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Overwatch Accretion

About a year and half ago, I was excited about Overwatch in large part because it was new. I enjoy FPS games in general, and have spent countless hours over the years playing the Battlefield series. There were several titles though, such as Team Fortress 2, that I either tried and dropped or didn’t bother trying at all because of accretion:

ac·cre·tion
əˈkrēSH(ə)n
noun
the process of growth or increase, typically by the gradual accumulation of additional layers or matter.

That’s the dictionary definition, but I used it this way: “the older a game gets, the less space exists for the ‘skill middle class,’ and the less the developers seem to care about catering to said group.”

For example, getting into Counter-Strike or Team Fortress 2 these days, as a brand new player, would be an exercise in futility. Not only would you be useless to your team generally, your opponents are most likely extremely skilled veterans, and you are likely to die to mechanics/map secrets you don’t even understand yet. It is a frustrating situation for everyone involved, compounded twenty-fold considering the bile and vitriol that exists just below the thin skin of faceless internet gamers.

After this weekend in Overwatch, I can sadly report that the accretion is getting real there too.

The last time I talked about Overwatch was more than a year ago – ironically around the Summer Games, which are currently ongoing – and I stopped playing towards the end of the second competitive season. Competitive Mode was a necessary addition to the game overall, but I found it has actively made the Quick Play experience worse. First, naturally competitive players got their taste of what it’s like playing with people who actually want to win the objectives, which makes the Quick Play environment feel worse in comparison. Second, new players generally avoided Competitive Mode until they got more practice, lest they tank their ranking when it matters. And finally, the toxic tryhards that couldn’t try hard enough to be successful in Competitive Mode find themselves surrounded by other toxic tryhards and complete noobs in Quick Play all day long.

“Cream rises to the top.” Sure does. But once you remove that, everyone else is stuck drinking the creamless sediment that sunk to the bottom of the glass.

In short, the experience was awful. I stopped playing Overwatch before Ana was even released, so I’m four whole characters and countless patches behind the metagame curve. Team needs a tank? Okay, let me play… Orisa. That probably wasn’t the best pick for the team composition even if I had never played her before, but nobody else cared about team composition anyway (Hanzo and Windowmaker on a point control maps? Sure!), so why not?

Because it results in an embarrassing loss. I’m frustrated because I’m still trying to figure out the correct use of my abilities, but my team is also just bad players… unless they are just trying to figure out their characters… and oh my god just end it now. In another match, I decided to go back to my old standby, Zarya, to get a win. Things were good… until they weren’t, when I realized that the healer Ana spent more time sniping instead of healing. So here I was bringing my A-game with a hero I’m actually good at (but don’t want to play anymore) and everyone else is dicking around.

Wait a minute… now I’m the tryhard.

So, yeah, it sucks playing Overwatch now. If you never stopped playing, or exclusively play in Competitive Mode, perhaps it’s the same as its always been. Coming back from a break though, queuing solo in Quick Play? I’m not even sure I would ever recommend the game to anyone now. I would much rather be playing any iteration of the Battlefield series, where noobs can exist without constituting a full 16% of the team (6v6), or 100% of the teams chance for success should they occupy a critical role, e.g. tank or healer.

The accretion problem is real, my friends, and I’m not sure what the devs can do to counteract it. Overwatch does have Arcade Modes available, and something like “Mystery Heroes” where people get forced to play random classes can help. But these modes are not entirely satisfying on their own, and generally don’t help you develop the map awareness/strategies necessary to win “real” games.

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On Trolling

Two years ago, I talked about countering toxicity via intentional game design. The example was Hearthstone, which continues to be relatively accessible and innocuous. Blizzard accomplished this by limiting non-friend player interaction to a handful of emotes. Granted, a whole new implicit language of BM (bad manners) has developed in the meantime, but there is both a timer attached to the emotes and, crucially, the ability to disable them from your opponent.

I bring this up for two reasons.

The first is that Supercell finally came out and addressed the rampant trolling emote spam that takes place in Clash Royale. And by rampant, I mean I get surprised when I do not see gloating emotes during a game. Supercell’s response? Trolling helps their bottom line:

The same principle – evoking strong emotions – is at the heart of why we’re not planning to implement a mute option. Emotes are loved by some and hated by others – even within the Clash Royale team! We believe these strong emotions are integral to the core of the game.

Clash Royale is not a single player game and shouldn’t feel like one. Emotes are an important reminder that you’re facing another human being – maybe they’re a nice guy, maybe they’re not – but there’s a person at the other end of the Arena and not a robot. You can communicate with them and they can respond, regardless of language or cultural barriers.

Given advancements in AI, it’s possible we’re already playing against robots.

Now, Supercell didn’t come out and say that this helps their bottom line, but… it does. Get spammed with emotes, get tilted, lose, then you buy a bunch of gems to unlock more shit. Or win against impossible odds, feel good, buy some gems. It’s all the same. Which is fine, whatever. But I still fail to see how adding the option, buried in the menus somewhere, to mute emotes automatically isn’t possible or would affect one goddamn thing other than the trolls.

The second reason I brought up Hearthstone is because, as I’ve mentioned before, Overwatch makes me salty. And what makes it worse is the direct communication feature between teams. Again, what possible good exists in letting Team A talk to Team B? Because what I mostly see is stuff like this:

Overwatch_Trolling

Absolutely useful features.

Honestly, this is downright mild in comparison to the “die in a fire” and worse from the earlier days of gaming. Or probably current days of gaming if you’re a woman and have a microphone.

But the more time passes, the less value I see in having much in the way of communication at all in these sort of games. In MMOs? Yes, of course, there is a need to build social bonds and such. Nobody is building anything with emotes in Clash Royale other than ulcers and kidney stones. Nor with chatting in Overwatch, really. So… why have them in these games? Habit alone?

Unless, of course, your business model is based on exploitative psychology.

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.