Harmonix Caught Astroturfing Amazon Reviews For Rock Band 4, Offers Non-Apology Apology

from the rock-out-with-your-sockpuppets-out dept

It’s something we probably all assume happens to some degree some of the time. A new video game comes out, it’s put up on various consumer sites that allow for user reviews, and we assume at least some of the truly gushingly positive reviews are from people connected with the game trying to gin up positive feelings for their game. The problem, of course, is that if this is occurring, those perpetrating the mischief are smart enough to create new profiles and handles for their efforts, so as to hide their identities. Thus, we assume, but cannot verify.

Harmonix, a video game maker which recently released Rock Band 4, has happily come by to assist us with this problem by having employees too lazy to create these sock-puppet accounts while posting insanely positive Amazon.com reviews for the game. As discovered by an enterprising Reddit user:

Harmonix employees seem to have taken to Amazon to post their own favorable reviews of the game. At first I thought it was a rogue employee or two but then I dug around for about a half hour and found 7 of them and so it appears to be more of an initiative. I’m sure there’s more than that. I don’t know the legality of this but it’s highly unethical and extremely disappointing. No excuses. Companies are not supposed to reviewing their own products, PERIOD.

Real names were found by clicking on the wish list of the reviewer https://imgur.com/OPRiEln

This is good sleuthing if I ever saw it. So, a handful of Harmonix employees have been caught red-handed astroturfing reviews for their own game. While doing so, they apparently went so far as to invent brand new personas for themselves, cosplaying as “new fans” to the genre and as members who are “looking forward to seeing what’s next” from Harmonix, when they likely damn well know because they are Harmonix. Questions of legality aside, everyone is likely to agree how distasteful this is and what a vacuum of trust this will leave with gamers. Given the current climate of things, trust deficits are no way to position a game company.

Which is what makes the following statement Harmonix provided to Kotaku so perplexing:

Harmonix has clarified its internal policy about posting reviews of our own products on retail sites, and we’ve asked that existing reviews be edited to identify Harmonix employees or be removed entirely. While we believe the reviews posted by a few employees were sincere and without ill intentions, as a studio we don’t believe these are appropriate actions. We appreciate the feedback from the community, and take our relationship with our fans seriously.

There’s a roughly zero chance of anyone taking that non-apology from Harmonix seriously. When employees are going to drop Amazon reviews making up personas as people who have never played a game in the genre, everyone has to know that there are ill-intentions there. It’s lying, at the very least. But, worse, it’s lying directly to potential customers in a manner designed to claw money out of their pockets. Expect this to get to the point in which Harmonix has to offer a second apology-apology before this dies down.

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Companies: amazon, harmonix

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Comments on “Harmonix Caught Astroturfing Amazon Reviews For Rock Band 4, Offers Non-Apology Apology”

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20 Comments
DCL says:

A bit of tilting at windmills here...

I see it as a some employees being passionate about what they are doing and I will give them the benefit of the doubt because if you look at Harmonix as a whole they are out right, hands down the most consumer friendly and transparent video game company in the industry.

I have some insight into this as I have worked for a major video game companies it is a double edged sword when you post, let me explain:

On one had if you say you work for X then suddenly you become some sort of semi-official spokesperson and some companies have (misguided) policies against that.

On the other hand if you try to hide your affiliation you suddenly find yourself in the situation Tim has painted here.

Then you get the official PR branch to try to clean up the perceived evil for what ever way and that tends to make things worse.

Here I think the truth is somewhere in between. Some employees who are super excited about the product wanted to share their opinion and didn’t have clear guidance (or bad guidance from a manager) so they tried to hide their affiliation.

My opinion is for employees to be open about their connection and disclaim it as is their opinion. As a consumer if some excited, non-pr speaking employees showed up on the board I would take that as a good sign.

p.s. The video game company I work for now has a program to encourage employees to voice their feelings as long as it is clear it is their opinions.

DocGerbil100 (profile) says:

Re: A bit of tilting at windmills here...

Hello, DCL. 🙂

Sorry, old chap, but no. The games Project Manager, Senior Designer, Legal & Music Co-ordinator, Audio QA Lead, Lead Character Artist and a Consultant are the offending reviewers – and those are just the ones who were easily identified.

Regardless of whatever virtues the company may possess, that’s too much to be passed off as rogue employees or the result of either poorly-formulated or poorly-communicated policies.

If I’m pushed to make a judgment-call, I can only judge this to be an intentional astroturfing effort, as an active policy choice of the company, however subsequently concealed.

I’ve no way of knowing how many other reviews were faked by employees who were smarter and used sockpuppets, or how many more of their games they’ve done this for, or how many of those unidentified fake reviews remain untouched.

All I do know for certain is that there are no circumstances under which I will trust a good review of a Harmonix game in future.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: 'I'm not upset that you lied, I'm upset because I can no longer trust you'

All I do know for certain is that there are no circumstances under which I will trust a good review of a Harmonix game in future.

And that, right there, sums up why such actions are so incredibly stupid. It’s not that they got caught shilling for their own game, a handful of bogus reviews is easy enough to dismiss, it’s the fact that their doing so puts every single positive review of their games in question from here on out. Is someone talking about how awesome a game is because they actually enjoyed it, or because they have a personal stake in it succeeding? Do they really thing it’s a good game, or are they simply being paid to say so?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: A bit of tilting at windmills here...

Sincere except for the fact employees were told directly and in no uncertain terms to post at least 5 reviews across varying sites or they’d be instantly fired?

Don’t blame the employees, boycott the game and make the real mastermind behind this crap pay…the shareholders/investors.

Violynne (profile) says:

Re: A bit of tilting at windmills here...

I can understand the point, DLC, but the big question remains: why couldn’t they have taken 5 seconds to introduce themselves as a Harmonix employee before hitting the submit button?

This is extremely unethical and now has put Harmonix in a bad light.

Though, I doubt any of this will matter. Fans of the game will buy it regardless if every review was controlled by Harmonix.

Regardless if it’s worth the 5 star reviews or not.

TimothyAWiseman (profile) says:

Re: A bit of tilting at windmills here...

Yes, I think the statement that companies should never review their own products is a bit overblown. I have no problem at all with employee’s reviewing their company’s products so long as the relationship is clearly disclosed.

Here though, it was not disclosed (whether the employees had good reason to not disclose or not is another topic). That is a problem.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: A bit of tilting at windmills here...

Yes, I think the statement that companies should never review their own products is a bit overblown.

Not at all, there’s a clear conflict of interest in play that makes a review by the employee worthless at best. What employee is going to honestly admit it if their product sucks? How often is the person selling a product going to tell you ‘Yeah, this stuff is rubbish, go elsewhere?’

They can talk about their own product, sure, they can even make an argument for why they think it’s good, but an honest review of a product requires no conflict of interest regarding it, and that they do not have.

Anonymous Coward says:

There is nothing wrong with a company promoting their products so long as it is disclosed. However the overall Amazon star rating is understood to be neutral and from those without such conflicts of interest. For this game company to contaminate the overall star rating with such conflicts of interest is not acceptable.

Suomynona (user link) says:

Re: contaminate the overall star rating

Oh, that’s just so harsh. All we want is for everyone to just try out our game and see if they like it, that’s all; no big. We were just pushing for that to happen — no crime, no foul.

And if evryone just so happens to have to buy it before trying it out, so much the better.

Returns? Yeah, umm, it’s the standard shrink wrap license you all know and love …. so, well, no. But that’s not a problem because of all of the great reviews!

klaus (profile) says:

Re: poor quality management

What angers me is that these “reviewers” (according to Doc Gerbil above) are senior people, designers, managers. You’d think they’d know better. It’s perfectly clear they have no respect for their customers, for the gaming community, and they think themselves far superior to the great unwashed and mentally deficient folk of the internet.

Kudos to whoever unravelled this. I read the posts on Amazon, they’re not that hard to identify. Look for the overuse of management-speak and pseudo-hip. And the oh so breathless gushing…

Anonymous Coward says:

Back in the 90’s and 00’s gaming magazines were still the thing. I pretty much learned from them to trust no review. Either they were loaded with the employees from the game maker or the reviewer was given an offer they could not refuse. Glowing reviews, even for shit games, or no access to the next early release for review.

Simply the reviewing methods were broken then and since then have never regained my trust because they are all gamed now. It made any and all reviews that put a game in a positive light as dubious at best.

Today, I believe none of them. Won’t even take the time to read them and that cuts out a good part of the hype. Instead I’ll wait and see what the general gaming community has to say about it after it’s been out a while. Most of the gaming community is not beholden to making a buck by giving a glowing review. They are the buyers that have already done so. What they say is likely to be closer to the truth. Pre-order? That’s never gonna happen with me. There’s no longer a way to tell what is worth the money and what is not.

The gaming houses have completely destroyed their reputations when it comes to game reviews. I’ll not be their sucker bait.

Anonymous? Coward! says:

Re: Re:

Either they were loaded with the employees from the game maker or the reviewer was given an offer they could not refuse … Today, I believe none of them.

Maybe it’s time for the community to launch a movement investigating and analyzing ethics in gaming journalism. I’m sure that’d work out quite well.

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