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Review Bombing

Three years ago, I wrote a post called The Weaponization of QQ in which I discussed “review bombing,” e.g. the practice of people writing negative user reviews out of spite. At the time, one of the particular objects of ire was Mass Effect 3. The user rating has trended upwards from 3.7 to today’s 5.4, but there remains 2518 positive vs 2372 negative reviews. And the vast, vast majority of the latter straight-up include passages such as the following:

I would have given this [Mass Effect 3] just a five, as it’s just that, an average game. However, since it’s clear that Bioware bribed journalists and reviewers to give their game a good review, I decided to counter the inflated reviewer scores and give this game a zero.

Now in the waning days of 2015, I am here to say that the practice is, unfortunately, alive and well.

One of the more topical targets is Fallout 4, which also sits at 5.4, primarily due to “reviews” like this:

Overrated Bethesda is back at it again, and they created another piece of garbage idiots to j!zz over. For starters this isn’t a 0/10, it’s more of a 4/10 but I’m trying to even the score because the fanboys are giving the game a 10/10 without explaining anything.

The above opening continues with some actual criticism of game mechanics and such, which puts it in a shockingly vanishing minority of these sort of reviews. Many are just like this:

Slacktivism at it's finest.

Slacktivism at it’s finest.

It is not entirely clear how many of these people even played the game.

Fallout 4 is not, of course, the only high-profile victim. Even media darlings like GTA 5 are not immune:

Useful.

Useful.

Back in June, I had to scroll through thirty-eight (38!) negative Steam reviews to find even one that contained useful information about the actual game. The rest were simply outrage over one of the Steam sales in which Rockstar apparently increased the price ahead of the sale, via adding in-game currency as the only available bundle, thereby possibly disabling Steam refunds. Which is certainly an entirely valid concern by itself, but not one that really has anything to do with reviewing the game.

The first time I brought this up, I was concerned about what possible effects these user review bombings might have on the direction of developer game design. Now? I’m much more concerned about how devalued this practice has rendered user reviews and, by extension, all our opinions. Perhaps developers have never been overtly concerned with user reviews, so review bombing doesn’t matter. But they mattered a bit for me, when determining if a game might be worth playing. And now that resource is gone, to be replaced with the outrage of the day.

The Weaponization of QQ

The end goal of all QQ is for a game (etc) you enjoy to be fixed or changed for the better.

If you look at something like the WoW forums, or any game forums really, you will see dozens and dozens of impassioned arguments as to why the author is quitting. I seem to recall there being an actual study that demonstrated that the vocal complainers spend the most money on a given game, far in excess of the average; considering I cannot find said link though, let us assume the opposite for now. Why tell tens of thousands of anonymous readers that you are unhappy with the game? Why not just shrug and uninstall?

The ideal scenario in an “I quit” post is for you to continue playing a game you enjoy (in most respects), and for other people to quit. It is like “voting with your wallet,” using other peoples’ wallets. As strategies go, it never seemed too effective, although obviously it is effective enough that moderators tend to shut it down pretty quickly. Besides, the only audience you can reach by posting on forums are the people who read the forums, so any damage is pretty limited.

Oh, the times they are a-changin’.

Metacritic, Comparison

Welcome to the future.

I do not know whether Modern Warfare 3 was the first Metacritic salvo in a post-Weaponized QQ landscape, but it has become increasingly obvious that it will not stand (or fall) alone.

Now, obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with a game receiving universal critical acclaim by professional gaming journalists, while being panned by uncouth Philistines. Or vice versa! But if you dig a little deeper, an incredibly large portion of the negative reviews for those three games (and who knows how many others) stem from issues not necessarily connected to the game itself – complaints about the state of the game industry, or the existence of Day 1 DLC/multiplayer, or people who wanted a sandbox instead of a themepark.

Maybe those things are connected to the game. Maybe you do enjoy MW3 less knowing how much was copy-pasted from MW2. Maybe people have wildly differing views on what constitutes a “review.”

What I do know is that, going forward, we can expect more of this:

Head to the bunker.

That right there is the present scoring of Mass Effect 3 for the Xbox 360 on Amazon. The PC version has less reviews, but it too is 2/5 stars.

What ever you think about the ending, and how much ever it may have soured the entire experience in your mind… is the game really 2/5? Were all of the emotions you felt during the journey not worth it? I am not entirely sure I want a philosophical debate about the nature of objective experience (or the nonexistence thereof); I just want everyone to know that this is our future.

Believe me, I am the first in line to say that customers have the right to question the creative decisions of designers/writers. However… is this what we want? Do we want developers worried that any reasonably controversial aspect of their work will lead to highly visible backlash? Does that actually encourage higher quality games, or simply encourage safer games? Or are the collateral effects of public catharsis simply their problem?

I used to believe the latter. Now… I’m not so sure.