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Steam's new "off topic" protections kick in over Borderlands review bombing

A test of the system

Steam’s updated approach to review bombing, which prevents “off topic” reviews from counting towards a game’s overall score, has kicked in for the Borderlands series. It seems to be the first time that the (optional) filter has been applied by Steam, after users flooded the series’ reviews following the announcement that Borderlands 3 will be a timed exclusive on the Epic Games Store.

Viewing the games with the option turned on puts a little asterisk next to the mark of how positive the game is, which leads to a note that reads: “Period(s) of off-topic review activity detected. Excluded from the Review Score, based on your preferences.” It doesn’t seem to actually hide those reviews, however.

Using Borderlands 2 as an example, selecting a day from the graph within the last few days will inform you that, review bomb aside, the reviews were “mostly positive.” However, you can still find those red thumbs down and plenty of gripes about Epic store exclusivity.

Reading a few, I also suspect that many users have cottoned on to the fact that they can just leave a negative review without mentioning Epic to skirt Valve’s “off topic” rules. It’s not possible to prove why someone took to Steam yesterday to write, for example, “This game is sooooo boring, that I literally fell asleep each time I played it,” but the timing seems awfully convenient.

Fuelling the fire is the fact that it took a while for the system to kick in. Per Steam’s introductory blog post, the algorithm first notices “anomalous review activity” and passes it up to a real life person “who'll then go and investigate.” Getting actual, human eyes on something is undoubtedly a good thing, but it does mean a delay. According to Borderlands 2’s Steam page, the review bomb began four days ago, on April 2nd, and it’s likely that people were driven to join in because it was “working” – dragging the games’ scores down.

Despite previously saying that it was a publisher decision that had nothing to do with him or the rest of the developers, Gearbox president and CEO Randy Pitchford also wrote on Twitter before the review bomb detection kicked in: "that this misuse [of user reviews] is possible and that Steam has no interest in correcting this misuse makes me kind of happy about [publisher] 2K’s decision and makes me want to reconsider Gearbox Publishing’s current posture on the platform."

It’s likely that sentiments influenced Steam’s changes to the system in the first place. It’s not in theirs or developers’ interests if a flood of unrelated negative reviews stops people from buying a game, and with developers eyeing other options Valve needs to prevent any push factors that might cause them to make the switch.

But, as Dominic pointed out when it was first announced, it’s still a vague policy. “We define an off-topic review bomb as one where the focus of those reviews is on a topic that we consider unrelated to the likelihood that future purchasers will be happy if they buy the game,” they said, highlighting “DRM or EULA changes” as two examples. Whether this sets a precedent for all review-bombs concerning Epic exclusivity of sequels isn’t clear.

For now Borderlands games (even the non-Gearbox, non-2K Telltale joint Tales From The Borderlands), will have to be content with the asterixes floating over their review summaries like the ghost of a “but.”

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