This was originally published on my blog at keithburgun.net.
In 2003, I was a very serious WarCraft III player. If I recall correctly, I have over 5,000 one-on-one ladder matches logged on my Battle.net account. I watched replays every day and even did some highly amateurish commentaries myself. It's interesting to note that some of my first-ever "internet game design articles" were WarCraft III design/strategy analyses for sites like wcreplays.com.
As a huge fan of that game, I was actually pretty skeptical of this new mod that came out called DotA that everyone was crazy about. Partly, this was because it was designed by just "some guy on the internet" who took an existing game and swapped some stuff around (as opposed to building something new from the ground up). Also, it was because I had huge respect for the designers at Blizzard at the time. Overall, I think it was coming from a good place: I always believed in design, and being a young early-20s dude (who had never encountered designer board games), it made some sense that I would believe that the Blizzard people were the best game designers in the world and kind of idolize them.
Now, looking back, I kinda think Blizzard was really not all that unlike the "some guy on the internet". They, too, were just taking existing stuff and molding it around into something that seemed to kind of work for some reason. So ultimately, I think I was mistaken for not giving DotA more of a serious look at the time.
Over the past couple of years, I've been playing and closely following League of Legends. I won't go easy on the game - it certainly has huge problems, many of which I expect never to get solved. But with that said, today I'd like to tell you about why I think that it's the best thing that exists for people interested in competitive strategy games.
A quick aside - I do not, have not, and never will use the term "MOBA" ("Multiplayer Online Battle Arena") to refer to these as I find that acronym to be maybe the worst term ever conceived of for a game design pattern. I could write a whole article about how bad that term is, but for now it should suffice to say that these games - things like League, Heroes of the Storm and Dota 2 are "like DotA", and so I think the term "DotA-like" is a lot more appropriate.
Now, most videogames have a distasteful, childish theme, are too random, have too much stuff, are inelegant, and rely far too much on vestigial Dungeons and Dragons design tropes. League of Legends has all of these problems, but unlike most games, that isn't all there is to it.
The basic thing that makes League and other DotA-likes better, on a fundamental level, than things like Street Fighter, StarCraft, Super Smash Bros or Counter-Strike is the embracing of structure.
The fundamental bit of structure in DotA-likes is the lane concept. These games have three lanes, two long ones on the ends and one short one in the middle, and waves of "minions" are pushing up against each other. Players can come and push these lanes forward and backward manually, applying "pressure" to that lane.
This is kind of the core mechanism to these games. It might not sound like a whole lot, but... it's something of a scaffolding for strategy, in a world where it's only a minor over-statement to say that every other competitive videogame can be boiled down to "Dungeons and Dragons Boxing". While most games are a "deplete the hit point bar contest", in DotA-likes there is strategic "axis" that exists on the fundamental level. Choosing to push one lane over another allows for "sacrifice" plays; trading a tower in one lane for a tower in another, and so on.
The large scale of the map and the fact that players can't just "be anywhere at any time" is another quality that makes League, despite being real time, into something of a strategy game. It's true that in a team-fight, things happen at lightning speed and so players can only react. But when you're at the base and choosing which lane to move to, you have time. As you're moving to the top lane, you have a good, solid five to ten seconds to consider whether changing course and going to "mid" lane. These kinds of decisions are large-arc strategy decisions and the game gives you time to make them.
That's something I think very few competitive strategy videogame developers realize: the human brain requires at least a couple of seconds to make decisions. League allows for that, despite seeming like, and sometimes being, a "fast paced" game.
Another element to the DotA-likes: execution is limited. I believe the major reason that League completely overtook StarCraft as the popular digital strategy game is the fact that it limits execution, and StarCraft does not. In StarCraft, there's kind of no limit to how many commands you can issue, and the more you do, the better. If you can micro each little marine independently away from a swarm of banelings, then you should. That's something you can drill, so you should. I've talked before about the inherent problems with execution, but StarCraft and other RTS games are truly ridiculous. Never before or since have human beings been asked to execute so much so quickly.
League, on the other hand, has you controlling just one avatar, who has four abilities, two rare-use "Summoner Spells", and maybe a simple active item ability or two. I personally still think this is too much, but whatever - the point is, it's capped pretty harshly.
Another way to express the capped-ness: I can't just "kick ass execution" my way out of every problem. One of the last big videogames I got really into was Team Fortress 2. In TF2, I don't really have to "work with the team" or "make good strategic choices". That's because I was really, really good at aiming and dodging. I was so good at aiming and dodging that I really didn't give a crap what the rest of my team was doing. I would just pick Soldier class, or Demoman, or Heavy even, and just... kill the entire other team. Made a horrible strategic decision to invade at the wrong time, and now it's 5v1? No problem, I'll just kill all five of them with crazy good execution.
That shit really doesn't fly in League. I mean, you can out-execute, for sure, but the degree to which execution matters in League is way less. Assuming similar stats/levels and everyone has full health/mana, it's extremely rare for one player to just "out-execute" himself out of a 3 on 1. Even taking a 2 on 1 is like a comical event when it happens in League.
In fact, one of the biggest things that I've struggled with in League is this weird concept that I can't just rush into every encounter. I have to turn some fights down!? That concept is so alien to me after playing various D&D Boxing variants for the last 30 years. But it's true!
Now I'm not saying that execution isn't a huge problem in League. It is. Last-hitting is... it's just mind-boggling to me that that's still in the game. Allowing players to "steal" Baron/Dragon with a completely random smite-war (basically have two players hit a button when they hear a sound, whoever does it first wins - that level of random) is really bad, especially after Heroes of the Storm showed a perfectly good alternative. And generally, games kinda do get decided somewhat by team-fights, which are... well, some good old fashioned D&D Boxing. But all of these problems are worse - far worse - in basically every other videogame.
Producing and maintaining good strategy games is extremely costly. One of the reasons I was really into Blizzard back in the day is that they kind of started the whole concept of an online videogame that was going to get real, serious support in the form of balance patches and other updates. That's part of why Blizzard dominated that sphere for a decade.
There's not a huge list of companies who have the resources and the will to treat games this way. Many big competitive games just get launched and maybe a bug fix patch or two and that's it. I think that's a complete waste of time - why bother going to all the trouble of making a game just to leave it to die on the vine?
So Riot already is in this small category. Not only are they in that category, though, but they have an unprecedented amount of resources, with League becoming the most popular game of all time. Not only that, but this is happening in the era of metrics and data. Riot has access to an insane amount of user data that no one had access to ten years ago, and they have the money to hire the people needed to process it.
I'm not acutely aware of what happened with Riot Games between the years of 2009 and 2013 or so, but as League took off and became mega-successful, Riot definitely did a whole lot of hiring. It seems like, from what I can gather, they hired a lot of young people - mostly super well-educated people in their 20s and early 30s.
Around that time, it seems like there were some changes. Stuff started getting "updated" more, and the new character release schedule cooled off a lot.
Soon Riot was talking about completely overhauling their map (Summoner's Rift). They've since done so. They also completely redid their HUD. They also completely redesigned characters like Poppy, Sion, Fiora, not to mention numerous more-minor-but-still-significant champion redesigns.
And that's the really amazing thing about Riot that makes them basically Blizzard 2.0. They aren't afraid to delete stuff. They took the old Sion, as an example, and said "you know, we know there are people who are fans of this thing as it is now, but we are making the design call to say that overall, it would be better if we changed it, despite that fact." I mean, to me it's obvious that in order to make progress, you have to piss some people off, but very few developers are willing to actually do it.
Here's another example. Watch this video and "Get Hype":
Did that anger people? Yes, big time. But they did it anyway, because overall, the game was better without it. They could have kept it in and just had their new updated Champion Select (which is fantastic, by the way) and kept Team Builder. It would have been redundant and strange, but I also think most developers would have taken that route anyway.
One reason that Riot "gets away with" doing the right thing, even when it often means deleting features that players like (Gasp!), is that they are fantastic at communication. Here's what Blizzard patch notes look like. Here's what Riot's patch notes look like, for comparison. Way more clearly laid out, and not only that, but there's lots of explanation throughout. I love reading patch notes, and seeing their world-class patch notes was one of the things that really converted me in the first place.
It doesn't end there, though. Riot releases a video discussion YouTube talk show episode for every patch to help explain it. Not only that, but they also have a podcast where they talk even more about why they're doing what they're doing.
Riot, more often than any other company in a similar position, has the courage to make the right design calls, and they take a completely unprecedented level of care to make sure that you understand why they are the right design calls. For that, they get my thumbs-up.
I consider the competition to be stuff like fighting games, RTSes and FPSes. I think I've already talked a bit about how League is fundamentally better than those just by being a DotA-like: has a bit of a strategic spine, capped execution, etc. I would like to take a moment to compare League to some of the "runner-ups", however.
In conclusion, League of Legends is the best for two simple reasons:
To be clear, I think we can and will do a lot better than League of Legends. I mean, hell - League itself is getting "better than League" by big leaps every year.
Please don't get me wrong: the game is horribly oppressive to get into, with hundreds of items, champions and special abilities do (I've been playing for almost 3 years and I still don't know what all of these God-damn items are). Designer David Sirlin says that the game should be "auto-rejected" because of the fact that you have to play a bunch before you gain access to the "real game". This is based on a really terrible "runes and masteries system" that needs to be removed as soon as possible. The theme is kinda along the lines of something like that of Mortal Kombat - violence-glorifying, sexist and immature, to put it lightly.
I could go on about the problems with League. But the two circles - "has the insight and bravery to make positive design changes" and "has the resources to implement them" rarely overlap as much as they do with Riot.
In fact, you could say that this article is more of an endorsement of Riot than it is of League itself. Indeed, I feel like Riot is kind of like some young visionary who got saddled with fixing, I don't know, the water infrastructure of the United States or something. I feel like they're digging themselves out of a huge hole. Indeed, on their forums and even in blog posts, the programmers talk sometimes about the game's old "spaghetti code". I think there's a lot of "spaghetti design" still floating around as well.
But the point is, they're trying, and they're trying really hard, and you can witness the results of their attempts. It's really exciting to watch this game grow - and by grow, I don't mean just "add more crap" (although that is also happening). I mean grow as in get better. I look forward to their patch notes, and, ultimately... I also just really enjoy the game, which is something that I can't say for very many games these days.
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