Learning from ‘League of Legends’ “URF” Mode

Experimenting with broken design lets you examine the ways small changes could have profound effects on play. We are all better for having played an unbalanced version of a well designed game.

Earlier this week right here on PopMatters, Erik Kersting gave his reasons for why the April Fools’ Day game mode for League of Legends needs to go. I agree with Erik, albeit for different reasons that I’ll get to shortly. But before URF takes a bow, we should spend a moment reflecting on what makes a game breaking event like this wonderful. When balance is thrown out the window, we can learn a whole bunch about good game design.

For those missing out on the manatee-inspired “prank,” Ultra Rapid Fire (URF) mode is the same basic Summoners Rift version of League of Legends with a massive twist. All players enter the arena with an endless supply of mana, 80% cooldown reduction on all of their spells, and a 100% faster attack speed bonus for ranged champions. The result is an absolutely chaotic exercise in keyboard mashing. It’s a treat.

Like other custom game modes, URF offers an experience that sits precariously between simple diversion and undermining alternative. By attempting to “abolish anti-fun,” Riot has drastically sped up the game experience and focused play into extreme spell flurries that naturally upset the balance of play. As a result, some, like Erik, fear “Summoner’s Rift will feel inferior and limited in comparison to itself on steroids.”

While the pace of the game is certainly ramped up to an extreme, the significant imbalances inherent in URF mode are in many ways more limiting than traditional Rift games. With no concern for cooldowns or attack speed, item variance shrinks dramatically in URF, with most item builds focusing on pure damage output. Likewise, particular champions who can now ignore cooldown reduction and focus on other items become especially powerful, which results in some very frequent appearances of champions like Kayle and Nidalee (both of whom Riot has removed from the queue as their particularly unbalanced power in these games became clearer).

Beyond its frenetic pace, why would players willingly remove elements of the game from their own matches? The answer for URF is the same as it is for ARAM, even when it was still a custom game mode back in 2011, by submitting themselves to constraints, players are distilling some of their favorite aspects of League of Legends into powerfully exhilarating experiences. In doing so, they also partake in a profoundly educational experience.

With so many abilities flying left and right, URF provides an excellent testing ground for skill dodging, as Erik mentions in his own post. The importance of positioning, in both solo fights and team fights, is heightened to an extreme. Likewise, reading the battlefield during heated battles becomes incredibly important. Players move concern away from resource management and towards position and map awareness. These skills they hone don’t go away when they move on from URF.

The same goes for teamwork competence. For an excellent example, check out the professional match between North American teams Cloud 9 and Team SoloMid below. As part of the April Fools’ extravaganza, the two teams played against each other with all the madness that Ultra Rapid Fire entails. Even with the chaos of URF, their absolute mastery of the game is still on display. Their communication remains top notch and even Kobe’s interruption mid-match demonstrates TheOddOne’s calm under pressure. Excellent timing, communication, and synergy all become increasingly important as aspects of traditional League of Legends are stripped from the experience.

Breaking a game, any game really, is a powerful learning opportunity and everyone who has played Ultra Rapid Fire mode should have a new found respect for Riot Game’s stellar balancing skills. Indeed, intentionally unbalancing the game also makes us all better critical players, and not just of League of Legends, but of all competitive multiplayer games. Wrapping your mind around the possibilities that URF provides is in some ways an exercise in game design. Who might stand out that would otherwise be overlooked? What abilities or play styles should one most emulate or avoid? Experimenting with broken design lets you examine the ways small changes could have profound effects on play. We are all better for having played an unbalanced version of a well designed game.

All that being said, Erik is right, URF should definitely be temporary, but not because it takes the joy out of League of Legends. Rather, the diluted experience is too much of a good thing. When Riot removes URF, we go back to League with new skills to try out and new ways to appreciate the game, which in turn prepares us for Riot’s next educational experiment. Even now, Riot is already trying to balance URF, which as I see it actually undermines the beauty of its extremes. We should embrace the madness, rejoice in the irony of Riot’s attempt to “abolish anti-fun,” which only magnifies the significance of their masterfully crafted competitive game.