We speak with Cliff Bleszinski and the Boss Key team about the upcoming title, and what differentiates them from similar games on the market.
LawBreakers features gravity-defying mechanics, with characters able to effectively play ‘the floor is lava’ by using special jump moves, jetpacks, and other abilities. This adds an extra challenging dimension to the game that Boss Key hopes will set it apart.
When asked how they intend to make LawBreakers accessible to players who are unfamiliar with hero shooters - or first-person shooters in general - Cliff responded by reminding us that ‘Dark Souls isn’t noob friendly’. The team made it clear that they believe not every game needs to be accessible to all players - and LawBreakers doesn’t intend to be.
Cliff lamented that there has been a push for more accessibility in games lately, to the point where ‘gamers felt like they were being handheld’. So, although there will be some sandbox experiences for players to learn the mechanics if they need to, these will be implemented in more of a ‘push all the buttons’ style, rather than tutorials that teach the basics step-by-step. Cliff hopes that this will deliver ‘more of a core experience’ for existing gamers.
Having a clear target audience is important - not every game is for every person, and this precision focus helps create an experience that a particular subset of gamers will really enjoy. Dan Nanni, the lead designer for the title, also made it clear that LawBreakers offers a range of characters with abilities that will hopefully appeal to many different people - even those outside the ‘core shooter player’ audience they are targeting.
According to Cliff, the hero shooter market is getting crowded, but developers are still carving out their own experiences within the genre. Cliff feels that existing hero shooters have often thought about characters and abilities first, and the ‘shooter’ mechanics second. With LawBreakers, it’s the opposite: the shooter mechanics are the highest priority, with aspects such as game lore not being considered until part way through the development process, when several characters had already been created.
Dan said that another key difference between this game and other successful titles within the genre - such as Overwatch - is the aesthetic. Describing existing hero shooters as ‘pastel’ and ‘Pixar’, Dan and the Boss Key team intends to combat this style, making direct comparisons between their title and games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
But a comparison to CS:GO causes alarm bells for me. Although all multiplayer games have the potential for bringing out the worst in people, CS:GO is known for having a particularly toxic community, despite taking steps to limit the opportunities players have to abuse one another. If LawBreakers is targeting ‘core shooter players’, what is Boss Key doing to ensure their community doesn’t quickly become known as equally toxic?
When I posed this question to Cliff, he indicated that he and the Boss Key team haven’t given it much thought yet. Cliff assured me that LawBreakers will include the classic block and report system, and that it will be easy to mute people within the game. The goal will be to look for repeated behaviour of toxicity and remove players who are perpetrators of this. ‘I wish I could give more information,’ Cliff said.
Although all multiplayer games have the potential for bringing out the worst in people, CS:GO is known for having a particularly toxic community...
These are the features that can be found in almost every competitive multiplayer game - including Call of Duty (which Cliff said has a reputation of having ‘12-year-olds slinging racial slurs’) - so it’s clear more needs to be done.
Cliff said that preventing toxicity was a topic ‘that’s very near and dear to [him]’ after the time he spent at Xbox Live, and he mentioned that ‘people have written whole dissertations on the topic’. This is true - there are many studies being conducted into the toxicity of game communities and how developers can prevent similar communities from forming around their own games; it’s important that developers of both new and existing titles are actively seeking out their findings.
One of the biggest contributors to academic study in the area of toxic game communities is Riot Games, who are the developers of League of Legends - a game with another particularly toxic community. Riot has been attempting to reduce toxic behaviour for years but, as Cliff said during our interview, even they are ‘still trying to work it out.’
In 2012, Riot formed a division called ‘Team Player Behaviour’, which relied on psychological research as they began to implement ways of reducing harassment and abuse. The ‘Honor’ system in League of Legends - where players can commend allies for their teamwork, friendliness, and helpfulness - was one of the first initiatives within the game that was created specifically to reduce toxicity.
But as the player base continues to grow, these approaches have also had to evolve. Riot has been particularly transparent about the challenges they have faced in this area, with Jeffrey Lin (an expert in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology, who acted as the lead designer of social systems at Riot from 2012 to 2016) regularly engaging in interviews about the work he was conducting and how effective it was. Updates directly involving player behaviour are publicly announced and tagged on the League of Legends website, and Riot also releases statistics about the League of Legends community for academics to work with, in the hope of finding recommendations and results that will further reduce toxicity.
In 2012, Riot formed a division called ‘Team Player Behaviour’, which relied on psychological research as they began to implement ways of reducing harassment and abuse.
Despite their efforts, Riot is yet to find the perfect solution for League of Legends, leaving room for further work to be done. Some of this additional work is being conducted by Blizzard in their attempts to reduce toxicity in games such as Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch.
Hearthstone limits the opportunities for players to harass each other by restricting communication between opponents to a series of emotes, with players being unable to use text chat unless they are already friends through Battle.NET. In an interview with Polygon, production director, Jason Chayes, indicated that ‘this was a decision that was made early in development’. Similarly, Blizzard made an early decision to remove cross-team chat in Heroes of the Storm, as was revealed in an interview with lead game producer, Kaéo Milker. These discussions clearly indicate that Blizzard thinks about how to prevent toxicity early in the development process of their games and, for the most part, this has led to positive results.
However, in the latter interview, Kaéo says that preventing toxicity between team members is more difficult than between opposing teams, as removing the ability to chat by default reduces the ability for teams to work together, and disallows players from becoming friends with new, like-minded people. Blizzard has faced similar problems with Overwatch, where - despite early attempts to curb toxicity - abusive behaviour is becoming more common. Blizzard is currently adjusting their reporting systems in the hope of fighting this toxicity, despite needing to remove the ‘avoid this player’ feature that many people praised - unfortunately, the system was being abused by people who were simply trying to avoid versing opponents who were too skilful.
In an interview with Kotaku Australia about Overwatch and their attempts to improve the game’s community, the title’s director, Jeff Kaplan, described Blizzard’s anti-toxicity stance as ‘aggressive’ and as something they have been prioritising from the beginning.
I think Blizzard has been repeatedly highlighting the most important thing: developers need to recognise that toxicity in game communities is a real issue, and one that needs to be considered at the start of the game development process. Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away, and relying on the bare minimum in terms of blocking and reporting systems has little impact.
Riot and Blizzard have been doing considerable work in this area - and other developers, such as Psyonix’s Rocket League and Nintendo’s Splatoon - are learning from their efforts. Despite not having much to say on the issue at this stage, I hope Boss Key soon considers how they will be approaching potential toxicity in the LawBreakers community, so players can concentrate on learning the gravity-defying mechanics in a tricky new first-person hero shooter, rather than being harassed and abused.