Valve says it’s taking a new approach to user reviews on its gaming marketplace Steam, after attempting and largely failing to solve the problem of so-called review bombing that taints its consumer recommendation system. In a blog post published today, Valve says that it’s “continued to listen to feedback from both players and developers,” and it’s implementing a new approach: hiding the off-topic review scores.
The company says that it defines a review bomb as “one where the focus of those reviews is on a topic that we consider unrelated to the likelihood that future purchasers will be happy if they buy the game.” To identify such campaigns, Valve says that it’s developed a tool to identify periods of time where a review bombing is occurring, which notifies employees that are then tasked with investigating. Once the investigation is complete, Valve will mark off the period of time where the incident began and will remove any review activity that occurs after from affecting from the overall review score. It will also clearly mark which reviews have their scores removed from the overall calculation.
Review bombing has become a common tactic for disgruntled internet users to register their displeasure with a particular product on the internet. But, in some cases, it’s also used as a bad-faith tactic to retaliate against a company or public figure associated with said company, typically over a verbalized political stance online or a headline-grabbing controversy unrelated to the actual product itself. Still, get enough like-minded people together, and you can drive down a product’s rating, deterring people from buying it, or at least steering the discussion around it on your own terms. Sites like Rotten Tomatoes have begun to adapt to blunt the influence of such campaigns by removing the ability to leave comments or scores on films prior to release.
Two years ago, Valve implemented a new system after users review bombed indie game Firewatch. The company rolled out a chart that laid out the ratio of positive and negative reviews, allowing buyers to see if there was a suspect spike in negative ones over time, which was designed to indicate whether some recent controversy or news event was the cause in the sudden uptick. As The Verge’s Adi Robertson noted at the time, it essentially put the onus on buyers to make the determination for themselves.
But there are still issues with this new, modified approach. Valve admits that good-faith reviews that happen to be posted during the incident may get their scores removed alongside the bad-faith ones, adding that it “isn’t feasible for us to read every single review.” Valve will also allow users to opt out of the features. “There’s now a checkbox in your Steam Store options where you can choose to have off-topic review bombs still included in all the Review Scores you see,” reads the blog post. It’s unclear how effective Valve’s approach will be if some of its most active users — the very ones that may enjoy participating in review bombing campaigns — can simply opt out of the measures the company is taking to combat them.
Still, by investigating review bomb campaigns and removing disingenuous and off-topic reviews, Valve is taking a more proactive approach to moderating its platform compared with the hands-off strategy that’s landed it in such hot water in the past. Earlier this month, after a fierce online backlash, Valve decided to remove the Steam page for an in-development game that glorified rape and violence against women, saying that distributing the game posed “unknown costs and risks.”