For years, Steam has struggled with the issue of review bombing, where large numbers of users leave negative reviews on games' pages, often because of controversial subject matter or news that doesn't actually impact the game's quality. Today, Valve finally addressed the problem. Sorta.
In a new blog post, Valve announced that it's decided to try and disarm review bombs — which it said generally only temporarily crater a game's review score, but sometimes do lasting damage — not by changing user reviews or the way they function, but by adding some graphs.
"In the end, we decided not to change the ways that players can review games, and instead focused on how potential purchasers can explore the review data," wrote Valve's Alden Kroll.
"Starting today, each game page now contains a histogram of the positive to negative ratio of reviews over the entire lifetime of the game, and by clicking on any part of the histogram you're able to read a sample of the reviews from that time period."
"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," he added.
"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."
He also noted that Valve considered other solutions like removing review scores, halting reviews on games during time periods that appeared to be review bombs, and changing the way user review scores are calculated.
Ultimately, though, Kroll and co felt like all of those things were either too invasive or made reviews less indicative, which is why they went with graphs instead.
So basically, Valve saw a situation in which people were manipulating data and decided to add more data. It's the most Valve solution ever.
I'm not gonna beat around the bush here: I don't think this is a great way to stop review bombs, which most recently tanked Firewatch's review score in the wake of the Pewdiepie controversy, but have also dinged everything from indie game Titan Souls after a beef with YouTuber Totalbiscuit to Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear after people found out the game contained a trans character.
Even with these changes in place, review bombers will still be able to exert undue influence on games' scores, which will remain a metric that dilutes conversation around games down to overly simplistic factors like "is it long" and "does it do the graphics."
Not only that, review scores affect the way games are regarded by the Steam store's increasingly important algorithms, meaning that review bombs can damage their chances at success in that way, too.
And as ever, smaller developers will remain most susceptible to the ravages of review bombs, something that will have an at least subliminal (if not overt) influence on their creative choices and actions, given that their livelihood might be at stake.
In some cases, yes, users see a low score — or a high overall score and low recent score — and decide to do some digging. They generally skim a handful of reviews to get the gist of what's going on. I'm not sure how much graphs really change that process, though.
If you're a knowledgeable Steam user, it's not hard to figure out when a game is being review bombed. If you're not super aware of how Steam works or the reasons a game might be getting bombed, I'm not sure you're gonna start looking for graphs in an obscure tab near the bottom of a game's page.
I imagine people like that would see the score, figure the game's got some issues, and move on. I don't really know who this is for, is what I'm saying.
The problem with review bombs isn't just one of awareness. It's also the damage they can do. Valve has, at best, only addressed the first half of the problem, and in a way that doesn't even strike me as particularly useful.
I suppose we'll see what happens, though.