[11 April 2013]
Oh, League of Legends, I wish I could quit you. After years of playing Riot’s immensely popular Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (an already abstruse genre commonly shortened to MOBA), I still find myself going back to the game time and again. Unlike the massive game worlds, random play experiences, or user-generated features that have traditionally kept my attention for so long, League of Legends has offered little variation in either maps or rules. Nearly four years after launch, the game has only four maps available to players, two of which I play almost exclusively. Its staying power is maintained not by expansive shifts in the core experience, but by minute updates and additions that ripple outward into hugely varied and surprisingly educational forms of play.
Sure, video games today are living and breathing entities. Day one patches push crucial updates to games before you have even started playing the game. Developers unhappy with their content can fundamentally and forever alter their creation. Q-Games took the opportunity with PixelJunk Eden when they decided to lower the difficulty level of the game, which made the more “hardcore” fans of the series rush to complete the game before it was dumbed down before their eyes. Of course, BioWare most infamously patched a new ending to their game, which seemed to anger about as many people as those satisfied with the post-launch alteration.
The ability for developers to quickly ship changes to all their players may irk game reviewers and those genuinely concerned about archiving game history, but it also provides ample opportunity for players to grown with the game they play. Patches, particularly significant changes to game history, provide excellent learning opportunities. Considering the frequent addition of new champions and the consistent re-assessment of old champions in League of Legends, it may be the most massive and unintentionally educational game design learning experience.
There are currently 112 playable champions in League of Legends. Lissandra, the latest upcoming champion, will make 113 in a matter of weeks. Themed around ice abilities, Lissandra can slow nearby enemies, launch a claw around the battlefield and teleport to her location, and even enclose herself or opponents in a solid block of ice. Her unique set of powers augments every battle. Players who have grown accustomed to facing other combinations of enemies on opposing teams must adapt by recognizing her capabilities and limitations both individually and within a team. Those who do well in League of Legends understand more than abstract abilities, they understand how systems relate to each other.
Karma’s Original Skin Design
Even more than champion additions, complete character overhauls offer excellent learning opportunities for players. Although champion redesigns are relatively rare, Riot has shown no qualms about revisiting and completely reworking existing characters. Take Karma’s recent rework as an example. Despite Karma’s particularly unique set of augmented abilities, prior to her dramatic reimagining she was seldom played.
Filling a primarily Support role, Karma had the ability to shield allies, heal them, and slow opponents with a tether. Riot has since abandoned her healing abilities entirely. Instead, she now has more offensive abilities, can heal only herself, and can severely hamper enemy movement. To play Karma today is nothing like playing Karma before these changes.
Importantly, it is not hard to understand why Riot fundamentally reworked the character. Not only was the old Karma ineffective, she often played a passive role and was rarely fun to play. The rework addresses numerous design concerns that, when juxtaposed with her older version, reveals some of Riot’s own design philosophies. Her primary offensive ability, which once healed allies and harmed enemies in a limited-range cone, now fires a long-ranged skillshot that can, if augmented, create a large impact zone that slows enemies.
As Vice President of Game Design at Riot said at the recent Game Developers Conference, skillshots, abilities that require calculated aiming to land, offer an “immediate emotional investment” for players on both sides. Those who dodge the attack feel as empowered as those who successfully land the attack. Likewise, the ability now offers multiple levels of counterplay. Opponents can Flash over the projectile, take the hit in place of their allies, or lunge towards Karma when the spell goes on cooldown. Players familiar with Karma can easily compare her new set of abilities with the old and through play understand the design principles that create compelling gameplay.
Karma’s New Look
This may sound overwhelmingly optimistic. I know how easy it is to “zone out” in multiplayer games and fall into a non-analytical pattern of behavior. Fortunately, a huge swath of the League of Legends community actually put the lessons they learn playing the game into work. Of course like any serious gaming community, the players have cracked open the black box and seriously consider ability power ratios, damage scaling, and a variety of statistical information from the game in order to maximize their own play. Likewise, there are numerous blogs dedicated to offering their own reworks of existing champions, many of which criticize Riot’s own design work with genuinely compelling analysis and math-crunching of their own. Similarly, the League of Legends wiki community constantly outputs custom champions of their own design, which in turn foster design discussions between players arguing the relative power of completely fictional champions.
Riot is blessed with an incredibly passionate gaming community. They are also cursed with one of the most knowledgeable communities on the internet. Not surprisingly, they can be hard to please when every design decision they make is vetted by thousands of League of Legends player experts, many of whom have enough knowledge to make their own game if they wanted. Thanks in no small part to frequent updates and their commitment to transparent game design, Riot has genuinely advanced game literacy among their players, literacy these players may apply to other games and non-game systems, if only they find time to do something other than play League.