(After a multi-month sojourn, we rejoin the main thread on Fortis. For the up to date and fully Fortified, thank you for your patience. For those of you just joining the melee, it’s worthwhile to circle back and read the previous entries at some point.)
Hello friends, I’ve missed you. They say bloggin’ is a young man’s game, and these keys don’t clack like they used to. There’s a Rocky training montage to be had in the lead up to all of this, but it’d mostly be clips of me beginning a blog, hating it, and starting over for months. Not particularly inspiring.
I spend a lot of time on Zoom calls. About a third of them are interviews, which are a largely choreographed affair that I suspect no one loves. Same questions, same answers. Same conversation, different day. There’s some variances to be had, but generally things stay on a track that isn’t satisfying for anyone involved. Just two people sitting there, trying to figure out whether the other person is insane and will make their life a living hell. Too superficial to meaningful. Skating along the surface, looking for holes in the ice hiding RED FLAGS.
I imagine it’s a bit like dating apps. Something I don’t know much about beyond their reputation. Or, closer to my wheelhouse, assessing people for a Dungeons and Dragons group. Every once in a while someone insane appears trying to run a Chaotic Neutral Bard who plays violin like a guitar, but that’s the outlier. Mostly it’s just normal people saying normal things so they can get to the next step in the process.
There just isn’t enough time to spend the time explaining the things that people really care about.
These blogs, in all of their meandering glory, are an attempt to fill in the gaps on the topics that we think are important and sit at the center of the company. One topic we haven’t covered much is the “why” behind Fortis. It’s a long and convoluted narrative, but it simplifies down to this: We believe games are the Lingua Franca of Humanity and Fortis is built to pursue the opportunity that creates.
I’ll explain. Not briefly.
The Common Tongue
In works of fantasy there’s often a “common tongue,” a language which all characters speak — a Lingua Franca. A common tongue is valuable as a literary device because it gives the author a simple way of ensuring all characters can communicate with one another efficiently. In the absence of a common tongue, most character communications end up being some form of Charades meets Pictionary.
Something like this:
Point to myself.
Walk my fingers across my hand and then make a stabbing motion at the two figures I’ve drawn in the dirt.
“Shawn is going to go down the path and slaughter two orcs.”
Hands up in front of me, pointing to you now.
“Stay here while I murder those orcs.”
You may not get the words being said, but we’re still communicating.
That’s because both of us are trying to solve the same problem: road obstructing orcs. We are in the same space trying to do the same thing. This shared context provides important roadsigns that enables the possibility of communication. The fact that we me speak different languages and come from different backgrounds doesn’t prevent us from overcoming our mutual obstacle. Who needs words when there are gestures and MAJESTIC drawings in the dirt to provide the bridge between us?
Shared context, powerful stuff.
And that’s the bit of it that sticks in my brain. This idea that communication across language barriers and cultural differences is possible if the right context is introduced. That, regardless of where we might come from or what our personal history might be, we can belong in the same group when we are in the same place and have the same goals. Like, for example, a game.
Everyone can belong if we’re playing the same game.
And, for long time, we weren’t. For much of Human history, the distance between people was too great. We were all in our own little geographies, concerned with our own local affairs. The context wasn’t shared. The objectives weren’t collective.
The internet changed that, or at least made a change possible. It reduced the space between us in strange and powerful ways. We are present in a single space. Each time we log in, we sit at a nexus of infinite connections, where the distance between us is measured in clicks rather than miles.
And, within the endless sea of potential connection known as “Online” there are games. Games that can now reach billions of people simultaneously, because they are free and they are attached to an affordable, powerful computing platform quaintly still called a phone. In the last decade (and really the last five years), for the first time, Humanity is playing the same game.
Global belonging is possible.
All the World’s a Game
I really can’t overstate how profound this shift is. How suddenly it came upon us. Games that sit at the intersection of online, phone, and free have a TAM (total addressable market) amounting to the majority of Humanity. It’s wild.
The odds that any one game fully occupies the globe seems low, but the possibility that any one successful game might reach a meaningful percentage of online Humanity is quite high. And the implications of that feel profound, particularly when the service model is considered.
A game, played by connected billions, for decades. A persistent, global shared context. It’s a uniquely potent tool for building communication between people. A way to draw figures in the dirt that everyone sees and everyone understands. A way to build a common tongue. A lingua franca.
There’s already interesting examples of this, evolving in real time — the League of Legends ping framework comes to mind.
Ping! Ping! Ping! WHY DID YOU GO THERE?!
These pings are a form of universal communication, given meaning by the shared context of the game they reside in. This is the beginning of a tidy little chain reaction. Communication builds understanding, understanding builds empathy, and empathy builds trust. With trust comes belonging.
Global peace is within our grasp! It’s just a ping away.
Theoretically, at least.
As an industry, we’re in the early stages of figuring this all out. We don’t fully understand what we have or how to make use of it. We’re largely focused on the basic functions right now. Squarely in the monkey with a bone banging on a rock and screaming stage. We have yet to figure out how to put the community in communication. We have yet to grasp the centrality of building belonging in the heart of our design. The tools we build to allow players to close the gap between them are misused almost as often as they are used.
This is why we can’t have nice things.
If you build a chat, the odds it occasionally descends into a toxic waste dump is 100%. Particularly when the game is structured in a way that drives that outcome (such as high stakes competitive PvP) and fails to effectively penalize bad behavior when it occurs. That simmering toxicity undermines the development of belonging. It breaks the chain reaction. It leaves scars and builds resentment. It takes the shared context of the game and weaponizes it.
But the possibility is there. Things are evolving. The preconditions for a global game that encourages belonging are increasingly being met. It’s that possibility that Fortis is meant to pursue, but it’s going to take some work. As an industry, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner.
Infinite Whack-a-Mole and its Discontents
The path to belonging requires trust. It’s a crucial link in the chain. It’s also a tough nut to crack.
In order for trust to develop, each person in a communication group needs to believe that all parties are there for the same reason and will act in the best interests of the group. I need to believe it’s us against the orcs and you’re not some sort of orc sympathizer or something. That trust is difficult to assemble in online, anonymous spaces where the incentives of the game aren’t necessarily enough to overcome the personal preferences of the people playing it. Sure, most players are there to win, but some may also want to watch the world burn and run it down mid because you misused your pings.
People are complex. Motivations are varied. All of this is brought into the game and it plays out as one might expect. It only takes one person to destroy the trust.
Leeroy Jenkins, Patron Saint of Trolls & Destroyer of Trust.
The incentives within the game can only do so much to shape the behavior of the participants. A single, anonymous match is not strong enough context to trigger the chain. It’s mostly just triggering. No, there needs to be more. Some persistent, connective tissue that people are invested in beyond the match.
But there rarely is.
That’s because developers are largely focused on getting players into a match rather than thinking about how to make them better citizens in an online society. The weakness of the context is managed by the developer serving as a referee rather than a government. As a result, the player/developer relationship is a relatively superficial one largely focused on policing poor behavior within the game or on the sidelines. It’s all about negative incentives.
Don’t feed the enemy team or you’ll be banned.
Don’t use bots or you’ll be banned.
Don’t be a toxic or you’ll be banned.
This is a reaction to a stimulus, not a proactive solution. It creates this game of infinite whack-a-mole where the developer asserts itself only in response to toxicity, which typically results in players being exposed to quite a lot of shitty behavior. This, combined with negativity bias, ensures that on any given day of cycling through matches, people are going to have at least one bad interaction and that interaction will be among the more memorable things that happened to them during the session. It destroys empathy. It prevents trust. It stops belonging.
It isn’t great.
The issue is that infinite whack-a-mole is generally viewed as the logical end state of a successful game for most developers. The belief is that players are something to be managed (hence the term “community management,” which feels strangely analogous to pest management), and positive incentives aren’t worth the time or effort to create. Aspiring to more isn’t worthwhile. It’s low ROI. I get the logic, and the industry is rife with failed attempts to do things differently.
I’d argue a lot has changed over the last five years. The cost of not evolving is much higher in this era. Unlike before, where bad behavior was isolated to minor skirmishes on forums, the modern player exists within a rich broth of connected Humanity, all stewing on social networks. In this setup, the reach of bad actions is much broader. More concerning, the bad behavior is algorithmically favored. It’s given a megaphone.
Network effects aren’t always a positive thing.
Look at many top influencers in game spaces. The majority of them aren’t modeling…model behavior. Thirteen year olds love a bad boy and algorithms love to recommend bad boys. The drama aggro-influencers generate creates attention, which can be converted into online clout, which is a highly monetizable thing. The clout is significantly more valuable than the cost of an occasional account ban. Who cares if you got banned for being toxic if the video generated a million views (and you have six other accounts)? The incentives are all screwed up, and whack-a-mole doesn’t shift them. The algorithm is too powerful.
And, as developers lose the algorithm, they lose their community. It grows more aggressive and toxic. Negative feedback loops predominate, both inside the game and on social networks. Attempts to rectify it via targeted bans of prominent bad actors results in massive blowback. The mole whacks back. Eventually, the developer pulls back from community engagement, believing itself incapable of salvaging the situation. If every attempt at fixing the problem snowballs into a revolt, why bother? Who needs all of the death threats?
The fandom becomes toxic. The players are team orc. The developers retreat behind their walls. Belonging does not flourish in this environment.
It’s a shame.
And it’s outdated. The whack-a-mole mentality is a vestigial appendage from a bygone era. It’s based on a time when the developer controlled all of the channels and the cost of bad behavior was total exile (and $60 dollars). It’s also a time where the BAN HAMMER was the most sophisticated tool available to the developer.
But now there’s so much more to work with.
The time has come. Player whack-a-mole needs to die.
Players to Citizens
A new approach is possible.
Not players. Citizens.
Game communities can become societies.
Negative incentives are still a component to this, but they’re not the first line of defense. The first line of defense is making a person care about their status in the society. The benefits of being good must outweigh the catharsis and clout harvesting of being bad. There must be value to citizenship.
Thankfully, the service model introduced a crucial durability to the relationship between player and developer that is fertile ground for positive incentives. It is possible to build a society when there are hundreds of millions of people actively engaged with each other and the developer for decades. Why? Because repeated, persistent interaction is how one escapes the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The expectation of future encounters enhances the benefits of cooperation. When it’s just a single game, to hell with everyone. But, if we’re all going to be trapped together in this online fandom for years, we might as well work together.
And that’s where the developer needs to put the effort in. It starts by making sure their online society prizes good citizenship. The rewards of working together need to be a step function more powerful than what whack-a-mole has experimented with (which has generally been limited to minor cosmetic bonuses). Developers must leverage the passion of the fandom, their control over the game, and their resources to fashion a system of governance that re-weights the incentives distinctly toward good. The developer must overcome the algorithm. These perks need to be catered, observable, and meaningful.
Tangible benefits. Status.
If you’re a good citizen, it’s more likely you’ll get access. It’s more likely your stream will take off. It’s more likely that you’ll get a discount on that next cool item. It’s more likely you’ll get to play with other good citizens. It’s more likely you’ll get the things you want most out of the fandom.
In success, the shared context of the game becomes a powerful tool for belonging again. A citizenship framework allows for a set of meaningful, positive incentives to help that chain reaction occur — it’s a powerful macro context that supports the game play. Every match is an opportunity for a player to become a better citizen, a goal they can expect others to share because of the benefits it brings (and the fact matchmaking considers it). As more positive interactions occur, more are more likely to occur. People like paying things forward.
We want to create citizens.
I expect it’ll take Fortis a while to reach the aspiration here. There’s a number of practical things we’ll need to solve along the way (like making a game people even want to play in the first place). There’s also a number of other sticky incentive conflicts that exist between players and developers that I expect we’ll need to work out. The journey will be long and fraught, but the goal of creating a game with global belonging is a North Star for us. Something to reach for and invest in. A society worth building.
It seems like a shame to do anything else with something so powerful. Games are a persistent, global shared context. A place where everyone can speak the common tongue, regardless of their background.
Somewhere where everyone can belong.
The Lingua Franca of Humanity.
Authors: Shawn Foust