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Design > Toxicity

One of the forum posts I was reading vis-a-vis community toxicity in hard group content – or any game, for that matter – asserted that toxicity is inevitable. I agree. “Any civilization is just three meals away from anarchy.” There is darkness in all of us, beneath the surface. Indeed, I would suggest that how we manage (and hopefully contain!) that darkness is precisely what makes us human beings in the first place.

However, I arch an eyebrow any time someone throws their hands in the air, claiming nothing can be done about the issue of toxicity in multiplayer games. We may not be able to ensure no one is ever toxic or disruptive to another player, but we sure as hell can mitigate, manipulate, and otherwise manage player behavior through system design.

An example I am still in awe over has been the Blizzard design for Hearthstone. Namely, how there is no chat feature with your opponents. Does this prevent every avenue for trolling and other “BM” (Bad Manners) behavior? Of course not. When you look at the forums though, the BM consists of stalling a full turn-timer’s worth, emoting Well Played right before the killing blow, or playing unnecessary cards before the kill. Oh, and some people get really upset when others concede before allowing them to manually deliver the final hit.

Compare that to, I don’t know, maybe any time you turn on XBox Live.

While there may not be any silver bullets for bad behavior in MMOs given the more freeform experience, I believe design can still mitigate the worst of it. For example, removing the ability to kick someone mid-combat or before loot is distributed entirely removes the ability of guild-groups to arbitrarily remove competition (at least, not after the kickee contributed). Binding BoE loot to people who do Need rolls prevents those “Need to sell on AH” players. Shared resource nodes not only prevents any animosity/misunderstandings about ninja-looted nodes, it has the pleasant byproduct of people being glad to see others, as they direct you to nodes you may have missed, helping you clear the path, etc.

Things not to do? Basically anything Wildstar is currently doing. If you have a quest to kill a certain number of mobs, you might get 8% complete per mob you kill. If some random stranger pops out of a bush and hits that same mob with an attack or two, suddenly you only receive 4% credit. Why? For the love of all that is good and holy WHY? Manually forming a group with these strangers doesn’t work to make things any faster either – the lot of you just have to kill twice as many mobs. This sort of design not only discourages cooperation and enables trolling, it fosters a (correct!) notion that other players are obstacles to your goals. The only “challenging” aspect of most of the Challenges in Wildstar is not giving yourself an aneurysm by the behavior – or very existence! – of other people.

You might be thinking I am exaggerating here. No, my friend. I did not hate perfect strangers more in Darkfall, when they could murder me at any time and full-loot my corpse. Because that was understood; that is what you signed up to do. I did not sign up to Wildstar to unknowingly steal other people’s accomplishments simply by existing in the same zone.

You might have heard that there are a lot of Group quests in Wildstar to kill powerful creatures. It’s true. What’s also true is that if you and a stranger bond in common purpose to attack one, but you tragically end up dying, you get zero credit for the kill. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why. I’m sorry, Carbine developers, for not making my very temporary fellowship with Sizzlebutt “official” by clicking some buttons on your interface. If I hadn’t died, we both would have gotten credit, but nevermind. Clearly there is some wizened, highborn logic behind this deliberate decision I am too simple to understand. Perhaps allowing dead players to receive credit for a mob eventually killed would open an exploit that unraveled your entire, expertly-crafted leveling experience. Or perhaps it never crossed your empty skulls.

Do you see what I mean about toxicity?

In an MMO, every player you meet should be an opportunity. Every aspect of your social game should be geared toward encouraging positive experiences. Every point of social friction should receive ample grease. Seriously, mind boggled at Gold Medals being tied to player deaths in LFG groups.¹ Do you know what they called that in WoW when it was implemented in Naxx? A goddamn mistake.

¹ This post was written before the news on Friday. Still, it is an idea that never should have survived the whiteboard.

Need-Based Socialization

Keen has a rather curious post asking “Should Everyone Craft Everything?” The premise of his argument is that specialization is the root of socialization, and as such, a proper MMO would not allow everyone to craft everything. In fact, anyone who suggests that they should be allowed to have some level of self-sufficiency is “an entitled xenophobe” better left to single-player games, and the catering to whom is a “dumbing down” of a MMO to the “lowest common denominator.”

Which, along with the Free Space, is a full Bitter MMO Vet Bingo.

Special thanks to Keen, SynCaine, and Tobold for the inspiration.

Special thanks to Keen, SynCaine, Tobold, and their commenters for the inspiration.

The fig leaf proffered is that perhaps everyone can make all the basic recipes, but that only specialists can make the best items. However, the whole notion is ridiculous, for a number of reasons.

First, you cannot “force” specialization in any game that allows alts. It wasn’t even much of a commitment on my part to develop a full stable of crafting alts in WoW because I wanted the ability to switch up my endgame play-style anyway. Even if you imagine that your perfect MMO limited you solely to one character per account, people could bypass the restriction via multiple accounts. That is, after all, exactly what EVE players do when they circumnavigate the restrictions of real-time skill gains (itself a way of forcing specialization). I suppose on the plus side, this makes your subscriber numbers look pretty peachy.

Second, you don’t actually need mutually-exclusive specializations in order to have a robust economy, as Keen claims. Within the beginning chapters of every Economics 101 textbook is an explanation of comparative advantage. The simple version is that two villages can produce both rice and fish, but at differing ratios: Island A can produce 10 units of rice or 5 units of fish in a day, and Island B can produce 10 units of fish or 5 units of rice. The ideal proposition is for Island A to produce rice, Island B to produce fish, and then trade half for half with one another, leaving both the richer for it. In fact, an economy between the two islands works even if Island A can produce everything more efficiently than Island B.

Or, perhaps more simply put, there is an opportunity cost to every action, regardless of whether or not you can do everything yourself. Any in-game economy will continue humming at full speed as long as one person is willing to mine ore and another more willing to farm gold than ore. Even though I could make everything myself in WoW, I still bought huge sums of materials and even finished goods because it was faster than doing it myself. Indeed, the existence of an AH at all will typically create entire economies by itself (barring ghost town populations).

Finally, there is a curious sort of bluntness to the dispassionate thought that people need to be forced to interact with one another via extreme limitations. Don’t get me wrong, I am someone who is thoroughly behind the idea of Divine Trinity and other forms of implicit specialization. But I feel like these sort of roles should be arrived at organically, rather than at the character select screen. I am a tank because I enjoy being a tank, not because I happened to pick “Paladin” in 2008. If I had stuck with Warlock, my first WoW character, how much less value would I have brought to the game, to the friends I made, and to my own game experience? As WoW has proven time and again, and even in the largely role-less GW2, just because everyone can be a tank (or tank-like), doesn’t mean they are willing to step into that role. So what possible good can come from shackling a potential tank to a dreary DPS-only experience? “So specialization matters”?

Further, the days in which I am inclined to make new friends out of perfect virtual strangers is largely in the past, and no amount of cumbersome game mechanics will get me back to that place. Even if extreme specialization is for the next generation of MMO player’s sake, I’m rather skeptical that such methods would at all work out the way people imagine they would. As Tobold recently pointed out, our generation of gamers were playing MMOs before the advent of Facebook and other social media – our games were our social media, our place to meet like-minded individuals. MMOs these days are 3-monthers not because they lack in content or design, but because we’re unwilling or unable to invest the social capital necessary to maintain our interest. And why would we? Either we brought along all the friends we already have, or they didn’t make the jump with us. In both cases, we’re full-up on social interaction, thanks.

So, essentially, I say let people do what they want, and they will sort themselves out according to their predilections.

The Pro-Social Problem

There have been a number of posts lately about making MMOs more pro-social. As you might imagine, nearly every suggestion was a dusting-off of mechanics of the past. “Remember the good old days when you spent 30 minutes of your free time waiting for a boat?” The overall logic seems to be that if you stuff players into an elevator for long enough, eventually they will become friends.

Among the suggestions, what is left unstated is the only truly relevant factor: as a player, do you want to make friends?

To be charitable, let’s assume that that fundamental question has been left unvoiced simply because there isn’t much a designer can do about it. But that’s the thing. If a player of your game isn’t interested in developing life-long friendships, then a lot of your pro-social mechanics are likely to be annoying. For example, Rohan suggested a game in which you have to be in a guild in order to do anything. As someone with zero interest in (more) virtual obligation, that would prevent me from playing such a game at all.

I am not convinced that the “lack” (however that’s measured) of pro-social mechanics in modern MMOs is, in fact, a problem. It is true that I made some friends back in the TBC era of WoW, and that we still interact with one another 5+ years later. It is also true that I could not care less about making more friends; I’m full-up, thanks. How many of us are actively looking for new people to add to our lives?

Now, it is an open question as to whether I would have made the friends I did in TBC had the WoW environment instead been, say, Panderia. It might be easy to suggest I would not have, given we originally met as low-level Alliance players slogging our way through Horde zones to do a Scarlet Monastery dungeon. Between LFD and LFR, it’s quite possible I would not have met any of them even on my no-pop server. Of course, I almost didn’t meet any of them anyway, considering I could have decline doing a dungeon that day, they could have not needed a tank, not wanted another acquaintance, logged on an hour later, etc etc etc. I don’t find “what if?” scenarios especially convincing.

I keep coming back to the main question – do you want to make new friends? – because it doesn’t really matter how the game is structured if you do want to meet people. Communities exist for even single-player games, and so I doubt even a strictly anti-social MMO would stop friendships from forming. So who exactly are these pro-social/anti-solo mechanics even for? As long as the game is structured so that it’s fun to play with the friends that you have (i.e. grouping isn’t punished), I do not see what possible benefit there is to alienating the introverted portion of your audience with arbitrary and forced grouping.

I dunno, maybe I’m just not seeing it. I do not befriend someone because they are a good tank, or good healer, or are always doing the same dailies as I am at 8pm on Thursday evenings. That would make you, at most, a coworker, an acquaintance, a resource, a tool for my own edification. Friendship is something that endures past logging off, which means friendship exists outside of the game itself, which makes the entire pro-social movement seem silly. You can’t “trick” someone into making that leap of interest with some clever programming.

If game designers want to encourage more friendships – in an ironically cynical desire to drive long-term engagement – they need to make more tools for self-expression and other means of broaching out-of-game interaction. World-class rogue DPS? Sure, I’ll use you to ensure my own dungeon run is a success. Oh, your favorite game is Xenogears too? Now I’m interested.

Maybe the assumption is that if we do enough dungeons together, that this friend-making moment will naturally occur. If so, it all seems so hopelessly passive for as disruptive it ends up being for the solo player.