[8 July 2014]
I respect subtle design. In general, videogames are not subtle in storytelling—which often enough works for them—but I appreciate the visual and sound work that goes into communicating a game’s systems and themes. For instance, if you were to look at the character design of a mage and a tank, it’s easy to tell which is which. Even those without much gaming experience can probably rely on cultural shorthands for “mage” (aged, slender person in robes) or “tank” (massively built person dressed in as much metal as an actual tank), provided they come from a culture with the background to make the association. This is important because many games require different strategic behavior to navigate as or against either a mage or a tank, and subtly indicating which is which without relying on direct communication is a tricky bit of design that (like most things that only work when they aren’t noticed_ often goes unappreciated. That said, once a pattern is made, it doesn’t take long before it gets stale.
It’s easy to fall into old habits. The support class rarely changes between RPGs or shooters, functionally or aesthetically. Again, most players know what a support does, and they know how they act just by looking. It’s a problem if they don’t. However, by regularly releasing new characters, MOBAs like League of Legends reshape expectations about how a class must look and play. There are just five roles split between two five member teams in a game of League of Legends and over a hundred characters to fill them. Naturally, with so many characters and plans to continue releasing them, characters blur lines and deviate from expectations in unique ways. Janna is a slim, elf-eared nudist with shielding and healing powers, but she’s equally viable as the AP carry, a team’s central source of magic damage. Meanwhile, Morgana, a witch shrouded in a dark purple aura and Annie, a prodigal pyromancer, have been popular support characters among professional teams. Even though their designs seem to imply certain roles for them, they’re able to cross barriers into different territories.
A part of this is because League of Legends is constantly evolving. The meta-game—the understood stats, tactics, and uses of characters and abilities—is constantly changing as players develop unforeseen ways to play the game. So a character like Shyvana who might originally seem best suited as a fleet footed jungler can actually be just as useful as a front-line tank instead. Players interpret a character’s use from their design, but they are often free to experiment and create new uses out of a character. Given enough time, it’s the Platonically ideal warrior/rogue/mage triad that starts to break down, and expectations for each role begin to grow more complicated.
Riot aren’t the first to allow class lines to blur. A part of the fun of XCOM’s ability roulette is in finding different combinations to break open the game. Creating a unit that defies how it’s supposed to be used is inventive in much the same was as finding a new use for a champion in LoL. With so many characters to choose from, Riot can no longer lean on a traditional understanding of what a class must look and play like, especially since players continue to invent new ways to play. For example, it’s now viable for professional teams to win a match without ever building a tank; try doing that on the tabletop. Similarly, the developers have found clever ways to introduce styles and uniforms that break from traditional understandings of who these characters are.
The samurai Yasuo begins a match as a fairly straightforward duelist, but as a match progresses, players can choose to focus on his defensive skills to make him a supporting character or his faster skills to make him an ambushing assassin. Similarly, the plant mage Zyra can begin a match supporting the team’s marksman and slowly develop into a damage dealer herself. Riot has adapted its champion development away from standard RPG character uses. Yasuo looks and plays like a lone-wolf swordsman, but he also looks and plays like a team-based defender. And the fluidity of his design and function is a refreshing take on an old RPG staple.
Riot is expanding design horizons without sacrificing the immediate recognizability of classes. LoL is a fast-paced game and it’s important to recognize what each character does at a glance, but they’re also allowed to be more complicated and challenge design conventions. The stone golem Galio doesn’t have to just be a tank, he can be a powerful spellcaster. The bulky Trundle doesn’t have to be a duelist, he can rely on teammates to assassinate priority targets and clean up the retreating leftovers. If nothing else, it freshens up the systematic and aesthetic expectations of typical fantasy tropes.
LoL lives or dies by its freshness. As its popularity grows, it only stays fresh through the combined imaginations of the developers and its players. Granted, the game changes largely from season to season as different rules and styles are patched in or out, but a lot of the dynamic changes result from players inventing new ways to interpret their characters and their roles. As developers further expand the cast, they’re forced to invent new motifs and alter old ones. The more change is expected out of genres like MOBAs, the less uniform design expectations are allowed to be.