With the launch of Dominion, an entirely new map and game mode for League of Legends, Riot must practice a balancing act that has more to do with community relationships and expectations than with game mechanics.
With eighty-four playable heroes at time of writing, League of Legends surely ranks amongst the largest and continually updated multiplayer games on the market. The fact it is also free-to-play in no small part secures its place amongst the most popular competitive multiplayer experiences. The range of character abilities, in-game items, skill tree options, and team compositions also makes League of Legends one of the most dynamic games around. Until recently, Riot Games offered just a single official game mode tasking players to fight against waves of NPC minions to destroy an enemy base, a spiritual successor to Defense of the Ancients, the much loved Warcraft 3 mod. Balancing such an expansive game has certainly never come easy to Riot. Now with the launch of Dominion, an entirely new map known as the Crystal Scar built for a new game mode, Riot, must practice a new balancing act that has more to do with community relationships and expectations than with game mechanics.
PopMatters’ own G. Chrisopher Williams accurately described the RPG-like allure of League of Legends:
Gain a level, choose a skill, keep fighting. Gain some gold, teleport home, buy something really cool, get back to killing. These are all elements of role playing, combat with foes both great and small, developing a character’s skill sets on your own terms, and generating enough loot to make yourself a god, just served up really, really, really, quickly. ("Living for the Short Term Grind", PopMatters, 5 October 2011)
Before the release of Dominion, this quick pace spanned the length of a game that took -- on average -- 45 minutes to complete. A really quick game in the traditional mode might breeze past in an astonishing 20 minutes against a truly terrible team. An average game of Dominion lasts roughly 20 minutes with my fastest match coming in at just over seven. The game itself, a "king of the hill" variant in which players control capture points to tick down an enemy counter to zero. The speed, map, and mechanical changes in Dominion fundamentally alter the tenuous balance the game had established (if it had it at all) prior to its launch. While this new game mode is an absolute blast, it suffers from obvious and painful balancing issues.
Dominion simply cannot handle the bloated amount of League of Legends characters and maintain any semblance of balance. Play a few rounds of Dominion using the draft system, and it quickly becomes clear that the same set of characters appear absolutely overpowered. These are the same characters from the regular mode, but here on the Crystal Scar, they become nigh unstoppable.
Take Poppy, for example, a melee tank character who can charge into enemies, knocking them back. If she knocks them into terrain, they take massive damage and become stunned. The Crystal Scar is so dense with terrain that avoiding this maneuver requires a great deal of skill. Similarly, most combat encounters take place one-on-one, instead of in large team fights. Therefore, characters like Jax, whose abilities make him excellent at taking out one champion at a time, is almost always banned from Dominion. Akali, with her proficiency at carving up single-targets and dissapearing from combat quickly makes her an absolute terror.
Meanwhile, champions like Amumu, who shines in large skirmishes, becomes significantly underpowered in Dominion. The lack of neutral jungle creeps also undermines the jungling ability (the practice of earning experience and gold predominantly from neutral creatures) of certain characters. Characters who can quickly escape battle also benefit most from the health potions scattered about the map, allowing them to initiate, flee, and initiate again quickly and efficiently. Veigar and Nassus, two characters with abilities that improve greatly over time, have become nearly useless in Dominion where games are over well before their abilities become powerful. Likewise, the numerous support characters in the roster are largely ignored by competitive players because their abilities that are so helpful in team fights are wasted in the numerous small skirmishes that define Dominion.
Regardless of team composition, a group of highly skilled players will always trounce a group of unorganized amateurs. Also, the draft mode option allows players to ban the four most overpowered champions. Nevertheless, Dominion is painfully unbalanced given current champion options.
Unfortunately, I doubt Riot can ever fairly balance both the regular mode and Dominion mode of League of Legends. Increasing the stats of one champion in Dominion may give this same champion an unfair advantage in normal play. They have tried to address this concern by balancing the game through items, offering players Dominion specific items that can help level the playing field and make weak characters viable. Yet balancing the panoply of options with more options seems like a losing battle.
Simply put, Riot has raised its community’s expectations too high. Riot has launched a new champion with startling frequency, and each time they must wrestle with balancing issues as the game dynamics shift slightly to make room for new play styles. Players have grown accustomed to receiving new and ever changing champions, even though the influx of so many character options has exacerbated the balancing problem. Meanwhile, Riot has spent a great deal of time and effort in making their game a viable competitive experience for professional gamers.
Riot has done such a good job at satisfying their player base, that they have outpaced their own ability to balance the game. With Riot’s serious approach to high-level play, players have come to expect a balanced game that may never exist. Riot will need to make a strategic choice about the League of Legends’s competitive future and decide to what degree a hopelessly unbalanced game mode can be integrated with their existing pro-gaming plans. They also need to temper player expectations and convey to their community that League of Legends may never be complete. Although Riot has heretofore developed an excellent rapport with their community, managing a relationship around such a quickly changing play experience may prove more difficult than balancing the game itself.
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