not such a good plan.
Valve product designer Alden Kroll recently unveiled Valve’s new strategy to introduce review charts to Steam in a blog post. These charts will show when review spikes—whether negative or positive—happen on a game, with the thought that a spike in negative reviews might hint to possible consumers that something about the overall review score might be a bit fishy.
You can see how this strategy plays out in Firewatch‘s review chart on Steam, where a massive spike of negative reviews coincide with the dates of the developer’s public shaming of PewDiePie:
The intention to combat review bombs is noble on Valve’s part, if not long overdue. However, the reasoning behind calling attention to review bombs in the form of a histogram sounds like Valve would rather give potential players homework than actually fix the problem themselves. Kroll writes:
As a potential purchaser, it’s easy to spot temporary distortions in the reviews, to investigate why that distortion occurred, and decide for yourself whether it’s something you care about. This approach has the advantage of never preventing anyone from submitting a review, but does require slightly more effort on the part of potential purchasers.
This is a nice thought, but it does sound like Valve is simply passing the buck of curating helpful user reviews and culling unhelpful ones to the customers themselves.
According to Kroll, this wasn’t the only solution that Valve was considering. Removing the review score, temporarily locking reviews, or changing the way overall reviews were calculated were all on the table, but in the end Valve rightfully decided that these were equally terrible solutions, so instead landed on more charts.
Some have wondered if these charts only further legitimize and incentivize review bombers, and it’s a fair point. The only thing more satisfying to a review bomber than seeing a review score’s number tick down is seeing a bar graph representing negative reviews get bigger.
Another option that Valve could consider is the ways in which Steam vets reviewers. A scan of Firewatch‘s recent reviews, for example, shows that almost all the negative reviews come from users with zero hours played in the last two weeks, or else reviewers played the game for less than an hour, gave the game a negative review, and then returned it for a refund. While there are obviously valid reasons to return a game, especially closer to its release date, there seem to be enough factors in these reviews that could be spotted and flagged by a vetting system.
Valve’s new review charts might be a good temporary solution while its product designers consider more options, but if the company is serious about providing a more accurate representation of game quality on Steam in the form of user reviews, it’s going to have to work a little harder than this to achieve that goal.