A single balance update or new feature isn't usually enough to rev up the whole League of Legends community. This week, though, the entirety of the vocal League-playing internet collectively lost its shit. Why? Because the game made a joke too funny for its own good.
"Ultra Rapid Fire" mode, better known as "URF," was originally added to League of Legends on April 1st, 2014. It had all the markings of an April Fool's stunt. It turned the entire game on its head by, essentially, speeding it up. The attack speed, movement speed, critical strike damage, and the rate at which players' characters in the game farmed gold were all bumped up. The cooldown times and mana costs for their special abilities were also decreased to such an extent that players could spend an entire game spamming their champions' most powerful attacks against one another every few seconds.
URF took everything that was normally meant to be carefully managed in League and handed it to its players in abundance. They threw caution to the wind in turn. Champions were suddenly able to wail on each other nonstop for the length of a whole game — only ever pausing for the few seconds it took to respawn and teleport back to the fight. Plain old walking was considered too slow in URF, now that champions could use a teleportation spell (almost) whenever they pleased.
The mode was completely and utterly ridiculous. It tossed aside everything that seemed most sacred to League of Legends, ostensibly in favour of silly fun. No wonder Riot made it as a joke intended to last a single day. But once people started playing it, they didn't want to stop. The appeal was strong enough that the one-off joke ended up lasting for two extra weeks before Riot finally decided to remove URF, returning League to its relative state of normalcy. Since then, players have continued to quip to one another: are we ever gonna get to play URF again?
After some prolonged artful teasing by Riot, the most ridiculous of League's temporary game modes finally came back this week for April Fool's day once again. So far, fans have responded to its second coming as if it was...the second coming.
Many broke down and began thanking Riot profusely on the League forums and subreddit:
Some even went as far as to describe it as the League version of Christmas — assuming its appearances will now be a yearly event for April Fool's:
Others enthused about the oddball ways they could suddenly use some of their favourite champions:
...or gushed about their favourite aspects of the mode, including the easter eggs they'd found:
And since these are League of Legends fans we're talking about, there was also a healthy dose of adorably nitpicky "Riot, please…" requests addressing slight adjustments people wanted:
Amidst this tidal wave of enthusiasm, one question kept popping up: can't they just make URF a permanent installation in League?
In so many words, Riot's response to this has always been, and continues to be: no, we can't.
Why would a developer deny fans the continued pleasure of playing something that's already been created, especially when the game's community so clearly seems to want nothing more than for it not to go away? Riot has given a few different reasons over the past year, but the overriding concern they point to is that they don't think they can keep URF going because doing so would end up destabilising the game. Not just URF specifically — that's been plenty unstable from the very beginning. Rather, having URF as a permanent fixture could end up hurting League of Legends as a whole.
The clearest statement Riot has given about why URF can only be a limited time only deal came out just two weeks ago in a retrospective of all the temporary game modes of 2014 the developer posted on its website. In a section explaining why all the "featured gameplay modes" Riot adds are inherent and necessarily temporary, they explained that short-term commitments gave them more freedom to be as creative as possible:
Featured Game Modes are designed from the ground up to be short-term engagement experiences. This transience is what gives us the creative space try new things and see what works, listen to your feedback, then improve a mode before re-releasing it. Trying to build a long-term sustainable game mode would actually constrain us from doing things like Doom Bots, URF, Legend of the Poro King, Ascension, etc.
The main design concern (which is personally the most important as it = less fun) is that Featured Gameplay Modes are not designed to be long term engagement experiences. They're designed to make a big splash, with the knowledge they will be removed shortly thereafter. Adding permanency would constrain the design wiggle room we have to make each mode as unique as possible. As we've since learned, it would also add additional balance and maintenance costs that we'll share some examples of later in this retro.
In other words: making something that's only meant to withstand two weeks worth of pressure means that Riot can still let League's tens of millions of players play around with some truly batshit crazy ideas like URF. The "normal" League of Legends game, on the other hand, has ostensibly been built to last for years. Or maybe forever.
The section on URF, meanwhile, highlights specific concerns about the cost of maintaining it, player "burnout," and "wildly toxic champion play patterns" that arose over the course of just two weeks as players figured out more about the mode and started leaning on specific champions who benefited in the most...let's say "overpowered" ways:
Originally planned as an April Fool's Day joke intended only to last one day, we were blown away by the response Ultra Rapid Fire received. Based on the response from players around the world in multiple regions and languages, we extended the length of the mode (twice). Who doesn't like making more plays?! URF also taught us a fantastic lesson about the novelty of game modes over time and the cost of ongoing maintenance.
Featured Gameplay Modes have been shown to taper off in popularity sharply after a short period of time. People often forget that URF actually broke our golden rule of not touching Featured Gameplay Modes post-launch, but to try and keep it from becoming stale in the face of wildly toxic champion play patterns, we did anyway. And yet, despite our consecutive on the run tweaks to keep URF treading water balance-wise, we still saw the same declining engagement and burnout that we see with other modes. That doesn't mean players don't have a blast with each mode like this before they fade away. However, being designed as a can of whoopass in the first place ultimately means that the flame burns twice as bright and half as long. And that's ok!
Riot's explanation — particularly the detail about "declining engagement and burnout" — calls into question the legitimacy of popular opinion about URF. People might be losing their shit right now, but they could also be conveniently forgetting how they started to get bored or furious with URF after a few days last year.
I wasn't playing League at the dawn of the original URF. But there are so many vocal URF enthusiasts out there online that I've been able to identify a few common counter-arguments to Riot's reasoning here:
- Dismissing URF's long-term (or at least longer-than-two-weeks-term) viability by saying it's a) too expensive to maintain and b) not maintaining enough interest to warrant the cost doesn't hold water once you consider the fact that Riot maintains a few incredibly obscure game modes the vast majority of the community doesn't play and has no interest in trying out. Exhibit A: the rapidly dwindling "Dominion" — a game mode that, not unlike URF, actually began as an experiment. Riot could easily switch Dominion and URF's places, and would probably make a lot of people happy in so doing.
- Even if the developers felt like they were "treading water balance-wise," did they really need to? URF was meant to be ridiculous and broken. That's what many people loved about it — at least for a short time.
- Seeing as League of Legends' "normal" game modes have been changed on a monthly (if not weekly) basis for six years now and Riot describes the game as "always-evolving," two weeks is nowhere near enough time to evaluate the success of URF. The "wildly toxic champion play patterns" that began to spring up may just have been growing pains the community could have worked through. People love to pigeonhole diehard, vocal fans, but give the League hivemind some credit; they do end up solving a lot of problems and establish positive community norms by talking through them together ad infinatum.
What makes URF such a tricky gameplay mode in League is that all these arguments are valid, despite the fact that they end up contradicting one another. It strikes a nerve with the game's community in a way none of the other temporary and intentionally silly featured game modes have, meanwhile, because the debate over URF's rightful place in the game gets to the heart of an identity crisis League of Legends has been embroiled in for much of its brief history: whether it is a sport that people struggle to master for years on end in pursuit of lofty and innately competitive goals, or a video game they can play for plain and simple fun.
URF is an important part of League, then, because it's one of the best and most inventive examples Riot has come up with to keep the "fun" part of its game's equation alive and healthy. If League of Legends hopes to keep growing and developing as a game rather than just a sport, it will have to figure out how to reconcile these two parts of itself more neatly in the future — i.e. create some space where URF (or something like it) can comfortably coexist with the other parts of the game. But for the next two weeks at least, players will have a much simpler goal in mind: doing every ridiculous thing they possibly can in URF.