Giant Bomb News

231 Comments

Power to the People, Until the Power's Out of Control

A negative review is one thing, but 20 of them? In an hour? Out of nowhere? The problems developers face when Metacritic goes awry.

Signal Games is not the only developer to experience a rash of strange, out-of-nowhere negative reviews on Metacritic.

Signal Studios had a problem last week.

The tiny developer of Toy Soldiers: Cold War discovered its game had been hit with a series of negative, score-only (meaning no text) user reviews on Metacritic overnight, dragging its overall user rating down. While the scores assigned by critics are important, so are user reviews--anyone visting Metacritic is free to sort games by user reviews, too.

Metacritic has been a lightning rod of criticism over the years, due to its ties to developer pay.

"There is a rash of fake negative user scores going about Metacritic and it hit TS:CW (and other games)," said Signal Studios community manager Logan DeMelt last week. "This means we need to hear your voice!"

DeMelt started mobilizing fans to add more reviews to the pile, incentivizing them with free download codes for Toy Soldiers: Cold War.

"If you write a user review," he said, "just being honest (we aren't bribing for positive) we will do the following: You write a review & post it, and we will put your name in for a chance for a prize on Friday. Every 10 new posts, we will drop a code out."

Of course, there are problems with this approach, especially in terms of the perception of a developer asking people to write reviews, albeit not advocating positive or negative, by dangling prizes around. DeMelt even got some Twitter flack about the concept from a friend, Sucker Punch community manager Colin Moore.

When I talked to Signal Studios president and creative director Douglas Robert Albright III on the phone last week, he told me he'd asked DeMelt to stop the promotion, understanding how people might interpret it.

"It doesn't matter what your intentions are, it's what the perception is," said Albright. "If that's the perception, then we'll just stop doing it. Because, honestly, he [DeMelt] had no intention of bribing people to get good scores."

"It was actually my fault," he continued. "I looked at the Metacritic and contacted them and told them 'This has been spammed.' We're not a bunch of dudes with a bunch of money laying around or whatever. It affects us, right? You can search by user scores and stuff like that. It's clearly spam. Metacritic just responded with this generic thing. All the intent was 'Well, this isn't our fault, we're just going to go on Metacritic and [ask users to] review the game.'"

Signal Studios noticed a spike in negative reviews overnight, without review text to accompany it.

Like it or not, Metacritic has become important to the games industry. It's a system with faults, and one that's come under enormous criticism over the years. But game publishers have few ways to determine success outside of sales--so they turn to Metacritic. Metacritic determines bonuses and royalty payouts for many. Thus, developers have reason to pay close attention.

The situation prompts hard questions for developers, especially small ones with financial destinies tied to something partially out of its control. There are few options. Asking for reviews could be perceived wrong, but what do you do if the negative reviews seem fake? How do you prove that? If you can't prove it but know you're right, do you gamble the possible backlash?

The motivations behind the user or users spamming Metatritic with negative reviews are unknown. Blind Internet rage? Sheer boredom? A new form of spam?

"I don't imagine there is some conspiracy," said Albright. "I think some folks just do annoying crap because they can. Like the kids who hack the leaderboards or idiots who deploy viruses. Ever play mailbox baseball?"

...no comment.

In any case, Albright hasn't received any evidence worth acting on--and neither has another studio.

The only reason Signal Studios even realized something was goofy on its Metacritic page was thanks to Supergiant Games noticing a similar explosion of negative user reviews overnight for Bastion in early September.

Signal Studios was tipped off to the Metacritic issue by Supergiant Games.

"I think it was sitting at around a mid-8 on Xbox 360 and at a 9 on PC, but on September 2 it had dropped into the 6s," said Supergiant Games creative director Greg Kasavin to me over email. "No additional user reviews were posted on that day (or at least no new negative reviews were posted), but I noticed that we had 20 new 'negative' user ratings that were entered for both versions of the game. This struck me and the rest of us as highly suspicious, because we were gathering new user ratings at a much slower rate than that in previous days. The idea that all of a sudden we would get 40 extremely disappointed people come and give us a 0 out of 10 rating all at the same time seemed very dubious."

Supergiant Games mentioned the bizarre nature of the user reviews over its Twitter and Facebook accounts and left it at that.

"It's the first time we've ever complained about something via our Facebook and Twitter so I didn't do it lightly," said Kasavin.

Bastion's user review score went up as a result--7.7 on Xbox 360, 8.0 on PC--but the damage was done. Kasavin flagged the issue with Metacritic but was told little could be done. Metacritic said it's very careful with user reviews, especially so if the user doesn't actually write a review. On Metacritic, it's possible to submit a "review" with only a score, making it difficult to determine whether someone simply registered an account and their negative review was their first submission--or spam.

Supergiant mentioned the Metacritic issue and users responded with positive reviews.

"We just had to let it go," he said. "We value Metacritic as a service and are the highest rated XBLA [Xbox Live Arcade] game released so far this year according to them. There are some really great user reviews of our game on there, and if ratings-bombing continues to be an issue for other products, I trust it's something that the team there will investigate a solution more closely."

I contacted Metacritic about this pattern of issues. Metacritic told me each review has a "report abuse" option, which sends the review to Metacritic's team to possibly delete the review or ban the user.

"If any interested party feels that there has been a group of illegitimate user ratings (score only) entered for its game, they can contact me through the website and we'll investigate the issue," explained co-founder Marc Doyle. "We track each rating and can delete any that appear to be illegitimate or suspicious to us after a staff review of the rating data in question."

For now, for better or worse, that's the way the system works.

"The way to fix Metacritic user reviews is to simply require a written review and verify user accounts," said Albright. "If it was just some random blog I'd say whatever. But this is a major news review aggregator that should have better oversight and some standards."

Patrick Klepek on Google+
231 Comments
Posted by patrickklepek
Signal Games is not the only developer to experience a rash of strange, out-of-nowhere negative reviews on Metacritic.

Signal Studios had a problem last week.

The tiny developer of Toy Soldiers: Cold War discovered its game had been hit with a series of negative, score-only (meaning no text) user reviews on Metacritic overnight, dragging its overall user rating down. While the scores assigned by critics are important, so are user reviews--anyone visting Metacritic is free to sort games by user reviews, too.

Metacritic has been a lightning rod of criticism over the years, due to its ties to developer pay.

"There is a rash of fake negative user scores going about Metacritic and it hit TS:CW (and other games)," said Signal Studios community manager Logan DeMelt last week. "This means we need to hear your voice!"

DeMelt started mobilizing fans to add more reviews to the pile, incentivizing them with free download codes for Toy Soldiers: Cold War.

"If you write a user review," he said, "just being honest (we aren't bribing for positive) we will do the following: You write a review & post it, and we will put your name in for a chance for a prize on Friday. Every 10 new posts, we will drop a code out."

Of course, there are problems with this approach, especially in terms of the perception of a developer asking people to write reviews, albeit not advocating positive or negative, by dangling prizes around. DeMelt even got some Twitter flack about the concept from a friend, Sucker Punch community manager Colin Moore.

When I talked to Signal Studios president and creative director Douglas Robert Albright III on the phone last week, he told me he'd asked DeMelt to stop the promotion, understanding how people might interpret it.

"It doesn't matter what your intentions are, it's what the perception is," said Albright. "If that's the perception, then we'll just stop doing it. Because, honestly, he [DeMelt] had no intention of bribing people to get good scores."

"It was actually my fault," he continued. "I looked at the Metacritic and contacted them and told them 'This has been spammed.' We're not a bunch of dudes with a bunch of money laying around or whatever. It affects us, right? You can search by user scores and stuff like that. It's clearly spam. Metacritic just responded with this generic thing. All the intent was 'Well, this isn't our fault, we're just going to go on Metacritic and [ask users to] review the game.'"

Signal Studios noticed a spike in negative reviews overnight, without review text to accompany it.

Like it or not, Metacritic has become important to the games industry. It's a system with faults, and one that's come under enormous criticism over the years. But game publishers have few ways to determine success outside of sales--so they turn to Metacritic. Metacritic determines bonuses and royalty payouts for many. Thus, developers have reason to pay close attention.

The situation prompts hard questions for developers, especially small ones with financial destinies tied to something partially out of its control. There are few options. Asking for reviews could be perceived wrong, but what do you do if the negative reviews seem fake? How do you prove that? If you can't prove it but know you're right, do you gamble the possible backlash?

The motivations behind the user or users spamming Metatritic with negative reviews are unknown. Blind Internet rage? Sheer boredom? A new form of spam?

"I don't imagine there is some conspiracy," said Albright. "I think some folks just do annoying crap because they can. Like the kids who hack the leaderboards or idiots who deploy viruses. Ever play mailbox baseball?"

...no comment.

In any case, Albright hasn't received any evidence worth acting on--and neither has another studio.

The only reason Signal Studios even realized something was goofy on its Metacritic page was thanks to Supergiant Games noticing a similar explosion of negative user reviews overnight for Bastion in early September.

Signal Studios was tipped off to the Metacritic issue by Supergiant Games.

"I think it was sitting at around a mid-8 on Xbox 360 and at a 9 on PC, but on September 2 it had dropped into the 6s," said Supergiant Games creative director Greg Kasavin to me over email. "No additional user reviews were posted on that day (or at least no new negative reviews were posted), but I noticed that we had 20 new 'negative' user ratings that were entered for both versions of the game. This struck me and the rest of us as highly suspicious, because we were gathering new user ratings at a much slower rate than that in previous days. The idea that all of a sudden we would get 40 extremely disappointed people come and give us a 0 out of 10 rating all at the same time seemed very dubious."

Supergiant Games mentioned the bizarre nature of the user reviews over its Twitter and Facebook accounts and left it at that.

"It's the first time we've ever complained about something via our Facebook and Twitter so I didn't do it lightly," said Kasavin.

Bastion's user review score went up as a result--7.7 on Xbox 360, 8.0 on PC--but the damage was done. Kasavin flagged the issue with Metacritic but was told little could be done. Metacritic said it's very careful with user reviews, especially so if the user doesn't actually write a review. On Metacritic, it's possible to submit a "review" with only a score, making it difficult to determine whether someone simply registered an account and their negative review was their first submission--or spam.

Supergiant mentioned the Metacritic issue and users responded with positive reviews.

"We just had to let it go," he said. "We value Metacritic as a service and are the highest rated XBLA [Xbox Live Arcade] game released so far this year according to them. There are some really great user reviews of our game on there, and if ratings-bombing continues to be an issue for other products, I trust it's something that the team there will investigate a solution more closely."

I contacted Metacritic about this pattern of issues. Metacritic told me each review has a "report abuse" option, which sends the review to Metacritic's team to possibly delete the review or ban the user.

"If any interested party feels that there has been a group of illegitimate user ratings (score only) entered for its game, they can contact me through the website and we'll investigate the issue," explained co-founder Marc Doyle. "We track each rating and can delete any that appear to be illegitimate or suspicious to us after a staff review of the rating data in question."

For now, for better or worse, that's the way the system works.

"The way to fix Metacritic user reviews is to simply require a written review and verify user accounts," said Albright. "If it was just some random blog I'd say whatever. But this is a major news review aggregator that should have better oversight and some standards."

Staff
Edited by Vinny_Says

It's sad devs put so much importance on metacritic, even sadder when they care about user reviews where anyone can write anything

Posted by Yodzilla

I didn't think anyone paid attention to the user reviews. The aggregated "real" reviews yes but the user reviews have always been garbage.

Posted by falling_fast

metacritic is silly

Posted by StormHarbinger

Great piece Patrick. Important stuff to consider.

Edited by Undeadpool

I remember when this exact thing happened for Dragon Age II...and I'm sure it will absolutely happen for Gears of War 3. It's really said that publishers prize User Reviews this highly for this exact reason. Yeah, it wouldn't be terribly smart to just tell your user base you flat-out don't care unless they're "critics," but tying THIS much to them is just primed for this kind of random mayhem.

Posted by Diablos1125

Man Metacritic is filthy

Posted by benjaebe

@Vinny_Says said:

It's sad devs put so much importance on metacritic, even sadder when they care about user reviews where anyone can write anything

Devs don't, but publishers do because it's a quick and easy way to look at how a game is doing. It's stupid, I hate it and it's horribly inaccurate, but it's how things are right now. What's worse is when they apply a 100 point scale to every reviewer. A 4/5 on Giant Bomb becomes an 80, even if that's not the reviewers intention. And there's nothing they can do about it. Adam Sessler had a talk at GDC about it which you can watch here. He has it pretty much nailed down.

This is no surprise to see user reviews get spammed. It happens to bigger releases too - Dragon Age 2 got firebombed on Metacritic when it came out, as did Portal 2.

Edited by Prometheum5

Metacritic is dumb, but if you are going to pay attention to it and use its results for things as important as dev pay, why allow textless scores at all? I mean, either limit it to meaningful feedback only, or just ignore the whole thing as the sham it is.

Also- huge thanks to Patrick for writing a really interesting piece I something I didn't even know existed. Metacritic spam... what will they think of next?

Posted by Jeffk38uk

It wouldn't shock me if it really was a group of people spamming 0/10's simply because they can. For the lolz. Especially if it can bring a games overall scoring down. Cause if it's possible to, why wouldn't you do it?

Posted by craves

Perhaps mobs of other downloadable devs submitting 0/10 user ratings for the downloadable titles that deserve praise?

I sure hope not.

Posted by metalsnakezero

This is a really broken system if things like this is happening.

Posted by RaisingIndiana

It's crazy how much developers believe Metacritic influences decisions. Sure it counts to a certain degree, but to rely so heavily on it can be a crutch.

Posted by Pr1mus

BREAKING: people on the internet are shit!

Online
Posted by prestonhedges

Next, video game developers will feel threatened when their YouTube videos get dislikes. Users review video games with their wallets, and if I'm trolling Metacritic looking for user review scores to make my purchasing decisions, I probably shouldn't be in charge of where my money goes in the first place.

A lot of avenues in the video game industry just seem to get a sigh of disdain and the inevitable conclusion of "Yeah, the system's fucked up, but whaddayagonnado?" Genre definitions, video game journalism, reviews, etc. Doesn't really inspire confidence.

Posted by Knetic2341

Man, I hate people who do that. These are small developers who are getting attacked for no reason. It's a shame that people have to do it to developers like Supergiant and Signal.

Posted by zameer

@Yodzilla said:

I didn't think anyone paid attention to the user reviews. The aggregated "real" reviews yes but the user reviews have always been garbage.

This.

Posted by Shadow789

I can't believe you can submit a review with only a score. Seems pretty ridiculous.

Posted by bybeach

Now metacritic is pissing me off...maybe it soesn't deserve to house the gold standard.

Posted by TinyGallon

The surprising thing is that this isn't more common. Why aren't more people flaming between your Halos and Call of Dutys, etc.

I think the answer was mentioned in the comments already, who really cares.. Does anyone actually give a thought to the user score on metacritic? Even the critic score you have to take with a grain of salt until you can read more..

Interesting story though Pat, as usual

Posted by Insectecutor
"The way to fix Metacritic user reviews is to simply require a written review and verify user accounts," said Albright.

Not sure I agree there. Forcing a written review would just make people post a bunch of bullshit, and verifying accounts is too time consuming.

What they should do is weight user reviews based on the number of other users that have tagged the review "helpful." Then if you post 20 negative reviews and nobody finds your review helpful it doesn't affect the final score.

Posted by JoeyRavn

What worries me most is that if I sincerely dislike a game (for example, Bastion) and give it a low score, my rating will be dismissed as "spam". What an awesome tool Metacritic is.

Posted by BenderUnit22

That's why I think anyone who tells people to go by user reviews and ignore those fake, bought site reviews are stupid. User reviews are a gathering of 10s and 1s that say absolutely nothing about a game.

Posted by Kucheeky

I fucking hate Metacritic.

Edited by MachoFantastico

From a gamers perspective, Metacritic is useless to me and it's sad that companies who actually make the games I play rely so heavily on one simple (and very flawed) site to see if the hard working men and women deserve to be paid. It's a joke really, and stinks of suited up business men and women not knowing anything about the gaming industry.

Metacritic need to really clean themselves up to, they could be doing more but they just don't seem to want to. For example, why don't they change the system so you have to leave a written review (of a specific word amount) instead of simply allowing people to change a percentage meter and click submit. Guess Metacritic like being in the news all the time, but it baffles me that companies rely on such a system whose flaws and weakness are clear to those who make games, and those who play games.

Always wondered how film studios feel about metacritic, I know they arguable look more towards ticket sales (as they should so) but it as to be a similar situation. But as for what Signal Studio did to entice user reviews... yeah I'm not cool with that even if they wanted 'honest' reviews.

Posted by Nadafinga

"...this is a major news review aggregator that should have better oversight and some standards."

Amen to that. For better or worse, metacritic has a major influence, and they really need to stop the review spamming that going on.

Posted by MisterMouse

Yeah everyone else's comments is spot on...

Posted by zeeroid

I don't even know why people pay attention to the user ratings at all. They're completely useless. If you want to know what the gamers think, read some of their reviews.

Posted by Wandrecanada

Is it possible that there is a place or places where we can review Metacritic?  I have a negative score I'd like to find a home for.

Posted by Zelnox

Oversight?

Posted by Arker101

It's sad that douchebags on the internet affect good game publishers and developers like this.

Posted by Silver-Streak

I think this could likely be solved by listing review-only scores with the username that submitted them, as well as have a username related review history. You know, like the smart people at Whiskey Media have.

If a user has no other reviews, was registered within 30 seconds as the other 10 score-only-reviewers did, there's a good chance it's a sign of abuse.

Posted by Knigge

Just another reason why people shouldn't use the site.

Posted by mosespippy

This is clearly the fault of John Davison.

Posted by FoolishChaos
@Vinny_Says

It's sad devs put so much importance on metacritic, even sadder when they care about user reviews where anyone can write anything

They care about metacritic because people use it. It affects game sales. Its not sad that indie developers put so much importance on making a living.
Posted by Robin_Gr

User reviews don't really matter, if its perception everyone is worried about. Especially on Metacritic where the the average "official" reviews value is displayed much more prominently. It might be different on an amazon style site where user reviews are the only opinions given on products.

Posted by darkjester74

Why anyone would base a buying decision on Metacritic is beyond me. Utterly useless for getting any actual reviews.

The real insanity here is publishers tying bonus and royalty payouts to Metacritic scores. Does anyone really believe that a higher Metacritic score is directly tied to higher sales?

Posted by UltimAXE

@JoeyRavn said:

What worries me most is that if I sincerely dislike a game (for example, Bastion) and give it a low score, my rating will be dismissed as "spam". What an awesome tool Metacritic is.

Not if you take the time to explain what your issues are. Really, though, this industry puts way too much stock in numerical scoring of its software. I've never even been to Metacritic and am not one to argue semantics over whether a game deserves an 8.5 or a 9, but when people's paychecks are revolving around that and it is fairly easy to manipulate maliciously, it does become a bit of an issue.

Online
Posted by Delta_Ass

"Excuse me I'd like to give a user review of 1.0."

"Certainly. May I ask why?"

"For spite."

"Spite?"

"That's right. I don't care for the developer."

"I don't think you can review a game for spite."

"What do you mean?"

"Well if there was some problem with the game, if it were unsatisfactory in some way, then we could do it for you, but I'm afraid spite doesn't fit into any of our conditions for a review."

"That's ridiculous, I want to review it. What's the difference what the reason is?"

You can't review a game based purely on spite."

"Well so fine then... then I don't like it and then that's why I'm giving it a 1."

"Well you already said spite so..."

"But I changed my mind..."

"No... You said spite... Too late."

Posted by Cretaceous_Bob
But this is a major news review aggregator that should have better oversite and some standards.

That's not a word.

Posted by lokilaufey

@Vinny_Says said:

It's sad devs put so much importance on metacritic, even sadder when they care about user reviews where anyone can write anything

Devs care because publishers care because some consumers care. Most people kind of admit either MetaCritic is terrible or flawed, but publishers & consumers pay attention to how things are scored on that site so devs have to pay attention to it whether they want to or not. It can actually impact sales.

Posted by MaddProdigy

I had no idea anyone in the games industry actually used Metacritic to determine pay! Who are they and what in the world are they smoking? Even if it wasn't an oversight-less, independent site, the entire content of the site is opinion based. Even the game critic reviews are just professional user reviews, that's totally ludicrous that someone else's opinion would decide bonuses, and not the years and years of work developers put into a product.

I would like some more details Patrick, perhaps another story about MetaCritic and which developers/studios give it such importance?

Oh and that sucks that someone is obviously review bombing developers scores but the Metacritic people are too lazy to make a fix.

Posted by HadesTimes

Great piece Patrick, no one else has this. I would suggest publishers begin the painful process of ignoring Metacritic and actually reading reviews again. *gasp*

Posted by White_Silhouette

Here is just another example of how user reviews are getting out of hand. A screen shot taken today.

Posted by AlexW00d

Maybe the game just sucks?

Posted by bhhawks78

@JoeyRavn said:

What worries me most is that if I sincerely dislike a game (for example, Bastion) and give it a low score, my rating will be dismissed as "spam". What an awesome tool Metacritic is.

There is a huge difference between a written review with a low score and 40 random accounts giving a 0 out of ten with no explanation.

Posted by 137

the fuck is meta critic?

Edited by Delta_Ass

@White_Silhouette said:

Here is just another example of how user reviews are getting out of hand. A screen shot taken today.

Instead of stars, they use... fast forward symbols? Really? Really?

Posted by OllyOxenFree

As Adam Sessler most eloquently said:

"Fuck Metacritic."

Posted by zakkro

I used to pay attention to Metacritic years ago, but now it's just a waste of [internet] space to me. Also, I never pay attention to user scores; only to what they actually have to say.