In recent times, people have taken to flooding games' Steam pages with (typically negative) reviews and tags to protest, well, lots of things. New features, viewpoints of creators, messages in the games themselves. But why? And does it actually work?
Recently, games like Skyrim, with its controversial paid mods, Titan Souls, after a beef with popular YouTuber Totalbiscuit, and movies like Game Loading, a documentary about game developers groups like GamerGate can't stand, have come under fire on Steam. Their pages ended up looking like crime scenes, because in the eyes of some fans, they'd done just that: committed a crime — Skyrim with its jarring new approach to mods, Titan Souls and Game Loading by being linked to perspectives people didn't agree with.
(Disclosure: Game Loading features developer Zoe Quinn, who I once dated.)
Now, review bombing, as the practice is often known, is hardly a new thing. It happens frequently on review aggregate sites like Metacritic and storefronts like Amazon. But on Steam, user reviews — and most user-related/created content — are front and centre. Even before you click on a game's listing, you can find a thumbs-up or down icon that indicates general community sentiment toward the game. I've talked to people who will totally ignore a new Steam game simply on the basis that it doesn't have a thumbs-up.
Beyond that, though, Valve has racked its throbbing hivemind brain collective to make Steam reviews useful, at least as a quick snapshot of what a game's about. Reviews are categorised as positive, negative, funny, and of course "helpful" — all voted on by users. The result? They are actually kinda handy sometimes. I know I check at least the first few before grabbing a game I've never heard of. And if they're overwhelmingly skewed in a certain direction, I know something is probably amiss.
Review bombs, however, often detonate because someone started snipping at the wrong wire, struck a nerve by adding an unwanted feature or saying or doing something certain people disliked. In some cases, they don't reflect the actual content of the game (or film or what have you) in question, despite directly affecting how people seem to perceive a game's overall quality. People just want to be heard. Sometimes they want something to change, sometimes they want a person to change, and sometimes they just want to make something or someone burn. Regardless, it's online protest, en masse.
When I asked people why they have participated in Steam review bombs, that's what most of them said: in their eyes, it's not only a form of protest, it's the only one that works for them. Everything else is just a tweet or forum post into the void, weightless words floating in empty space. Review bombing on Steam, though — a place where user reviews can actually matter sometimes — forces developers and publishers to take notice.
"Trying to negatively affect an entity's ability to make money is not only a valid way to protest," one Kotaku reader wrote to me, "as you can see by the removal of Skyrim's paid mods it is one of the most effective ways... I think defending the value-proposition of PC gaming is worth the protest as I get a lot of entertainment time I value out of PC gaming, and considering what a desert of quality mobile gaming is."
Another reader echoed this sentiment, suggesting that during times of "war" there's no better way to hit home than a Steam review bombardment. Taking things even further, they voiced suspicion of shady (though unverifiable) practices game makers might employ to drown out dissent:
"I've only done it when for lack of a better term, war has been declared," they wrote in an email. "It's long been proven that sketchy publishers and developers are willing to pay (or otherwise offer some for of consideration) for better reviews and when you can afford to drown honest negative reviews with 10 paid for positive reviews, the only way the message will get out is via email mass reviewing. The same (but reversed) goes for games that have been targeted for whatever their message was, or if they were simply targeted for the lulz."
"I consider reviews in this forum as a type of public demonstration, be it a show of scorn or support."
I found a similar set of viewpoints shared throughout hundreds of emails and comments: Steam page bombs — whether over big in-game issues or strong ideological disagreements with a game's creator — happen not because they're fair or easy, but because nobody will listen otherwise.
How much of an impact do they actually have, though? Do they work as well as people who've dropped everything else to drop some bombs seem to think they do? In light of recent events, the answer would appear to be yes. Valve and Bethesda did do a huge about-face on Skyrim's paid mods after a period during which Skyrim's percentage of positive reviews dropped from the high nineties into the low eighties. (That's quite a plummet over the course of only a few days for a game with so many years' worth of reviews.) However, correlation does not necessarily equal causation, and many other clashing ideals factored into Valve and Bethesda's decision to pull the plug.
Games that stand to get hardest by review bombs, however, tend to be the smallest. It's hard enough for a small game to gain traction on Steam as is, especially if it's a new release. However that early period is also crucial, one of a game's few shots at Steam front page glory before plunging into the chaotic black hole that is the rest of the service. I asked creators that were hit hard by irate Steam users in their early goings, Andrew Gleeson of Titan Souls and Game Loading director Lester Francois, how exactly they were impacted.
"It's hard to say whether the reviews themselves affected traction," Gleeson replied to me via email. "For those who [went after Titan Souls because of the Totalbiscuit thing], they weren't going to be convinced otherwise. You only need 500 die-hard followers to screw up a Steam page like ours, which actually pales in comparison to the number of copies the game ended up selling anyway. A few people reached out to us, confused as to why negative reviews were pushed to the front of the page, when the actual -number- of positive reviews dwarfed the negative ones. I believe this highlights a flaw in Steam's current system."
Francois' response was more surprising. In the short term, he said, he felt like the resulting controversy actually benefited Game Loading. People swarmed on its Steam page like ants from an anthill, causing previously unaware parties on services like Twitter to come see what all the fuss was about.
"Of course the negative reviews do have an impact on sales, but we knew the barrage of criticism was coming and factored that into our marketing and expectations," he said. "All the noise started like clockwork when we launched. The online backlash worked in our favour, it was the best form of signal boosting. We are working with a tiny budget and to have that kind of exposure is priceless."
The people who bombed their respective Steam pages, then, didn't exactly get the outcomes they wanted. Then again, what they wanted here is kinda difficult to judge. With Skyrim, it was easy: people wanted paid mods to go away. Eventually, they got that. But with Gleeson, what response were they hoping for? An apology to Totalbiscuit? And with Game Loading, did they want the film to simply stop existing, to get so thoroughly buried that it'd never see the light of day again? A protest without clear or achievable goals, one might argue, is not a very good protest at all.
As a result, neither Gleeson nor Francois are too worried about the damage Steam bombardments might have caused them. They both agreed that it was less about causing lasting harm and more about saying, "HEY, NOTICE US."
"Luckily I don't think the bombardment has had much of a long-term impact," said Gleeson. "When our game was under fire, we all decided to try and not stoke the flames in hopes it would die out quickly, and it has. Again, it's impossible to say whether the whole drama has influenced sales; perhaps we lost a few thousand of them. Most likely not. I'm not worried either way."
Meanwhile, Game Loading got help directly from Valve, which definitely made the process more manageable. "Valve spotted a few people violating their rules and guidelines and deleted a few offensive comments," said Francois. "They were pretty quick to act on it."
A number of the less, er, game-related reviews of Titan Souls also seem to have disappeared, or at least gotten pushed down.
Still, existing in a system so easily manipulated by relatively small groups does give creators like Gleeson and Francois reason to worry. It's not just negative reviews, either (those are actually the hardest to manipulate, given that you have to own a game to write a review of it). People can also manipulate Steam pages by changing their tags — in the case Game Loading, "villain protagonist" and "dystopian" are the top two tags to this day — flooding discussion pages, and downvoting positive reviews so that only negative ones remain immediately accessible. It's those sorts of things, little tweaks that can do short and long-term damage, that Gleeson thinks Valve needs to work on fixing, stat.
"It's kind of a joke, really," he said. "Allowing people who have not yet bought the game, or even have no plans to, be allowed to influence the way it's presented on a store, almost effortlessly, is absurd and short-sighted and harmful."
"I understand how Valve has set up the store to aid customers and that's great, but yes it can be easily manipulated," added Francois.
Gleeson opined that it's that ease — the lightning-fast clicks of a mouse or clacks of a few keys — that's making this an increasingly common occurrence. "It's effortless," he said. "It produces results. It's a call-to-arms to defend your values, to show dominance."
"It felt like clockwork," he added. "Twitter notifications flooding with harassment, fake Twitter accounts appearing and producing slander — the steam negative review up-voting, of course. The stuff we have all seen before. It's the only way these kinds of people have any influence at all because they're exploiting these systems, the same way, every single time, and not enough is being done to stop it from happening. Twitter needs to sort out their shit, and so do Valve. This stuff needs to be wiped out. It doesn't help anyone."
But others disagree with him. They want to be heard, even if it means going through some back doors and seedy alleys in order to arrive at their soapbox. It's symptomatic of an ever-growing tension between creators and people who consume (or at least exist in the same space as) the things they create. In this day and age, as a result of tools like Steam and Twitter and what have you, players feel like they're both right next to creators and a million miles away. Like they can scream and shout and nearly reach out and touch, yet elicit no reaction. It is a strange dissonance, to be interacting in a way that suggests it would be rude for someone to ignore you, yet share that same space with countless others — far too many for someone to pay attention to all at once. It prompts disconnection, dehumanisation, anger — especially when people don't share similar viewpoints.
It's easy to say that these sorts of protests come from a place of immaturity — of an inability to cope with having people mess with your toys or hold differing opinions — and I think that's true some of the time. But the way it's expressed also suggests that modern communication is in a weird, frightening place. Millions of voices, all feeling equally valid, struggling to be heard. In truth, not all voices carry the same weight in all situations, depending on the situation, the context. But we've created a world where it feels like they're supposed to. It's hard not to be frustrated and confused when things don't pan out that way, when a flawed system shows its cracks. So people band together and take out their rage on others, even those who make creations they really love, because it's the only thing that will get any sort of reaction — positive, negative, effective or not — anything more than silence.