Wednesday, October 4, 2017

retail music

For most people, workplaces are functional spaces to do work. My middle-class readers probably think of “workplace” as synonymous with “office,” a grey box that exists for people to go to for their jobs. Others might think of factories, with are like offices, but with higher ceilings and weirder clothes.

Having worked a few retail jobs now, the feel of going to work at one of these is entirely different. The working space overlaps with places that other people might go on their day off, even for fun; think of all the cute dating profile pictures of people browsing Powell’s or The Strand. Any space starts to feel different when you spend 20-40 hours a week in it, but there’s one thing that changes the most depending on whether you work there or not:

Fucking retail music.

Most of you have probably been in some sort of store (supermarket, café, bar, easily-held-up bank) lately. Do you remember the music? Was there any? Was it any good? Would it have affected you much, in any way, if it had been completely different music?

Regardless of your answer, the people working there sure as hell noticed the music. The sounds coming from the speaker are, for workers, a proxy for how much control they have over their workplace, versus how much the managers or owners exercise meaningless control. One of my favorite cafes in Seattle, Solstice, routinely blasts experimental electronic music or rap, and judging by the perpetually-filled tables, it doesn’t seem to drive away many clientele. If it does, it’s necessary to keep the lines to a reasonable length. But at most places, the overly-fretting types that are more likely to become retail small business owners or store managers are constantly on the lookout for even a seconds’ worth of sound that is in same way inappropriate: too noisy, too aggressive, too passive, too sexy, too “not by Adele.”

Customers aren’t affected by repetition, because if you’re in a specific store 10% as often as an employee, you’re an absolute weirdo. But music, especially the melodic pop that’s often played as inoffensive filler, is specifically engineered to get stuck in someone’s head after just a couple listens. If you have that sort of music as one of a few CDs in a CD changer, anyone working there for eight hours is probably going to hear each of those songs a half-dozen times in a day. The same is true for any low-song-count Pandora station (and judging by the number of Pandora ads I’ve heard in cafes, $5-$10 a month is entirely out of the question).

I’m unsure which is worse: repetition of good music, or repetition of bad music. Playing bad music is obviously unpleasant, especially around the holidays; at Barnes and Noble, as with many other generic mainstream retailers, managers insisted on holiday music, and it was all awful. There was one CD that had an uptempo Christmas jazz song to the tune of the theme from The Flinstones. My current relationship can be traced back to one of our first conversations, where we bonded over our undying hatred for it.

But repeating music that one likes, A Clockwork Orange-style, can be even worse. People’s hatred of bad things is amplified by repetition, but an overloading of something good can reverse an opinion, or even change someone’s personality forever. When I was a teenager, going back through Rolling Stone’s top albums of all time, playing anything from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life around my mom was met with immediate howls of disapproval. This isn’t because the music is bad (she still likes a lot of his stuff), but because thirty years prior, she had a Pottery Barn job with it practically on a loop.

I didn’t quite understand at the time how something from so long ago could make her dislike one of the classic R&B albums until I had my first job out of high school. At the time, I was getting more into indie rock, but still had a foundation of enjoying ~classic rock~ (Led Zeppelin, The Doors, etc). The older people at the workplace had a stranglehold on the Sirius radio, setting it to a Clearchannel-style classic rock station that inoculated me against ever wanting to hear those artists again. When I got home, I would play what was, to my ears, its exact opposite: blasts of feedback from bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain. (I’ve since descended into completely incomprehensible ambient music, but Psychocandy still bangs.)

I’ve never been someone who wanted to merge my working and private lives. Clocking out for the day should mean a complete disconnection from the job and everything about it. Everyone seems to know that going to work sucks, so we should be able to drop the pretense of being happy to be there when we leave. But music isn’t so kind. The repetition of sound gets lodged in my brain, whether it’s the weekend, or I’m waking up, or I’m trying to fall asleep. As soon as a stupid melodic fragment or a specific synth line is remembered, I’m mentally back in that retail space. I’m not getting paid, but my mind still thinks it belongs there. For the rest of my life, there will be specific songs (most of which I don’t know the names of) that will haunt me, occasionally popping back up on the radio to tell me that those retail jobs never truly ended.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

review: generation decks, by titus chalk

Hey, this book is pretty good.
Subtitled “the unofficial history of gaming phenomenon Magic: the Gathering,” Generation Decks is basically attempting to be three stories at once: the internal story of Wizards of the Coast making Magic, the story of the Pro Tour mostly from the vantage of the best players at any given time, and memoir-esque personal stories of Chalk’s movements around the world and playing Magic in those places. For me, the primary drama of reading the book was how he was going to fit all three narratives within a fast-moving 276 pages, when it’s still in 1995 halfway through and doesn’t get to Hasbro’s purchase until page 175.
A substantial portion of the book is spent talking about the creation of the game, its initial release, and the early days of Wizards. There’s a good reason for that: it’s by far the most tumultuous, weird, and outsider-y of the game’s history; plus, because it’s so long ago, people are more likely to speak openly about what happened. Titus Chalk gets great material from, and about, Peter Adkison: while most of the stories in the book are things I knew at least a little about, Adkison’s sex-related behavior at a ski lodge was genuinely shocking. The early part of the book is a wonderful narrative in the classic “few people against the world” genre.
Unlike other writers about Magic, Chalk makes it clear that he’s read a book in his life that wasn’t by Robert Jordan or published by the DCI. His literary references, like using Joseph Conrad’s quote that “being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men,” are a welcome departure from Magic writers that can’t reference anything other than Star Wars. However, this makes it even more painful when Chalk closes the first chapter by saying that “like the best of stories, Magic’s started a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
Initially buying the book, I was hoping for one of two extremes: either a pulls-no-punches exposĂ© of the real dirt inside Wizards, which I would genuinely love, or something absolutely horrible that I could take glee in writing 3000 words taking down. It’s not on either extreme: Chalk is a talented writer who has obviously spent years doing extensive original interviews for the book, but his journalistic skepticism seems to wash away at certain parts. Late in the book, he acknowledges exactly this: “With every new player I met on my travels, every interview I conducted, every chapter I sweated over though, I felt my skepticism recede.”
Chalk’s skepticism doesn’t vanish entirely, thank god; he’s not a Rich Hagon-esque mouthpiece for Wizards and the pro scene. The issue is that he does extensively quote Hagon and people like him, and seems to take their statements at face value. For example, when Hagon is spitting hype about how many people watch the Pro Tour stream, he cites how Sky Atlantic (some sort of overseas streaming service for HBO and others that I have never in my life heard of) “is immeasurably dwarfed by the viewing numbers we get for Grand Prix and Pro Tours – by a distant order of magnitude.” The journalistic thing to do here would not be to print that in the book, since Hagon says he’s “not allowed to give specific numbers,” but to ask what the fuck Hagon is talking about.
The weakness of Chalk’s three-books-in-one format is how many things like that are just given a cursory mention, like each chapter is a separate magazine piece. Characters in the book are introduced well, with vivid personality descriptions, but they’re almost always dropped within 50 pages, replaced by the next subject. (One of the exceptions, a janitor investor who pops back up a hundred pages later, is one of the book’s most effective moments.)
When Chalk starts a chapter that connects Magic’s mercantile system as a uniquely American thing, as something only free market devotees could come up with, quoting someone calling it a “manufactured subculture,” I was so incredibly ready to nuzzle up to a long section indicting late capitalism through the lens of Magic. But that, like his discussion of the Reserved List, gets about half a page of discussion; it’s followed by unquestioning repeating of StarCityGames’s Pete Hoefling bemoaning people manipulating the market for their own profit. (As someone who’s worked in the business of Magic card retail, it’s laughable for StarCityGames to call out anyone else for things like buying out cards to raise their price when they’ve done that repeatedly for years.)
The limits of Chalk’s research really show themselves once the book enters the late 90s. The sourcing for the stories just doesn’t exist, so I don’t exactly blame him; everyone that knows anything relevant is either still employed by Wizards or bound by NDAs backed up by the enforcement power of the gods. (Just try to do any research into Wizards’s legal department and it’s gonna be foiled by, well, the legal department.) While it’s an understandable omission not to discuss what led to Wizards being purchased by an international juggernaut, that doesn’t make it great reading. As far as the telling in Generation Decks is concerned, Wizards’s acquisition by Hasbro is something that just passively happened at some point.
Things get worse the closer to present-day it is. Randy Buehler, former developer, was promoted to lead developer, then promoted to head of R&D, then promoted to Vice President of Digital Gaming. Chalk’s explanation for what happened next is that “challenges both internally and in the wider economy would see Buehler leave the company in 2008,” which is so bland and inoffensive that it borders on outright journalistic deception. What actually happened was that the “Gleemax” project, a comically ambitious attempt at a massive gaming-focused social media platform headed by Buehler, ended in such a  catastrophic failure and Wizards laid off everyone who had ever even opened the card Gleemax from a pack of Unhinged. That’s the kind of story an “unofficial history” is practically obligated to tell, and Chalk seemingly actively avoids ever mentioning it.
If someone like Randy can’t talk about it (due to NDAs, and his current contract with Wizards, and his wife having worked for the company as an editor for 18 years) you have to do research around them and tell the real story. If you don’t, you become complicit in Wizards’s deceptive anti-history of their digital department.
He does mention Magic Online and its issues, but doesn’t go into it other than that the program exists, some people want the game to be online-only (*snicker*), and the program had its issues. Chalk says that the decision to pull control of the program away from Leaping Lizards might have been hubristic. If only there was, like, some journalist around to tell that story… someone perhaps writing a book about the company, who has done the research and interviewed the people necessary to tell us what actually happened to keep Magic Online in the dark ages of computing for so long.
While I can’t call Generation Decks an essential history of the game, because of its weaknesses around having information from the last nearly 20 years of Wizards, it’s certainly a good history of the early party, with good stories on related subjects, and well-written throughout. I’d recommend it, but I also recommend readers retain some of their skepticism that Chalk lost as he gets more into interviewing his heroes.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

sensei's divining top: an even-handed and well-reasoned obituary

Sensei’s Divining Top is banned, may it rest in hell. A hell of Commander games that give the card its rightful respect: people completely ignoring other players activating it as they go on pretending to play Magic. Its status as “Casual Staple” should be its tombstone.

Sensei’s Divining Top doesn’t even merit being called a card. It is a timesuck, a fun vampire, a piece of cardboard placed in packs for the same reason cyanide is slipped into the drinks of spies. The fact that it’s next to whiskey doesn’t make it whiskey.

This thing’s devotees, perhaps the most fun-averse people to ever ostensibly play a game, are in a furor that the card was banned both for being the lynchpin of the deck that’s been the best for aeons (as though such cards never get banned) as well as the statistically-provable fact that it made tournaments take too goddamned long (as though it wasn’t banned in old Extended for that exact reason).

These people, who clearly have a much shorter list of shit they want to experience before death than I do, will insist that no no no it doesn’t slow down games, anyone who’s GOOD can finish a match with it on time. Yes, and if you make everyone who plays Miracles enter a 100m sprint in real life, some of them will cross the finish line in a reasonable amount of time. But the race doesn’t end until the last asshole crosses it.

Playing against Top is like being trapped in conversation with some old white guy middle manager who has slightly too much money and more-than-slightly too high an opinion of himself. The fact that he’s further in his career than you shouldn’t give him the right to absolutely never shut up. Against Top, trying to do absolutely anything, just sliding in one small spell on your own turn when the opposing player has no interest in interacting with it, results in an interminable delay for them to furrow their brow and think about indulge in some personal fantasies for the next ten to sixty seconds. Then they finish up with that and your turn resumes as normal, showing they had no actual interest in whatever you were doing. Your turn to talk or cast spells isn’t about you, it’s about them, because they’re the Truly Important Person in the room. You’re just a supporting figure in their monologue.

More combative readers will accuse me of hypocrisy, since I’m railing against a time-hogging card on a blog that was created to talk about combo decks. The difference is that combo decks only take a long time when they’re trying to end the game; they play a land and pass, maybe casting a Llanowar Elves or a Remand here and there, until their One Big Turn that everything hinges on. Yeah, they take over the conversation too, in a West Wing-style “triumphant speech that everyone cowers and listens to because of how majestic it is,” but that’s their only real thing that entire game. Top, on the other hand, makes every single turn about the person playing Top. And it’s not trying to to do that to make the game go faster; it’s just stalling for the purpose of more Top activations for more stalling.

Of course Wizards circa Kamigawa is to blame for designing this shit in the first place, but post-Kamigawa design is to blame for it not fading into obscurity. Coldsnap’s Counterbalance, a loving callback to the recurring Ice Age theme of “fiddly shit no one could possibly enjoy unless they make statistical arguments defending The Bell Curve for fun,” elevated Top from something that takes forever and does nothing into something that takes forever and does everything. Avacyn Restored’s mechanic of “what if your topdeck automatically won the game” created the monster as it was.

But now it’s dead. Miracles players will have to go back to decks like Lands, or lobbying Wizards to unban Shaharazad, or replying to women on their 13-follower Twitter accounts with something like “[34] ...when this is a preposterous rejection of well-established scientific consensus of the biological secondary sex characteristics...”

To anyone who enjoys Top that is offended that I think you’re all MRAs: I’m sorry that you’re an MRA. Fuck Sensei’s Divining Top.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

a design review of ivern

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

alas, but our legal department has reservations

A rat, held to a door by the knife of its recent demise, drips into the cracks of the wood.
“Another brilliant piece by Spencer. Can’t you just feel the eyeballs popping into your own skull? God damn he’s good. Mildred, get this thing out there. Promotional material, this one. Put it on the back of every sleeve that gets made from now until the factory collapses.” Mildred Greevil waits for the printer to finish replicating the image from her boss’s computer so she can walk it down to the tech department. She was enjoying the sound of the Hewlett-Packard Laserjet 4000, translating its drone into one of her favorite modernist compositions, when the tone of her boss again rose in volume equal to the 4000.

Monday, November 30, 2015

poppy: an oral history

The first champion released in 2010, Poppy heralded in a new era of League of Legends.

Coronach (Poppy designer): there was a lot of pressure on us back then to make certain kinds of champions. There were only four Yordles at the time, and Corporate wanted more. Not many people know this, but most champions are coded as two minions, one on top of the other, like Muppets. But Yordles only have to be one minion, so they use half as many resources.

Ryze (co-founder, Riot Games): it was really a different vibe, then, back in the day, at the company that I founded, Riot Games. It’s my company. So if I went in, like, “hey I want everyone to have hamburgers today,” then we had hamburgers. I like burgers a lot. That’s the sort of whimsy you could expect back then, at my company: Riot Games.

Coronach: Ryze comes in with a kid, and the kid’s pretty cute. I don’t know where he got the kid; he’s not married, I don’t think he’s a dad, and we never saw the kid again. But no one questioned it, because he’s a co-founder, you know? Anyway, the kid’s yelling real loud “gonna make a big poopy” when he has to use the bathroom real bad, or “gonna make a small poopy” when it wasn’t that bad. Anyway, I heard Ryze repeating it back, saying “gotta make a small Poopy!” and I thought he was talking to me. So I made a small champion named Poopy, because an order’s an order.

Pendragon (director of community relations): the company wasn’t doing too well financially at that time, so we were reaching out to corporate sponsors to maybe get some product placement for extra income. Burger King was really excited about the game, but they didn’t like the idea of a guy who got strong by always lifting a hamburger with the same hand, so that became Tryndamere instead. But they asked us if maybe a champion could use a hamburger as a weapon, and we said sure. So that’s how the weapon “Whopper” came about.

Coronach: the kit was really cohesive: you would choose someone that you wanted to have a burger with, and you two would eat it together, because that was your Meal Time. But there were some things that BK didn’t feel great about: why did them having a delicious Whopper hurt them? Why couldn’t everyone on the team have some of the great taste of the Whopper at a reasonable price? And, why did the rest of the concept center around the digestive process of what happens after you’ve consumed 1200 calories in a few minutes?

Tryndamere (co-founder, Riot games): that wasn’t going to fly at MY company, Riot Games, which I put so much work into, myself. I had to do everything back then. I carried in the goddamned computers, I set up the internet, and had NO ONE helping me.

Ryze: would have helped you if you didn’t come in every day falling over drunk, Marc.

Tryndamere: well after you sell the company to fucking China of course I’ll have a drink, Brandon.

Zileas (head designer): frankly, the design was a mess. After we got rid of the Burger King tie-in, the champion walked around chopping everyone’s legs off to turn everyone into a short person like her. We didn’t have full VO work done yet, so all she’d say after turning everyone into a Yordle was “just like me” and “all will be united.” And it was way too soon to make another White Supremacist champion right after Nidalee.

Coronach: this is about when she got renamed to “Poppy,” which made the design way easier. So I went with this opium-based kit that was really appealing: instead of mana, she had money, and you’d spend it in order to feel something just for a few seconds. Our playtesters weren’t too happy with that, though; they said it made them think about spending all their time and energy doing something for years and years that they haven’t really enjoyed in a long time, but they can’t do anything else because the only people they know are from doing that thing.

Zileas: I came in late one day, saw that we were going live with this in fifteen minutes, and made up some stuff about a hammer. The ult makes you… invulnerable? Sure. Whatever.

Pendragon: the idea was that champions would go up and up in price: we were going to sell really nice ones for $50, $100, up to $1000 for the really intricate, flashy, hard-to-play ones. But we wanted a “budget” champion for people who weren’t ready to drop that much money on the game. So we chose Poppy to fill that role: you’ll lose to a really expensive champion, buy that one, everyone wins.

Tryndamere: I came in one day to buy a champion, which I certainly should be able to afford, as the most important founder of this company, my company, Riot Games. But I couldn’t even buy a champion made by my own company! So obviously, I needed to change something.

Ryze: you were broke because you had just lost all your money gambling.

Tryndamere: who kept the lights on? I did. Who paid all the bills those first years, made every payroll? I did. Am I proud of everything I did back then? No. I’m not. But it was necessary. Everything I did, I did for Riot Games.

Years later, the Champion Update project is in full swing. Next in their sights: Poppy.

Pendragon: you have to acknowledge the influence of CertainlyT in this era. Just the most amazing, incredibly creative designs, by which I mean they sold an ungodly large amount. Therefore: good designs.

CertainlyT (champion design): i made a ninja named No School Man and he doesnt go to school and if you try to make him go to school he moves away because he doesnt go. also hes really cool and he throws sharp stuff

Coronach: I was proud of Poopy/Poppy. I thought it was a great design. I still think that. But is it a modern design? No. I admit that. Does it stand up to Kalista? Of course not. No design will ever be as great as that. But I do my best.

CertainlyT: i made a ghost and she throws spears and they stick in people. shes really good at throwing spears. she keeps throwing them. she has a lot of spears like um. its so many spears. she throws them until shes thrown INFINITY spears. she wont go to school either she hops away she likes No School Man. theyre friends

Pendragon: Poppy had some issues with her, from a sales standpoint. First of all, we didn’t make any money on her, because you can’t keep selling the same champion over and over. Still working on that part. Anyway, we were trying to reach out to different sections of the community, and I found this great group of guys called “KotakuInAction.” And they didn’t like Poppy because of her ult: she’s a woman, and makes a choice.

CertainlyT: also shes dead and a ghost but not really dead. she has a spear that she pulls out. thats why shes a ghost, and dead

Solcrushed (design lead, Poppy re-release): the idea was that there's this champion who wasn't even supposed to be there and have to do all this bullshit, but everyone else is so goddamned incompetent that there's no one around other than, uh, them to do goddamned anything. It's like there's no one who even tries, like nothing happens for years and years and then they're the only person who can do anything. Holy shit.

Zileas: we gave Solcrushed a couple days to do the entire kit. Plenty of time for a talented designer like that. I asked him, "what's Poppy's ult going to be?" and he said "Fuck Off." What a great ability name! I followed up with, "and what does Fuck Off do?" and he said "makes everyone that shouldn't be bothering her fuck off immediately." Wonderful top-down design. That's why we give Solcrushed all the really intense, time-sensitive design challenges. He always comes up with something wonderful when no one thought it could be done.

Solcrushed: dashes? Fuck dashing. The concept of this champion is, “no one gets to dash and CertainlyT is an overrated hack.”

CertainlyT: i thought you were my friend :(

Tryndamere: what a wonderful champion for my game to release, now that it's a subsidiary of Tencent Holdings. Exactly how I wanted my life's work to end up.

Ryze: I'm surprised you're not in love with the new Poppy. She looks like that woman you met on your last bender. Did you get that annulled?

Previous League of Legends writing:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

do something useful while waiting for your team to give up: philosurrender

At the dawn of season six, players are facing fundamental questions when they lose to yet another fed Graves, such as: “what are we doing here?” “Is this the only way things could be?” “Do my actions have any broader meaning?” And of course, the big one: “At what point is it preferable just to surrender entirely?”

Have no fear, intrepid summoners, for these are questions that philosophers have been grappling with for millennia. This season, be sure to take a few minutes to philosurrender: to think about humanity’s deepest questions while waiting for your team to give up.

With 20-minute games, five of which are completely irrelevant, and another five minutes of between-game time, that’s a solid 20 minutes of philosurrendering per hour of good ol’ League of Legends gaming time.

As an example: when a toplaner spends the first fifteen minutes of the game in their isolated cave, viewing other players only as announcements of “an ally has been slain,” they begin to think that those actually are simply the quadra kill that the opposing Miss Fortune just got. This happens through several layers of abstraction: there are actually champions behind that absurd multikill, and summoners behind those champions, and extremely homophobic 14 year-olds behind those summoners.

When your midlaner starts a surrender vote with some comment like “wtb a fukken jungler,” think about the objectification and commodification of that role. As a role, the jungler is essentially without possessions of their own; anything they have will always be freely plundered by the better-off laners with the justification that they need it more. When a jungler is taking a camp and the midlaner comes right up and takes all the minions, Marx would understand exactly what’s going on.

As previously detailed in my introduction to Vaynespotting, the support must frequently confront the absurd. The absurd can be summarized as the gap between our need for meaning and inability to find any. When the ADC gets caught out and asks “wtf y cant u group???”, they are working tirelessly for something that ends up being entirely pointless. Unable to come up with a reason for their own death, they blame someone else rather than accepting that their 80cs at 23 minutes is for naught.

Think of the distinction between the nature of something, and the word that we use to describe that thing. For example, there is a “support” who does nothing other than stand four Teemos behind the ADC in lane. Our word for the role does us no good in understanding the person; the word “support” instead functions to actively reduce our knowledge of the action, rather than increase it. This is commonly referred to as the signifier (the idea of the “support”) and the signified (the Lux who is outraged that she didn’t get mid as last pick).

Study questions:
  • Why is the jungler the most-relied-upon role by others, and the one that receives the most changes every season? Connect this to the plight of the working class during the Industrial Revolution.
  • You are a carry, and there is a runaway enemy Blitzcrank barreling down the lane. If you do nothing, it will continue down the lane, engage, and kill four teammates. If you take the hook for the team, the rest of the team will run away safely. Explain why you are reporting your team for feeding.
  • Are all Yasuo players colonialists?
  • Why is it called Summoner's Rift and not Summoners' Rift?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

against "timmy, johnny, and spike"

pt i: introduction

For a long time, being A Johnny was an important part of my Magical identity. As I got older, my Spike side showed itself more, as I got over my disinclination to play decks made by other people. My desire to build cool decks faded compared to a desire to play cool decks, regardless of whether I had made them.

But it was a long time after that before I started questioning the underlying model of the Timmy, Johnny, and Spike psychographics. They’re not useful for understanding the game.[1]

[1] They are, however, useful for erotic Mark Rosewater fanfiction.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

the greatest threat to league of legends is complexity creep

League is fucking difficult.

I’m a bit baffled when people argue about itemization or the like, saying that the game needs more options, more buttons to press, more complexity. I don’t consider myself a great League player, but statistically, as a proud Platinum 5, I’m in something like the top 15% of people that play ranked in North America. I find nearly impossible to make it through a game without ever making some enormous mechanical boner, and that’s playing low-mechanics champions like Nunu, Janna, and Talon.

When I started playing about two years ago, I was blown away by the strategic depth, the array of things I could learn about the game, and just how little I understood. What it made me wish, more than anything, was that I had been playing the game for longer: that way, I wouldn’t have to learn all 100+ champions at once, I could get them at a slow, controlled drip. When a new champion comes out, it’s impossible to go into a normals game for about a week without seeing that champion on one or both teams. Even for people that don’t buy them, this makes it pretty easy for experienced players to get a rough idea of what they do just via osmosis (and the continuous youtube clips showing off that new champion’s sick plays).

The issue is that champions enter the League, but they never leave. A released champion will never just get deleted entirely, despite my stern letters to the company on extremely official-looking letterhead threatening legal action unless they ban all Vayne players.

While the pace of new champions has slowed down to a reasonable six annually, the pace of champion reworks has upped significantly. Even if you learned what the originally incarnations of Sion, Fiora, Gangplank, and Mordekaiser did, hoo boy are you in for a surprise if you try to lane against them based on that knowledge.

I’m obviously not bemoaning the fact that the game changes over time. This is a wonderful part of any living game, and I get as hyped for new champions as anyone (and nerd out about their implied design philosophies significantly more, probably). What does concern me is that, as the number of champions continues increasing, the game’s complexity goes up and up. This is definitionally true; the more champions one can possibly see in a game, the more possibilities there are for strategic options, and skill interactions that players are expected to know about.

Champion reworks don’t sound like they should increase complexity, but in practice, they do. Champions have been getting more and more intricate as the game gets older, and when old, simple champions are remade in an era of complex designs, the game gets overall more complex. Think of Ashe, Ryze and Garen: the game thought so highly of them as simple, easy-to-grasp designs that it put those champions in the tutorial. All three have since been reworked to be much more complex. Ashe deals with critical strike in an entirely separate way from every other champion in the game. Ryze now has a stacking passive that gives some sort of supercharging based on how many points are in his Q. Garen has his whole “villain” gimmick.

And, of course, there are new items. Boring old auras and stat blocks are replaced with things that build up charges, create portals, make the holder of them speed up and slow down at various times, etc. etc. Champions will commonly have two or three different little colors and animations on them just from their items, in addition to whatever their skills do.

Okay, so the game is getting more complex. But why does this matter? As things get more and more complex, the risk that players (experienced ones, but especially new ones) simply throw up their hands and go “I don’t get it” increases. When someone loses a 1v1 in lane, they should at least know why it happened: stood in the minions. Got hit with a skillshot. Missed my own skillshot. Took too many tower hits. What can happen when things get too complex is that so many things are happening, they cannot pinpoint which of those things actually mattered.

Think about the first time you played against Ekko, Yasuo, or Zed. If your experience is like mine, what happened is: that dude dashed around eight thousand times, then I exploded, then they’re two screens away. Personally, I then tried to put in the work to learn exactly why that happened; what all those dashes do, why they can do them, and what I did wrong. But champions like Ekko (I’m singling him out as one of the most convoluted designs I can think of) run the risk of doing so much stuff that it can be difficult to comprehend. Okay, so he can make a bubble, and I shouldn’t stand in it, and his projectile thing slows down after he throws it, and he can dash a couple times, but how the hell did he end up over there? And why did he run away at eight hundred miles an hour?

Of course, spirited players might be able to defend Ekko’s design. You’d probably even make some good arguments that, really, it’s not that difficult to figure out what he’s doing, after laning against him for a while. But then think: what happens when you’re in a skirmish against two champions with the same complexity? What about a five-versus-five teamfight, where everyone has an Ekko-esque kit?

Personally, there’s a lot of teamfights in solo queue where I straight-up give up on understanding what’s going on. I try to focus on my champion, and using my abilities when I can use them, and hopefully everything works out okay. The fireworks of a full five-versus-five can take analysts minutes to break down what happens over the course of maybe ten seconds. On the fly, it’s just impossible unless you’re a professional player or savant of teamfighting. The complexity of all the abilities, champions flying around… it’s easy to get lost.

Further questions for readers who play this game: how much complexity is okay? Clearly, people are fine with it as is; it’s slowly dripped into them over months and years. But if Riot overnight added ten new champions, twenty new items, and reworked 40 other champions… how long would it take you to learn all of that?

Would you even bother?

Longtime readers of my Magic: the Gathering writing will recognize this problem as complexity creep. It’s something that Magic had to face head-on back around 2007 and deal with or (as Wizards saw it) face the possibility of the game dying.[1] But Magic’s problem was slightly different: instead of an ever-growing cast of game pieces that never left, Magic simply had a growing collection of ideas present in basically the same number of cards year-over-year, as the default way to play Magic is with cards from the last two years.

[1] These readers will also note the irony of positively citing Mark Rosewater ideas. Look: I know, okay? I know.

Basically, the idea of complexity creep is that, unless your designers are actively paying attention to removing complex elements, the game will, over time, become more complex. Each new concept builds on an old one, since everyone involved in the game knows those old concepts. No one ever wants to remove one of the existing parts of the game, since people know and love it. The game grows and grows, each new element swelling it fuller of more ideas, more mechanics.

I’d argue that League’s problem is actually far more severe. Unless Riot implements some sort of champion “rotation,” League will eventually spiral into more and more complexity, with no way to stop it. This is bad.

I opened by saying that League is fucking difficult. One of the reasons for it is that League is, at its core, fucking complex already: there are three different lanes, and multiple neutral objectives, and… well just try explaining the game to someone with no MOBA experience and see how much of it they can comprehend. Five champions, with three skills and a passive each, means that each game has 40 different skills interacting with one another.

The game is at no risk of being not complex by attempting to “cap” the complexity: it would simply be saying that the current level of complexity is the target, and any future changes have to simplify in areas in equal amount to the amount that the game grows in complexity in other areas.

First, let’s look at the areas where League should get more complex: new champions. It’s pretty obvious that, in order to excite players and design new things, the game needs to continually roll out new champions. There are a few ways to balance this out.

Possibility one: “retiring” champions for pro play/ranked solo queue. Hey, check out this cool new champion that replaces Volibear! This would be absolutely detested by players, especially the people that regularly play the retired champ, so I doubt this would ever happen.

Possibility two: reworking champions to reduce complexity. This would target champions with bloated, hard-to-track kits, and streamline them, giving them power in more prominent areas while removing things that were just extraneous. For example, Thresh losing half the text on his abilities while still retaining the same basic hook/flay/lantern/box functionality. The problem with this is that it would take beloved champions, things that players feel are perfectly fine (like Thresh), and make people who’ve sunk tons of games in them half to relearn everything about them. Again, I doubt this could happen.

Possibility three: reducing non-champion complexity. This would basically have to be the itemization system. There’s long been an undercurrent of discontent among players who prefer DOTA’s more active-heavy rather than stat-heavy itemization system. These people contend this makes the game more interesting and deep (with those Meaningful Choices that people at Riot love to talk about); this option would be specifically going away from that system.

The game already has started shifting from items with combat-relevant actives, and toward items that, while more interesting than stat blocks, do things kind of on their own without involvement from the player while in combat. Examples would be ZZRot Portal, Dead Man’s Plate, and Luden’s Echo.

What, exactly, is the purpose of itemization? That is: why not just have champions automatically get more powerful via levels alone, or just spend money to increase stats? What itemization does is let players dictate how they want to play out the game. The choice of champion is their Big Decision, but their smaller decisions throughout the game of itemization let them choose how that champion plays. They can go heavy on offense, defense, utility, etc. They also let the player react to what opponents are doing; building armor or MR against that type of damage is the most obvious example, but Riot absolutely loves the idea of “anti-siege” tools like Warmog’s, whereas ZZRot and Banner are specific buys for teams who want to group up without entirely conceding side waves.

The specific moments when one buys the perfect item for this exact moment are beautiful, but for the most part, players follow a specific build path. Infinity Edge into Statikk Shiv into Last Whisper. Sightstone into boots into Talisman. Devourer into Trinity Force into Blade of the Ruined King into Wit’s End, if you’re the 0/4/0 jungle Jax on my solo queue team.

This will inevitably be the most controversial claim of this essay, but I believe the itemization can be made radically simpler without losing much strategic depth. The armor/magic penetration system is *cough* impenetrable, and something that cleaned that up would be wonderful. Want to deal more damage? Build more damage. You shouldn’t have to pull up a calculator to tell you whether Deathcap, Void Staff, or Liandry’s Torment will be the highest DPS for Annie. There’s not really an interesting choice to make between damage items; one of them is mathematically correct, and the others are mistakes. A choice between damage and tankiness is infinitely more interesting, since it’s an actual choice.

I’m going to be a pessimist, though, and assume that at least for a while, the game isn’t going to make much of an effort to combat complexity creep. More champions will get released, existing ones will become tougher to get a handle on, and there will be 25% more items a year from now, and they’ll all have twice as much text as they currently do. What will be the result of this?

League, already a rather inaccessible game compared to newer rival MOBAS (and certainly less complex than any other genre on the planet), will become even moreso. In a game with 150 champions, new players will have even more games where they recognize few or none of the ones they see from their previous games. The itemization system will completely confuse them, and they’ll blindly pick from “recommended” items with no knowledge of what those items actually do. Teamfights will… well a bunch of stuff will happen, and then everyone is on the other side of the map. The cool new champion will be almost completely incomprehensible to someone who can only just remember to use their ultimate when they can.

It’s not just about newer players, though. As a relative “veteran” at two years of playing the game, I can barely understand what’s happening in skirmishes involving complex champions. If the game stays at about its current complexity… yeah, I can deal with that. If it continues increasing, I’m not sure.

People will accuse me of attempting to “dumb down” the game, when this really isn’t the case. I’m pretty much okay with the game as it is; I just recognize the trend, and see how it can continue in ways that are difficult to ever reverse. I don’t want the game to be less complex, other than to compensate for ways that it gets more complex. I want to preserve every ounce of League’s strategic choice, while making it an overall more comprehensible game to everyone who watches or plays it.

If I have one hope for League’s future, it’s that the champion design gets out of the current ideology of “more complex = better than.” League’s champion pool needs more Annies and fewer Ekkos. It needs champions that, while still having a ton of play and strategic depth, can be reasonably given to a newer (or bad) player and have them basically understand how to play them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

champion design review: mordekaiser rework

Unlike most people shouting their thoughts about League of Legends design into the void, I consider myself a fan of CertainlyT. Zyra is a lot of fun, and the trio of Thresh, Yasuo, and Kalista are so flashy and high-octane to play (and so rewarding to practice) that they'll always be popular picks in solo queue regardless of viability. Sure, there's some stuff to poke fun at with his designs, like his proclivity for passives on top of passives, but his designs have made League a more fun game, and the open-endedness of the mechanics he makes have filled up countless YouTube montages.

Which brings us to his latest: Mordekaiser's rework. And holy hell did he fuck this one up.