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RAMBLING THOUGHTS

Hi everyone. A bit of warning: this is going to be a rambling essay with some personal stuff in it, so bear that in mind if you want to slog through it. Here we go.

I was bullied mercilessly in grade school. I was suicidal by fifth grade. The support and love of my family, my mother in particular, saved me from harming myself. My experiences with bullies and their ilk has informed much of who I am and how I treat others. It's also really made me think about the culture that has been fostered in online games, and just how I want to approach that with the games I make.

My first big release, Battle Of Solar System, is an online multiplayer game at its core. Some day, I would love to make a single-player campaign if I am able, but originally I envisioned it as a fun, cooperative, multiplayer experience. I have very strong opinions about bullying. I have very strong opinions about hate speech and cruelty and violence. I knew that I wanted to make a multiplayer game and I knew that game would need to speak for me and express my opinions honestly, through gameplay.

So I had choices to make. When you're designing a multiplayer game, a lot of the design work has already been done for you. The genre has been around long enough that there is no lack of examples from which you can draw inspiration. It's easy to look at how a certain game designed the layout of their lobby, or how they designed up their match-making. People are used to online games working a certain way.

But over the course of things, people got used to some pretty bad things that have nothing whatsoever to do with the games themselves.

I love online gaming, I always have. Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans, Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, Halflife, Halflife 2, COD 2, COD: World at War, the list goes on. Playing with friends over a modem was a transformative experience for me.

But, I should stress a part of that sentence that has particularly important significance: "playing with friends." It has become common knowledge in the gaming sphere that playing with strangers can be a vitriolic, angry, bigoted, ugly experience. The seasoned gamer has learned to shrug it off. They grow what is commonly referred to as "a thick skin."

However, plenty of gamers don't want to grow a "thick skin." My friends, for example, don't want to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to hurtful, hateful, divisive language. I personally don't want to become numb to terrible behavior. Numbness dulls the senses and makes it ever easier for bullies to behave horribly without ever taking responsibility for themselves.

I don't like using the word "troll" or "griefer" or any of those cute terms we've made up to describe them. They're not some mythical creature that lives under a bridge and harrasses gnomes. They're real people making the conscious decision to say and do terrible things that have a real and costly impact on their targets.

Like I said, I know what being bullied ceaselessly feels like. I didn't do anything to deserve the treatment I got except to be an easy target. Bullies need an easy target, because they're cowards at their core. My bullies had the armor and weapons of size and population on their side. The online version benefits from the armor of anonymity.

You can't remove that armor in an online world. You shouldn't try to either. Anonymity protects a fair number of people from exactly the kind of treatment I'm talking about, and worse. Anonymity is key to guarding your privacy, which is something I will always fight for in an online context. We need to be able to protect ourselves and our data online. So, what do you do when you're making an online game?

A lot of game companies are spending ever increasing resources on policing the unsavory elements of their online communities. Admins seek out and ban players. Other players can report or ban other players. Heck, some games have enormous teams of what amounts to online chaperones whose entire job is to find and boot bullies. It's ridiculous.

I don't have the time or resources to do any of that. More importantly, I don't want to spend my time trying to nanny anyone. It's a waste of everyone's time, mine and the bullies both.

I thought back to my childhood. I pictured the internet like a vast, boundless playground, full of every kind of person imaginable. What an exciting place to make a game! In the real world, playgrounds are somewhat self-regulating. If a kid is being a yutz, it’s the choice of other kids not to play with them.

I imagined an internet that regulates itself in the same, or a similar way. Most of us spend a fair amount of our time online these days. As our social networks and circles of friends expand, we end up meeting some really great people, many of whom we would never have met in real life, due to geography or accessibility. So our virtual playground is already working like a real one in that we’re meeting new people and forming awesome friendships!

I figured, maybe the need for an anonymous matchmaking service was dwindling as we make more and more friends online in this way. Maybe now it’s not so difficult to assume that any one person has 7 other friends they could play a game of B.O.S.S with. Maybe anonymous lobbies are vestigial - an unnecessary organ from gaming's evolution.

In the end, I’ve made B.O.S.S in the way I have because I wanted to make a game I would enjoy playing. I’ve had enough negative experiences playing with strangers online that I figured I’d do myself the favor of not going that route. So I just took the strangers out of the equation entirely.

Mind you, I have no idea if this is going to work, or if it's actually a good idea. It might be too difficult for players to coordinate games with only their friends. It might be too restrictive altogether. I certainly don't like taking options away from my players. I usually strive to do the opposite. I remain open to changing my mind, but in the early stages of this venture, I want to try and make my games as safe as possible, for everyone who wants to play them.

If demand for a matchmaking service grows, then I will certainly consider introducing it, since I want all of my games to be as good as they can be. However, I really want to see if this kind of model can work. If we take anonymity out of the equation and humanize everyone we play games with online, we inherently remove the armor that bullies have enjoyed for years now. We might even be able to take steps towards building a better, more fun multiplayer experience that is more representative of who we are in the real world.


 

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