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Interview: Riot Games On The Birth Of  League Of Legends

Interview: Riot Games On The Birth Of League Of Legends

May 22, 2009 | By Chris Remo

May 22, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC

WarCraft III RPG/strategy mod Defense of the Ancients has attracted millions of players, and now Riot Games, a team including DOTA's co-designer is taking the concept full-scale commercial with League of Legends, due out later this year.

It's the first title for the Los Angeles-based studio, which announced the project at the end of 2008. Other games, most notably Gas Powered Games' Demigod, have aimed to spiritually succeed DOTA, but Riot Games is attempting to recreate the game more literally, and has DOTA co-designer Steve "Guinsoo" Feak on board.

Here, Gamasutra speaks to director of systems design Tom Cadwell and community relations director Steve Mescon about the special considerations in evolving a wildly popular Warcraft III mod into a commercial RTS/RPG.

They discuss how League of Legends -- which can't escape being abbreviated LoL -- is both like and unlike original DOTA, and modding as an avenue into full-scale development.

What mentality have you taken in developing this game? You're building on the legacy of Defense of the Ancients [which the team created a postmortem of for Gamasutra recently], its existing dynamic and fan base, but how are you rethinking it?

Tom Cadwell: We're trying to find out, "How do we keep the core experience of DOTA and enhance it, broadening it so more people can experience and enjoy it?"

There are a couple aspects to that. One is just removing the obvious pain points and trying to make it go better -- adding matchmaking so you can find a competitive match that's going to be against people in the same skill level as you.

We're improving the user interface... instead of using the Warcraft III interface, which wasn't really suitable for DOTA. It's really designed for a single character rather than multiple characters as with RTS controls. There are a lot of little enhancements like that. We're polishing a lot of the things the DOTA audience just lives with.

We also thought that adding a persistent gameplay element that allows you to progress over time would add a lot of value to the gameplay. It just makes it a lot more fun. We're trying to pick mechanics and characters that follow principles of simple but deep design.

What about taking it into the commercial space, where people who have played DOTA are accustomed to it being a free mod?

Steve Mescon: Coming from the community side, it was an interesting transition going from a player-created mod to a commercial product. We wanted to make sure that we kept a lot of the original community roots, empowering the community to have input in the future of the product, making sure that we consistently listen to user feedback, addressing concerns that people have.

From a very early stage, we started to listen to feedback from a lot of the existing DOTA community. That was something that's really important that game companies don't necessarily always have. And it's nice to now have the resources to do a lot of stuff that we couldn't have otherwise done. DOTA existed as -- still exists as -- a non-profit entity. Without any revenue, we were often limited in the kind of things we can do both as a community and for the community.

TC: We're calling the genre MOBA -- multiplayer online battle arena. You have the champions, you're fighting minions and upgrading your champion throughout the game, leveling up, gaining items, and so forth.

We think that that core gameplay can be applied to a lot of different scenarios. Right now, it's just in the basic DOTA map, which works great, but we think if we draw from other genres and games like Team Fortress 2, the [World of Warcraft] Battlegrounds, older games like Tribes, and other games with interesting team-based scenarios, we think we can pull elements from there and make some even more compelling gameplay that furthers the audience.

Team defense is exciting to us. We won't be able to do a lot of that for launch, but we're really excited. As we're operating the game, there's a service after launch that we can use to continue to make those improvements and broaden and deepen the experience.

That's definitely the direction PC games are going these days. Valve talks about it all the time, of course. It seems like in the last few years, it's become an increasingly feasible -- arguably even necessary -- route for PC developers to take.

SM: Interestingly enough, I think we're seeing a lot of similar models like this outside of the game industry as well. We're seeing a lot of products and services -- products that are really being offered now as a service.

For example, you see music services now where you can listen to music but you don't need to necessarily buy a song. A lot the same concepts are spilling over when you're talking about operating a game as a service. It's just becoming a point of familiarity with people.

TC: Yeah, I think you could talk about the economics of those sort of things, but what I really think is important is just that players like having games as a service. They like to have a game that's patched frequently. That's more fun. I think as a game developer, that's your first priority. If you can give players something that's more fun, you're going to be rewarded for that.

SM: And constantly changing. Two years after you bought it, it's completely different than when you first got it. It might be fundamentally the same, but there are lots of core differences.

TC: We definitely are really inspired by what a lot of the top developers like Valve and Blizzard are doing with frequent patches on the products they release. We want to do that, too. That's the expectation of our core community.

SM: And in a game like this, in my opinion, it's really the only option. To just let it go and then forget about it, that was never on the table.

When managing that core community, how much have you found that there are existing models to look at in the game industry, and how much is playing by ear? I know a few community managers, and it seems less defined than some roles.

SM: Part of that is because online communities are relatively new in the professional world, so you don't have a lot of people who've been doing it for 20 years. There really is no precedent to follow. A lot of people are just finding where online communities in general fit into their business.

What are some of the principles?

SM: I really think it has entirely to do with building brand evangelists. What you want to do is essentially create a funnel where you can convert users up a series of steps until you create brand evangelists who will both recruit new players and help retain existing players. That's really what community is about.

Do you think that's easier in a way with a mod that has no financial backing? Particularly among hardcore PC gamers, if a game is a mod, an underground thing, people are more compelled to think, "This thing needs my help to go out and push it"? Obviously, the other end of that is that a commercial game has an actual marketing budget, but what about the community side specifically?

SM: Yes and no. It's really a lot of things that are making some of the core principles of building an evangelist of a brand pretty simple. One of them is giving a user a sense of efficacy. So, we want our community to have a clear impact on the game's future.

There are a bunch of different ways that we're doing that. I don't know how much we're going to touch on right now, but that's one example of something that's really important that we can do even though we're a commercial entity.

One of the things I've observed is that in some cases, when the evangelists get their friends to install DOTA, the friend can sometimes be overwhelmed, because they're just thrown into this completely hardcore environment with no ramp-up -- sort of like Counter-Strike, but maybe not that extreme.

TC: Well, I'd say it's a lot harder to get into than even Counter-Strike, because in Counter-Strike, if you've played a shooter before, the aiming is different, but you know how to do a headshot if you've played a lot of shooters.

Right. So, as a designer, how do you compensate for that?

TC: I think you really need to look at the aspects of the game that cause the new player attrition. In DOTA, I think they're pretty clear. First, there are huge penalties for dying. Not only that, but it rewards the enemy team substantially, so with your own teammates, you're causing their loss as well.

Then, there's an overwhelming amount of content. You come into DOTA and there are a gazillion heroes, a gazillion items, powerful relationships between the items that are difficult to understand -- the list goes on and on. You also have to buy a game, and then an expansion to the game, and then download a map and put the map into the proper directory.

A lot of this stuff we can fix directly just by having a standalone game that's easy to install. On the pure design side, though, I think we look at those mechanics. We think, "Hey, if there are too many options, too many items, we can potentially gate those options so you have to have played a small amount to unlock them all." Some of this stuff we want to have a lot of players access for competitive reasons; for other stuff, it's okay if they have to work a little bit for it. It makes the game more fun.

We're going to be adding a death recap system, which basically will give players very clear indicators of what caused their death. You can learn from that, and it makes it less frustrating. I think you have to focus on those pain points that you know are happening. You just talk to somebody who did burn out immediately trying to play DOTA.

SM: We're using a lot of data points to drive these decisions. We're preparing everything from exit surveys to user studies. We'll be optimizing the installation process and registration process and download process through those means.

TC: Absolutely, but in addition to that, we're just trying to apply good, clean, simple, polished game design that's been proven to work in other games. Just try to, you know, make sure we grasp both what at its core makes DOTA great but also polish over and apply those principles of simple but deep game design to it.

That sounds very Blizzard-esque.

TC: Yeah, they certainly are great at it. I'm really happy I was able to learn about that while I was there. My main area of focus was play balance for the WarCraft III expansion, and I did a bit of mechanics design on that as well. Blizzard's definitely an environment where if you're interested in something, you put your hands in and try to help with it.

I was also a contributor to a lot of aspects of WoW, working with internal feedback teams there to polish some of the new player experience and controls. Accessibility is something I'm very passionate about, and I've spent a lot of time on it in the past.

Do you have any thoughts from a design perspective about the difference between approaching an RTS like WarCraft, where DOTA is based but which is otherwise about many characters being controlled all at once, as opposed to League of Legends, which is all about your one character?

TC: It's tricky, because on the one hand, players who played DOTA on some level just expect exactly the controls they've been using. So if controls are not that usable but you know them anyway, it's easier just to stick with that. But they're not optimal controls for a single-character experience.

We have to tread very carefully on that, and we'll try a lot of different ways. Iteration is very important to us. We'll get an idea of how to improve a particular aspect of controls, and we'll just try it. If it works, we'll keep it. If it kind of works, we'll refine it more. If it doesn't, we'll go back to where we were.

For example, a while ago, we pulled out shift queuing -- in an RTS that's when you hold down shift and you can make several orders in order, and have your characters perform them in that order -- and we're finding in our internal tests that maybe that wasn't such a great idea. We thought it was an unnecessary feature, but we're finding especially among hardcore DOTA players that we should have that it.

So, that's a case where we tried something, it didn't work quite as well as we wanted, so we change it. On the other hand, we have mini-map zoom, and that's great; people love it. You win some, you lose some. The more you can try, the more you win.

How do you "prep" the larger community to make sure they're going to be quickly acclimated to this?

SM: Existing DOTA players are going to pick it up very quickly. The moment to moment experiences...

TC: Well actually, immediately, if some of the tests where I've gotten owned were any indication. (laughs)

SM: (laughs) Yes. We have friends and family beta testers who are pretty much annihilating the developers.

TC: They're not necessarily my friends after some of those games.

SM: They're still my friends because I was on their team.

But yes, we have existing DOTA players who have picked it up, and it's a very easy transition. Even with the things that were changed, it's very easy to pick up on what's changed and what the differences are. So, I don't think it will be a huge barrier.

So, you haven't had that experience that strikes fear into the hearts of many developers making official or spiritual successors, where you go onto the official forums and it's just thread after thread of "What are you doing to my game? You're ruining everything. I hate you."

SM: Well, we still haven't had a whole lot of people with their hands on it. We've been pretty tight-lipped about everything that we've been doing.

That usually doesn't stop people from complaining.

TC: Some people will say, "I want it to be exactly like DOTA," but that's not everybody. Our general view is we're adding so many things that DOTA just really needs and doesn't have. We think the overall impression, and we're seeing this validated in feedback, is that DOTA users say, "Well, I kind of wish you had that particular weird user interface, but you're adding these ten other things that are totally awesome, so I like this game overall."

Why do you think this mechanic or genre isn't more widespread? For a mod that became so popular, it seems odd that it didn't spread out and pollinate like Counter-Strike has. Now we have Demigod too, but it's taken a while.

SM: It could be that the industry is not reactive enough.

TC: If you're a publisher and you're looking at what you're going to invest money in, no one's made money by selling DOTA. Blizzard made money selling War III, but...

SM: There's a risk you have to take on that. It's something that's been proven to be fun, but not necessarily proven to be business accessible. I don't necessarily think that's the only reason, but that's definitely a reason.

TC: There are a number of companies, though; we're not going to name them here, of course…

Have you looked at Demigod?

TC: Yeah. One or two of our developers have worked at GPG in the past. They're a great group of guys.

SM: We have Steve Snow, who was [a member of the founding team] and [founder] Chris Taylor's roommate for a while.

TC: I hope Demigod is super successful, and I hope we're super successful with them. We think it's a great genre. If several games can be successful, it's going to add credibility to the genre, and it's great for all of us.

SM: Just consider that if there are ten million people playing DOTA, how many people have tried it and left? Just look at the potential size there.

What do you mean by that? People who couldn't necessarily get into it, and might try it again?

TC: The game's pretty old, so you have to imagine there are all sorts of people that have experienced and played it and liked it but don't play it now, or people who experience it and hit some of those roadblocks and threw up their hands and left.

SM: And also, it's really fundamentally simpler. The very fundamentals of the game are simpler than a lot of existing games. And so, I think that eventually, it's going to be a really big mid-core game. We're going to get a lot of people who aren't the hardcore gamers who can pick this up easier once we get over the education issue.

TC: I agree with that. I think there's really fun gameplay there. It's different from what else is out there. I think it just needs the right game or games to show people how fun it can be.

You see this sometimes, when a genre isn't going anywhere, and then a really solid game comes along and people become really interested in it. Look at how Counter-Strike revitalized FPS. FPS was doing fine, but look what happened. And Call of Duty and Halo both did great things for FPS on the consoles -- it just grows the entire category. World of Warcraft did that for MMOs. GTA almost created its own genre in a way, right?

There's lots of fun out there that hasn't been discovered. I think you just need to show the gamers that it can be fun, and package it right.

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