A well-known problem with so-called MOBAs1 — which I prefer to call lane-pushers — and online competitive videogames in general is that their players often display bad attitudes towards each other.2 In the case of lane-pushers, where team play is central to victory, enjoyment of the game can be compromised by the way people act: team-internal friction and frustration, ranging from snarkiness to flaming and abuse, as well as by the way people play: lone wolf behaviour that doesn’t take the needs of the overall team into account.
The most recent major game in the genre is Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, an interesting (re)turn to form for the publisher, since the whole genre was based on mods for their Starcraft and Warcraft 3.3 Having played the game for a couple of months since its official release, I get the feeling that much of its particular take on the genre has to do with the facilitation of team play, and to mitigate some of the potential nastiness sketched above.
Some of these design decisions are worth a brief discussion. Whereas in other lane-pushers like League of Legends, DOTA, and Awesomenauts, individual heroes have their own level during a match, all heroes within a team in Heroes of the Storm are always on the same power level. The experience gained from defeating enemies and destroying forts is shared equally among all team members, which results in no one player ever lagging behind the rest. A definite advantage of this design is that lone wolf behaviour is discouraged: you’re never going to end up having the highest level in your team.
Another important factor is the game’s addition of central map objectives. Each of the game’s eight maps has a recurring thematic goal, which pushes teams to coordinate in order to collect a particular number of items before the enemy does, dominate an area for a certain period, etc. For example, in Sky Temple, you have to defend individual temple areas in order to fire huge energy beams at your opponent’s forts, while in Haunted Mines, you gather as many skulls as possible to raise the power of your periodically activating grave golems. Controlling these objectives is crucial to winning a Heroes of the Storm match, and they can even allow teams to make last-minute turnarounds. I’ve been in numerous games where we seemed to be losing for fifteen minutes or so, only to swing the game around with some great last-ditch efforts. In principle, this is a very elegant design that really endears me to the game.
There’s trouble in paradise, though. Even if I’m correct in assuming that these design decisions — as well as others having to do with communication — were made to promote positive team play, in practice, the results are far from ideal. The game is still host to massive amounts of negativity — see Cameron Kunzelman’s review on Paste — and while the situation on the EU server seems to be a bit closer to a 60/40 distribution of nice / abusive teams, it still bothers me a lot that many players have such a bad attitude online. It’s like some people choose to forget that people make mistakes all the time and are always learning — especially in a skill-intensive game such as this — and use everything that goes wrong as an outlet for pent-up frustration.
If we refocus on the design decisions sketched above, it’s not all that surprising, in the end. There’s still a winning team and a losing team, and in the losing team, players are prone to start blaming each other when things go wrong. While the power level is shared, there are still other statistics in a match that people can compare each other on. Instead of “you’re lagging behind” it’s now “your hero damage is pathetic for an assassin” or “the opponent’s healer healed way more than you did”. The central objectives seek to stimulate team play, but at the same time, they create focal points of frustration. Players that are too slow to react to incoming objectives, or are simply following another strategy, risk becoming the target of abuse if the enemy team ends up winning the objective. Whether or not other players really dropped the ball in terms of play is irrelevant, as long as toxic players have something to latch on to beat others with when things go sour.4 In short, there will always be struggles and fights over who is the weakest link in the team.
In the end, this is something that no game designer can eliminate by design, because it has to do with basic principles of team play, constructive criticism, and decency. If those are lacking in a significant portion of your player base, they are going to be lacking in your game too.
What remains, then, is how these design decisions impact the game as a sport (amateur of professional). Even if facilitating team play doesn’t automatically lead to a less toxic environment, it may lead to a more satisfying game to play and watch. I for one prefer the ebb and flow of Heroes of the Storm to that of DOTA 2, for example. How the game will match up with its competitors in the long run will remain to be seen.
- Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas [↩]
- In some cases, bad attitudes is a euphemism. The dark side of online game communication is rife with speech that is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. [↩]
- The version in the latter game, called Defence of the Ancients, was the namegiver of Valve’s DOTA. The Starcraft mod was called Aeon of Strife. [↩]
- Not to mention the extreme cases where there is team-internal abuse even when your team is winning. Go figure. [↩]