Heroes of the Storm might be the new kid on the block, but Blizzard's still-in-beta-but-already-popular MOBA has grown enough that it's now forced to reckon with an ever-present problem in these sorts of games: toxicity. One developer broached the subject in a recent interview with Red Bull in an interesting way.
Kaéo Milker, a senior producer on HotS, started by talking about the importance of fostering a positive community and realising over the course of development that limiting players' ability to communicate with one another was effective in some ways (i.e., shutting out jerks), but detrimental in others — like making friends in the the game (emphasis added):
Early on, we made the decision to remove cross-team chat in Heroes of the Storm in order to eliminate one side of the equation, preventing enemy teams from being toxic to each other. That was a decent start, but we all know that your own team-mates are often the most toxic offenders in these games, so we've considered a lot of options for combatting things on that end. Along the way, we had to come to terms with the reality that the kind of player who wants to be toxic to their team-mates is going to do so unless we limit their communications options, incentivise them to eliminate toxicity from their behaviour, or make the consequences for their actions severe enough that they either stop being toxic or simply find a different game to be toxic in.
Sounds like Heroes has to juggle the same things as older MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2 do. Combatting toxicity, then, requires a combination of punishments and rewards in Milker's view. Balancing those is where things start to get interesting. Milker goes on to talk about ways the developers are going to allow Heroes players to cut out inter- and cross-team communication entirely:
Our first leaning was to disable team chat between players that aren't partied by default, but we weren't thrilled about introducing something to combat toxicity that would simultaneously eliminate players' abilities to make friends and find like-minded team-mates in our game. Instead, we're going to introduce a Mute All button in an upcoming patch to allow players a quick, easy way to opt out of allied chat at the beginning of the game. This setting will be saved game-to-game and can be easily changed on the fly should you change your mind on your preferred setting, and like everything in our game we're going to test it out and determine our next course of action based on our experiences with it and player feedback.
Both Dota 2 and League can have the same sort of "mute-all" feature, but only a de facto one. You'd have to manually mute each teammate at the start of the game in League of Legends to get the same effect that Milker's describing with his game's setting. Turning this on could make the game far more palatable than it might otherwise be — especially for newcomers. But I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing. One big thing I've learned in League is that proper communication with your team is essential to playing serious games in the hopes of winning. Ironically, being a jerk actually undermines your effectiveness as a team as well, because ranting at your teammates takes time and energy away from working productively with them and actually, ya know, playing the damn game. Even when players seem like they're starting to lose their temper, I've found that coaxing them back to a more...stable position can be as simple as reminding them that we're still in the game and have a solid chance of winning.
(At least, that's been my experience so far as a fairly low-level player. I've heard things are far worse at higher levels, particularly in ranked mode — something I'll be digging into further in the coming weeks and months.)
By Milker's description, it sounds like Heroes of the Storm is trying to tamp down on toxicity with stronger, across-the-board type penalties and mute options than the ones in Dota 2 or League. In addition to the mute all feature, he mentioned a few ways they're planning to shut off trolls from the rest of the community — even literally at times:
As far as incentivising good behaviour, we've seen some really cool honour-based systems across different kinds of games that encourage players to be good to each other while rewarding them for their positive actions. We'll be introducing our own spin on these systems in a future update and hope to give positive players a pat on the back while dangling some carrots for those on the verge of being negative. On the punishment end of the spectrum, things on the table currently include auto-silencing toxic players from communicating with anyone that they aren't friends with, as well as removing toxic players from the regular matchmaking queue and only placing them on teams made up of other toxic players.
Auto-silencing sounds like a great way to deal with consistently toxic players that would please both parties: the trolls gets to keep playing the game they enjoy, and nobody else has to listen to their shit. But segregating toxic players into their own teams? Do you think they'd just end up devouring one another? Maybe if these all-troll teams start to notice they keep losing matches because they're too busy fighting with one another to actually play, they'd start to shut up more often. Or maybe seeing a bunch of mirror-images of themselves would make them realise how awful they're being.
As with other MOBAs, I imagine Heroes of the Storm will continue to experiment with a number of different methods for dealing with toxic players. More important than the value or effectiveness of any given tactic, though, the biggest problem Blizzard will likely face with its community is in its size. League of Legends' meteoric rise to the top of gaming culture left developer Riot ill-equipped to respond to issues that upwards of 60 million people were facing in any given month. Milker didn't say anything about how Blizzard plans to scaled Heroes of the Storm's anti-toxicity tools with the game's population in his Red Bull interview. Hopefully, it's an aspect of League they have examined while developing their rival game.