One of the biggest duels in gaming in 2019 is the ongoing fight between Valve’s Steam service and the Epic Games Store. Much of the battle has been focused on individual game exclusivity, fueled by games like Metro Exodus and The Division 2 jumping ship at practically the last minute. But there’s another aspect to the battle, one that actually has some political and social ramifications. I’m talking about user reviews. It is something that has been a big part of online marketplace shopping for years, but is now teetering on the edge of going the way of the dinosaur.
We all know about user reviews and have plenty of mixed feelings. On one hand, the modern internet is all about user-generated content. Being able to participate in your online hangouts, including the places you shop, is appealing on a lizard brain level. People like to belong to communal spaces, and being able to participate in the economy of online shopping is a big deal! People often trust other people like them over things like critics and marketing materials, after all. But there’s a big problem with user reviews, one that has grown more and more in recent years.
I’m referring to review bombing. This is a practice in which, regardless of greater contexts, users will come to a product/game/etc user review space and hit it with hyperbolic low or high scores, en masse, with the intent to influence how that item is perceived by the general public. The reasons for this range quite a bit, from bog-standard video game fanboyism to political and/or social motivations such as “anti-SJW” movements or things like propaganda in countries like China.
That happened most recently with a Chinese horror game called Devotion. A gag at the expense of Chinese president Xi Jinping was discovered in the game, which led to mass review bombing and real-world ramifications as well. The game has since been removed from Steam internationally.
Review bombing is a huge issue on Steam, and Valve has made many changes in an attempt to curb the behavior or at least lessen its impact on a game’s performance potential. Meanwhile, the Epic Games Store, which is driving growth through good financial deals with publishers, free games, and more, straight-up doesn’t have user reviews. This is, quietly, a huge statement. Epic Games doesn’t want or need user reviews to drive an audience or sales, and while Epic Games won’t say that, the lack of user reviews doesn’t need explaining.
This isn’t just happening in video games, either. User review bombing is all over the place, including movies. Rotten Tomatoes made the decision to truncate user reviews, opting to turn the feature off on movies until after the release date. This is due to the fact that Captain Marvel, the latest Marvel Studios blockbuster, has been review bombed by fans who are mad about Marvel leveraging the female lead for some “woke” marketing. Now, right wing pundits are using that as a talking point to push their content, despite “maybe user reviews shouldn’t be allowed when said users having experienced the thing in question is literally impossible” sounds pretty reasonable. The mad people can still be mad, but now they can hide the fact they haven’t seen the movie a little easier. It’s a bonus, really.
According to a tweet from Game Informer’s Imran Khan, Valve has been “arguing privately to developers” that user reviews are a good feature to have, with long term benefits. Meanwhile, developers are likely fed up with review bombing over non-issues, which makes sense. Epic Games making that completely impossible is the complete opposite, with no real middle option available since nobody wants to pay for quality moderation. Meanwhile, we see other spaces like the hugely popular Rotten Tomatoes taking actions against bad faith user reviews. Where will this all take us, and what will be the future of user-generated content? I’m fascinated in what that answer ends up being.