If there's one genre that's known for being player friendly, it's not multiplayer online battle arenas.
S2 Games, creators of the massive title Heroes of Newerth, are well aware of the genre's tendency toward a toxic community. But while HoN continues to thrive among its fanbase, the team is moving forward in hopes of creating a game with a little less vitriol. They call it Strife — a new MOBA designed to disarm abusive players before they even get their fingers on a keyboard.
At a recent press event in San Francisco, S2 Games unveiled its free-to-play game alongside plans to stamp out bad behavior and create a more challenging experience with fewer heroes.
By the roots
Shortly before Strife's unveiling, S2 chief executive officer Marc DeForest was reading an article on the five worst communities in gaming. Riot Games' hot title League of Legends ranked third, but it was S2's own Heroes of Newerth that snagged the top spot.
"In the beginning of this genre — at least in the commercial space — [the challenge] was this educational thing," DeForest said. "Just getting journalists and general gamers to understand ‘what is this thing?' Yeah, there were people who knew what [a MOBA] was and were playing it, and it had a big audience, but it took so long.
"Now, we're beyond all that. It seemed the first thing that people started to latch on to was ‘I tried to play this game and these people are mean. It is hostile.'"
The problem is that new players are hitting a wall — a barrier made by the genre's existing community and how they behave and interact. The pressure isn't coming from opponents, either, according to director of monetization Pu Liu. Conflict is more likely to hit directly from your own teammates. But S2 is well aware that it can't "fix the human race."
"People have tempers, and people will always have different visions as to how our team will best coalesce together and win the game," Liu said. "Rather than trying to fix people themselves, we're trying to make really intelligent design decisions to elegantly address those problems so there's less reason to be inflammatory. There's less reason to blame your teammates and there's less reason to start bickering within your team."
Through S2's development with Heroes of Newerth, the team has been able to analyze their design practices. They've weeded out "some of the mistakes," they've made, DeForest said, and set forth with a very specific goal for Strife. This begins with the game's most obvious avenue: communication. Strife will not allow players to chat across opposing teams. More importantly, it will limit the communication players can have with their own team.
"It's a great feature within HoN — we always get a lot of praise for it — but there will be no voice chat within Strife," DeForest said. "In HoN right now, when you join a game, you're immediately in a voice chat channel that you can communicate with your teammates. If someone is harassing you, you have the capability to mute them."
But the problem is that players have the ability to be belligerent right out of the gate, DeForest said. It's difficult for the developer to investigate any harassment that ensues because it simply isn't feasible to record all conversations within that game. Instead, Strife gives players the option of whom they want to speak with. When players create a party and enter match-making, they're automatically set up with a voice channel just for those members. They can then choose to invite other teammates from that match as they please. In this way, S2 hope to limit harassments from strangers without inhibiting interactions with your friends.
"It's still there, and it has some hurdles to break people in, but again it's just a choice that we had to make," DeForest said. "We're betting we made the right choice."
"We can't fix the human race. There are jerks."
Other decisions are more technical. In HoN, players had the ability to view the cooldowns of their fellows' skills — something Strife players shouldn't expect to see. While practical in theory, this opens up anyone for attack. DeForest used the example of a player who, after dying, turns their attention to a nearby healer.
"You're mad you died," DeForest said. "You want to blame somebody. You want to blame your teammate. You want to blame the guy that had the heal: ‘Why didn't you heal me?' Immediately a fight breaks out."
Where one player might answer that their heal was on cooldown, the other could argue in turn. The result, DeForest said, is generally a downward spiral. And with the right combination of problems, even typically calm players can get frustrated and hostile. To solve this, S2 is attempting to be proactive to these problems, rather than reactive.
"It's the difference of providing information players need to know to hit their highs and not providing ammunition for people to use that for harassment," DeForest said.
"[When dealing with toxic players], it's generally a reactive thing," DeForest said. "The way our game is, there are people that are jerks. And again, we can't fix the human race. There are jerks. We know this. But internet anonymity, the way a game is designed, a number of things seem to elevate the number of jerks that there are. In Strife, rather than having a reactive approach, it's proactive in the design ... There's a number of other things, but when you start making decisions, realizing that every decision impacts a number of other things, then you begin to make better decisions from the ground up."
It's often said that history is written by the victors, and the world of Strife is no different.
There's something big that's missing from MOBAs, according to producer Tim Shannon. There's a lack of discussion when it comes to the lore and context for the events in-game. Even when that context appears, it's "after the fact, something that's tacked on," Shannon said. With Strife, S2 worked to develop the story alongside the game.
Part of Strife's logo is a shattered obelisk — a figure that plays heavily into the game's defining myth. It tells of all creatures living in harmony under a code written by godlike beings know as oracles. Eventually, war broke out, and the obelisk that houses the code was broken. As punishment, the oracles split the universe into six planes of existence and banished the truly evil to one.
Strife's world, as it's known today, is made of five accessible planes of existence. Gael, a "high fantasy" realm; Tempra, a plane of fire and ice; Vorbis, a cybernetic, simulated place; Nestra, full of stars and dust clouds; and Lyrie, where plants and animals dwell. Each plane is guarded by a keeper.
"We've really tried to create a very large container in which to fit this world in so that we don't have to add new realms," Shannon said, "so that we can create a wide diversity of characters that appeal to all sorts of different players and all sorts of different interests. They can all fit within this world and have a place and not sort of seem like they are from different universes.
" ... When you bring a bunch of people together from all around the world, you get drama that develops," Shannon continued. "One of the things that we're hoping to develop is this interpersonal struggle that derives from very different experiences of this universe."
Players come in as warriors competing in the Trials of Strife, a method of training fighters. Their goal is to prepare for a prophecy that forewarns of the reopening of the sealed, evil realm.
"This story that you've heard is the account given by the keepers in order to explain why they're doing the things that they're doing," Shannon said. "But the keepers are also the people who are most directly benefitting from telling history this way. It's uncertain as to whether this prophecy is an old wives tale — if it will come to, what the danger is, why people are in the arena in the first place."
"We have this universe that is largely unexplored in terms of the characters we have."
S2 will continue this narrative through its website, character bios and a number of other avenues — including a comic book in conjunction with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator and comic guru Kevin Eastman. The comic book will help advance the plot of the trials and flesh out characters in parallel to the game. As of right now, only one comic is planned for both a physical and digital release. Depending on fan response, however, it could blossom into a series. Events from the comic could even be incorporated into the game.
"[The comic] tells the story of what's happening in-between the matches," Shannon said. " ... We have this big expansive universe that is largely unexplored in terms of the characters we have. We can fill a lot into that."
On the field and beyond
Strife is built on a "less is more" approach when it comes to characters. Unlike Heroes of Newerth's roster, which ballooned to more than 100 characters with very specific roles, these heroes will be more versatile. When the game launches — a date tentatively set for 2014 on Windows PC, Mac and Linux — it will have about 25 heroes. According to Liu, this design decision dodges more than one pothole.
"[Specialized characters] leads to narrow design in heroes, because you design them for a very specific function," Liu said. "They have to compete with other heroes that fill that specific function. That also leads to toxicity in that each role is played a very specific way, and if you don't do it that way, you're bad. If you don't buy those specific items, you're bad."
Take hero Ace, for example. Ace is what the team calls "a natural beefcake." The larger-than-life character can act as a high-powered damage-dealer, or as support for other players by drawing their fire and taking hits. Players who roll into battle as Ace won't automatically be expected to play a specific way, Liu said.
S2 hopes to connect players with characters in a more intimate way as well. Executive director of art Jesse Hayes told us that characters are often designed off a stereotype and built up with a twist. Ace, Hayes said, is one of the game's more "generic" looking characters who very nearly ended up as a Jersey Shore kind of character. He's a heavily muscled, top-heavy axe-wielder — in purple pants, with a hair like an ice cream swirl. In battle, there's a comical appeal to Ace; he struts with such exaggeration that it's hard to take him seriously.
Other characters made their way into the game almost as a joke. Take Moxie, or "Gandalf Kitty," as some playfully refer to him. The cat-based character is short, very round and cape-wearing. Moxie was one idea out of about 50 the team was playing with for "cute designs." So many people were drawn to him that Moxie eventually made the cut.
"That's a hero you can quickly jump into," Hayes explained.
During our demo, we spent some time with Moxie. Characters have four skills players develop during battle. Moxie's abilities are electric-based but relate back to his feline form. His long-range attack allows him to throw a sphere of electricity — shaped like a ball of yarn — at enemies. Moxie worked best for us at a slight distance, which made it easy to take advantage of Strife's out of combat regeneration system. Characters who do not take or deal damage for 10 seconds begin recovering their health and mana.
Picking up items, armor and weapons in-battle is also a quick process that only requires you to open the game's store menu. Once players have picked out their new gear, they can either dash back to their home base or have it delivered by courier.
Players will also be assisted in battle by pets. Pets can be mixed and matched with any character; their abilities remain the same no matter who you play as. Players can level their pets by feeding them, and, much like Pokemon, evolve as they grow. Each pet has three different evolutions. As they grow, players are given the option to choose between two skills to help customize their experience.
Karma is Strife's method for policing bad behavior.
Pets are one of the few things in the free-to-play game that players will be able to purchase with real money. New heroes will be free. Everything in Strife can be unlocked with the in-game currency, but players can chose to speed up the process. And no matter how many pets you unlock, you'll never be stronger or weaker than anyone else because of it.
Other purchasable items include color swaps or chests presented at the end of battles. These chests are part of Strife's gamified rewards; each one houses different commodities. Players will shuffle and select which chest they want, with the option to pay real money to grab a second one. The content of each chest is somewhat dependent on another of Strife's toxicity-limiting systems: Karma.
Karma is Strife's method for policing bad behavior. After a match has concluded, players will be able to either make a positive, negative or null action against another player. The higher a player's karma score, the better they're rated among the community. Those with a low score are generally going to be the jerks. All of this loops back into the reward you receive at the end of battle.
"If you're an outlier and we can identify you as being problematic, you may earn coal for playing Strife," DeForest said. "Literally."
On the flip side, Karma can also have a positive effect. Those with a high score will receive better luck and better commodities.
Bad reputations will eventually deteriorate out, so outliers won't always be at odds. Additionally, the game will naturally weed out opinions of anyone who "cries wolf," DeForest said. If you're finding a problem with someone in every match, the weight of your votes will be less than someone who is fairer.
"You're going to realize that there's a tangible, binary impact to you by making the decision to be a detriment to the community," DeForest said.
DeForest calls Strife a "second-generation MOBA" — a second game in the same genre by the same developer, a rare thing for the MOBA community. This gives Strife relevance over other new games, DeForest said, because they've proven they're not just "bandwagoning" to the pitch. They've learned from their past.
"We started HoN in 2006, so we've had a long time to wrap our head around these things," DeForst said. " ... The fundamentals of the game underneath the hood that [are] actually going to cause the biggest impact in creating a friendlier community."
The beauty of this for S2 is that the developer's competitors can't make those changes, DeForest continued. To implement major changes would be like touching "sacred cows."
"I'd venture to guess that many of them are in the exact same position that we are and the difference is that we just chose to make another game," DeForest said.
"I bet on a per player basis, or a per 1,000-match basis, the number of negative reports we see in our players is going to be significantly less than with any of our competitors simply because there's just not as many reasons to get hostile."