This morning's Top Story is the rumor that a BioWare employee may have been caught skewing Metacritic's user ratings.
Reddit user GatoFiasco became suspicious of the top User Review for Dragon Age II on Metacritic yesterday when it seemed to, in his words, "read almost like a press release" rather than an honest opinion. Following up on his intuition, he investigated the reviewer in question -- one "Avanost" -- and discovered via his social media footprint that he appeared to be an engineer from BioWare named Chris Hoban.
The review in question has since been removed, along with the cached version, and the Metacritic user ratings for Dragon Age II are, at the time of writing, hovering around the 4.0 mark. It's difficult to tell from the negative comments posted whether these are genuine criticisms or simply community backlash to the alleged attempt to skew the ratings. GatoFiasco believes that many of the negative comments come from 4Chan users.
The community's objection to this kind of behavior -- known colloquially as "astroturfing" -- is not necessarily that an employee of a company has potentially attempted to skew user review scores. Rather, much of the controversy over the topic is from the fact that Avanost, if he is indeed a BioWare employee, did not disclose his ties to the company as part of his Metacritic review. Under the FTC Publishing Guidelines governing testimonials and endorsements, "bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service."
It's unlikely that this is the first time corporate "astroturfing" has taken place when it comes to user reviews on Metacritic, particularly with a product as seemingly divisive amongst the gamer community as Dragon Age II. But this instance, assuming there is some truth to it, is a high-profile case that will hopefully encourage developers and publishers to rethink the way they handle promotion of their titles -- or at least to encourage their employees to be more careful with their social media footprints.
Here's a visual rundown of GatoFiasco's "investigation", produced by a community member.
STAT CHECK -- 8:45AM PST, Mar. 15, 2011
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