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.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

philosophers play multiplayer magic

A: I play an Island and pass.

B: are you going to do anything this game at all?

C: why do you think she hasn’t?

B: because she’s played eight Islands and nothing else. She’s sitting there doing nothing.

A: I have played Islands. There is a distinction.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

if people talked about books like they talk about magic the gathering sets

It’s two weeks into spoiler season for the second Harry Potter book, and with one and a half chapters revealed, folks, the hype is REAL! While it’s only been a year since the release of the first Harry Potter, book lovers who didn’t get the chance to preorder that one at retail price are jumping all over Chamber of Secrets. Most financial experts (myself included) scoffed at the idea of paying $24.99 for a first-time author, but with even slightly-read copies now selling for over $100, no serious book reader is going to miss out on this one for $26.99.

The first book clocked in at 76,944 words, giving those lucky dogs who preordered it a respectable 30.79 words per cent. A leaked spec sheet for Chamber of Secrets puts it as 85,141 words, and if that’s to be believed (and personally, I’m inclined to), that would put this new one at 31.54 words per cent. Wow! An even better value than the last one?! Bloomsbury, please! How many can I buy?

Of course, retailers aren’t idiots, and that $26.99 price is tough to come by as of this writing. If you see it anywhere, obviously buy as many as you can. I have my eight from Amazon on the way at that price, and even if I can only trade them off for a few dollars more than that, it’s well worth it.

The risk, however, is that Chamber of Secrets just won’t be as well-received as Philosopher’s Stone. While that’s certainly a possibility, even if it steadies out at just $45, it’s a great investment at preorder price.

There have been some scared forum posts: one “source” puts the number of Weasley twin appearances at nine, down from seventeen in the first book. To this I say: hogwash. Rowling is well aware that the twin-per-page (TPP) shouldn’t go below 0.08, or she’d face significant community backlash. But even if it falls to just 0.06, the introduction of new major characters (like the already-spoiled Gilderoy Lockhart) should keep the price up.

Now, to address the question on everyone’s minds: is it worth it to camp out to buy extra copies, just for the dust jackets? As most financial sharks know, the price of the dust jacket plus the naked book is actually higher than the presale price for both together. The problem is that everyone is getting the same idea: that fabled $20 dust jacket has already fallen to a more modest $12. I’d advise staying away.

In summary, if you consider yourself a book finance guru and haven’t preordered this book, well… what are you waiting for? Personally, I can’t wait. Hopefully at some point I’ll have a chance to read it before the third one, but I'm intending on trying to trade up to an Infinite Jest. We all have dreams, right?

Monday, September 7, 2015

a reasonable discussion of the possibility that edh is bullshit

Sometimes, competitive Magic just isn’t doing it for people. Instead of spending weeks tuning someone else’s deck, spending $25 at a tournament, and getting mana-screwed in a rigid bracket, some players want to chill out, play cards they enjoy playing, and not worry about if everything is the most optimal it could possibly be. In other words: play casually.

The issue is that casual sucks.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

why magic sucks

Many serious Magic “issues” articles start with some feel-good introduction that reads something like:

“Magic is the greatest game in the world. Now’s our chance to make it even better.”

It’s written with the intention of being an easy crowd-pleaser, to get the audience on the writer’s side. Someone who’s so into Magic that they’re spending their day not just playing, drafting, and making decks, but reading meta-Magic pieces that don’t directly deal with the game itself are probably of the opinion that Magic is God’s finest creation.

I’ve always been rather offput by the “greatest game” assertion. First of all, it’s pretty obvious that people saying that have never played Gone Home. But it’s also contradicted by my experiences of all the ways that Magic sucks.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

battle for zendikar first look: #mechanics

The first Return to Zendikar card I saw was an Eldrazi with "devoid," making it colorless despite having a colored mana symbol in the cost. This irked me, since what I thought was so cool about the Eldrazi is that they actually were colorless. You could play whatever color you wanted and still have the same core Eldrazi deck; you could even go crazier and have a completely colorless manabase.

But more than that, devoid immediately struck me as cheating. It's not a mechanic that actually does anything, it's just something tacked on to make it interact with other things in the way the designers want. Then something popped into my head: it's a hashtag mechanic. It's just stuck on the end, like "here's a huge blue monster #devoid"

The original hashtag mechanic, of course, was tribal. There's nothing that separates the basic gameplay of 1G 2/2 #bear from 1G 2/2 #elf, except that other cards might refer to whether something is a bear or an elf. Elvish Champion searches your creatures for #elf and makes those guys better.

Most other hashtag-enablers revolved around the type line. Kamigawa was about #Legendary, and Shards of Alara's Esper was #artifact (even though its creatures had colored mana symbols). Scourge got pretty close with its "CMC matters" theme, but only Scornful Egotist attempted to bypass the intended functionality of the converted mana cost (and this design is derided by conservative-era ideology, that posits newer players will be confounded when they see a 1/1 for eight mana). Ravnica and Invasion's "color matters" cards mostly played it straight-up, with the small exception of Transguild Courier.

Here's how to make a dumb hashtag mechanic: make your theme around something in the game that's basically been overlooked. For example, you could build a block featuring Imperiosaur's "only basics" mechanic, or have a subtheme play on Pendelhaven's idea of 1/1s mattering. Next, hashtag it by slapping on some cards that you want to act like they play well with your theme. In the Imperiosaur case, make a bunch of nonbasic lands or other mana sources with "this counts as mana produced by basic lands." That way, you get to have a theme with only some of your cards actually playing into it, while the rest put on a fake mustache and pretend like they're totally onboard.

That's why this take on Eldrazi bothers me. Rise of the Eldrazi was an amazing set, and it did Eldrazi in the right way: they don't look like other creatures (in art or in frame), they don't play like other creatures, they don't even get cast like other creatures. Now that colored creatures can just be #devoid and fit in with the cool colorless Eldrazi, a lot of what made Eldrazi unique disappears.