Smack talk, trash talk, the pre-match psyche-out -- whatever you want to call it, it's part of the game and, for the most part, a welcome one. Getting under the skin of an opponent to give yourself an edge come kick-off, the green light, or the end of a ten second count down is all well and good. But there's a line, and with online gaming, it's a line that's crossed all too often.
Is it really fun to sit down for a bout of Black Ops, and to instantly be on the receiving end of an anonymous barrage of insults from a 14 year old teammate in Wisconsin, just because you've yet to master a new DLC map just hours after its release. The intense competitive nature of online gaming can sometimes bring out the very worst in people. And it's not just offensive players that spoil online multiplayer for everyone, it's bad sports too. How many times have you given someone the thrashing of a lifetime on FIFA, only for them to chicken out in the 89th minute of a game? Sure, systems are in place to reward those who put up with sore losers, but what if we could avoid them altogether?
That's what Microsoft is hoping the next generation of Xbox Live on the Xbox One console will be capable of. A finely-tuned Reputation system and new Smart Match matchmaking tools could finally stamp out the trolls for good.
Key to weeding out the miscreants will be the new Reputation system. An improved reporting system will allow gamers to flag up persistent spoil-sports or abusive gamers. Over time, these regular misbehavers will see their reputation score decline, from a "Good Player" to "Needs Improvement" to earning the dubious title of an "Avoid Me" badge. All the while, poorly-behaved gamers will be getting alerts and notifications from Microsoft to encourage them to pull their socks up but, if they don't, they'll soon find themselves only being matched for multiplayer bouts with similarly-aggressive or annoying gamers.
"Sometimes it's hard for strangers to know what 'polite' means with different social norms and backgrounds, and even harder when you aren't in the same room face to face with someone," explained Michael Dunn, Program Manager on Xbox Live Services.
"You have few social cues to rely on, and typically a stranger sees no real reason to listen to your complaint about their behavior. We all care a lot about behaviour on Xbox Live and player feedback options in Xbox One allows you to help educate those who don't seem to follow good social gaming norms. We simplified the feedback mechanism also to be less of a 'survey' and more direct feedback options, even linking things in like block or mute player actions into the feedback model."
Those worried that the system could be abused, with innocent gamers being flagged up as trouble-makers by pranksters and trolls need not worry either. Microsoft will be keeping a close eye on each report and, with the system measured over a prolonged period of time, gamers wronged by pranksters will not see their perfect reputations tarnished overnight.
In the past, console matchmaking processes have also played against gamers' sometimes impatient natures. We want a frag-fest deathmatch, and we want it now, right? As such, rather than waiting several minutes for matchmaking systems to find a game based on the specific parameters that would make for a more personally-enjoyable time, many just dive into the instant dissatisfaction of lowest-common denominator Quick Match set ups.
Smart Match, in conjunction with the Xbox One's dual-OS set-up, looks to ease this problem somewhat. Rather than have you sit in a lobby staring at a "Finding Players" symbol for an ungodly length of time, you'll be able to leave the search conducting in the background while heading into another app entirely -- catching up with some pals on a social networking app perhaps, or checking out tips for the upcoming match through the Internet Explorer browser built into the console. Then, once the match is ready, you'll get an alert letting you jump straight into the action.
"That is what Smart Match on Xbox One allows people to do," adds Dunn.
"It makes it easy for a title to create a match request and then 'untether' me so I don't need wait in the title while the match search is processing. I can switch to reading a quick social blog or watch a viral video and when the match is ready Xbox One tells me to pull me back into the title to play."
For those who still prefer to stick to playing against real-world acquaintances, or trusted Xbox Live pals, the private Party system from the current Xbox Live offering will return. It too has been upgraded though, now being able to tap into the second-screen Smart Glass app allowing even pals not currently sitting at their consoles to know a challenge is awaiting them through their smartphones or tablets. But the hope is that the improved matchmaking techniques will encourage those who feel they've been pushed into private matches by bad public match experiences will now branch out into the wider Xbox Live community.
"It's great to play with friends and family online, but it's fun sometimes to try a new 'bar' so to speak and meet new people to play with online. I've met people from all over the world while playing on Xbox Live," says Dunn.
With the promise of the matchmaking techniques headed to the Xbox One, Xbox Live looks set to become one hell of a virtual bar. These tools combined should all help to corral the trolls into their own private seventh circle of Xbox Live hell, while the rest of us get on with having good, wholesome, gun-toting fun.