The Allure of ARAM: Custom Games in ‘League of Legends’

[3 March 2011]

By Jorge Albor

A modern rendition of the extremely popular and competitive Warcraft mod Defense of the Ancients (DotA), Riot Game’s League of Legends (LoL) has maintained an admirable pace since its release late 2009. Riot displays an incredible commitment to the game and its fan base, updating the game at an almost frenetic pace. Originally launching with forty playable “champions” (the game’s player-controlled avatars), LoL’s total roster at time of writing reaches 69 with number seventy, Jarvan IV, just around the corner. The developers are constantly tweaking the game’s balance, adjusting items, abilities, and layouts—including a new soon-to-be-implemented cooperative mode against AI opponents.

All of this is great content, and still it is not enough. LoL players, unsatisfied or simply restless, have started making their own custom game types. With the help of LoL’s custom game creator, players are establishing their own game concepts and adhering to generally agreed upon rules based entirely on honor alone. Most notably, ARAM (or All Random All Mid) has risen in popularity and exemplifies why LoL is one of the most satisfyingly nuanced multiplayer games on the market.

For those new to the game, LoL, like its Warcraft predecessor, is a team-based action game in which players known as summoners control champions, commonly five on each team, and attack the opposing team’s waves of minions, champions, and towers to ultimately destroy their base and claim victory. Playing LoL is very much like playing within a small-scale real-time strategy game. As matches progress, champions gain levels and increase the power of unique character abilities. By “last hitting” enemy minions and neutral monsters, players earn gold to purchase items and enhance personal and team stats. In a normal match, players face off in three lanes—with two characters per team in the top and bottom lanes and the fifth in the middle.

ARAM takes many of the game’s features and throws them right out the window. Instead of selecting their own champions either freely or in a competitive draft mode, all champions are randomly distributed. This is the only rule of ARAM, which can actually be preset in the game creation screen and mandated upon all players. While many variations exist, here are the common remaining rules: all players must remain in the middle lane the entire game (hence the All Mid title), no jungling (the practice of occupying non-lane map space and killing the neutral monsters therein for experience points and gold), no moving in bushes (the tall grass around the map, including near the middle lane that obscures enemy champions within), no recall (the ability that all champions have to return to base where they will quickly heal), no suicides (intentionally allowing an enemy turret to kill you so as to return to base, heal fully, and buy items without giving opposing champions experience points or gold for the kill—this is a commonly ignored or excised rule), no fortify (a summoner spell that makes your turrets invulnerable and more lethal for seven seconds), no Guardian Angel (an item that instantly revives a champion upon death),  and lastly, no snowball items (any items that permanently increase a champion’s stat for each kill or assist earned).

Strangely, all the rules limit player choice, players are actively removing elements of the game from their own matches. What is the allure of ARAM when it basically guts so much of Riot’s hard work? Why are so many players enjoying such restrictions? The answer is a testament to the unique power of player-created gaming: by submitting to self-constraint, players are distilling their favorite aspects of League of Legends into a powerfully addictive and exhilarating experience.

Reading through the rule descriptions, the resulting game dynamics should make themselves clear. By forcing themselves into the middle lane from the beginning, the entire match is composed of group fights. Full team versus team battles usually take place during the last half of a normal match by which time some players may have a huge level or item advantage. ARAM emphasizes the champion-centric aspects of strategic team play by leveling the playing field early and forcing large-scale confrontations.

ARAM also beautifully accentuates core ability dynamics. As each team meets on the battlefield for the first time, every champion has only one ability, and this suite of abilities is enough to snag an early kill. Executing a maneuver, however, demands skilled cooperation and knowledge about the opposing team’s capability. Stuns, slows, ranged attacks, and teleports can create a panoply of chaos. By removing superfluous elements and committing to team battles, the complexities of abilities and the variability of champion play styles shines through.

Perhaps most importantly, ARAM attempts to purify the competitive aspects of LoL. Random champion selection evens the playing field. Since players never know what champion they will receive, being incredibly skilled with one champion is not enough; you must competently play any and all of them. Great ARAM players are, in general, great LoL players. They have to be. Removing snowball items means that players cannot rely solely on early advantages. They must perform consistently throughout the entire match. The inability to return adds an intensity to the match, demanding that players commit themselves strategically and intelligently, instead of dive-bombing opponents Rambo-style and fleeing to heal up. In addition, those players who survive the longest will face opponents who have died, healed completely, and returned with powerful items. Low death counts in ARAM are uniquely satisfying as they represent a player’s competitive skill despite a disadvantage.

If all of this sounds amazingly idealistic, it is. Although champion selection is random, players frequently leave before a match has officially begun when they receive a champion that they dislike. Most of the time, these game “dodgers” are making the right choice. LoL is not balanced for ARAM. Some melee champions, such as Evelyn, are practically useless in ARAM. While other spell-casting champions, such as Veigar, are nigh unstoppable. Likewise, teams with healers have a pronounced advantage over teams without. The same goes for tanks.

Yet despite these occasional setbacks, many players confront unfair odds excitedly, putting up the good fight in the face of imminent defeat. By constraining their own behavior, players add a renewed sense of honor in ARAM. If standard LoL is a war, ARAM is a ten-person duel. LoL players have established their own set of agreed upon rules, distilling a complex game into a simpler experience in which Riot’s best work shines through.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/137757-/