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Sea of Thieves team put anti-toxicity strategies into game’s core design

The brig is a perfect example

Sea of Thieves - a crew of pirates play music around a treasure chest they’ve just discovered Rare/Microsoft Studios

Part of Rare’s decision to build anti-toxicity measures directly into Sea of Thievescore design can be seen almost immediately upon playing.

Players have a brig aboard their pirate ship, for example. Jerome Hagen, a user researcher at Microsoft, said that feature was one of many implemented to let players deal with others griefing their game. Hagen spoke about design strategy at GDC 2018 today in a panel on empowering players and combating multiplayer toxicity.

The concept came down to giving players more control over their game-playing experience, while reinforcing the notion that disruptive behavior won’t be accepted by the Sea of Thieves community. This helps alleviate the stress that players often have over reporting another player, according to research presented by Microsoft at the panel. Moreover, it doesn’t take players out of their enjoyment of the game.

The brig is the most interesting example of this. It’s a holding cell located on the bottom of the ship that disruptive players can be sent to after a democratic vote is held by their shipmates. This enables players to decide what type of punishment best suits unruly players, Hagen said, while also encouraging people to get into the spirit of role-playing and keeping in tune with the game.

“You might have a player who joins your crew and they are causing problems of some kind,” Hagen said. “If it’s bad enough, you have the option to kick them entirely. The brig was introduced as a way to give players control. They can vote to put someone in the brig, or have them negotiate, apologize, or do whatever fixes the situation best. We’ve seen this in a really playful and role-playing way that comes with being a pirate.”

Curbing negative behavior through game design is a popular concept that many people from different publishers, including Kimberly Voll at Riot Games and Ben Lewis-Evans at Epic Games, have talked about at GDC. Instituting practices that encourage players to cooperate with one another and figure out how to deal with people who aren’t contributing to a positive gaming experience is an effective method Microsoft has seen with battling disruptive behavior.

“Making sure that these features that help players experiences are built in a natural part of the gameplay as much as possible is key,” Hagen said. “It’s not just a feature to get away from badness, but is a feature that can add to the fun.”

That doesn’t mean designers ignore trollish players whose intent is to ruin the game for others. “Scuttle Ship” is another option for Sea of Thieves players if they’re dealing with another ship that won’t leave them alone. Using Scuttle Ship allows players to zap into a different area of the map, putting physical space between themselves and the trolls. This has been an effective tactic in helping players deal with others who may not be harassing them per se, but are creating a negative gaming experience.

Rare’s anti-toxicity measures may prove to be effective because they involve players, not just moderators, in dealing with those who break the rules. Sea of Thieves’ code of conduct, a list of rules that players must abide by or face consequences otherwise, was developed with the community prior to the game’s release. Hagen said this not only set into motion laws that the majority of the community believed in, but ones Microsoft believes will pave the path for others, too.

Sea of Thieves launched on Tuesday, so it may take some time to see if these tools are effective. But Hagen believes it’s a good start toward tackling toxicity in online multiplayer games.

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