Player Power: Steam Review Bombing as Contemporary Protest

Player Power: Steam Review Bombing as Contemporary Protest

At the conclusion of my previous piece about Take-Two’s legal actions against the OpenIV mod tools for GTA V, I suggested that it would require a pretty extraordinary response from players to push back against the publisher. In these situations, the relations of power give every advantage to the publisher; they own the intellectual property, they have all the resources.

Individual protests mean nothing in that fight. The regular “vote with your wallet” refrain grasps that videogame players wishing to express displeasure at a publisher’s decision have very few options. But that kind of statement, economic or otherwise, is worthless without mass organisation, and serious discipline.

The latter has historically been a problem. You might be upset at Take-Two’s actions over PC mods, but are you upset enough to stop playing GTA V, or to ignore Red Dead Redemption 2 if (when) it’s announced for PC?

The semi-famous ‘Modern Warfare 2 Boycott’ Steam group image showing dozens of people playing Modern Warfare 2 is often produced to make a mockery of organised player action. It’s lacking some context (when was the shot taken, and are players on all 30 of the other hidden pages crossing the picket line too?), but it does have a valid point: the desire to play a new game will tend to outweigh displeasure at business practices surrounding that game (or the previous one).

modernwarfare2-boycott
Not the finest moment in videogame activism, admittedly.

With boycotts an unreliable method, players have tended to turn to other avenues to express discontent. As GTA V’s store page can currently attest, Steam review bombing has become a very popular outlet. The latest 48,000 plus reviews for GTA V are ‘Overwhelmingly Negative,’ pushing the game to a ‘Mixed’ rating overall.

Using the Steam review system as a semi-organised form of mass protest feels like a better directed version of Metacritic user review trolling. There, anybody could post a negative review, leaving the system prone to mob rule over the hot-button issue of the hour. On Steam people need to own a copy of the game they are leaving (or editing) a review for, which means complaints can only come from those who were committed enough to actually buy it. This affords a degree of protection against fringe outrage from people who were never really interested in the game in the first place (though reviews of refunded games remain, so it’s by no means immune to abuse).

Making a combined statement through Steam (rather than Metacritic) also feels more effective as a means of hitting a publisher somewhere it may vaguely hurt. GTA V is probably close to immune to this effect due to its astronomical popularity and sales figures, but having that ‘Overwhelmingly Negative’ tag on the same page as the purchasing button (though not, sadly, right next to it) will definitely give prospective buyers pause. Players may struggle to organise a consistent economic boycott, but they can certainly act to warn others away.

gtav-negativesteamrev
Not a lot of Take-Two love to be found here.

Other publishers have definitely felt the sting of a review bombing session and reacted accordingly. In recent memory, Impact Winter rushed out a ‘patch delivery roadmap’ on the day of release in response to player dissatisfaction with the quality of the PC port. The majority of this anger was channeled through Steam reviews. With competition for attention being absolutely savage on Steam these days, first impressions make a big difference.

It’s possible that Bandai Namco knew their Impact Winter PC release had problems and were ready to run with a ‘patch roadmap’ response before any user reviews even hit. But it’s also entirely possible that direct, visible pressure from Steam reviews, against a title which couldn’t risk losing its audience, had an effect. The publisher may also have learned that putting out a game on PC with lousy mouse and keyboard controls brings poor results.

Whether player agitation has had a direct effect is always going to be difficult to quantify. The 70,000 signatures on the petition to bring Dark Souls to the PC drew comment from Bandai Namco (yep, them again) that it had their attention. But this came only six months before the release of the PC port, suggesting that it may already have been in development when the petition was ongoing. Then again, that port was so basic it could conceivably have been completed in that time frame.

The upshot was that Dark Souls became a PC mainstay and is now a multi-million selling series on this platform. It’s hard to say whether that was the direct result of organised player action, but those voices certainly didn’t hurt. While on the subject of petitions, there’s one out there to ‘save OpenIV’ that’s a few thousand short of 75,000 signatures at the time of writing. I’d say it’s far less likely to find success than the Dark Souls request, but, again, won’t hurt.

dark souls
Reminder: Dark Souls is cool and good.

There’s been some online debate about whether it’s legitimate to use the Steam review system in this way, as if alerting people to a rubbish PC version or warning people away from a previously mod friendly game are somehow unworthy subjects. To me, that seems exactly the sort of thing for which the review system should be used. There’s definitely a line at which criticism-by-review-system can turn from legitimate protest to unpleasant mob justice. I feel very uneasy when much smaller games draw massive ire, because that’s no longer a case of punching upwards; the power imbalance flips. But if the object of displeasure is a corporation that holds basically all of the power in the dispute, Steam reviews feel like a justified outlet for grievance.

That’s not to say players detailing their complaints through Steam reviews will always meet with any measure of success. Rockstar’s professional pride may be a little hurt by the negative responses, but Take-Two probably won’t care unless they start to see any impact on sales. That doesn’t necessarily undermine the effort, though. The Steam review bombing session can help players feel solidarity with one another’s cause, and these actions may at least steer away the last handful of people who were considering buying GTA V for the open modding scene.

When players have so few avenues of protest open to them, it’s necessary to get creative. Mobilising people to subvert the Steam review system is straightforward and, at least in isolated cases, feels moderately effective where other methods have failed.