[Update 10:30pm ET: In a statement sent to Ars Technica just now, Valve’s Doug Lombardi says that “after a review of current review activity on Borderlands titles, the decision was made to tag the franchise for off-topic reviews on Steam, effective immediately. As a result, user reviews submitted while the titles are tagged will not count towards the games’ Review Scores. User reviews written during the tagged period will still be accessible and users can choose to include these reviews in the Review Score by changing their preferences.”
Steam reviews for Borderlands franchise games since April 2 are now shown in a histogram view with a large asterisk and the warning “Period(s) of off-topic review activity detected. Excluded from the Review Score (by default).” The “Recent Reviews” summaries for those games have also flipped from “Mixed” to “Very” or “Mostly Positive” as a result of the move.]
Original story (12:21 p.m. ET)
Last month, Valve announced a new policy aimed at curbing the problem of “off-topic review bombs” on Steam, with a horde of players posting negative reviews of a game for reasons other than the actual content of the game. This month, that policy so far doesn’t correct for some obviously off-topic rating bombs on Gearbox’s border areas spell.
In the six months prior to March 31, Borderlands 2 received a total of 412 negative reviews on Steam — a paltry 4.5 percent of all reviews posted during that time frame. In contrast, in the few days since April 1, the game has received a deluge of 2,156 negative reviews, or nearly 62 percent of the reviews in that time. You can see similar recent review patterns on the Steam pages for the original border areas† The pre-sequeland also several series of DLC packs.
Dive into the text of those recent negative reviews and you’ll see that hardly anyone is criticizing the games themselves. Instead, you’ll find hundreds of people expressing their dismay at Gearbox’s recently announced decision to release the upcoming release. Borderland 3 exclusively on the Epic Games Store for a period of six months.
A signature reviewer with over 300 hours spent on Borderlands 2 writes that the game is “one of the few looters that really keeps me busy.” But the reviewer then justifies their “thumbs down” rating”[because of] Epic Games Exclusivity [for Borderlands 3]please don’t play in Epic’s game.” Numerous other reviews use copied and pasted ASCII art of double middle fingers to express their general distaste for Epic and Gearbox’s decision.
This seems like a textbook example of the kind of off-topic review bombing that Valve is trying to combat. The company defined that kind of review bomb as “problem” in 2017[s] players are concerned about… outside of the game itself.” Valve reiterated that definition in March as a situation “where players post a large number of reviews in a short period of time, aimed at lowering a game’s rating score [and] where the focus of those reviews is on a topic that we don’t think is related to the likelihood that future buyers will be happy buying the game.”
This isn’t the first time Steam users have targeted companies making the switch to epic exclusivity. Games in 4A Games’ Subway series faced similar off-topic review bombs in the months following the sequel Metro Exodus migrated away from Steam. Numerous other Steam titles have faced rating bombs for issues completely unrelated to the content of the games themselves. But those games’ review bombs predate Valve’s announcement of a potential fix to the issue on March 15, leaving border areas the first real test of the new system.
We are waiting
Valve says it has an automated tool that “identifies any anomalous review activity on all games on Steam as close to real-time as possible.” But the final decision to remove such potential rating bombs from the overall rating score rests with “a team of people at Valve” investigating the anomalies identified by the machine.
If a review bomb is manually identified by Valve, the developer will be notified and “reviews within that time frame will be removed from the review score calculation,” Valve wrote last month. While such ratings will continue to exist and be viewable, they will no longer be included in the top-line aggregated summaries (ie “mostly positive”).
At the time of writing, the apparent border areas review bombings have been going on for over 48 hours in a clear pattern that should have been readily identifiable. So far, however, there has been no apparent action from Valve. If action is in the works, Valve has been unable to identify it in response to multiple unanswered requests for comment from Ars Technica.
(Valve may also not see reviews that are focused on) Borderland 3Move ‘s to Epic Games Store as “off topic” to previous border areas games on steam. But that would raise other questions.)
In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal for Gearbox (which has sold over 41 million units) Borderlands 2 only) or Steam users themselves. Yes, the prominent ‘Recent Reviews’ stats for border areas games on Steam have been flipped from “Very” or “Most Positive” to “Mixed” or worse because of these review bombs. But those anomalies are still just a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of thousands of positive reviews the games have received over the years, as noted in their “All Reviews” summaries.
This will almost certainly become the kind of “temporary review score distortion” that Valve called in 2017, forgotten by all but obsessive fans. That said, this is also the kind of temporary issue that Valve said it was now equipped to quickly identify and combat with a combination of new policies and tools. border areas‘ Steam Situation is the first high-profile test of that new system and, just over two days later, it’s a test that fails Valve.