Tobold's Blog
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Hell is other gamers

Liore from Herding Cats has an interesting blog post on alienation, which she ends with: "Hell, as it turns out, is other gamers.". I don't really want to discuss the Gamergate part of her post, because that movement kind of died after promoting their arch-enemy to national TV fame. But I was interested in Liore's tale of being insulted for playing badly in the alpha version of Heroes of the Storm. Because to me that shows that there isn't a localized problem of the players of any particular game being especially toxic, but that there is a fundamental problem with online cooperative multiplayer games.

I was born in the 60's. Which means my youth was spend without video games, but with more old-fashioned activities, like playing soccer with the neighborhood kids. And one of the fundamental rules of those kinds of games is that everybody is welcome to join. Yes, there is always the fat kid that gets picked last when establishing teams, even at that age and that long ago we kids already knew who was "performing" better than others. But anybody was still welcome to play, and there were elaborate picking schemes to make sure the two teams had about the same number of under-performers on the team and were evenly matched.

The difference that I see today is A) people don't want to be evenly matched any more, and B) given the larger population online the better players don't want to play with the under-performers any more. And I find that both stupid and sad. We have created a world in which people routinely hate the people on their own team much more than they hate the opposing team.

I quite like World of Tanks in that respect, even though I haven't played much this year. As long as you play just random battles in World of Tanks, you are likely to have a win:loss ratio of 50:50. Only if you play with pre-organized teams can you deviate much from that. A random matchmaking WoT battle is 15 vs. 15 players, and even if you performed one sigma or two above (or below) average, the overall win chance would still be very close to 50% due to you being only 3% of the players on the field.

In a 5 vs. 5 battle of a MOBA game a single over- or under-performer makes more of a difference. And there is an additional performance boost in all cooperative multiplayer online games if you play repeatedly with the same team. So if your team isn't big enough to fill all slots and you get a mix of people who are trained to play in that team and others who are new to the team, there can be a huge performance difference. That is true for MMORPG raiding as well.

What I very much dislike is the anger and expressed hate that frequently happens in those situations. I believe that in a team vs. team game a 50% win chance is the best possible outcome. If your chance to win is over 50% that means that the other team has a less than 50% chance to win, which isn't much fun for them (and might well lead to them quitting prematurely). And, perhaps even more importantly, two evenly matched teams leads to the maximum amount of challenge for both teams. One side walking over the other is not just no fun for the losers, but also kind of boring for the winners. So why do people hate being evenly matched so much?

Natural talent tends to be distributed in a normal (or Gaussian) distribution. Most people are around average, or to be more precise 68% of people are between plus 1 and minus 1 standard deviation from average. Only 5% of people are more than 2 standard deviations away from average. If you are exactly average, a random player paired with you has a 50% chance of being better or being worse than you. But if you are above average, most players are less good than you are. That is rather basic mathematics. So it is somewhat surprising that many people believe that A) they are better than average, and B) a matchmaking system should be able to always only group them with people who are at least as good as they are. Presumably all the less good players should magically be forced to enter the opposing team. You don't need to be a math genius to realize that this isn't possible. Being grouped with less good players is the normal state of affairs, and the better you play, the more likely that becomes. You should be *happy* if you are only grouped with people playing worse than you, because it means you are really good yourself.

The fundamental problem of this kind of games is that the number of people on one team is fixed. Any under-performer on a team blocks a spot onto which a better player would have contributed more to winning the game. Compare that to MMORPGs with PvP modes without restrictions, where everybody is welcome to join the zerg that is attacking that keep, because even the under-performers are better than no player at all.

I am wondering if 5 vs. 5 MOBA games are the worst possible design for an online multiplayer game. It appears to me that this setup maximizes hate between players on the same team. Maybe somebody needs to come up with a different format.

It might be interesting to compare different online multiplayer games.

Evolve will be 1 vs 5, and I wonder if player hate/blame will be directed at their opposite number or their own teammates.

On the one hand, it's two asymmetrical sides, so there are "differences" to hate in the opposing party.

I don't recall Natural Selection teams blaming their own teammates much (though some do blame an incompetent commander) for a loss. Not sure how folks in Left 4 Dead multiplayer react, fer instance.

On the other hand, the idea of specialized roles that no one else can cover sets up certain expectations that the person in the role not be a derp, so as to have a decent enough game. This happens in MOBAs, and will happen in Evolve's human side as well, so there might be incentive to vent if someone doesn't play to someone else's expectations.

Two other things I can think of offhand:
Ranking/MMR/Competitiveness factor - Losses in MOBAs due to teammates affect your own ladder standings. In FPS-like games where matches are pretty much one-off throwaways, perhaps people can shrug off a bad game more easily or quickly.

Lack of consequences for such behavior - if the person who let loose with invective over a visible chat channel is suspended or banned consistently every time he did so, very shortly he'll learn to keep his opinions to himself or give up playing the game.
There are more problems to consider in online play than skill level which cause people to complain about their teammates. Some things I have witnessed that make team play less fun are:

1) Technology level - one or more players "lag" worse than others.

2) Playing not to win - often in multiplayer games there are other goals than "winning" such as rewards for a single player (solo kill count is the worst) rather than team, or some other alternate goal than winning such as collecting experience, shopping, or chatting.

3) Griefing aka Playing to lose - these are the brats that you would kick off the team on the soccer field but often times if you remove the brat(s) no one is added to replace them.

4) Lack of communication - On that soccer team, if it was successful, someone stepped up to lead and the others listened. "Cover him, push there, get back, etc." This often fails in "PUGs" (pick up groups) because people listen to strangers less even if the stranger seems to be giving good advice.

5) Unfair odds - many times the problem is with the mechanism that assembles the teams. Preassembled teams are matched with PUGs. A team that has practiced together will annihilate a PUG most every time.

6) Player maturity and computer as a baby sitter - how do you know you are not simply playing on the same team as a 4 year old where dad is using the computer as a baby sitter. Some immature players state "it's just a game why do the rest of you care if we win". Which I have heard the reply, "then why do you play". Could it be they have nothing better to do but they truly don't care about winning or are they playing not to win or playing to lose?

There is a lot more to overcome in making a good multiplayer game than simply skill or putting a number of players against another group of the similar number be it 5 or 500. A good multiplayer game would have mechanisms to handle all of these issues. When it doesn't you simply hear, my teammates suck because in some way they probably do.
The central problem is that these games inherently designed around mistakes, not positive gameplay. By comparison, in basketball, one team could win by one person playing very well and scoring a lot of points.

That isn't really the case in MOBA games. Most games are decided when one player makes a crucial mistake. You are then left with 4 players given a loss they don't deserve, and usually several minutes between the game deciding mistake and the end of the game.
Unfair odds - many times the problem is with the mechanism that assembles the teams.

The central problem is that these games inherently designed around mistakes, not positive gameplay.

Thus my question whether MOBAs are the worst possible design for online multiplayer games.
I too am a child of the 1960's (flowers in our receding hair and all that). Thank you for reminding me of those halcyon days when the possession of a ball by any random group of youngsters was an almost guaranteed trigger for an impromptu football match.

I can absolutely support your recollection that steps were taken to ensure an even balance between sides in these impromptu matches. Various methods were employed but regardless of differences in age and ability the resulting teams were always as balanced as could be managed. Players would even switch sides mid way through a game if the initial matchmaking turned out to be flawed.

Of course these pick up games were not serious competitive matches. Some of those back garden players had enough talent to play for local junior football clubs and you can be sure that when it came to the serious business of the under 13's school league only talented players need apply.

Perhaps on-line games need to do more to differentiate between serious competitive games and casual pick up games. Stop recording and reporting competitive statistics (such as win/loss ratio and ladder position) for pick up games. Reserve those sort of stats for game where only pre-made teams need apply. For pick up games record and report co-operative statistics instead: participation, total activity, assists etc.

Might that be possible?
I actually just did an article on Heroes of the Storm and how its casual approach actually works out very well and makes the fast 5v5 matchups way more enjoyable and a lot more balanced compared to those of LoL and Dota2 in a casual sense.

You can check it out here
Seems to me the problem is people playing with random strangers - not even random strangers they met at the playground but who will be there again in future, but random anonymous strangers they will never meet again - and expecting them to be like friends.

When games are designed like this, people probably shouldn't play unless they don't mind this kind of environment.

I wonder if 'guilds' would help in this kind of game. Gamers could self-segregate according to whatever criteria they felt were important to their playing experience.
Hating the other team is a sad state of affairs as well, if you ask me.

In local cricket I'm aware they have grades - A grade, B grade, C grade.

In A grade people get up at six in the morning for it. In C grade people drink on the field.

It seems the fact is all the C graders in online games want to be with the A graders.

And the companies, because of money rather than honour, like to push everyone into the same group.

No, we don't have to subscribe to geek social fallacy #5 ( that friends do everything together.

I don't agree with insulting lower performers, but I think it's a result of the company pushing bad players onto players who want to do well. But as is the general theme in online games, we blame the player, rather than the company who set the player up to do that. Because our brains like to only think in terms of other people and not the structures that manipulate social engagement.
I agree.

A couple of nuances though:

Re "5 vs. 5 MOBA games are the worst possible design for an online multiplayer game." I think the answer is probably no: 3v3 MOBA with mandatory voicechat would be the worst. I recall reading that universities tend to not have three roommates as the dynamics end up with a "runt" being picked upon. And the mistakes of the filthy casual would be more in 3 vs 5.


I think self-selection has to play some part of it - LotRO versus AA/EVE/LoL. If you know LoL has a horrific reputation and you start playing it anyway, then you are a bit different than a randomly selected human.

There are two problems in this respect:
1: lack of leagues. If I'm a random guy with a ball, I cannot enter to even my local, non-professional soccer team. I must apply and perform well for admissions. In random games, very different performers are forced to play together. I was recently damage #2 in a Grimrail Depot bossfight. I was healer.

2: one can be worse than nothing. 4 excellent League of Legends players can win over 5 mediocre. But 4 excellent + 1 fool will lose, because the fool feeds the opposing team. Same for WoW raiding. The guy who pulls Kargath into the group or takes the spot of the healer on the chains is worse than an AFK-er in the corner. This is a design problem, players shouldn't be able to cause more damage to the team than an AFK-er.

I'm afraid MOBA games are both the best and the worst design. PvP inherently has the design problem that all the players need to lose half the time, even if they want to win all the time. In MOBA games, you can blame 4/5 of your losses on a teammate, not yourself. This isn't delusional thinking, it actually is the truth. So 90% of the time, YOU didn't lose.

I'm convinced this is the "secret sauce" in MOBA games, particularly League of Legends. The game supplies you with a plethora of perfectly legitimate excuses for your losses, so you very rarely have to feel it was due to your own lack of skill. My teammate fed, I didn't get my preferred lane, my favorite champion was banned, my champion was counter picked, and on and on. It is never your fault, there's always an excuse. And the game design ensures it is actually a really GOOD excuse.

I must add, I am HIGHLY disappointed to hear that Heroes of the Storm will not be chat free, as was first reported. There is nothing of value in chat that cannot be replaced by a (minor, actually) expansion of the League of Legends "ping" system. Of the chat that cannot be replaced with pings or emotes similar to Hearthstone, 99% of it is negative/toxic.

I don't know why so many people seem to assume Blizzard will have some magic that will keep the toxicity out. The game might be a mild step better in comparison to League of Legends or other MOBAs, but it will still be a horrifying place for non-MOBA players.
Any activity that is tied to rewards for the winner will result in this type of behavior. If big pieces of chocolate cake were handed out to the winners of your childhood soccer matches, I can just about guarantee your experience with the team selection process would have been quite different. Modern games, from MMOs to MOBAs are about maximizing rewards, not maximizing competitiveness. There is a cost associated with an underperforming team member, and that cost is measured in loot, gold, rankings, etc. This cost is what leads to teammates disliking each other more than the other team.
"The difference that I see today is A) people don't want to be evenly matched any more, and B) given the larger population online the better players don't want to play with the under-performers any more. And I find that both stupid and sad. We have created a world in which people routinely hate the people on their own team much more than they hate the opposing team."

I grew up in the 80s and I grew up playing both footbal (I refuse to call that soccer) and video games.

We had 2 mindsets. We usually wanted competitive, equal teams. Sometimes however we didn't since certain good players were never matched together and this can hamper their fun due to friendships, wanting something different, etc. Like, if you play with another good player you can do some amazing things in a sport but if you're playing with mostly crippled you're limited and this limitation can be boring and dull if you play normally in the weekend with a core premade team.

The other thing you mention is partly right in the sense that people want to play with people of similar quality. Quality is a broad term here. Some love to get carried and some love to carry, sure, but mostly people want to play with others of the same mindset (quality being a part of that). They don't wanna get lectured by a much better player, nor get pwned on the meters, nor does a RP player want to play with a rude PvP ganker who doesn't RP but grief. Someone from a top guild doesn't wanna boost a bunch of random fire dancers either. Quality-wise the principle here is that people should pull their weight, and that weight should be equal as the rough average of the group.

"If your chance to win is over 50% that means that the other team has a less than 50% chance to win, which isn't much fun for them (and might well lead to them quitting prematurely)."

To address this in WoW BGs Blizzard gives better reward the better you played even if you lost. To address this in HotS Blizzard matches quitters up with quitters. Rated BGs however should yield a close to 50% win/loss ratio.

"Thus my question whether MOBAs are the worst possible design for online multiplayer games."

MOBA is not PuG friendly. If you play it with friends on voice chat you can have an awesome experience. I would argue the same is true for PvP in WoW, but there is an entry level there.
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