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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.

12 comments:

Kairi Izumi said...

Finally Jesse embraces NWO.

Hunter Sodek said...

I wonder if the way things are now is because a) They basically do not understand what to do with the fifth player, and b) Simple, Fun champions are very difficult to make -- especially if you expect them to be well tuned. REALLY complex champions force players to make mistakes, and therefore are self correcting - a Thresh that doesn't understand they can flay /either/ direction will be less powerful, and therefore less overwhelming. The fifth player problem - Jungle is impenetrable at the moment. Most of the itemization is a guess, the champion pool is "whoever exploits the new, broken Smitem" and the jungle route appears to be "farm til 6, gank once, farm til devourer stacked" (in Bronze).

I kind of... quit. I don't understand the game, Riot's goals or philosophy, and I certainly don't understand what I'm supposed to be doing during a teamfight. I used to know - S3? I was a pretty good level 15 Anivia duo laner- S4? I took up support and had a grand time - especially after I got to buy items. But... the game got a lot harder. I felt pressure to diversify my champion pool and role collection - jumping into ADC (Varus respect!) - but instead of getting better, my skills deteriorated. I learned to CS properly, but lost all game sense.

LoL is too hard. It'd be a better game if it was easier. If the difference between BorK and Youmuu's and Ravenous hydra were more obvious. If launching a full rotation of spells as Sona actually did something. If having vision of global objectives, instead of vision over the place people go to get vision over globals, was important - if all five players interacted with the game on a basically similar axis. At the moment I don't think any of those things are true. The gameplay loop of *skirmish while prioritizing resources -> contest control of map -> capture or defend objectives -> repeat" is fun. I even enjoy considering which champion will make my team most likely to win - should I play Ashe, Varus, or Sivir this game? but... there is so much extra junk, piled on, making the game feel so out of reach - it's not worth my time.

The Lord of Hats said...

Now, it doesn't sound like you play it, but how do you think that Dota stacks up in this department?

From what I can tell, it allocates its complexity differently. Although some of the more recent heroes do get more complicated (in particular, there's Earth Spirit and Oracle who both have league-esque weird interactions between their abilities), but as a whole Dota seems way more willing to have very basic heroes. Both Wraith King and Viper have only a single active ability. Zeus's abilities all boil down to "zap them with lightning for damage". Initiators like Tidehunter, Earthshaker, or Enigma, while they operate very differently in many respects, have an easily identifiable teamfight role of "Jump into them, pop my big ultimate on as many of them as possible, from there I have done 90% of my job for this fight". There are characters that are complicated (hi Invoker), or change up the way your team is going to play things (Like Io), but I don't think there's anyone who messes around with marks where you have to hit someone so many times in a row or the type of complexity I feel like League tends to saddle its champions with, maybe because there's more things it's able to use in kits--Invisibility in particular is something League has struggled with that's always felt natural in Dota, or mana drain which disappeared from League a long time ago.

And this complexity gets poured into the items. League has been catching up in terms of items that have actives, but I don't think it quite matches up to the sheer utility you can buy in Dota. There's relocates, there's a Zhonya's that you can also use on enemies to set up kills, there's a teamwide heal, teamwide mana restoration... heck, you can even buy hard CC or damage, although you'll pay quite a lot to get it. You can buy an item to get yourself more gold. You will frequently wind up with more buttons, but maybe it's just because I'm used to it, or maybe it's just because the game is much better at making information available in-game (good luck finding out what another player's skill does in League, or how one of your skills scales unless you have a skillpoint available), but it feels like a better complexity balance.

eudaimonean said...

Related: LoL is another example of the monetization strategy compromising the gameplay design.

Now all things considered, LoL actually has very fair, consumer-friendly, and reasonable monetization. In many/most F2P games the grind-for-progression system actually acts as a obfuscated pay-to-win just from the significant advantage the paid "progression boost" gives you over unboosted players. But short of the Valve gold standard of giving away the game for free because you have ability to monetize raw audience and reach, LoL is about as good as it gets as far as F2P-with-gameplay-affecting-unlocks goes. The rate of unlocking for free players is not extreme, paid players do not have a significant advantage over free player, and the pricing on unlocks is quite reasonable.

But the sad fact is, even this very fair F2P scheme is now constraining the game. LoL is discouraged from doing champion rotation because people have invested real resources, either time or cash, in those champions, and removing them from the game would rightfully cause people to feel cheated.

Now, Magic managed to get around this same problem early in its history by inventing rotating and non-rotating formats, with the bulk of competitive support going to rotating formats but with some token support of non-rotating formats as a concession to the game's early adopters. This was a hugely controversial move at the time, though, for all that in retrospect it strikes us as the right decision for the overall health of the game/WoTC's profits. I don't know if Riot will be able to pull off the same maneuver - times are different, their "enfranchised" player base is much bigger than Magic's ever was, and the internet makes it so much easier to amplify player discontent.

eudaimonean said...

Related: LoL is another example of the monetization strategy compromising the gameplay design.

Now all things considered, LoL actually has very fair, consumer-friendly, and reasonable monetization. In many/most F2P games the grind-for-progression system actually acts as a obfuscated pay-to-win just from the significant advantage the paid "progression boost" gives you over unboosted players. But short of the Valve gold standard of giving away the game for free because you have ability to monetize raw audience and reach, LoL is about as good as it gets as far as F2P-with-gameplay-affecting-unlocks goes. The rate of unlocking for free players is not extreme, paid players do not have a significant advantage over free player, and the pricing on unlocks is quite reasonable.

But the sad fact is, even this very fair F2P scheme is now constraining the game. LoL is discouraged from doing champion rotation because people have invested real resources, either time or cash, in those champions, and removing them from the game would rightfully cause people to feel cheated.

Now, Magic managed to get around this same problem early in its history by inventing rotating and non-rotating formats, with the bulk of competitive support going to rotating formats but with some token support of non-rotating formats as a concession to the game's early adopters. This was a hugely controversial move at the time, though, for all that in retrospect it strikes us as the right decision for the overall health of the game/WoTC's profits. I don't know if Riot will be able to pull off the same maneuver - times are different, their "enfranchised" player base is much bigger than Magic's ever was, and the internet makes it so much easier to amplify player discontent.

Unknown said...

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

I'd been yelling at you about that off and on from roughly the point when I read your title. :-P

So, anyway, want to hear a random person on the internet talk out their rear for a minute? Great! So, I don't play this game, but I've played a couple months of HotS. This makes me an expert on this topic (Kappa), because I know what it's like to be a new player to MOBAs in general and to *a* MOBA in particular.

I think your assumption that older champions can't be reworked is false. Players have to relearn strats with every patch/new champion/change in the meta anyway.

Sure, detractors exist. Someone will probably accuse Mark Rosewater of trying to kill LoL from afar, or something. (Also, someone should do a card-alter to give Maro a sniper rifle. Or not.) But clearly there is or could be data on how often players use various abilities, right? So they could kill whatever's not getting used and replace it with a simpler version of the same thing, a buff for another ability, something super easy to grok like slightly faster movement, etc. If done gradually, I think this would be legit.

Okay, now let me poke at you a bit more on your footnote.* (And, by the way, I don't think I got my money's worth on footnotes-per-paragraph on this one.) Kappas all around.

"People will accuse me of attempting to 'dumb down' the game."

Oh really? What makes you think such a thing might happen? Have you seen that happen in another game?

"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."

So...you could say you want LoL to enter its conservative era of design ideology? Even though you hate conservative eras of design ideology? Interesting.

Done poking, keep up the good work, no Kappa on that!

*What do I even call a footnote that comes in the middle of the text? Maybe it's a Mason-note. A goldfish-note. A mid-torso-note?

KillGoldfish said...

I think you misread my arguments against Wizards's conservative ideology. I have no problem with their capping complexity; I agree with them on that front, and I think it overall leads to a better game. League is certainly not attempting to sell new champions that are blatant "hey remember this older champion;" it can just rework old champions (which are essentially "free" to players) if it wants to revisit.

I'm not arguing that they stifle their creativity, merely that they think of the consequences of complexity. Kindred certainly shows that they're at their absolute artistic height.

Unknown said...

I agree with your complexity analysis. I think it would be easy to create 2 formats for league per season though:

"Standard" (Or whatever they want to call it) would be all champions released in the last 2 years, plus X amount of original/non-2 years champions. This would be the default for new players, tournaments, and ranked play. You could even step up the creative notch and have a season based on factions (Noxius vs Dematcia or something) where only champions aligned with or based out of those places are available to queue.

"Vintage" would be the complete roster of characters. This would not be unlocked until level 30, available for "fun queues" like ARAM, TT, and Dominion as well as one single unranked Summoner's Rift queue.

The biggest fight would be that this creates even more queues which is why they don't release new maps anymore. The next biggest fight would be "I'm Xxx main and that's all I play, ever, and now you're saying I can't play ranked because Xxx is not available." Which may be true, though I personally never met anyone who exclusively played one and only champion. Most people who I knew that were much higher ranked would play exclusively 1 champion but because that was the overpowered champion.

Anyway, I started playing League in season 1, and was a silver player for seasons 2-4 until I stopped. Complexity creep isn't what kicked me out, but it was a factor, I just realized that the game was a grind. I didn't really enjoy it except maybe 1 in 4 games, and most of my friends had stopped playing. Now I play Hearthstone but the games are much shorter and I love that winning and losing is just between me and the RNG, instead of 4 other potential numbskulls.

494424b8-6652-11e5-a806-df4ddd219ad0 said...

Hey, is there a good way to contact you directly beside Twitter?

KillGoldfish said...

Sure, jesse@killgoldfish.com

Unknown said...

Oh my... I'm wondering if you were looking into the future when you wrote this. Season 6 changes are... yeah.

Unessential said...

I don't think they're doing enough, but I think in some way the are addressing this. For example, they gave twitch a range indicator for his E, Users don't need anything external to keep track of dragon and baron or buffs, and just recently you don't even need vision on dragon and baron to know the other team has taken it. Clearly riot has thought of this, and that is the direction they've decided to go to try and offset complexity creep.

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