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League of Legends Column: How Riot Invests in Community

By Christina Gonzalez on April 01, 2013

This year’s PAX East had Riot Games presenting League of Legends in the largest booth on the floor, yet in a very open way that intended to be more down to earth and community friendly. Community was a big theme for the weekend, and  Riot put on a panel called “Improving Player Behavior in League of Legends”, that was all about the processes and research behind their initiatives to build a better community and help address the issue of toxic players. On the panel were: Carl “Status” Kwoh, Jeffrey “Lyte” Lin, researcher Davin Pavlas, and George “Fruitstrike” Skleres. The panel presentation itself was rather short, giving way to the audience Q&A so that the purpose became players and Riot having a dialogue about the community they care about. It’s notable that the panel members refuted the notion that the community is terrible (which came up nonchalantly from a couple of people) at every turn.

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Choosing to believe that the problematic elements are just a piece of the player base and that the situation can be remedied under multiple circumstances and through the aid of science and a constantly adaptive approach is very much the linchpin of Riot’s player behavior efforts.

One example brought to attention by Lin was that of a 10 year old player that was sent to the tribunal for using racist language. The child was unaware that it was a bad thing to say what he said. Helping players, especially some that are now growing up online,  to learn from these incidences is an approach the team would rather take than to focus on penalizing and creating branded outcasts that might never learn if handled solely with negativity and punishment. Players in matches with people that use offensive language, are unduly angry, or just like to pick fights might want these players taken care of and punished right away, but sometimes there is context there that we don’t often stop and think about when we’re being antagonized. League of Legends has 32 million player accounts. Riot could easily just outright ban players that act out without losing a significant percentage of its players, but the community is so integral to the game (as in all MOBAs) that it even made me rethink the quick infraction approach.

The “prisoner’s island” method, where players deemed toxic and frequent leavers all get thrown into their own matchmaking pool, doesn’t help improve player behavior according to Riot, but just makes or contributes to a cycle. Players feel like they’ll never get out, so they continue to act badly and there’s no investment in doing any better. Riot also addressed the issue of banned players starting new accounts to serve out bans on their mains. Instead of bans being determined as a stretch of time, they’re going to require a certain number of matches with good behavior in order to lift the ban. This is creative, and it helps two issues – lowbie accounts (smurfs) that are skilled players and attack the newbies for all kinds of reasons, and requiring the banned player to learn to reform and rejoin the greater community.

One of the interesting early happenings at the panel involved the very first audience member’s question. The man asked if leaving games when someone is behaving in a toxic manner would ever become an option, since right now you can’t leave without penalty to you when on the receiving end of someone else’s rage in a match. When disagreeing and pressing his opinion, a few members of the audience started booing, making negative comments, and otherwise grumbling at the man, who had gone on for a while.  The reaction among the few that attacked him served as an example of the few in the room with a tendency to become irate and mean versus the many who sat silent and respectful. There was tension in the air, but the incident seemed to reinforce the idea that it’s the few ruining it for the many, and that initiatives like the Tribunal working in tandem with positive reinforcement like Honor badges will reduce the toxicity levels and also make some players think twice about giving into that near-instinctual gut feeling of rage that arises in some people.

I’m on the side of the panelists, who have done lots of research using scientific methods and are working on ways to continuously adapt the methods, the game, and even outreach, in order to help the community become stronger. It’s clear that this isn’t just about maintaining the business, as there’s a lot of ongoing research that Riot is investing in to feed ongoing tweaks to policies –and is sharing the stats and what they have learned with other developers.

There’s nothing inherently negative about any game’s community. But because negativity is felt so strongly and it stands out much more than the often quiet positive and neutral players (though Riot’s Honor system is trying to bring positive reinforcement into an active thing), it’s easy to deem a community “bad”. This is something, as a community-minded person, that’s a key part of this very column.

I’ve expressed support for the “prisoner’s island’ method used by Valve in DOTA 2 before, but the panelists’ argument that keeping the community together is paramount and methods should adapt has made me reconsider. While even Riot believes the truly, irredeemably toxic players should be removed from the game (and they’ve made no exceptions at any level, even banning pros on the eve of major competitions), the general pillars favor attempts to communicate with and reform player behavior, as well as shield others from the negativity if possible. It’s ambitious, but if it weren’t showing signs of working, would the team be on a panel touting the research and philosophy?

Many of you may condemn the LoL community outright. Maybe it is the worst community you’ve ever experienced. Maybe you had good experiences with others playing. Whatever side of the line you fall on, Riot is definitely working to change the perception. Competition is human, and all the processes our bodies and minds undergo when we want to play hard and win result in different reactions. Utilizing both player experiences and science to adapt, it’s encouraging that Riot is expending the time and resources to tackle the issues head on –and to be completely blunt about them. The research could also be useful for other developers, so in another gesture of community, Riot shared more of its research findings and some future plans at GDC.

This column has been a departure this time around, but with good reason. Saying ‘League of Legends’ often conjures up a negative image when people think about the players and community, so having the other side of it from Riot in an honest dialogue with players represents an important step.


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