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GDC Online: Strong Team Culture, Customer Focus Key To  League of Legends  Success

GDC Online: Strong Team Culture, Customer Focus Key To League of Legends Success

October 8, 2010 | By Kris Graft

October 8, 2010 | By Kris Graft
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Culver City, CA-based Riot Games is a young company, having only been founded in 2006. And it has only released one game.

But that game is the successful League of Legends, a multiplayer online PC game inspired by the popular World of Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients. The title won five awards this week at the 2010 Game Developers Choice Online Awards.

With the game's one-year anniversary coming up later this month, Riot president Marc Merrill explained how the new company managed to gain a loyal hardcore fanbase.

For Merrill, it starts with a company's people and culture -- "culture fit" is very important in the hiring process. "We really believe that game development is a team sport," he said. And staff needs to be motivated, said Merrill. "We don't really have any room for underperformers."

He made the distinction that Riot does not have a "family" culture. "'Family' suggests unconditional love, but that's not how it works, this is a business," he said. "...That high bar has really helped raise our performance."

Merrill admitted that Riot is not perfect. In fact, making and identifying mistakes is part of the company culture. The studio adopts the Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement.

"We always assume that everything we're doing isn't as optimal as it could be," said Merrill. When that mindset is instilled in employees, people are more open to suggestions for improvement, and less sensitive to criticism.

When it's time to make a change to an online game, the business needs to facilitate the ability to shift direction, he added. "These games are extremely dynamic. ... Players are in charge and they'll do things that you totally won't expect."

Merrill noted that several things went wrong with League of Legends' development, such as issues with manual deployment of the game, adoption of the waterfall development methodology and a tech foundation for the game's art that was initially lacking.

But the company's culture allowed it to adapt. To Riot, all business decisions revolve around designing League of Legends to be as fun and appealing as possible. "It might sound sort of silly, but it's very true. ...Our game and games as a service [in general] live or die by the stickiness of the game."

"...We stuck to our design goals and believed if we created a really fun game and a great service ... it would pay off," said Merrill.

But with the games-as-a-service model, the work on League of Legends is far from done. One of the biggest parts of maintaining the game - like any online game - is fostering a community around it. "A lot of people misunderstand what it means to manage a community," said Merrill "... It means much more than managing forums." Merrill said to build and expand that core community, an online game company must find and create evangelists.

Picking up new players is still a challenge, however, as League of Legends is a hardcore game with a steep learning curve. The company is putting any extensive marketing strategy on hold until it can make its game more friendly to new users, Merrill said.

"We're not where we want to be from a tutorial perspective or an onboarding perspective," he said. "...This is a problem for us that we're trying to solve."


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