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Over the last few years, we've seen the video game industry rapidly embrace the Internet and everything it can provide for gaming. Almost every game released these days incorporates some kind of player connectivity, ranging from online multiplayer to the ability to update Twitter in-game. As a by-product of this, active communities of players are being formed around their favorite online games.
Sometimes these communities are friendly: just players coming together to enjoy a video game. Other times... well, they aren't so friendly. In this article, we'll take a look at how a game's design can foster a certain type of community, and ways that developers try to affect the way the community evolves.
A Game's Design Fosters Specific Player Behavior
A person's behavior, online or off, is directly influenced by their surroundings. Placed in different scenarios, the same people are likely to act very differently. This concept can be applied to gamers in online communities; the design of your game may encourage positive behavior just as it can foster negative behavior.
Let's take a look at two games and how their online communities differ as a function of their design.
Example: StarCraft 2 vs. League of Legends
Here we have two games with quite a few similarities; both are technical, highly competitive, online-focused, PC-only games with large e-sports followings. With so much in common, you would assume that similar communities would form around these games, but this couldn't be more wrong. Hop online and play a quick ranked match in both of these games and you'll see a shocking dichotomy.
In your StarCraft match you probably won't see much communication at all. Your opponent will likely throw you a nice "glhf" (good luck have fun) in chat at the beginning of your game and will definitely end the proceedings with the customary "gg" (good game) once the match is over. The vast majority of the time there will be no other communication, you're online to play, not to talk. When you do talk, though, conversation will most likely be curt and polite.
Your experience in League of Legends will be completely different, and not in a good way. Before the match even begins, during character selection, there is about a fifty-fifty chance someone will complain about the lineup of champions chosen. This is kind of annoying, even though it is often a viable complaint - but the real fun happens once the game actually starts.
If your play is perceived as anything less than perfect, you will often be directly insulted by your teammates and will almost certainly be taunted by the enemy team. Nothing is off the table: you will be accused of having severe developmental disorders, and your sexuality will never go unquestioned.
Occasionally, people on either team will simply stop playing entirely, often dooming the others to an unsatisfying one-sided game. Even worse, some will intentionally aid the opposing team, committing suicide repeatedly and calling out player positions in all-chat. Not every player is like this, but there is often at least one in every ten-person game, and this only gets worse the lower you're placed on the ranked ladder.
Now, it may sound like the people playing League of Legends are just an overall unpleasant bunch, but with such a large player base (12 million active daily users as of October 2012) that's a ridiculous assumption to make. Something in League of Legends is causing frustration that simply isn't happening in StarCraft, and that's what we're going to take a look at.
Each League of Legends match is something to get heavily invested in. Providing you are playing the most popular mode (5v5), a game typically lasts around 40 minutes, sometimes climbing to over an hour, with the option to surrender not even available until after the 20 minute mark. You can quit a game if you want, but you won't be able to join another one until the current match is over, and if you do this too many times you're liable to get banned. This means that if you're losing brutally and not having any fun, you have no choice but to slog through it for at a minimum of 20 minutes, which can understandably frustrate players.
Each individual game of StarCraft, on the other hand, holds much less weight. Again, provided you're playing the most popular mode (1v1), most games don't typically last that long, very often clocking in under 20 minutes. There is also no penalty for leaving a game, so if you don't like how things are going, simply drop out and start another one. Who can get frustrated by a system like that?
Another important distinction is that League of Legends is a team-based game, whereas StarCraft has a 1v1 nature. It's one thing to be stuck playing a 30 minute game you know you can't win, but it's infinitely worse when it's all the fault of one person on your team ruining things for everyone. Even when no-one on your team is overwhelmingly bad, human nature dictates it's easier to find fault in others than oneself, and a team scapegoat will inevitably be picked. It's enough to make the most peaceful of gamers rage.
It's easy to see why League of Legends fosters such negative community behavior and StarCraft doesn't, but I want to emphasize that I don't think it's through any particular failing on the game's part. The truth is that it's simply difficult to get ten anonymous people to try their best in a long online game.
A Game's Delivery System Helps Dictate Its Audience
So we've looked at how a game's design can affect the behavior of the community, but as always, the world is complicated, and your game's design isn't the only thing that matters. Most people tend not to think of this, but a game's delivery system is integral in fostering a certain type of community.
Before moving any further, it's important that I clarify exactly what it is I mean when I mention the a game's "delivery system". What I'm talking about is the method used to release the game to the public. Was the game released as a box product, a digital download on consoles, on Steam? Was it free, was it launched as a beta and then slowly updated into a full release?
There are all kinds of delivery systems for games today, and I'd argue that the method you choose can strongly impact the direction in which your community evolves. But what's an argument without proof? Let's take a look at Minecraft, a game with a rolled-out launch that helped foster one of the most active and positive communities in games today.
Minecraft was initially made accessible to the public in May of 2009, albeit in a very different manner to most games. Minecraft's initial release version was touted as being unfinished, and labeled as an alpha release. People could purchase the game in that form for a reduced price, and would receive every update made to the game, for free, until its official release.
As the game grew closer to completion, the feature set grew larger, the price grew higher and the following behind the game exploded. It was finally officially released in November of 2011. This was an absolutely brilliant way of doing things, partly because it made tons of tons of money but also (and this is what we're interested in) because it promoted the creation of a passionate community.
Releasing the game in this staggered manner created a situation where only the people really interested in the project would be willing to buy in at a very early stage. These people would like the game (because it's a good game - this is important) and, since they had invested in the development of the project, would tell their friends about it.
Minecraft sold almost exclusively through word of mouth, meaning new players would usually actively look for the game online because one of their friends told them it was amazing. This means the player has a positive opinion of your game even before they play it for the first time. Even completely disregarding your game's design, it's a great way to generate hype for an unknown property and encourage active and invested players to flock to your game.
I want to make it clear that what happened with Minecraft is distinct from what you see in most public betas. Betas are typically free and looked at as trials of a game, and that's a completely different consumer mindset from buying into a game early.
It's worth mentioning that there are all kinds of other interesting delivery systems for games today. Both Steam Greenlight and Kickstarter are popular choices when it comes to getting your players invested in your game before its initial release. Kickstarter in particular succeeds in this respect, as it actually demands monetary contribution from the players, in a way very similar to how Minecraft did things.
Frozen Synapse is another game that had a great release strategy, offering a free full version of the game to give away to a friend with every purchase. This both helps the multiplayer in the game shine by giving everyone someone they know to play with, but also helps spread word of the game in a wholly positive manner. It's exactly what Minecraft did, and - surprise surprise - Frozen Synapse did very well for itself.
These are just a few examples of how an interesting delivery method can encourage the growth of a positive community around your game. Get creative with this aspect; it's a lot more important than you might think.
How Developers Try to Directly Influence the Community
So your game has launched, and you're very happy that it's garnered some attention. It's a team-based game, though and it turns out people are being all nasty to each other online, and it's really killing your game's vibe. Is there anything you can do about this? Well as always, let's take a look at a game that handled this situation incredibly well: League of Legends.
Wait a minute - didn't I just write a whole spiel about how League of Legends was a game with an absolutely terrible community? Why yes, yes I did, but it's also a game that deals amazingly well with the behavior its players exhibit.
You see, League of Legends is an interesting beast: many of the players who are negatively affected by toxic player behavior are guilty of that behavior themselves. The nature of the game simply encourages frustration, and even the nicest of players can get irritated on occasion. I'm sure not everybody is like this, but play enough games and you'll see the negative behavior from people who have received accolade for their positive gameplay presence and the trend becomes obvious.
This means that players often hate the negativity of the community, even as they participate in the negative behavior themselves. It's a weird ecosystem, but one that Riot Games, the developers of League of Legends, navigated beautifully.
Riot has been very upfront in regards to negativity in the community. There are many systems in place to try to counteract negative behavior, including a strict banning system for those who leave games, a player-driven tribunal for reported players, and even an honor system to give notice to those who are called out by their fellow players.
Riot's openness on dealing with this issue doesn't only extend to game systems, however; the team often also makes public statements on the issue and even goes so far as to make an example of pro players by banning them from tournaments if they display overwhelmingly negative behavior. Riot's direct and positive involvement in the pro gaming scene for League of Legends has also garnered it quite a bit of good will.
All of this means that players stick around, even though they hate the negativity of the community, because they also love to work together to solve its problems. Even more importantly, they still love the game and the developers. That's a lot of love coming from people who are getting insulted whenever the log into your game. Riot is a great role model when it comes to getting the best out of a negative community.
Communities in games are ever-changing, and there are no hard and fast rules one can follow to ensure that people play nice. However, looking at what others have done before you, looking at where they failed and where they succeeded, is a great way to get insight into doing it yourself. Remember that your design and delivery system will encourage certain player behavior, and make sure to interact with the community accordingly. Understand what did and didn't work for others, and maybe by following in their footsteps, you'll be the one to create the next great online community.