Heroes of the Storm's [official site] lead game producer, Kaéo Milker, has gone into detail on how Blizzard are hoping to tackle toxicity in their fledgling MOBA. It's a three-pronged approach looking at communication, incentivisation and punishment.
Milker was talking about the subject as part of a longer interview with Red Bull but this particular subject is one about which I feel strongly. It's the worst aspect of actually playing MOBAs and gives the scene a bad name.
"Early on, we made the decision to remove cross-team chat in Heroes of the Storm in order to eliminate one side of the equation, preventing enemy teams from being toxic to each other," says Milker. "That was a decent start, but we all know that your own team-mates are often the most toxic offenders in these games, so we’ve considered a lot of options for combatting things on that end."
I was playing HotS at lunchtime solo and as it goes I didn't encounter anyone losing their temper or flaming anyone, but at one juncture a teammate did accuse the rest of us of feeding after a fight went badly. It's small potatoes in MOBA land but still casts a slight shade on the match for a few moments.
Combatting toxic allies is where the communication/incentivisation/punishment approach comes in.
On the communication front the first instinct was to just switch off team chat between people who weren't in a party together but according to the interview it got vetoed when the team realised this would also switch off the ability for positive interactions between strangers. "Instead, we’re going to introduce a Mute All button in an upcoming patch to allow players a quick, easy way to opt out of allied chat at the beginning of the game," says Milker. "This setting will be saved game-to-game and can be easily changed on the fly should you change your mind on your preferred setting, and like everything in our game we’re going to test it out and determine our next course of action based on our experiences with it and player feedback."
When it comes to incentivisation I suspect the HotS team have been keeping an eye on Riot and League of Legends in particular. I remember I interviewed Jeffrey Lin, Riot's lead designer of social systems – actually, that was for Red Bull too now I come to think of it – and he was telling me that he sees punishment as less effective because only a small percentage of players are persistently negative. The rest are just neutral or positive having a bad day and losing their temper. With those latter players punishments come across as overly harsh whereas pointing out the slip in otherwise high standards and reinforcing that with some kind of honour stat is more appropriate.
Milker says, "we’ve seen some really cool honour-based systems across different kinds of games that encourage players to be good to each other while rewarding them for their positive actions." He doesn't offer specifics but mentions "dangling some carrots for those on the verge of being negative". Punishments seem to be pretty normal fare – auto-silencing toxic players so they can only speak to people on their friends list and creating a low priority queue are mentioned
He also mentions that the Clans and Groups system could help in dealing with toxic players. As he sees it, they will "introduce an excellent way to give players the ability to find smaller micro-communities of like-minded people to interact with. These social systems will allow players to pick and choose the crowds they want to be affiliated with, providing safe, player-moderated environments to meet new people and form teams outside of the comparative wilderness of blind matchmaking."
Clans and Groups isn't an option that's currently available but is on the "upcoming" list.
So, thinking about my time with HotS, my solo playing was back when the game was in alpha and with a far smaller player pool. Now it's in beta I only dip in every so often when friends invite me so I'm usually chatting and strategising on Skype with two other people, making us the majority of the team. I think that's insulated me from a lot of potential toxicity so I perhaps don't have an accurate handle on what it's like regularly playing with strangers. If you're in the beta and have a sense of that let me know – I'm interested to know how it's feeling to you guys at the moment.