Recently Riot has been talking a bit on their forums about their struggles with player community management. Lyte recently posted this:
“There’s no easy solution to Champion Select; in fact, it might be one of the most difficult problem spaces we’ve ever had to tackle. However, it’s currently a major focus of the player behavior team, and we hope to fix the core issues with Champ Select and find a way to really build trust among strangers before the game even begins.”
That sounds like a challenge! Ok, ok, so I don’t think I can punch this issue down in half an hour, but I’m going to have a look at it from a slightly different angle to what we see from Riot’s player behaviour team.
Their methodology is a good one, highly based on statistics and, as far as I can tell, psychological best practice. Unfortunately, while they do talk a lot about what they’re doing and give the player community a lot of stuff to chew on, we also really don’t get the meat of the issue. For example, Riot talks a lot about ‘toxic players’, but as far as I can find have never really stated what a ‘toxic player’ is exactly. It’s one of those tacitly obvious things, apparently (I’m pathologically inclined to be skittish of anything to do with toxins after reading bad science). I don’t doubt that Riot’s crew have some pretty robust work going on back there, but the way they share their discoveries leaves something to be desired in terms of real, usable information.
So I’m going to have to do a lot of making do with what we have. If we shadows have offended and all that.
Champion select is the drafting aspect of League of Legends, where players pick their champions for a game. It’s notoriously antagonistic as players often compete for the glamorous roles and, thanks to the structure of the metagame, get annoyed and frustrated when things don’t go their way. This being the internet, that annoyance frequently boils over into undirected rage and disruptive behaviour or at the very least half-hearted cooperation and a sub-optimal game experience.
As a student of play, I’m fascinated by Champion Select. It’s a kind of distilled example of the differences in psychology between intrinsic and extrinsic rules and how that affects the way people play. Lyte’s comments on building trust strike me particularly strongly, because trust is one of the things that play interfaces with most curiously of all. I also think that as a guy with a heavy focus on play, I’m coming from a different angle to the Riot crew. From his wording I get the feeling the scientists Lyte’s been talking to are the game theory / rational behaviour kind and everything I’ve learned about play says you can’t use those models successfully when play behaviour is involved.
The staple example to demonstrate this is bears and huskies playing in the snow. That sort of animal interaction has been a subject of some research, and formal play rituals have been cataloged among a variety of animals, particularly dogs. The interesting thing here is that there’s a kind of language that establishes trust. You may have introduced yourself to a dog or cat by curling up small or offering them the back of your hand to sniff. To another human, you might show them your open palms or similar. This is referred to by ethologists as a physical lexicon of trust.
Amongst both humans and animals (particularly mammals), there is another level of this sort of interaction, one which establishes an even atmosphere of tolerance and curiosity which occurs before the intimate trust necessary for play. Laughter, teasing, gallivanting, poking and (once you get far enough) play-biting, gumming or nipping someone are all examples of this language. Funnily enough, it’s not so different to the way the dogs and bears show they’re playing- toothless bites and funny walks seem to be a standard across species, while dogs have a particularly well studied signpost called the play-bow.
Online, we can’t interact physically, which is partly why gamer culture is so rife with braggadocio, trash talking and hyperbolic communication- yelling, exclaiming how amazing something is, pithily dismissing an achievement as nothing, etc. It seems to stem from an attempt to convey the physical lexicon of play. Certainly, phenomena like emoticons and avatar emotes are mostly used for this purpose when the players cannot see or interact with each other in a more tangible way.
When you look at champion select you clearly see why establishing trust is difficult. Your team are essentially faceless and the only method of interaction they have is a chatbox, a chatbox that is deprived even of the ersatz tools like emoticons. In the race to get the Champion you want, there’s hardly time to type a word, let alone write some complex text in order to get your team in a playful mood.
So, first things first, Lyte is absolutely correct when he says there is no easy solution. I don’t think you can tweak a variable and get a big improvement here. The problem is a fundamental one. The current structure of the Champion select environment is simply not capable of establishing trust and playfulness in a meaningful way. That is to say, while it is technically possible, it’s not very likely given a random sampling of players.
The first thing, it seems, is to give people the space to communicate with each other. To me that suggests taking away all those pictures of champions and what other people are choosing and putting it somewhere else. Out of sight. Where you can’t touch it. For, say, ten seconds, no choosing your champion, runes, masteries, anything.
(The main reason I want this, of course, is that I’m Australian and constantly, CONSTANTLY get into champ selects where I call a role, am apparently first yet everyone else’s logs say I ain’t. My suffering is eternal. >.>)
Seriously, though. Give someone nothing else to do but communicate and guess what? They’ll communicate. If this seems a little harsh and ham-handed, well, that’s true. But consider that communication doesn’t just have to be typing how your cock is supernaturally large in a chat box. We can have passive communication (someone’s avatar or profile customization for example communicates stuff about them to anyone who has the time to look). We can have non-verbal communication assuming our environment has something manipulable that other players can see- for example if you had a map with a system that let players put virtual pins on it or freeform draw over it, they could communicate through messing around with that. People can turn pretty much anything they can interact with which can be seen by others into a medium for communication, so it’s not so much how to enable communication as to what sort of communication to enable.
In my experience as a League player, a lot of the frustration in champ select is not being able to really tell the temperament of your teammates. I can deal with having an aggressive player or a very passive player, the difficulty is in not knowing in advance. So I have to usually blindly pick a champion suited to a kind of play that there’s only an average chance my teammates will be inclined towards. I can talk through this in chat, but more often than not I get no response or it’s too late anyway.
It’s just one manifestation of a more typical problem with online match-made play: systematic anonymity. Outside of RPGs where players build persistent, unique characters, there’s rarely much attempt to allow a player to communicate their own identity in a matchmade game. The same tools used to communicate identity are often used to communicate playfulness, through dressup, deliberate sub-optimisation (I suppose a good example of this in League is ‘troll’-builds, though of course this is sometimes not the sort of play that Riot likes to see).
I think this might be a partial key to unlocking the problem. If players can at a glance see the disposition of their teammates, I think they’ll be far more comfortable communicating and establishing consensus.
Just as a rough concept, imagine if you drop into champ select and you see something like this
Each player here has previously entered
- Their three preferred champions
- Their interest in roles (by gameplay-archetype rather than meta archetype, so assassin/mage/fighter/ad carry/ tank/support)
- A tick if they’re prepared to jungle
- A meter which shows how their play preference- aggressive or passive.
Instantly, at a glance you can see where the potential conflicts and synergies in your team are- there’s an aggressive Draven player and an aggressive Leona player? Great! Two people prefer mid, but one hates to jungle and the other doesn’t mind it? Easy… Only one guy who can jungle? well, that sucks but it feels a bit better when the dice are rolled so visibly.
As part of this mockup I also added the minimap pinboard, and there’s still plenty of space for hacking together some additional stuff as testing dictates. I think this process would add no more than maybe 15 seconds to the champion select process, and there’s always the potential you can add an option skip it in custom games or team games.
It also makes it clearer when a player is genuinely being unpleasant- if you don’t say a word for 15 seconds before champions are even available and then instalock, ignoring the discussion, you’re ripe for judgement. When the culture is instalock or bust, you can’t surely judge someone for the practice.
In short, it adds a massive amount of both passive and active communication that’s easy to absorb and easy to use in a format that’s hard to abuse. It gives players a larger unique footprint, making it harder to see them as just a nameplate and fighting the problems that systematic anonymity creates.
From my perspective, this also adds the opportunity for players to, well, play. There’s a space added there to show willing, barred from the antagonist environment of Champion select. It’s structured around the free sharing of information and cooperative activity, fostering a more playful, trusting environment. The sort of environment that doesn’t conform to the expectations of those game theory scientists in a really good way, a way that expresses the best of gamer culture, not the worst.
I don’t contend something like this would fix all the problems with the Champion Select process. But it would add a lot to the game, both in creating a less antagonistic environment and at the same time providing teams with fantastic tools to improve their game and demonstrate their teamwork and creative skills.
I get the feeling this would be a tricky proposition for Riot with the way they’ve had to keep patching together the air client, but there’s always Season 4, eh?