Monday, November 2, 2009

The Blame Game

There is no hostile environment like the community of a competitive online game. A noob's first dip into a pvp focused battlefield is like the first day of school, if the school's purpose was to turn children into battle-hardened space marines. Despite the dangers of swimming in the deep end, I have ventured with trepidation onto the fields of justice, joining the League of Legends. A game of strategy, a game of teamwork, a game where your own allies will tell you to die in a fire.

League of Legends (LoL) is a modernized offspring of Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a hugely competitive and popular Warcraft III mod. Riot Games is developing LoL and has incorporated Steve Feak and Steve Mesco in the development process, two minds behind DotA Allstars. The game is in open beta. I have enjoyed my time immensely, but there are others who may be scared off by the virulent criticism common in online gaming communities.

For someone with very little DotA experience, I have actually taken to League of Legends pretty quickly. The game is simpler than I had imagined. Each player in LoL is a "summoner," with their own persistent skill tree and game history. Each summoner calls forth "champions," each with a unique set of spells. These champions level-up throughout a game. They also earn gold to stock up on beneficial items.

These avatars are the driving force behind what is essentially a Real-Time Strategy game. Each side - with three to five players depending on the match type - accompany repetitively spawned groups of minions to assault defensive towers and eventually destroy their enemy's base. The basic idea is quite simple, but with almost forty different champions to choose from and a huge variety of items, actual gameplay can become very complicated.

There are many ways to fail, but when it comes to the team quips at the end of the game, there are usually one or two people who carry the blame. The "die in a fire" quote is real - though to be fair, the person was a pain. Uncouth remarks do not occur as often as they would in an FPS, but players do blame each other for a team's failure with startling frequency. For a person new to the game, LoL can be quite stressful.
A person who dies often is called a "feeder," because they feed enemy champions with bonus experience and gold. "We had a feeder" is a common rationalization for most losses. Without hesitation, a fundamentally team-based experience becomes about individual responsibility. This noob player, potentially criticized throughout the game, is the sole reason a game will go south. This is a drastic assumption and oversimplification of player behavior.

There are plenty of ways an individual or a team can lose a match of LoL. For example, some champions are better late-game than early-game combatants. Some champions are better "pushers" or "carriers" than others. Some are heavily item dependent, some work better in pairs, some are more easily ganked, some get few kills but provide excellent support. Poor team make-up can make or break a team, in which case each player is equally culpable.

However, even if we were to put blame on one person, to say one individual failed to learn their character and their role, the finger-pointing tactic is detrimental to all players. Applying blame does not foster improvement through education. Telling someone to go read a manual, while helpful to some extent, does not teach them some of the finer minutia of contextual gameplay. A team's responsibility is to find their shortcomings and compensate accordingly. This requires a level of cooperation beyond the norm.
Nels Anderson astutely points out game design's ability to alter player behavior, stating:

"it might be the case that we need to provide the context and reward for a specific type of behaviour and then find ways to attract different types of players. Some of the most beloved games (e.g. Portal, Shadow of the Colossus, Mario) aren't successful because they support a great diversity of behaviours, but rather because their context and the behaviours they encourage are harmonious."

Some of Riot Game's design choices do foster cooperation and mend some of the troubles inflicting DotA. Players have access to bot games and practice games - though the matchmaking system and summoner experience system provide more incentive to play actual games over practice matches. Also, players cannot abandon a game easily. A player abandoning their game for a better one will find themselves automatically joining the same one they left. A vote to surrender a match requires an overwhelming majority. Players have every incentive to make the most of a bad game.

Cooperation, however, does not free us from blame. We want to have an easy out, a way to back up our gamer credibility by calling someone out. If someone else is at fault, then our own in-game behavior is vindicated. In a team-based competitive environment, this logic does not make sense. Developers could be somewhat culpable, or the gaming community at large. If a game is lost because of correctable errors, then we have no one to blame but ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Thank for this post about LoL review and "blame in game". I feel really inspired by your last paragraph and find it so true... If I manage to get some time to develop my ideas with yours, I will notify you by email or trackback.