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Steam implements histogram to identify review bombings following Firewatch incident (update)

‘It's easy to spot temporary distortions in the reviews’

firewatch tower art Campo Santo

Game pages on Steam will now be accompanied by a chart displaying a visual history of user reviews to help identify review bombing incidents, shortly after an such an attack was carried out against Campo Santo’s Firewatch.

In a blog post on Steam’s community page, UI designer Alden Kroll wrote about the reasoning behind implementing a histogram instead of deciding to remove user scores or adding a temporary lock on user reviews for a specific game. In the case of review bombs — an act where people upset with a developer for reasons to do either with the game or those that exist outside of the game start assigning poor review scores in droves. Kroll suggested that providing an entire review history may better illustrate a more accurate picture of people’s opinion on the game.

Steam customer reviews Valve

“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,” Kroll wrote. “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. It also has the benefit of allowing you to see how a game's reviews have evolved over time, which is great for games that are operating as services.”

Kroll never calls out the Firewatch incident by name, but it’s hard to argue the timing is entirely coincidental. On Sept. 10, following an incident where Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg used a racial slur during a livestream, Campo Santo co-founder and Firewatch developer Sean Vanaman tweeted that he would be issuing a copyright takedown claim for a Let’s Play video of Firewatch posted on Kjellberg’s YouTube. Two days later, Steam Spy reported that Firewatch saw 510 negatively scored review posted, dramatically altering the user score on the game’s Steam page.

Firewatch review scores on Steam SteamSpy

Firewatch’s user score started garnering more positive reviews, but dropped again on Sept. 15, a day after Kjellberg posted another video on YouTube about Vanaman’s takedown request. In the video, Kjellberg confirmed the copyright strike against him and the video went through, stating that if he got two more strikes he would lose his entire channel.

Kroll alludes to this in the Steam blog post. He never identifies either Vanaman or Kjellberg by name, but does bring up that review bombings can occur after an incident online. In the comments section on Kjellberg’s videos about Vanaman and Firewatch, people call for boycotting the studio, harassing Vanaman on Twitter and leaving negative reviews or assigning low ratings to Firewatch.

“One thing we've noticed is that the issue players are concerned about can often be outside the game itself,” Kroll wrote. “It might be that they're unhappy with something the developer has said online, or about choices the developer has made in the Steam version of their game relative to other platforms, or simply that they don't like the developer's political convictions. Many of these out-of-game issues aren't very relevant when it comes to the value of the game itself.”

It’s not like Kroll and the team at Steam aren’t aware of what the intention is or what the effect will have on the game for newcomers. In the post, Kroll wrote, “review bombs make it harder for the Review Score to achieve its goal of accurately representing the likelihood that you'd be happy with your purchase if you bought a game.”

Kroll explained that it’s Valve’s hope players will be able to tell that a review bombing has occurred with the new histogram, which can be seen above. If the game has received mostly positive reviews — with the exception of a brief period of time — those contemplating buying the game won’t be distracted or confused by the drop off in positive reviews following an incident.

“When we look at what happens with the review score after a review bomb, we see that it generally recovers, in some cases fully back to where it was beforehand,” Kroll wrote. “We took some time to examine the data more closely, measuring the weekly positive-to-negative ratio of new reviews in the time periods around the review bomb, it was even clearer — the review bomb ends up being a temporary distortion of the review score.”

The histogram feature has been added to all games’ pages as of today. Polygon has reached out to Campo Santo for further comment on the situation.

Update: Kjellberg has issued a statement about the review bombing situation as it pertains to Firewatch, calling review bombing wrong and tweeting that he doesn’t condone the activity.