Heroes of the Storm made its way from alpha to beta recently, and the rush of new players has made it well and truly a MOBA community, with all the toxic banter that entails. According to lead game producer Kaeo Milker, there are counter-measures being put into place. One of them might even work.
There’s a special place in gamer hell for those who assume they’ve mastered the meta of a beta. A current phenomenon in the HOTS beta is LoL and DOTA 2 veterans assuming the right to criticise players’ talent builds — and if you don’t play your game the way they want, my goodness, get ready for some whinging. While HOTS does have many heroes carbon copied from other MOBAs, it also has more than enough crazy ideas to warrant some humility.
It’s going to take far more time to come to grips with how Murky’s infinite respawns affect the game, or the many possible uses of Abathur psychically projecting himself on any teammate, anywhere, at any time. Players have only begun to understand what the Lost Vikings can do, controllable as a group or as three individual units. But the design of MOBAs creates frustrated competitive players — and where there are frustrated competitive players, there’s blame being doled out.
Games like this will always make us angry. It’s in their very design. Throw people into an environment where they have to wait when they die, and you’ll get anger. Add the fact that sometimes it’s your teammate’s fault, and anger becomes rage. Mix in anonymity, and that’s outright toxicity.
The systems that League of Legends and DOTA 2 have put in place are effective, to a degree. Rewarding exemplary behaviour, punishing consistent dickery. But they’re still just treating the symptoms of the problem, which is an unchangeably frustrating design — making them just bandaids on a wound that can’t be closed.
There’s no equation for chat moderation. Even as our lives become more and more dependent on machine learning and we become slaves to invisible algorithms, it’ll still take a quantum leap for AI to understand sarcasm. And as long as there’s a report feature, people will wield it against new or lesser-skilled players, thinking they can game the system to only be teamed up with pros.
It looks grim for team-based games. Limiting communications works in a 1v1 game like Hearthstone, but every tool you take away also limits potential team communication. We can’t expect companies to police their massive player populations through traditional customer service. And there hasn’t been a global community solution devised yet that works.
But there’s a promising feature in the works for HOTS, which I think is its best chance. Kaeo Milker hinted at a new Groups feature in this Rock Paper Shotgun interview. There are no details on that yet - perhaps he's just referring to the party system - but I’m daring to hope that it could allow players to engage with the communities they choose. Less regional matchmaking, more people you know & trust. The game will be popular enough to support sub-communities.
Why is this good? Just because we don’t have an effective system for policing toxicity globally doesn’t mean we can’t do it on a community level. It’s like stepping backwards to step forwards — before games were always connected to global authentication & matchmaking systems, you had to connect to a local server, manned by a local admin.
Some of these admins were especially vigilant — they loved their game, and wanted to create a community in which it could be played without the normal abuse. This resulted in the occasional community-created oasis. You had to find it yourself, but even in the cesspits of the notoriously vulgar Counter-Strike, there were family-friendly servers to be found.
Of course, this “house rules” mentality runs counter to the status quo of companies retaining control over the game experience on a global level. But we don’t need server files, or a customisable MOTD, or anything like that. If Blizzard could just let us create self-moderated communities, that would be a wonderful compromise. I’m looking at you too, Valve. Give us control of our communities. Allow us to do your work for you. We’ll do it better.