June 29, 2022

Review Bombing: For Good… And Bad.


Review Bombing is getting a lot of press lately.

Users of a platform or system banding together to create largely negative consumer reviews of a product isn’t inherently a new phenomenon, nor did it really begin inside the video games industry – as UK residents will be acutely aware of, review bombing was grasped very early on by those who stayed in hotels or bed and breakfast establishments that they felt were not up to par with standards they’d expect, usually meaning that Alex Polizzi – otherwise known here as The Hotel Inspector – would be called in with her TV crew to work out what was wrong. Sometimes the review bombing was justified but sometimes even Ms. Polizzi had to concede in certain instances the negative coverage wasn’t altogether justified.

It’s taken root and form, however, in the video game space in the last three or four years for a variety of reasons, one of those being #GamerGate and no I’m not one of those people who’ll stick their heads in the sand and pretend this event never occurred because it did and we shouldn’t forget the past because it makes people uncomfortable. Gamers, as consumers, lost faith in their specialist press in holding the video games industry to account over what they felt were infractions on good consumer and/or business practice. With Metacritic and Steam Reviews, users were given the tools to effectively hold the industry up by the scruff on their own accord and express their displeasure with whatever was the current bugbear.

Examples of this kind of action include, but is not limited to;

  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in 2015 when Bethesda tried to implement a “paid mods” scheme (which they’d go back to in 2017 with “Creation Club” with similar consumer reaction and results).
  • Grand Theft Auto V when Take 2 Interactive banned a popular modding tool because it was afraid that it would impact on the optional GTA Online mode and allowing for cheating – but laying waste to people who were happy modding the base game.
  • Crusader Kings II for an outrageous price hike that came out of the blue –and– didn’t make any actual sense.
  • Even great games like Nier: Automata have been review bombed over lacking translations – in that case, lacking a Chinese translation.

Whether or not you agree with any of the reasons behind this kind of review bombing, fundamentally – they are reasons. If a company moves to change a games price, content, modding potential or simply fails to cater for a particular market in a translation, users have a right to feel aggrieved and annoyed. And the press rarely covers such moves – often only doing so in the wake of actual Review Bombing episodes, meaning that the impetus is often now on the gamers and consumers of a video game product to kick up enough of a stink to justify the media moving in to cover it.

It’s not an ideal situation. But that –is– the situation.

Review Bombing is, in effect, a tool. A flare, if you like, sent up by Gamers to bring attention to an issue in their video game that otherwise might be missed, though with so little having been moving forward during Gen-8 you’d honestly thing the gaming press would be willing to cover anything at this point to justify their existence. As such, whilst there are certainly good and valid uses for a good Review Bombing episode – often forcing companies to backpedal on changes that its users find objectionable – it’s also worth remembering that a good tool can also be misused. Like any good and useful creation, its practical applications cannot be denied – but pretending that there aren’t jerks out there who’ll abuse the system and use it for a good troll or for silly reasons is equally facetious.

So we come to the latest instance. I covered this last week in my post about PewDiePie, where I avoided the actual issue of the game in question because I wasn’t really convinced the developers of Firewatch (Campo Santo) really needed to be part of that discussion. PewDiePie is edgy, and wants to be edgy, but he’s also big enough of a deal that when he screws up – it reflects badly on everyone else, and when rules are put into place to keep his type in line to remain ad-friendly – everyone else has to abide by the ever-tightening content restrictions. So he cannot keep pretending he’s just some jerk with a camera who makes silly, edgy content – he’s a big deal, and with that comes some responsibilities. Why do you think YouTube is cracking down? You can blame SJW’s all you want, but even they’ll hurt on YouTube in the end because advertisers don’t want to be seen backing or being seen to condone controversial content. YouTube is massive. It requires money to remain that massive, through server costs and bandwidth and the people who have to work behind it (and also to pay users their now-pittance for making content that drives traffic to YouTube). Ergo, YouTube’s responsibility is now to keep advertisers sweet – because without them, you’d have no YouTube as it stands. It would be bankrupt. At a certain point, you’re so big and important that you need to know how to push the envelope, not just push it about with careless and reckless abandon.

Users review-bombed Firewatch on Steam because of the spat between PewDiePie and Campo Santo – the latter of which threatened DMCA takedowns and legal action, which as I said without naming Campo Santo in my PDP post, opens up a can of worms which would make them just as unpopular and hated as PewDiePie would be had the precedent been set. No-one would win in this situation; legally, perhaps, but on the whole it would create a storm which would rapidly eclipse both parties here and destroy many businesses and livelihoods. I doubt anyone really wants that to happen. I assume Campo Santo, as a small independent studio, really doesn’t want to create that kind of precedent.

Now, is this review bomb stupid? Of course it is. PDP said the “N-Bomb” and Campo Santo – who had previously given an open invitation to all streamers and lets play channels to use the title how they wanted – had no real business or sense in having a go at PewDiePie here. A sensible, rational statement was all that was needed here. Look, I can draft one up in seconds; I’ll leave some blanks so you can fill it in with names and games at your leisure and discretion.

We at _studio_ are very supportive of our fans and the passionate people who create content on YouTube. We do not want to restrict how you enjoy _game_. As a result, we feel it is important to distance ourselves from the statements and remarks of _YouTuber_, whose remarks do not represent our company or its values. We ask that _YouTuber_ consider not playing our software in the future, and we at _studio_ will no longer find ourselves willing or able to give preferred access or content to _YouTuber_ in the wake of these remarks. We hope that everyone will continue to enjoy _game_, and we would like to take this opportunity to thank the many people out there who have played _game_ privately and on YouTube. Your passion and enjoyment is why we continue to make video games, and we hope most of you will understand why we have to distance ourselves from the remarks of _YouTuber_ in this instance. Thank you, signed _studio_.

… that took me less than three minutes. I don’t have a big legal team. Or access to lawyers or tons of money. That, my dear readers and friends, is utilising a little thing called self-control and common sense (and manners, which cost nothing). And the reason why that last bit was in there – about the fans – is because had Campo Santo won a DMCA takedown or won a lawsuit – goodbye lets play channels, and hello strict and tightened regulations which would give preferential power to bigger third-party studios who can actually pay all the legal costs involved in setting up big licensing arrangements. This would have blown up in Campo Santo’s face either way with the actions it took.

Review Bombing isn’t a perfect thing – but the fact remains that as an object, it’s still a powerful tool when used correctly.

So the new Steam function that highlights review scores over time in a graph looks like a counter – but in reality, I suspect this isn’t how it will work. Anyone who is seriously going to click and analyse said graph is going to see a big spike in negative review scores and then, checking the date, head over to their search engine of choice be that Google, Bing, StartPage, DuckDuckGo or whatever other engines are out there right now – and put the game and the date in. What do you happen to think they’ll find in the process? The exact reasons why this was being review bombed in the first place! Armed with that information, admittedly, they can see if it has changed any since the review bombing. But equally, you give new buyers and users an up-front admission, on the whole, that you “done goofed” at some point.

The only way to avoid this is two-fold; you need to either (a) flood the reviews with positive coverage, which if its not legitimately done by users goes against Steam’s own terms of service, or (b) allow a studio or publisher to disable reviews. Good luck with that, it’ll move to the forums. Bury negative feedback and consumer rage there and it’s going to go to YouTube almost certainly, and it will continue to snowball out of control.

We also call this “The Streisand Effect”.

I’m not going to say that Review Bombing is 100% good in all cases or in all situations. Nothing is. But as a system to keep the excesses of the video games industry in check, allowing users to kick up their own stink when the media is too terrified hiding in the cupboard from the big bad publishers to say or do anything (because what are they going to do, sue their customers? Yeah, ask Digital Homicide how that went for them… oh they’re defunct now? Quelle surprise!), it’s a better system than most. Open to abuse, certainly, but take those instances in context and appreciate the wider implications of this function. It usually works. And generally speaking, on the whole, it gets results. Because you really, really don’t want a consumer revolt. You do not want a massive PR nightmare on your hands. That costs money whichever way you slice it.

The PewDiePie vs. Campo Santo thing isn’t a good case study on the whole, since both sides – and both sides fans – have generally speaking acted very poorly. But that it happened at all, and that it was easy for users to bring this up again and to light for the myriad dumb reasons underlying this instance, only proves the point. It’s a powerful consumer tool. Restrict it, and you’ll find that you remove power from consumers. Which the larger industry will love… but it will also, by degrees, hurt smaller studios and users in the long run.

There are too many instances of this being used right, and well, and getting results to focus on a couple of instances of idiots getting involved. The widely used quote¬†“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”¬†applies in this case. We need to be aware that from time to time, any good system will be open to abuse. That’s just how we are as a species – always looking for a loophole. But the moment you begin to clamp down on freedom to stop abuse? Well, another widely used quote by Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in 1755 that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Nothing is perfect. But until you come up with a better alternative system that you can prove is 100% infallible… well, we’re going to have to stick with what we’ve got.


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