League of Legends is a beast. An unassailable success that every other games developer or publisher is trying to figure out. Based on hours of play, it's the most played video game, notching upwards of 1 billion hours logged every month. Millions of people jump on line every day to battle it out in Riot Games' hit multiplayer title. And League of Legends' annual tournament doled out a cool million in cash this summer, after a championship round that eight million viewers tuned in for.
With momentum like that at its back and a rabid fanbase, it sure seems like League of Legends represents a very likely future for video games.
But, according to one high-powered creator at Riot, they've still got a lot to fix.
Last weekend, Christina Norman, Lead Designer at Riot Games, spoke at New York University's Practice conference, which gathers together game designers from various different disciplines to talk about techniques and craft. Norman's been at Riot for about 18 months after working on Mass Effect at Bioware. Among other things, she overhauled the combat and RPG elements in Mass Effect 2 & Mass Effect 3, and helped implement multiplayer for the latter game. Norman's Practice talk — titled Building a Legendary World: Creative Development at League of Legends — outlined areas where League of Legends needs to improve.
People show up to fight each other in League of Legends. They pick a Champion, team up with others and work to figure out strategies that let them kick arse. LoL isn't a narrative focused game, Norman offered. Story isn't what keeps the average player engaged for an average of 30 hours a week. But LoL fans do love the universe. "If your characters in your video game are really appealing, people are going to dress up as them," Norman said about the LoL cosplay that you see at conventions and fan gatherings. "Players form deep relationships with Champions. They're not just chess pieces moving around a board to them."
Players love great stories, she continued. And they want LoL stories but the game's lore needs fixing. Norman identified four key issues that need to be addressed to help Riot firm up the foundation of their universe's fiction. The first was the notion that LoL was built as a "tournament IP". As with Mortal Kombat, the gameplay happens inside of a story framework that exists only to explain the players' battles.
The problem with that is that it restricts dramatic conflict. For example, with every dispute being solved by way of faction Champion skirmishes, you can't use a plot development like all-out war as a possibility. Another tournament IP problem is the idea that the LoL universe's summoners control everything. With the super-powerful sorcerers steering fate, the Champions don't have any sense of agency. They're just fighting for reasons that someone else tells them.
Norman says that Riot wants to shift to being an "awesome IP", one that "respects what players already love about our world." The developer will revise existing lore when necessary and tell stories outside the League to create depth.
Depth is the goal, said Norman. Adding layers to characters can only help when it comes time to craft stories that are more engaging. Take undead knight Mordekaiser. He can rip a player's soul out of its body and have it kill their friends. That's bad-ass but not terribly deep. "We want to create characters like Don Draper or Tony Soprano," Norman said. To that end, Riot instituted a new process based on TV writers rooms so that different divisions all are in sync. Results can be seen Zed's death animation — where he draws sigils in the air while dying — make it seem like he escapes death. There's depth and mystery in that, when compared to opposed to something overtly mechanical like respawning.
Similar revisions have been made to how Riot conceives different parts of League of Legends' world, too. When revisiting the Shadow Isles for a recent update, the team looked to deepen the world's visuals and back story so as to provide motivations for gameplay and character. The main interest is in building narrative outside the gameplay, Norman explained, but narrative that peeks through at key moments of the experience.
For example, character bios have previously been told via what Norman called "Walls of Text". These have been Riot's only narrative tool and they realised that they needed more tools to tell stories. So, changes like voiceovers in the LoL login screen and during limited in-game moments add insight to the universe without taking away from the act of playing.
The popular character skins exist outside of lore and are opportunities for fun and self-expression, Norman said, but they create more love for LoL, too. She used the example of players taking it upon themselves to explain the lore for Battlecast mech skins, saying that these crowd-sourced explications won't become canon, but Riot will encourage these kinds of dynamics.
Internally, anyone in the company can submit ideas for Champions. Inspirations come from visuals, narrative or gameplay ideas. However, when it comes to fictional characters, Norman declared that what you don't want to do is say "he's so cool once you get to know him." That begs a time commitment, she explained. "What you want is have a simple in-game metaphor for what appeals to you about the character."
With the improvements outlined above, future possibilities can include movies, comics novels, Norman told the audience. "But we could also do something else. Depth isn't tethered to one medium. Being able to go traditional is not a bad thing. The focus isn't a movie. The focus is foundation."
Norman also said that she and other Rioters look to the way that narratives happen in the NFL and in pro wrestling. Where the weeks-long season of pro football is an emergent narrative, what happens in the WWE is authored. Both can change but shifts in one happen suddenly and get built up to in the other. Norman also said that they do note the importance of sports narrative — rivalry, signature tics, etc. — -and are always trying to learn about players on the teams and their relationships to each other.
The most insightful thing about Norman's talk is the recognition that the appeal that's brought League of Legends to its current peak isn't necessarily what's going to help keep it there. You may not see much of the changes that Riot is bringing to League of Legends in the gameplay but they hope it makes you care much more about the Champions and their world.