With more than 30 million players, Overwatch is an undeniably popular game, but that kind of reach comes with drawbacks, such as toxic players who want nothing more than to ruin everyone's fun. Blizzard has routinely discussed its approach to dealing with the worst elements of the Overwatch community, but in a refreshingly honest developer update, game director Jeff Kaplan explained the cost of coming up with new tools and resources to deal with the toxicity: other features and maps aren't being worked on, so they're taking longer.
"We want to make new maps, we want to make new heroes, we want to make animated shorts," said Kaplan. "But we've been put in this weird position where we're spending a tremendous amount of time and resources punishing people and trying to make people behave better."
Kaplan's tone was somber, conveying understandable exhaustion at the problem. And yet, it would have made more sense to adopt an attitude that postured Blizzard was proud of how much work it was putting into investing in Overwatch's community, their actions actually prove it. You can't build a community-focused video game in 2017 without dealing with shitlords, and while no one doubts Blizzard is working their ass off, it comes across as a little strange Blizzard seems surprised a post-Gamergate world is full of emboldened bad actors.
In any case, new maps and new heroes are nice, but if the community becomes poisoned, it doesn't matter By putting community front and center, by delaying the features that are normally prioritized by a developer, Blizzard is actually doing right by fans, emphasizing the long-term viability of Overwatch. It's work to ensure Overwatch is a place that's welcoming.
If Blizzard succeeds, most players won't notice. As with most things in life, it's easier to recognize when something goes wrong. It's rare to praise something because it works.
This is hardly a new problem for Blizzard, either. When I asked developers for stories of how dealing with toxic elements of communities impeding their ability to work on the game itself, I heard from a former developer of Blizzard, who pointed me towards a wild moment from the early days of World of Warcraft, as Blizzard was still getting their feet wet with with the MMO.
At one point, World of Warcraft had two items called Grimoire Noose, a piece of equipment, and Maine Coon, a pet that could fight along the player and be carried with them. While the latter item's name might give you some pause, it's a legitimate reference to an awesome type of cat.
In the game's global chat room, a number of words were banned, including "coon," because it's a slur meant to deride black people. However, crafty racist players found a loophole: it was possible to link to the Maine Coon item in the chat, thereby getting around the ban.
Soon, some players began spamming chat with Grimoire Noose and Maine Coon.
Blizzard picked up on this form of racial trolling fast, the developer told me, but the company was presented with two options. If they took the item away, they'd be in trouble with players who didn't do anything wrong. The alternative, however, required an enormous amount of work for a bunch of people. The decision was made to change Maine Coon to Black Tabby.
While seemingly a tiny decision, it came with consequences for various parts of the team. Not only did the item Maine Coone have to be changed to Black Tabby, but the creature name had to be changed, the cat carrier altered, the description for the cat carrier changed. Then, the localization team had to translate all those changes to every language the game was played in, and a patch had to be developed, tested, and deployed to enact the changes.
Even then, a change like this caused problems with the community, with some offended that Blizzard chose to show a sense of compassion for minority players who enjoyed their game.
On fan sites, there are still people bitter about the decision.
"Political correctness," said one player in early 2016, "the art of telling people they are too mentally fragile and immature to handle reality in such a way that they thank you for it."
Of course, moments like this are not exclusive to Blizzard games, nor even big games.
"We actually noticed a dip in our retention numbers of new players because of [this toxic player's] actions."
A few years back, developer Tim Brenner worked for a small studio called Blue Frog Gaming. There were only 14 people at the company—five developers, two community managers, four artists, and three managers/executives—so it was a tiny but focused crew.
One of their games was a browser-based strategy game called Darkfire Galaxies. (It's no longer online.) But when the game launched and players started showing up, they ran into a problem with one player in particular, someone who wouldn't stop appearing and acting up.
"His name was BigDawg if I remember correctly," said Brenner.
BigDawg would say "the nastiest thing you could think of," create multiple accounts to prevent the developers from banning him, and drop all manner of offensive remarks into the game's global chat, the kinds of remarks that even Brenner didn't want to repeat to me.
Trolls who trot out racism and other toxic remarks are nothing new to online games, but what prompted Brenner and his team to take notice was watching their player count going down.
"We actually noticed a dip in our retention numbers of new players because of his actions," he said. "And I get it, I mean—You sign in to a new game for the first time and just see a wall of the N-word in global chat."
They soon realized BigDawg was a player who'd been banned from of their other games, and worried his behavior would have a domino effect on Darkfire Galaxies and stunt growth.
"After that," said Brenner, "we stopped all development on new features and had to implement chat filtering (which didn't work), IP banning (which just made him use proxy servers), and then creating a mod system for chat. All of these were on the roadmap, but the game was so small we didn't think we would need them right away."
Nothing worked. The solution, apparently, was blocking half of New Zealand.
"All his proxies were from that region," said Brenner, "and we had no other players there yet."
BigDawg had finally been extinguished.
Something tells me Overwatch's problems can't be solved by outright banning half of a country, but it goes to show the amount of creativity (and work) required to make sure players can jump into a game and have a good time. If you're having a good time, it worked.