If you’ve ever browsed a bunch of Steam reviews, you’ve probably encountered the infamous thousand-hour bad review. It goes something like this: someone has heaped weeks of their life upon a game, then given it a thumbs down. Beneath the red thumb, you may find a cryptic remark, furious rant, or grand exegesis explaining every one of the game’s perceived flaws in minute detail. Whichever it is, it’s clear someone has fallen out of love and wants to share their pain.
It’s easy to poke fun at someone who has done this. On the face of it, it does seem slightly absurd, or perhaps tragi-comic, to spend so much time with a game and then complain about it on the internet. It’s also intriguing. Reading these reviews, I started to wonder what sort of stories were lurking behind them. Was it just garden-variety fan rage, regrets over lost time and money, trolling, or something else? I decided to ask some of the reviewers themselves.
Behind the Red Thumb
Everyone I interviewed claims their review is an honest expression of how they felt about the game at the time. Not only that, but most people stand by their review, if not the exact wording. “MP” (I’ve abbreviated usernames for privacy) put over 200 hours into The Division and feels exactly the same way about the game as they did when they wrote the review, though they add: “I’d definitely put some things differently as I was so salty some of my sentences don’t even make sense”.
People’s reasons for leaving reviews were a bit more varied. In some cases, it was an act of protest or frustration. According to “PT”, who gave Counterstrike: Global Offensive a thumbs down after 400 hours, “I wrote my review to express my disappointment with Valve for not fixing things I assumed were obvious issues with the game.”
Hype was another complaint. “MP”, who has spent 400 hours with The Division, bought it based on the strength of promotional trailers, but was never able to find the game they imagined.. Another player, who spent 400 hours in Fallout 4, claims it was fun but simply didn’t live up to the hype.
Not every complaint was about the game itself. ‘SK’, who played APB: Reloaded for nearly two thousand hours, condemns the game’s “venomous” community, adding: “I actually still play APB, but until the community changes, the new players need to know what they are getting into.” Likewise, “BB” points out the impact of an “all but dead” community on an online game like Battleborn. “No one plays any more other than hardcore fans of Gearbox and if you queue up for PvP, you’ll only be butting heads with those people and getting pub stomped.”
Another thing about many contemporary games is that they are always changing, and a new design direction can leave players feeling alienated. Frustrated with changes to Payday 2, one person said “the game I had fun with doesn’t really exist any more”.
Interestingly, almost everyone I spoke with saw their review as a buyer’s guide, and took their role as critic seriously. As one reviewer put it: “I try not to leave reviews until I’ve fully completed a game and made sure there was nothing else it had to offer OR if I feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth.” They also put a lot of stress on the relationship between players and developers. “A steam review honestly should serve the purpose of informing people about the current state of the game or how the developer likes to act”, says “DT”.
I was expecting a lot of complaints about ‘grind’ and wasted time, and some people certainly had regrets. “BB”, for example, was furious about the 80 hours they spent on Battleborn:
“I did keep playing because I really thought the game had more to offer. Maybe some of the LOCKED characters had a bit more depth to them. Maybe if I GRINDED for HOURS (yes, most of my hours in the game is straight up grind) for legendaries, the game would show a different side to it.”
Likewise, “MP” feels many of their 200 hours in The Division were wasted. “I say wasted, cuz all of my friends quit the game long before me and called me retarded cuz i tried so hard to get the most of it.” When they belatedly realized the game wasn’t going to be what they had expected, they were left angry and bitter.
In come cases, the reviewers continued to play games they didn’t particularly like. As “M” put it:
“At the end of the day, there a lot of reasons to play games, and they aren’t always because you love them. I play a decent amount of Overwatch even though I don’t particularly enjoy it (more of a CS:GO player), but I play it because that’s what my friends are playing right now and I like playing with them. I have also stacked tons of hours onto certain games (sometimes 10s of hours) that I wouldn’t have because I wanted to 100% the achievements.”
In fact, the social aspect of gaming was a recurrent theme. Whereas some people I talked to cited a horrible community as a reason for giving a bad review, others kept playing because of friends. According to “PT”:
“CS:GO‘s matchmaking initially placed me and my friends at a very low rank for some reason. We had quite a bit of fun as we played up through the ranks, but once we got to our proper skill level, I began to encounter many luck-based events (like random spread or damage) that made me die. I didn’t encounter these things before because we were basically rolling people and getting away with dumb shenanigans. Once we got to experience the “real game” I discovered that I was playing the game mostly because of my friends, not because of what the game itself offered.”
Value and Blame
“I put ~130 hours into [Defiance] before i realized it’s literally the same thing without change for the entire game”, writes “SR”. Repeatedly, one way these reviewers account for the brute fact of the hours they spent was expectation. Online games, particularly MMORPGs like Defiance or The Division, invite their players to invest time in order to progress. When progress doesn’t lead where the player hopes, frustration or disappointment sets in.
It’s not surprising, then, that most of my interview subjects gave short shrift to any notion that a game you have played for countless hours must be good. Again and again, they pointed out that many contemporary games are not static experiences, but evolving ones, contingent on a living community and active support from developers. As one person put it:
“I wouldn’t say complaining about a game after 1k hours is being burnt out, I would say it’s more likely to be something the devs screwed up in a patch, or some part of a game that drove them away (ie dota 2’s community).”
I went into this story half-expecting nothing but a mixture of vitriol and woe. While I got a little bit of both, the people I interviewed were, without exception, keen to approach their own stories with analytic enthusiasm and a certain detachment. Everyone had specific critiques to make of the games they played and reasoned arguments for making them, and none were the neurotically censorious Comic Book Guy stand-ins I almost expected.
More surprising was how they treated these games, not just as purchases, but as ongoing relationships. Like many relationships, these were often complex and, fundamentally, fragile.