In 2017, I discussed the continuing conundrum of 1-star protest reviews, which were still haunting Amazon and the Internet Movie Database. Later that year, Amazon removed over 900 1-star reviews (over half the total number at the time) from Hillary Clinton’s new book.

Even when they aren’t directly related to ebooks, 1-star reviews given for something other than the item’s content are a problem that can dog all digitally sold media: books, music, movies, video games, what-have-you. As I noted in my earlier article, it’s been involved in everything from windowing ebook releases to video game DRM to Gamergate.

While it can seem like a form of “slacktivism” where you don’t have to do anything but click one star and “submit,” a broad Internet-based fandom can have an effect surprisingly quickly. It’s not like an e-petition where thousands of signatures can sit out of sight and out of mind. An aggregate score is a single, pithy encapsulation of how people feel in general about something, and those thousands of 1-star ratings can bring that score down in a hurry. It is ironic that this “slacktivist” method of protest can nonetheless be one of the most effective at catching a publisher’s attention, simply because so many of them live and die by those user review scores.

The latest example to come to my attention involves video game developer Gearbox’s Borderlands 3 title, due for release on September 13, 2019. For the PC version, the game’s publisher, 2K/Take Two, elected to enter into a 6-month exclusivity contract with the Epic Games Store. This will obligate gamers who had bought the entire franchise thus far via Steam to either get this new one from another store, or else wait six months for it to come to their preferred platform.

The Epic Games Store has been highly controversial in recent months for its practice of paying big money for exclusivity on game releases, while its somewhat primitive online store offers considerably fewer features than the slick, fully developed Steam store and launcher. When rumors broke last week that Borderlands 3 was going to be an Epic exclusive, Gearbox President and CEO Randy Pitchford tweeted that the distribution deal had been entirely 2K/Take Two’s decision and Gearbox didn’t have any say, though he personally wasn’t opposed to “short” periods of exclusivity such as six months. Nonetheless, once it turned out to be true, angry Borderlands fans began leaving 1-star protest reviews of Gearbox’s other Borderlands games on Steam and elsewhere.

Valve recently implemented its own system for mitigating the impact of illegitimate 1-star reviews, similar to Amazon’s. However, as Ars Technica notes, it doesn’t seem to be very effective just yet. Randy Pitchford isn’t impressed.

(Gearbox Publishing is a separate division of Gearbox from the game development side, and doesn’t have anything to do with the distribution of Borderlands 3.)

Perhaps adding a little fuel to the fire, along with his earlier insistence that it wasn’t his call Pitchford nonetheless had also tweeted

Half-Life 3 is the long-awaited sequel to Valve’s founding first-person shooter franchise that has been stuck in development hell for over a decade. “Crazy Earl” is a reclusive, paranoid black-marketeer that Pitchford voices in the Borderlands franchise, so he probably meant for this to be taken at least partly in jest—but nonetheless, it’s easy to see how Borderlands fans could become incensed that Pitchford isn’t “[using] all the leverage and influence I can to get our game on Valve’s store as soon as reasonably possible” now. (Even if he doesn’t actually have any “leverage and influence” in this matter, which seems more likely.)

When gamers get angry because developers and publishers don’t seem to be listening to their concerns, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to click that button—as Randy Pitchford has clearly noticed. It is ironic that this “slacktivist” method of protest can nonetheless be one of the most effective at catching a developer’s attention, simply because so many of them live and die by those user review scores. Even if it doesn’t exactly make the developer kindly disposed toward said protesters, nonetheless he did notice them. It’s probably coincidental, but I imagine Pitchford is not exactly unhappy that one of those features the Epic Store currently lacks is user-posted reviews.

It’s also worth noting that the Borderlands franchise has sold literally millions of copies of the games. How many people are leaving angry reviews—a few hundred or thousand? Are most Borderlands gamers okay with the exclusivity decision? There may not be any way to know for sure. Most satisfied people aren’t moved to leave 5-star anti-protest reviews.

In any case, content creators need to be free to make their own release decisions without worrying about their ratings getting torpedoed because they annoy a bunch of noisy fans—who may not even be the majority of fans, just the ones angry enough to speak up. Content stores are going to need to find effective ways of dealing with the 1-star review issue, because it’s probably going to be with us just as long as consumers can get angry and leave reviews.

Along with announcing Borderlands 3, Gearbox released an upgraded version of the original Borderlands game—bumping the price to $30. However, people who own the original version of Borderlands get the $30 version for free. At the moment, Amazon is still offering the original PC version for $7.50, and I’ve been told that people who buy and install it will still get the $30 version for free. I can’t be 100% sure of that, but it seems like a cheap enough price if you want to try it. I’m even available for co-op play!

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