A few weeks ago, after the unfortunate fire that hit the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Ubisoft decided to briefly give away copies of Assassin’s Creed Unity due to how much that game featured the famed historical landmark as part of its French Revolution-era city. The free copies meant a huge influx of new players who were, emboldened by the publisher’s generosity or the inclusion of the cathedral, motivated to provide hundreds of positive reviews for the game on Steam even if the game itself was not free on Steam.
But this introduced a problem for Valve, which had recently instituted a new method of combating review bombing for what they deemed as irrelevant reasons by not factoring anomalous reviews into the overall score. Theoretically, this is to stop things like review bombing Borderlands 2 because Borderlands 3 is going to be a timed Epic Game Store exclusive or reviews hitting a game hard because the audience does not like the developer. Under those rules, however, the positive reviews for Assassin’s Creed Unity, which also had more to do with Ubisoft giving it away for historical significance reasons rather than the game itself, would need to be similarly dismissed.
In a blog post published today, Valve explains their decision-making on ignoring the positive review bombs, though granted a month after it actually happened. The post goes into the complexities of dealing with situations like this and, in perhaps a reluctant implied admittance by Valve, the necessities of looking at them in a case-by-case situation rather than just having hard and steadfast rules with clamor-driven exceptions.
“In this case, the Notre Dame tragedy has made it so that AC:Unity happens to now include the world’s best virtual recreation of the undamaged monument,” Valve wrote. “That’s a context change that could be increasing the value players are getting from the game, so perhaps the game really is better than it was before? Or maybe that’s unrelated, and it’s actually players feeling good about Ubisoft’s significant donation to rebuilding the monument? Irrespective of the reason, perhaps this is a short-term temporal effect? Should temporal effects even be included in Review Scores? If a game was heavily focused on a time of the year, like Christmas, we suspect we’d see it have Review Score fluctuations around Christmas-time, as more people bought it and thought it was better on average than people who bought it at other times of the year.”
At the end of the day, it does look like Valve is hoping to better understand what makes user reviews tick and simultaneously protect both developers from a mob mentality and potential buyers from anti-consumer practices. It’s a bit of a tight rope to walk, and one that comes down almost entirely to judgment calls, but seemingly one Valve understands better now.