League of Legends has become well known for at least two things: proving the power of the free-to-play model in the West, and a vicious player community.
The former is nothing the company wants to change, but lead producer Travis George knows that the latter is hurting the game's reputation and hemming in its potential to grow.
"Nobody wants to play a game with somebody who's mean," he says.
While he recognizes that "a decent amount" of trash talking is okay, "because that exists in every competitive event, sport, game ever," he also knows it's time to clean up player behavior.
"There's a line, and that line generally is people being mean for the sake of being mean -- telling you what to do, telling you how bad you are. And I think we can actually fix a lot of that," he says.
"We actually have built a team around this, to address it," George says. "We call it, lovingly, the PB&J Team, which stands for Player Behavior and Justice Team. And there's a lot of really talented folks on that team, including two PhDs. One's a cognitive neuroscientist and one's a behavioral psychologist."
The company is using a mixture of high-level expertise (the academics with the fancy degrees) and its community expertise to figure out how to deliver a better player experience.
"We've actually developed specific trends, and our own set of metrics that we look at for measuring what percentage of times we think that players will encounter a negative experience in a game, and how severe that negative experience is," says George. "And then we have to build things or be responsive or message the community in a particular way to address those things."
"This is going to be a major focus for us," says George.
"One of the things that makes us want to do it most is we think we actually have a really great community," he says. "And sometimes it only takes one person to ruin a game or create a really negative experience for a lot of other people."
The company's "Tribunal", in which offending players get penalized, has gotten a lot of ink, including on Gamasutra. But George and the PB&J team think that's just one half of the answer.
"It's not only Tribunal and removing players," says George. The PB&J Team's goal is also "incentivizing positive behavior, and thinking about why people are upset in those games. So, trying to fix those and address those root problems."
When the team started researching problematic player behavior, says George, it came from a sentiment at Riot of "we don't like players being jerks in games," says George. "We've experienced it all ourselves. But then, we actually sat down and said, 'How do we actually more tangibly understand how bad the impact is, or what the impact is, or understand the problem more?'
"And that's where you've got guys who are PhD researchers who can help develop those models, and we have, actually, those models for how we track and trend what we call 'player behavior,'" George says.
"You can apply really good research and science techniques to almost anything," he says. "The trick is just finding what you want to actually spend the time on, and that's where the sentiment for players comes in as a huge guiding factor to that."
The team decided to put real effort into it when global player sentiment surveys unveiled that player behavior was a "worldwide problem" for League of Legends. "We see it talked about everywhere. And so, those are the type of things that we generally gravitate towards," George says.
"We think it's a great addition to the team, and that team is actually cross-discipline, so it's got the PhD guys, game designers, engineers, production support all working together from a variety of perspectives. You'd be surprised how much the game design intermingles with the PhD research."