One Company's Way to 5-Star App Store Reviews: Paying Users in Virtual Currency

I was browsing Apple’s App Store yesterday, looking for some interesting new games to play during a very long flight I have coming up later this week. One of the apps that stood out as I was browsing the role-playing games section was GAMEVIL’s Destinia (iTunes link). It’s the #1 role-playing game in the U.S. store, has almost 5,000 reviews and a 5-star rating. There are not too many 5-star games out there for $0.99, so I took the plunge. Sadly, the game is a major disappointment. The graphics aren’t optimized for the iPhone 4’s display, the controls are bad, the music repetitive and it’s just plain boring as a game. So how did it get a 5-star rating?

Being puzzled by that, I went back to the App Store to take a look at the game’s reviews. The first thing I noticed was that most of them are badly written and often just one or two words long. Walking back through a few pages of these reviews, I noticed that quite a few reviewers were saying something about “100 cash” – not exactly something you expect to read in a game review. All of that made me a bit suspicious and indeed, it looks like there really is reason to be suspicious about these 5-star reviews.

According to some of the negative reviews I found, Gamevil is sending in-app currency to users who review the app and promises “free updates” to those who leave a 5-star rating. Most of Gamevil’s games use in-app purchasing to monetize them, so free virtual currency is a strong incentive to leave a good review.


100 Cash and Free Updates: Who Can Say No To That?

Intrigued, I went back and actually played the horrid game a bit longer. Lo and behold, it turns out that just after you finish the first mission, the app indeed offers you “100 cash” for leaving your rating and “free updates” in return for a 5-star review. I’m not really sure what “free updates” refers to here, given that regular updates are pretty much always free in the App Store.image

Shady Business

All of this looks quite shady. I’m not sure it’s against Apple’s App Store policies, but it sure undermines the users’ trust when it comes to user reviews in the App Store – and not just with regard to Gamevil’s apps, but the apps of all the other developers in the store, too.

I didn’t play any of the other Gamevil games yet, but I did notice that some had reviews that were very similar to those that celebrated their free “100 cash” in Destinia.