Toxic Mechanics in games by the example of World of WarshipsBy Denis Marasanov ☆ 13.02.2020
A Rant on Smolensk, Aircraft Carriers, and Empathy
Lately, after a long period of complaining on the part of World of Warships’ (play now!) community about the renowned tier X Small Light Cruiser Smolensk being overpowered, ruining game experience, the developers decided to remove her from sale in patch 0.9.3 that’s still a couple of months away. The official point is that Smolensk became overpopular and there’re too many of these ships in battles. So if you’re planning to buy Smolensk – make haste.
However, there’s a mismatch. The community was complaining that they are sick and tired of Smolensk itself, but not of its popularity among the players. I.e. the ship itself is a problem, and the amount of ships in battles only increases its extent. So what’s wrong with Smolensk and why it’s so important? Because understanding the problem not only allows correcting it, but it also allows avoiding similar problems in the future.
Why should we study the problem of Smolensk anyway?
The community says that Smolensk is overpowered, but that’s not true. Unofficial statistics show that Smolensk is well-balanced. Maybe she inflicts a bit too much damage, but this doesn’t affect her win rate. This means that Smolensk players most probably focus on large capital ships like e.g. Battleships and Large Heavy Cruisers, instead of smaller ships like Destroyers, thereby having higher damage but a lesser impact on the game outcome.
Maybe the members of the game community express their thought wrongly? Maybe they misuse terminology? Maybe saying that Smolensk is overpowered they mean something else? Let me try applying the magic of empathy to players.
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another's position. (Wikipedia)
Toxic mechanics as another form of toxicity
I bet the problem with Smolensk is her toxicity, and since this ship is toxic, it’s perceived by players as overpowered. These powers can’t be expressed mathematically, like in terms of win rate. The problem is rather psychological and hence toxic mechanics. But before diving into this another form of toxicity let’s consider the social toxicity first. And thank you, Extra Credits, for your tutorials.
In my opinion, toxic mechanics are rooted in:
- Poor counterplay (the player actually entertains the opponent at his own expense without getting anything in return, e.g. is getting damage without return)
- Disempowerment (the player is left defenseless against another player, e.g. becomes motionless or unarmed in battle)
- Huge difference in skill (this happens when one player always wins, e.g. a chess grandmaster playing with a beginner)
- Massive one-time damage (e.g. a one-shotting gun or a gun, dealing enough damage to leave the player a sitting duck without any means for recovery)
- Damage over time (this guy often feels unfair, e.g. if the damage dealer is already taken care of, but DoT effect remains and can't be removed)
- Etc., since I’m not planning to consider them all anyway.
Toxic mechanics is an issue that none seem to address on the Internet seriously. Moreover, this is often considered by developers as some kind of whining on the part of the community, i.e. players often complain about something instead of self-development. As a result the problem of toxic mechanics in PvP (player vs. player) games, emerging from the fair use of game mechanics, systems and items in a way that ruins the gameplay for other players, is often overlooked.
In PvP games, the toxicity often results from poor counterplay. Below is a video tutorial on counterplay from Extra Credits for those of you who are not familiar with this concept:
To make it quick, here’s a quote from this tutorial: “when designing an ability or a mechanic you can’t only be thinking about how to make that ability of mechanic interesting for the player who get to use it, you also have to think about how it’s interesting for a player who it gets used on.”
The problem of poor counterplay arose since MMO games grew in popularity, coz AI (artificial intelligence) and NPCs (non-player characters) in single-player games are obviously indifferent to counterplay.
Why Smolensk is a problem?
The problem with Smolensk is that this ship presents no good counterplay since she has a Smoke Screen preventing doing return damage. The combination of Smoke Generator, negating the possibility of dealing return damage to Smolensk by main battery guns, Hydroacoustic Search, negating the possibility of dealing damage by spamming the Smoke Screen with torpedoes, as well as high-DPS (damage per second) main battery guns with HE-shells, permitting the infliction of damage to enemy ships with high firing rate, making those numerous hits very annoying, to say nothing about fires (DoT mechanic), that’s what makes Smolensk so toxic.
A glimpse of WoWS history
Another problem is that poor counterplay resulting from doing no return damage from a Smoke Screen isn’t something new in World of Warships. Because Smolensk isn’t the first Cruiser with Smoke Generator and HE shells in the game. Before her, we had Mikhail Kutuzov, Belfast, and Flint. All these premium ships are capable of inflicting no return damage and hence are toxic.
And since Smolensk has no unique mechanics than maybe she was doomed to be toxic? The problem is that the developers of World of Warship never publicly admitted they removed Kutuzov, Belfast, and Smolensk from sale because of toxicity. They always used to announce different reasons, like the rebalance of smokes in the case of Kutuzov and Belfast, and overpopularity in the case of Smolensk.
Maybe the developers are acting against the conscience, secretly knowing that the root of all evil is in their toxicity. But hey, they used to introduce those ships one after another. Then maybe they finally understood the problem? Not so fast, another me, asking tricky questions to oneself. Coz the developers already announced the new ship with that combination of game mechanics.
A new toxic wave from the developers of WoWS
Of course, they introduced tier VII USN Small Light Cruiser Flint ages ago as an honorary ship for Rank Battles that could be obtained for steel, but since 0.9.3 they are planning to withdraw the ship from the sale and introduce it later (but not earlier than 6 months after the withdrawal) for coal. I bet they’ll never do this if they understand how damaging that combination of game mechanics is.
By the end of 2020, we’ll have a mid-tier ship that could be obtained for coal that will be focusing capital ships in random battles with her rapid-firing 128 mm guns and setting them on fire without receiving any damage in return thanks to her long-lasting American smokescreen. I.e. we’ll get the same problem as with Smolensk on high-tiers but on mid-tiers. Only because someone in charge lacks empathy.
Another problem with Flint is that this was an honorary ship for three consecutive First Ranks taken in World of Warships. The developers started selling Flint for steel, but that wasn’t that big of an issue since steel could be obtained for Rank and Clan Battles only. But by the end of 2020, we may have this ship for coal and this is going to be a game-changer. How do you think the players that got Flint as a recognition of their achievements feel? It looks like someone in charge made another toxic decision.
Maybe the problem of poor counterplay is even greater?
But let’s renew the subject. Smolensk, Flint and other cruisers dealing no return damage from a smokescreen is just another facet of poor counterplay. The game has other similar issues.
In World of Warships, there’s a fully developed class of Aircraft Carriers that inflicts no return damage from beyond the reach of the enemy team, e.g. from a corner of the map. Of course, you can shoot down those annoying aircrafts, but that’s not the same as returning damage to the ship. Because it is perceived differently, it’s more like shooting down enemy guided rockets. Coz that’s basically what they are, just themed differently, and a Carrier herself is more like a respawn point since she receives no damage at all. Here’s an example of this toxic mechanic from MMO game Loadout that was long ago closed.
Of course, controlling guided rockets feels great. But what about counterplay? Does it fit a PvP MMO game? Just imagine a player sitting in an unreachable place on the map with infinite ammo, launching guided rockets one after another and inflicting no return damage to players (this is basically an "Aircraft Carrier" launching her "aircrafts"). And now imagine yourself in place of those players. Again, before implementing anything like this in a game all you need is a bit of empathy to figure out, whether the mechanic is going to be toxic or not.
Though the developers of World of Warships used to rebalance Aircraft Carriers as a class in 2019, they’d never tried handling an issue of no return damage. Speaking of toxic mechanics they handled a problem of one-shotting, but that’s just not enough. The whole class remains toxic until all toxic mechanics are dealt with. Aircrafts have such powers as the ability to spot ships, offer and refuse combat at will, as well as deal no return damage. All those powers have no counterplay from the side of ships of other classes. What about dealing with all these issues? If it’s not possible, the class has to be removed from World of Warships for good.
Another problem is the problem of Destroyers dealing no return damage to capital ships without them even knowing the retribution is coming. The mechanic of torpedoes’ spotting works good in terms of making the player reconcile to a fact of imminent death (or substantial damage), but the idea of an unpunishable hunt for Battleships looks kind of lame to me.
The more so the developers already introduced Radio Location in the form of Captain Skill that works permanently, showing the direction of the nearest ship. Why not make a similar thing as an activated Consumable and give it to all Battleships in the game? So that the players could check whether there is an unspotted ship nearby several times in a battle. This may make Destroyers less toxic as a class, giving the players on Battleships a tool to feel in control and maybe to avoid unexpected attacks on rare occasion.
As a player, you can disable the game chat to handle the problem of social toxicity once and for all, but you can’t disable toxic mechanics. That’s the problem the developers of World of Warships should address, but instead, they had opted for making a not-so-popular Flint available for coal. Thereby laying the grounding for future complains on game forums about another toxic Cruiser dealing no return damage from a smokescreen, as well as disappointing players that received Flint as an honorary ship. Unfortunately, none seem to care about how the players feel in the game, dealing no return damage to the community itself.