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Game design and toxic player behavior

After reading a blog post that was asking "Are Our Gaming Communities Toxic?" I want to expand my answer here and think about what game design should do about toxic player behavior in games.

My player perspective: I played Lotro for several years and it was my first MMOROG where I played the whole endgame content. It had (and probably still has) one of the best online communities I have ever experienced so far, so maybe my view on this topic is a bit altered by that experience. The community consisted a lot of mature people who just wanted to explore Middle-earth, a lot of role-players, Tolkien-nerds and many people who were offended by rude communities of other MMORPGs and searched for a new home.

I always believed that some factors worked well for Lotro's community in the beginning. It had a clear focus on PvE and the endgame was accessible to all players who reached Level 50, there was no gear gating in the beginning. The next factor was that the dungeons (e.g. Urugarth) were not very hard, but therefore very long. It took several hours to complete a dungeon. So the time looking for a group always paid off with hours of fun in the dungeons. The groups I participated in always made cigarette breaks before and after bosses, you had time for chatting and joking in TS while killing trash mobs, overall a relaxed atmosphere.

Theory: I always had the impression that PvP-focused games attract toxic people.

Because grouping in PvE is a win-win situation, everybody wins or everybody loses. While PvP always creates a winner and loser by default, and the chance is getting higher and higher that you meet a sore loser (or even worse, a sore winner) as more as you play. Players will grief, gank and all that stuff, and the tone will get rough (e.g. the discussions in the PvP Subforum of Lotro were on a total different (lower) level than those in the PvE Forums).

But, I have recently started Final Fantasy 14: ARR. I love the gameplay, the graphics and the stories. It has a clear PvE Focus and I met a lot of nice and helpful people during leveling up. But the second I hit level 50 and entered endgame the tone changed completely. There is a lot of elitism going on, people are rude in dungeons, rage-quitting, flaming and toxic behavior is everywhere. People told me that league of legends would be lot worse, but my theory that PvE-Focus produces better communities seems to be proven wrong anyway. Maybe gaming communities really have changed to the worse.

But also the gameplay mechanics in MMOs have changed. And I think they also produce the toxic behavior up to a certain point. Especially when it comes to instanced group play and gearing up. Dungeon runs these days will take you 30 minutes, at maximum one hour, and this is the consensus in nearly every modern MMO. Same goes for League of Legends sessions. A match there will take you approximate 40 minutes. In FF14:ARR you also have a time limit for completing the dungeon, to make it worse, cigarette breaks and wipes cost precious time and are a no-go these days. And you need to farm those dungeons a lot to get better gear to have access to the next tier of dungeons. Experienced players will get to the point on which they will try to get as fast through the dungeons as possible, because they did them like twenty times before. So called speed-runs. Then you have a dungeon finder that just mixes a random group of players together. Now an experienced player is put together with a new player who just reached level 50 and doesn't know anything about the dungeon. The conflict is preprogrammed. There is no time to explain the dungeon to the new player, one or two wipes and the experienced players will rage-quit and try to find a more efficient group. Patience and helpfulness are barely rewarded. Especially when it comes to lair-boss fights this totally escalates. There are single bosses that are pretty hard fights, but with a good group, that knows the fight well, it will take 10-15 minutes to complete the fight. An unexperienced group however will most likely have wipe after wipe and double or triple the time needed to complete the bossfight. Nowadays you better not even dare to enter such a fight the first time without having watched several walkthrough videos.

What's worse, the vicious circuit is that as a newbie player you naturally do not have the best gear, so every mistake you make can kill you or your group quickly. With better gear, you can compensate your mistakes better. But, to gear up, you need to clear those dungeons and gain experience, but if nobody wants people in their group that are not geared up and experienced, you are simply left behind.

At least Square Enix seems to be aware that these problems exist, and they have implemented some measures against it. First, if a player joins a group and hasn't done the dungeon before, the other players get a first-time bonus, but this is just a bonus on xp and doesn't help in any way for endgame dungeons. Then there is the new 'most-valuable-player' feature, where you can vote for the most helpful player after completing a dungeon. You can gain an achievement with that, but that's it. League of Legends also introduced a lot of anti-toxic features, like the tribunal. Guild Wars 2 has struggled a long time with introducing a dungeon finder to their game, surely with good reason. The direction is clear, but I believe game design has still to go a long way down this road.

But why is toxic player behavior such a new-fashioned problem?

In the past people were playing in smaller server communities and players feared for their reputation as nearly everybody knew each other. If you misbehaved, e.g. on a Dark Age of Camelot Server, people would know your name and would most likely not invite you to their groups anymore. Not being on an ignore list was far more important than today. But with this huge anonymous communities, where you meet people from other servers for your dungeon runs that you most likely will never meet again, game design has to step in. Having useful tools to find groups and have efficient matchmaking is a must-have these days. Searching for hours for group members before you can actually start playing should be really a thing of the past. The shorter session length for dungeon runs is also something that cannot be reverted easily, spending three hours in one single dungeon is something most of the players are not willing to take anymore. Lotro has gone the way of protecting players from other players by making everything 'soloable'. But turning a MMORPG into a singleplayer RPG can't be the solution. Players need to interact and play together in an online game. Therefore social behavior needs to be rewarded and people need to see the social reputation of other players. Guild-leaders and raid-leaders need to be rewarded, these people run your game, they are the foundation of your community, but most games just ignore that fact. Helping newbie players through a dungeon needs to be rewarded, because you don't want to get your community get fragmented. Game design has to fight elitism, it has to encourage stronger players to help weaker players by rewarding this. You do not want a small minority of hardcore skilled players to scare off the majority of normal players with their toxic behavior. Punishing unsocial behavior maybe sometimes necessary, but encouraging players by rewarding positive social behavior is the better choice in my opinion. I would even go so far to say that social behavior needs to be rewarded the same way as skilled gameplay.

I think many game designers just started recently to fully realize this: if you talk about fun in online games, you shouldn't only think about how to create good gameplay mechanics and interesting choices, but also how you can create positive social behavior. Game companies should really think about how many players they lose just because of toxic behavior of others. A good community is a selling-point.

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