The game design philosophy that explains why HOTS players are so nice

Some games are notorious for team hostility. Others aren't. Here are the tricks that game developers use to encourage kindness in multiplayer games.

Sometimes, the existence of the internet seems to serve as incontrovertible proof of humankind’s inherent evil. Anytime I want to rekindle my faith in the doctrine of Original Sin, I need only log into a multiplayer game, make a mistake, and let the venom spew forth.

In no genre is this truer than the MOBA. My relationship with League of Legends has been souring partly due to the fact that one in every three games devolves into a screaming match between my own teammates. When I play a MOBA, I’m looking to wade through enemy territory, not streams of all-caps vitriol. And my gamer friends who are women have complained to me about being asked to “go make a sandwich” as soon as they switch on their mic.

Part of the reason for all this rancor, aside from simple assholery of course, is that MOBAs are designed (probably inadvertently) to encourage that kind of behavior. In their seminal paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, authors Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek describe how the mechanics of a game—the choices you make, the actions you take, and the processes the game puts into motion—directly influence its dynamics—how players and game elements behave in relation to each other when the game is actually running. For example, consider soccer. The action-packed, back-and-forth dynamic might arise from the mechanics: the fact there’s only one ball that twenty of the twenty-two players are trying to get to, and that each team is trying to get the ball to the opposite end of a large space.

What Hunicke and her colleagues reveal is that undesirable player-interactions in a game could be in part due to decisions made by the creators during the game design process. To revisit the soccer example: resource scarcity and the abundance of space, features officially described in the game’s accepted rules, lead to fast-paced, exciting runtime behavior, something determined by the soccer-players themselves, and not the ruleset directly.

Thus, while one could argue that the main culprit is the anonymity that the internet affords, it’s probable that unfriendly behavior is encouraged by the game mechanics of MOBAs that we take for granted. At a conference in 2012, Tanya Short, then senior gameplay designer at Funcom, extended this line of thinking to all cooperative games: “Any time you introduce two players or more working together, they will also be competing for any resources you offer.” The nature of a coop game means that teams within them will inevitably fight among themselves because of—well, because of human nature.

But if game mechanics can directly promote unwanted behavior, can’t they also be used to encourage desirable ones? Game designer and researcher Mary Flanagan, with her research partner, psychologist Geoff Kaufman, argue that while a lot of research has gone into the potential negative effects of games, the possible positive effects of games on their players has, until recently, been largely ignored by the academic community. They show that subtly weaving a positive message into a game’s mechanics, what they call “embedded design”, can actually be more effective than simply hitting players over the head with a blatant, moralistic message. This means that while telling players to be nice in a MOBA has limited effect, it shouldn’t be impossible to design a MOBA that uses embedded mechanics to actively encourage people to be nice. At the very least, it should be possible to discourage them from being complete douches.

This is where Blizzard Entertainment’s Heroes of the Storm comes in. In my experience, I’ve found HotS to be a much friendlier environment than either League of Legends or DOTA 2. I’m not saying anything about it being better, more challenging, or more competitive: simply that HotS seems to inspire much less hate amongst its players.

Now you could argue that HoTS players are innately nicer people, that the game only attracts friendship-is-magic rainbow-unicorn players—but we all know that’s bull. Much more likely is that Blizzard actively decided to tackle unfriendly player-interactions from the start. Their designers embedded game mechanics that actively reduce hostility within a team, without sacrificing core gameplay.

Fewer choices

The most obvious difference between Heroes of the Storm and most other MOBAs on the market is that Blizzard significantly reduced the game’s complexity by limiting character-defining choices that players make. Two major changes come to mind.

The first deals with each character’s kit of abilities. Rather than providing new ability points each level, HotS characters begin each match with their entire kit of spells, except for their “ultimate” ability. At first, it may seem like HotS is actually introducing more complexity (the logic being that more spells means more to deal with). In reality, by removing the once-per-level decision about how to invest your ability points, Blizzard has eliminated around twenty decisions.

The second change deals with the gold and item economy. Older MOBAs feature mind-bogglingly vast item shops. The “right” build of weapons, defensive items, consumables, and utilitarian tchotchkes can often spell the difference between a well-planned, strategic victory, and a bumbling defeat. Unfortunately, this confusing variety of items (and the complicated recipes for crafting many of them) tends to be the steepest of all learning curves for new MOBA players. Even seemingly minute decisions about when to leave a battle to return and purchase items can critically affect the outcome of a match. All of this means that inexperienced players need to spend hours poring over online guides, or face the wrath of the rest of the team for poor purchase decisions.

HotS simply got rid of the item economy. No more gold, no more shops, no more deciding whether or not to save space for healing potions and wards. Instead of items, you’ll pick an innate “talent” every couple of levels, usually a passive upgrade to your hero and their abilities. Instead of many small decisions that occur at arbitrary points in time, you get seven “pick one of four” choices at foreseeable moments in the game. At one point, until a recent patch, the game would even lock out some of your options until you played with a particular character often enough. This talent system gently helps you learn your characters’ strengths and weaknesses before adding more complexity.

The main benefit of this upgrade system is that the game feels more beginner-friendly, with a gentler learning curve. It becomes easier to learn all the different character-defining decisions you need to make. New players can get better much faster, and earn less hate from others. There’s also less to fight about: you can’t get grief from others for picking the wrong build of spells, or the wrong items, because those decisions don’t even exist.

Reducing complexity may seem like blasphemy to some hardcore MOBA players. But it’s important to realize that “easier to learn” and “easier to play” are distinct species. Blizzard isn’t aiming to make a simplistic title aimed only at casual players. In an interview with PC Gamer, Dustin Browder, the Game Director for HotS, stresses that “we don’t believe that simple means lack of strategy, or simple means lack of depth. We think ‘easy to learn, difficult to master,’ and part of ‘easy to learn’ is clean game pieces.”  

Clearly, others see things the same way, as evidenced by the success of “Heroes of the Dorm”, a collegiate tournament created through a partnership with ESPN earlier this year. According to The Daily Dot, this event became “one of the most talked-about events in esports history”.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” Da Vinci is supposed to have said. By careful simplification of certain game mechanics, Blizzard has managed to make HotS a less confrontational play experience without sacrificing depth.

Player Rewards

As Tanya Short claimed in the speech I mentioned earlier, team-members are bound to compete with each other for scarce resources. In most MOBAs, the major resources are gold and experience. Blizzard simply discarded gold. What they did to experience is more interesting.

A lot of my frustration in League of Legends stems directly from the fact that whoever lands the killing blow is the only one who gains experience from the kill. And in LoL and other similar MOBAs, the order in which different teammates gain experience and levels can be an important part of the strategy. You often need to let other players land the final strike and reap its rewards. Killing too many opponents when you’re not the designated executioner often earns you furious accusations of “kill stealing” from your fellow would-be-slayers.

Think about that for a moment: MOBAs are games where the entire point is to obliterate the opposing team and their base of operations, but killing opponents often harms your team and nets you the ire of your teammates. While this reward system is intentional, and adds complexity to team strategies, it does so at the cost of heightened intra-team conflict.

This issue isn’t really surprising if you consider the history of “experience” as a spendable resource in games. The concept arose from role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, where it was used to separate the individual from the team, and separate personal goals from group achievements. In most MOBAs, experience points also highlight individual achievements: forget the fact that the enemy was stunned by an ally, and your barely-alive ass was healed by your team’s support character. The fact that you landed the kill means everything. And as expected, individual rewards can lead to a clash of egos.

Blizzard fixed this by assigning experience points to the team as a whole. When the team levels up, you level up. Every kill you make and every map objective you help achieve all add to the team’s pool. Instead of worrying about last hits and which player is “carrying” the team to victory, you can focus on battering your opponents and helping your allies. This simple change inspires a feeling of camaraderie among strangers who may be playing together from across oceans by removing a fairly individualistic measure and replacing it with something reflective of a more group-oriented mindset. Heroes of the Storm really does make you feel like you’re working together against a common enemy, something that’s often sorely missing in other MOBAs.

Everyone contributes

HotS excels at making every player feel like a useful member of the team. Sharing experience and not tracking kills certainly reminds players that they’re working together, but Blizzard has also made specific level-design choices, as well as used their matchmaking system to ensure that all players have the best combat experience everyone feel productive in other ways.

A research team from Portugal maintains that a key feature of successful competitive games are characters whose roles complement each other, and whose abilities synergize. This kind of design is common in all MOBAs: tanks soak damage, supports heal or buff allies, assassins strike hard and fast. In most MOBA titles, however, you may still end up with an unbalanced team where characters do not complement each other. HotS solves this problem by making you pick your character first, and then placing you in a team where your character’s role is required, cutting out a pre-match argument and ensuring balanced, and possibly synergistic team composition.

Blizzard’s level design also contributes to team synergy. HotS’s maps all include many more secondary goals than other MOBAs: players can recruit mercenaries, pay a pirate king to fire on the enemy base, transform themselves into dragons and more. For one, these sub-tasks increase the number of shared goals a team has to achieve. But these tasks also give different players a chance to contribute to victory without necessarily engaging enemies head-on. Especially since HotS includes no true “jungler” characters, a player who’s only starting to get comfortable with the game or who’s finding it difficult to deal with tough opponents can still help their team by collecting doubloons, capturing mercenaries, and building experience for the team.

Other Games, Other Techniques

Now, I don’t mean to say that Blizzard is the only company interested in keeping games friendly. Riot Games arguably has the most widely-publicized efforts to improve player interactions. Jeremy Hsu, in an article for Backchannel, discusses how the video games behemoth has been experimenting with big data analysis and machine learning to automatically identify antisocial behavior in League of Legends—basically turning their whole game into a giant, virtual, social psychology lab. Riot themselves have outlined their strategy to discourage toxic behavior.

Unfortunately, Riot can only go so far. LoL has become a global spectator sport, with 27 million players logging on every day, and according to Hsu, “enough online spectators during championship events to rival the millions who watch the World Series and NBA Finals.” In order to keep all its fans happy, Riot has lost the ability to make major changes to its gameplay (can you imagine, for example, FIFA changing a major rule in soccer?). As a result, all of Riot’s behavior-influencing strategies are either focused on user-interface changes (altering text color, for example, which according to Hsu, has actually worked), or punishments and rewards extrinsic to the main game mechanics (free skins, bans, gold boosts and the like). They have little leverage of the most powerful psychologically-affecting tool: the game mechanics themselves.

As the new kid on the block, Heroes of the Storm possesses a weapon that League of Legends, DoTA 2, and the other giants of multiplayer games do not: flexibility. With no existing player base, HoTS can implement innovative game mechanics to directly influence any kind of behavior they want. Happily, at least for me and the kind of people I like playing with, Blizzard has chosen to take aim at what I consider one of the biggest issues in multiplayer gaming: shitty player behavior.

Further Reading

5 Problems with co-op game design (and possible solutions), Mathew Kumar (Gamasutra)

A psychologically “embedded” approach to designing games for prosocial causes, Geoff Kaufman, Mary Flanagan

Blizzard on Heroes of the Storm: “You haven’t seen anything yet”, Tom Marks (PC Gamer)

Why Blizzard is committed to Heroes of the Storm's esports future, Samule Lingle (The Daily Dot)

Game Mechanics for Cooperative Games, Jose Bernardo Rocha, Samuel Mascarenhas and Rui Prada

MDA: A Formal approach to Game Design and Games Research, Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek

Inside the Largest Virtual Psychology Lab in the World, Jeremy Hsu (Backchannel)

Exploring Player Behavior Design Values, Lyte