Yesterday afternoon, Riot Games published an explanation for why it hasn't added an oft-requested sandbox mode to its hit online multiplayer game League of Legends. The response was bullshit.
A sandbox mode is (in theory, at least) a practice mode for League of Legends, which doesn't currently offer anything other than two very limited tutorials for training purposes. League of Legends has been out for six years now, and in that time it's amassed tens of millions of players, added more than 80 playable characters to the original roster of 40, and evolved into the biggest eSport in the game industry. All these factors have made it even more competitive and difficult to master than it already was in 2009, which in turn made fan's requests for some more ways to practice louder and louder with every passing year.
What players want, then, is something in League that puts them in a controlled, single-player environment and lets them whack away at a glorified punching bag -- a champion who will stand there and not really fight back, instead of the 5 human or computer-controlled opponents you normally square off against .
League's main competitors all already have far more robust features that allow their players to train outside the pressures of an actual MOBA match. Valve's Dota 2 has an extensive tutorial system that covers the game's fundamental mechanics in great detail. Blizzard's much younger rival Heroes of the Storm has a training mode that drops you (and up to four friends) into a simulation of a regular match with AI opponents that basically just stand there and let you kill them. It also has a separate "try mode" that lets you sample new characters and skins, and even has options to do things like toggle enemies on or off, or auto-level yourself so you can immediately experiment with a character's high-level powers without having to wait around until you reach level 10 or 20. What makes the relative absence of these sorts of essential features seem even more peculiar in League is the fact that Riot's game is the undisputed leader of the MOBA genre.
Riot finally responded to requests for a sandbox mode as part of a longer blog post explaining what their current priorities are for updating League. While they suggested that being able to sample things before purchasing them and practice to fine-tune individual gameplay techniques are both valid things to ask for, neither was a priority for them right now. And regarding practicing: "sandbox mode is not the way to go."
Here's the relevant passage, with emphasis added:
We've heard a number of player requests for a Sandbox Mode, with two main reasons: the first is trying out new content -- which is something we value too. We want players to know what they're getting and to be happy with the things they're unlocking (we may investigate other ways to do this). The second is that players want to practice very specific skills without the constraints of a regular game. For this point, our stance is that sandbox mode is not the way to go. We want to make sure we're clear: playing games of League of Legends should be the unequivocal best way for a player to improve. While there are very real skills one can develop in a hyperbolic time chamber, we never want that to be an expectation added onto an already high barrier to entry. On an individual level, we know this isn't always true -- some just want a space to practice flashing over walls without having to wait at least 3.6 minutes in between -- but when that benefit is weighed against the risk of Sandbox mode 'grinding' becoming an expectation, we just can't accept the tradeoff. We never want to see a day when a player wants to improve at League and their first obligation is to hop into a Sandbox. We do want to support your ability to grow in mastery, and there may be other avenues to do so, but not this.
Players immediately called bullshit on Riot's reasoning. The hugely popular and influential League of Legends subreddit became a particularly acerbic hotbed of dissent overnight, with fans saying things like: "Riot's "Sandbox Mode" reply makes it obvious how little they seem to understand the competitive setting of their game." The response from League's audience was so swift and unilateral that the game's developers spent a good part of last night trying to hastily put out fires both on and off the subreddit.
The reasoning behind Riot's explanation yesterday was profoundly specious and tone-deaf to the wants and needs of its audiences in four important ways:
There's an undeniable element of hypocrisy in their justification for wanting to avoid grinding in the game.
League of Legends currently requires an obscene level of grinding for players who actually want to play the game at any serious or competitive level -- requiring hundreds, if not thousands of hours of gameplay to unlock a healthy amount of playable characters and things like runes -- items you can outfit a champion with to beef up different stats like armour, damage, or magic resistance. Unless you choose to spend money, of course.
The type of grinding Riot forces players to indulge is a key way the company makes almost a billion dollars a year in microtransactions thanks to the game's free-to-play infrastructure, because it makes people choose between their money or time. Anyone who wants to get up to speed in League any more quickly than a year pretty much has to start handing over some of their hard-earned cash. While a practice mode would make many fans happy, it wouldn't yield the kind of immediate lucrative financial returns Riot seems hell-bent on pursuing -- even at the cost of player experience.
The justification that a practice mode isn't a good way for players to improve in League makes absolutely no sense.
Yes, in some general sense "playing games of League of Legends" is indeed the "unequivocal best way for a player to improve." You could say the same thing about any game, or any other sport -- electronic or otherwise. But in a much more pragmatic sense, it doesn't really work that way. Why do basketball players practice free throws outside the context of an actual basketball game, or why do baseball players use batting cages? Because there are certain skills in any competitive game that only come to a player after repeating an action over, and over, and over again until its proper execution is seared into muscle memory. Being able to rehearse any such action without having one or more bad guys getting up in your face and trying to kill you every few seconds just means that you'll be able to practice it faster and more effectively.
Riot contradicts itself in its own explanation.
Riot knows that the game has a high barrier to entry. League of Legends is so large and complex at this point that it's become overwhelming and off-putting for casual or prospective players, but they want to make it more approachable. What better way than creating a safe space for players to hash out their inadequacies?
Take last-hitting, for example. This is a crucial practice by which you attack minions (the cute little foot soldiers that automatically generate and attack the enemy team's champions and players) at just the right moment before their health bars dip below zero. It's crucial because last-hitting means you maximise the amount of minions you're killing throughout a match, which means you're accruing as much experience and gold as possible to beef up your character. It's also a tricky process because it requires you to pay attention to as many as a dozen minion health bars at any given moment -- while also juggling any number of other tasks. Every experienced League player I've spoken to has told me that the only way to get better at last-hitting is by attacking minions over and over again until you don't have to think so hard about it anymore. The problem is focusing too hard on last-hitting will put your teammates at risk of being taken out by opponents who are more focused on killing you instead of minions.
Riot's developmental explanation for not wanting to add a practice mode anytime soon is patronizing.
At the end of their explanation, they say that "there may be other avenues" to help players "grow in mastery," but it's "not this." This invokes an excuse Riot often seems to pull out whenever fans start braying loudly enough for one thing or another that they desperately want to see in the game. Yes, Riot says, we want something like that too. But it'd be better to take the time to develop some new, super innovative solution rather than going for a quick and easy fix.
League's development lead, who goes by RiotBanksy on Reddit, made this point more explicitly than the company's official statement did yesterday when he weighed in to try to cool down upset fans on the subreddit last night. "I think our product, engineering, and design teams are fully capable of solving this in an innovative way that players can use," he said of the currently-not-prioritised practice mode. In an earlier reply that was downvoted into oblivion, he tried to justify the developer's decision by saying that even if Riot tried a short-term solution, they'd still have to work on a more robust one for the long-term life of League (emphasis mine):
We agree there is value for players learning and progressing at League and there should be systems that support that more explicitly. What that means and how it manifests for you is still hotly debated internally at Riot with our design and product teams. It's probably why our stance in the blog isn't 100% bulletproof.
That said, we're very firm here because of this: even if we had solutions today, we would continue with our current prioritisation of cleaning up old systems before we start building entirely new ones.
Pursuing a long-term strategy to develop a robust tutorial and practice system for League is an admirable (and necessary) goal. But the problem that many fans, myself included, had with RiotBanksy's response here is twofold.
First, the developer has had years to implement any sort of training system better than the two sorely outdated tutorials it offers. Second, it's really hard to believe that it's prohibitively difficult for the biggest game in the world to put any sort of quick fix in place while it develops an ironclad solution. All Heroes of the Storm had to do to add a practice mode is allow players to jump into all-bot games where the enemy team is weak and unresponsive compared to how they usually act.
Riot tweaks any number of different values for League champions every two weeks at this point with extensive and well-reported patches. Is it really that hard for them to downgrade champions' fighting power for one specific mode?
Riot's explanations so far have suggested that it is a prohibitively difficult task. Yesterday's statement detailed the mounting "tech debt" that's come from League of Legends exploding in popularity after building a company that was originally a very small independent outfit. There's lots of "spaghetti code" that needs to be totally overhauled before they can add many important fan-requested features, they say. This invokes an excuse they often use when the League of Legends community starts to get impatient: telling them, in so many words, that they don't understand the harsh realities of game development. We have tons of different teams working on multiple projects in parallel, these arguments always go. We can't simply throw more people at one particular problem to solve it faster.
That's often a fair point. Here, it really isn't. Banksy snapped back at one critic by saying: "ever watch an artist wire up a data center? doesn't go so well. no really, we have lots of teams doing things in parallel." That would be a legitimate counterpoint if it didn't overlook the fact that Riot itself admitted that practice mode isn't any sort of priority right now, suggesting that it's not being worked on in parallel to other projects.
To Riot (and RiotBanksy's) credit, the whole reason the developer issued its statement on not prioritising a sandbox mode is because they're putting forth a good-faith effort to be more transparent with fans,better communicate with the League community about what it is they're actually prioritising, and, just as importantly, say why they're prioritising one thing over another. Seeing the universal condemnation of this answer, they have rightly started to backpedal and admit that yes, maybe this really should be a priority for League of Legends right now. Banksy said on Reddit that the developer "may need to adjust" its priorities given the blowback from fans. He and other Rioters have started using the term "conversation" to describe what they were trying to do with yesterday's post, suggesting that gathering feedback -- even highly critical feedback -- was their plan the whole time.
Another Riot developer, who goes by RiotPwyff, wrote a lengthy statement that he said was basically a "TL;DR" of RiotBanksy's response that accepted that a sandbox mode is indeed a good feature for League -- but primarily as something to help develop its already massively popular eSports scene by giving pros more ways to practice. Pwyff described Riot's goal for League as "a marriage of sport and video game." The reasoning in his post doesn't make it sound like he's giving equal weight to both sides of that partnership, however. Or, if he is, he's doing it in the wrong way. Consigning certain things to League's eSports and eSports alone overlooks their value for the rest of the game's massive and diverse international community.
A sandbox mode is something that would benefit all of the game's players, not just the infinitesimal fraction that play it professionally. Because Pwyff describes a sandbox mode as something that would primarily benefit "the highest level of engaged player (ie: pros)," he leaps to the conclusion that it's only something a negligible subset of the League of Legends community actually wants, saying: "An idea can be good and compelling for a group of players, but it can also not be a priority." Like the technical explanations, this comes off as oddly paternalistic. How can you tell your own audience, who's been regularly asking for a sandbox mode (enough that Riot felt obligated to explain why they haven't made one) that they don't actually know what they want?
Speaking more frankly to their audience is a good first step for Riot. But it's one that will mean nothing if they keep failing to actually listen to this audience in turn. And while the game is very popular right now, there's no guarantee that it will stay that way if Dota 2 and Heroes of the Storm continue to outpace it on basic customer service concerns like this one.