The Practice of Review Bombing

Borderlands 3 being confirmed as an Epic exclusive lead to the rest of the series becoming the latest high profile round of ‘Review Bombing’.

Let’s rip the bandaid right off of this one, shall we? I don’t mind the practice of review bombing. In fact in many cases I would even go so far as to say I am supportive of it.

Review bombing is not a new practice, nor is it the exclusive domain of gaming. Movies and even Amazon products have been subjected to it well before it entered the parlance of the general gamer.

It has become a common enough ‘problem’ that the usual extreme libertarian stance and slow to move nature of Steam has been overridden and they determined to take ‘corrective’ action. A period of ‘off-topic’ reviews will essentially lead to all reviews over that time being ignored for the purposes of the score calculation.

None of the reviews so marked will be deleted, so those that care may dig into what they were all about.

Insofar as such a policy goes, I think it reasonably fair and balanced. But of course the devil is in the details. Valve will be the sole arbiter of what is, and isn’t, ‘off-topic’. In the blog post they outlined that EULA changes and DRM based reviews will be examples of off-topic. The rationale being these are not, ‘things a general gamer would care about’.

With the recent Borderlands example, they have also set precedent that undesirable publisher actions will also be considered ‘off-topic’.

So, Why Support Review Bombing?

Actually let me start with my understanding of why most people don’t support the practice.

The gist of it is that review bombing is punishing titles for actions unrelated to the quality of the game or series in question. That a undesirable action on the part of the publisher doesn’t have any affect on one’s ability to enjoy the game itself.

Not an entirely unreasonable view. I just don’t think it is a complete one.

A review in my opinion is for the very purpose of establishing whether or not the game or product in question is one you would want to spend your money on. Of course the actual merits of the game are one of the main factors, but they’re not the only one. And I don’t agree that consideration of the developer or publisher actions, business practices or ethics are somehow out of bounds.

This is not a standard we apply to any other purchase or support decision in life. Sure, not everyone cares about whether their eggs are free range or cage farmed. But you won’t hear anyone telling someone who does care that they’re only allowed to hold opinion on the quality of the egg itself and that anything speaking to the practices of the corporation behind it are irrelevant.

If a publisher or developer takes money to make their game exclusive to Epic, after first making commitments to the contrary and taking money from backers in order to even have a game in the first place? I want to know.

Things like that affect my decision to purchase. Therefore they have a place in reviews. Exposure of this kind is one of the few voices left to the consumer. One of the few ways we have to affect change. We’ve seen it in games when Bethesda attempt to sell ‘premium’ user-created mods for Skyrim in 2015, with the outcry then turning this around.

We’ve seen the power of the voice of the customer in overturning other, more important issues in the world, such as the reliance on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores. At first but a rumble, with not enough people actually caring to bring change. Slowly a momentum builds and now all of our big supermarket chains have dropped plastic bags.

So I don’t think we should be so quick to silence, write-off or ridicule those with a different set of standards for publishers than what we may be held at present.

Epic Store Claims Another Exclusive

I actually had a post drafted on the Epic Store going back to the Metro: Exodus debacle. I ultimately decided to let it go and delete the post. I can (I suppose) live a little longer without Satisfactory, Hades, Metro, etc in my life if I need to.

Today’s announcement comes in the form of Phoenix Point — a game from Julian Gollop, designer of the original X-COM games — announcing the increasingly typical year-long exclusivity deal with the Epic Store.

Metro caught a lot of heat for their last minute switch-out after being available on Steam for preorder for quite some time. They at least honoured the preorders of those who had dropped money on the Steam edition, though.

Phoenix Point while not carrying with it the same proximity to launch is a worse situation in my view. It is a crowd-funded project that literally would not exist, or would at least not be as far along as it is today, without the money it took from its backers. Money taken with the explicit promise of supporting: Good Old Games, Steam, and via Steam Play — Linux.1

Why Be Mad About This?

A legitimate question. There are some things to like about Epic. Not least of all an introduction of an additional competitor for Steam. This should be a good thing for Developers and Consumers both.

But it isn’t — not yet. There has been zero expressed interest in winning the battlefield for consumer consideration or loyalty. No desire to bring people over by carrot — by fostering goodwill through a better service that treats their favourite developers more fairly as a point of differentiation.

That would be compelling for a goodly number of people. But not enough? OK, I can see that. How about providing more competitive pricing than Steam, yet still seeing a larger sum in developer pockets?

Those are some examples of good ways to compete which would have seen an organic user-base growth and positive word of mouth. Instead of trying this first, the stick was brought out immediately.

The stick of third-party exclusives being introduced to the PC-realm. Want to play this title you’re reeeally excited about? Excellent. Buy it from us because you have no choice. We offered more Fortnite-money than any right-minded developer could say no to, and bought their exclusivity.

Steam isn’t blameless here, the impression I’m getting from their relative silence on the matter is one of overwhelming confidence that Epic is a fad that warrants no response and will just sort of go back to playing with toys in the corner shortly.

I probably prefer this over starting an all out exclusivity war. Steam for all it’s many faults, including the handling (or rather, lack of handling) the curation of content on its service, has been a relatively benevolent digital storefront in its position of monopoly. Developers were free to sell anywhere else they chose alongside Steam, even allowing generation of Steam keys for the purpose of selling elsewhere.

If Steam’s ‘response’ ends up being a harsh curtailing of these options due to having to participate in the buying-exclusivity game? Well, there aren’t really any potential good outcomes for a Consumer in this scenario.2

Hopefully Tomorrow Brings Better News

Because the email with this news was certainly not a great start to this one!

Still, there are some silver linings. For me only the first — ability to refund — matters. I just can’t get my head around supporting the introduction of third-party exclusives to PC, no matter how much I otherwise want the title in question.

For you (if you were also a Phoenix Point backer), some of the others might be of interest:

  • Refunds are available for the next 28 or so days, via this link.
  • If you accept the new terms and stick with it, you’ll get Year 1 DLC on Epic.
  • You will also get a choice of Steam/GoG key when they release a year post-Epic-release.