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‘Positive review bomb’ of Assassin’s Creed Unity posed a quandary to Steam

Managers, uncertain that praiseworthy reviews fit the definition of a bomb, did nothing

Assassin’s Creed Unity - tracking a target behind a corner Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Valve acknowledged that the case of a positive “review bomb” for Assassin’s Creed Unity presented a dilemma to Steam managers trying to keep user reviews helpful and on topic. In the end, Steam moderators “decided we’re just going to leave it alone,” but still argued that at least some of what inspired this positive bomb was in fact on topic, or at least wasn’t off-topic.

To recap: On April 17, Ubisoft made Assassin’s Creed Unity, set in Revolutionary France, free for a week to PC users on its Uplay platform, and donated €500,000 to help the restoration of Notre-Dame, whose roof and spire burned earlier that week. Ubisoft did so, it said, because the cathedral figures prominently in the game, and it wanted players to have a chance to virtually tour the monument as it existed centuries before it was damaged.

Gamers wanted to repay the publisher with a gesture of goodwill, so they took to Unity’s Steam page — again, this was being offered for free elsewhere — to praise both the game and the maker. On the face of it, even if the commentary was positive and praiseworthy, the behavior seemed to match the negative “review bombs” that had befallen games like Metro Exodus after their publishers reached exclusive deals with the Epic Games Store.

In March, Valve announced new measures for review bombs that would effectively remove those scores from the aggregated user score shown to most customers. (Users can, through a preference setting, choose to see an aggregation of all user scores, even if they include review-bomb votes.) When that happens, Valve defines a period of activity as being subject to the “review bomb,” and takes any review left in that span out of the calculation. The text of the reviews remains on the game’s page and may still be read. Borderlands 2 was the first game to have negative reviews removed from a period identified as “off-topic activity.”

Technically, Steam’s moderation efforts are directed at off-topic behavior, although a community manager noted that the policy was developed with negative reviews in mind. But the Unity case “doesn’t quite fit the pattern of negative review bombs,” they wrote. “There was a significant increase in actual players alongside the increase in reviews. That isn’t necessarily the case with a typical off-topic review bomb.”

Further, there may be a case that what users were reacting to wasn’t out of context or immaterial to the game’s usefulness, enjoyability, or merit. Generally speaking, political statements made by the developer of a game have little to do with the game itself. But news that a game with a heavy multiplayer component had all of its live services team laid off would be relevant, even if the people are criticizing the company’s business or employment practices, because that affects the online experience.

In Unity’s case, it could be argued that the game “happens to now include the world’s best virtual recreation of the undamaged monument.” That, plus the fact that people leaving reviews were indeed playing the game, and that the data “all looks very much like a game that’s gone on sale, or received an update,” led Valve to stand pat. Even if Steam had flagged the positive review bomb and removed those scores, it would have lowered the game’s overall review score by only 1.3%. And that would have had no “significant effect on its visibility in the [Steam] store,” according to Valve.

The post explains, somewhat, how Valve weights store display to a game’s overall reputation (with a supermajority of titles rated “mixed” or better). Increased sale behavior, even with the game available for free on another platform, can be attributed to the increase in visibility for the game — which generates activity notices for users playing the game, which increases the game’s exposure among Steam’s social network. “For example, in the time period since the events in Paris, there’s been more than a 500% increase in the number of toasts shown to players telling them that a friend has launched AC:Unity,” the post said.

Ultimately, Valve reached no conclusion about the motivations or the nature of the positive review bomb for Assassin’s Creed Unity, even if choosing to do nothing about it effectively treats it differently from a garden-variety negative review bomb. But it is a window into the vexatious nature of user reviews, which ideally impart a wisdom of the crowd and give players a meaningful and necessary voice in product appraisal, but often end up abused as a form of protest and spite.