This year, Riot Games introduced the "Tribunal" to its online game League of Legends
-- a process whereby players can report other players for bad behavior.
"You are free to report any user(s) that you feel has violated the Summoner's Code, Riot Games Legal Policies, or generally displayed unsportsmanlike conduct," according to the game's official website
League of Legends
is a highly competitive game, and it has a particular reputation for having an unforgiving -- or even abusive -- community.
"The Tribunal has been great for us is because our philosophy is our game, in many ways, is analogous to a sport," Merrill told Gamasutra.
"Just as you can get competitive with pick-up basketball, and guys can start pushing each other, getting a little aggressive, in a competitive game, oftentimes, people get pretty invested in it."
While the developers have tried to "route" different types of players into different game types, says Merrill, "the other way we think about it, of course, is trying to reinforce positive cultural change in the community. And the Tribunal, and an associated code of ethics and conduct that we have, essentially, called the Summoner's Code, is a pair of features and systems that really try to reinforce to our players that, 'Hey, this is a game, you're supposed to have fun, and be respectful'."
"The great thing about that is all the feedback we're getting about the Tribunal, even when they get judged and banned temporarily and whatnot, they recognize it. They go, 'Wow, yup. I was a jerk there. I'm sorry. I should change.' And it's really actively changing player behavior. They recognize that there are consequences to their actions, so they should be good. Just as people in real life tend to be nicer when they think that there's meaning to their decisions and there could be consequences," Merrill says.
He says it's part of a push to try and "humanize" other players -- usually represented by otherworldly avatars and online aliases in the game, of course -- to each other.
"We really are focused on community. We think it's one of the best things about online games, the opportunity to have this direct relation to the community, and have this direct dialogue, and hear what their concerns are. We view our role as nurturing, providing content, and keeping them engaged and excited," he said.
When the community has a positive reaction to changes made by Riot, says Merrill, "That is like the most satisfying thing we can ever imagine as a company."
Though the team makes changes in the game specifically to address the community's needs, that's not to say that everything the community wants, the community gets.
"We don't see it that way. We really try to get deeper and have lots of different data points and conversations with our players, and really try to synthesize and understand what they're asking for from all the different types of players. From there, we then identify goals that we think will really satisfy and enhance our community," Merrill says.
With the Tribunal, the question was "Okay, how do we make our community far better and more positive, etcetera? How do we reinforce this great behavior?"
The company identifies a question "and then we try to come up with innovative solutions to accomplish that," says Merrill.
Interestingly, says Merrill, all company employee can participate on the forums directly -- which is definitely not policy for many developers or publishers.
"We don't know if anyone else does that," says Merrill. "It's because we think it's valuable to humanize the developers, and have a direct relationship, and personalize some things, and have this dialogue."
"That just goes back to the company's philosophy in trying to be the most player-centric game company. And we've had great results with that. That's one of the reasons why we think our users are so engaged with the company, are so loyal, and hang out at the forums a lot."
Still and all, that's not the place to go for all of the data Riot uses to evolve the game, he maintains. "We recognize that the forums don't tell the whole story. So, there are other data points -- whether it's metrics, or content selection rates, or survey data, or what new players may bounce off the game and never get engaged... What are those guys saying? That's a total different set of questions. So, we try to be thoughtful about all those kinds of things."