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How Riot Games are building a better League of Legends, and catching up to their own success


“When we shipped League of Legends,” Tom Cadwell, Riot’s VP of Game Design, explained to me last week, “we were hoping that, hey, maybe we’ll get 20 or 30 thousand concurrent users in six months. And that would allow us to continue paying people.”

We talked at Riot’s headquarters in Santa Monica the day before the League of Legends Season 2 Championship. It’s an office that demonstrates just how far Riot overshot their cautious goals. Before Riot moved in, their offices belonged to a major film studio, and the small, luxurious theater where film execs used to screen movies now plays host to game streams, Dr. Who marathons, and the meetings of various Riot movie clubs. The rest of the building features what seems like acres of workstations, conversation nooks, breakrooms, and conference rooms.

For all its comforts, however, every inch of Riot’s headquarters is connected to the game that built the company. Character art lines almost every wall. At hallway intersections, stenciled letters and arrows tell you to hang a left for the Corki meeting room, but Cassiopeia is dead ahead.

On the second floor, Riot have built a PC bang modeled after the cyber cafes that defined Korean gaming culture and gave rise to modern eSports, as well as helped create the market that Riot have come to dominate. Snack machines are stocked with Korean junk food. Our guides explain that each new Riot hire, no matter his or her position, undergoes “de-noobification” at this mock bang under the care of some of Riot’s strongest League of Legends players. Nobody is exempt, even Rioters whose jobs will never affect what players experience on Summoner’s Rift. That’s not the point.

Riot’s business is League of Legends. There is no role in the company, no aspect of the studio, that is not somehow tied to it. It’s not mandatory that everyone play and enjoy the game, but everyone needs to understand it, and understand the ways people relate to it.

Tom Cadwell has been here almost from the beginning. He came to Riot four years ago, after working a number of years at Red 5, Blizzard, and as an indie. Before he started working in games, when he was an MIT computer science student, he played StarCraft at a pro level, though he’s quick to admit that he played before Brood War blew up in Korea. “It was a little easier to be a top player then,” he said.

He was excited for the League of Legends championship, but seemed happiest about what it implied about Riot’s commitment to competitive play. “We dreamed of being able to invest heavily in eSports, but it wasn’t really possible until the game started to become successful.”

Esports are important to how Riot design and manage League of Legends. Cadwell said, “Most of our effort is focused on making a vibrant competitive scene. What happens in eSports will eventually happen for everyone else, too, and ultimately we want to make the most competitive game we can.”

Riot’s attitude is that pro play is a window into LoL’s future. “[Pro] strategies trickle down. You’ll see routine stuff – like stealing wraiths – used to be really niche for pro players. Now it’s routinely done by people who are pretty good, but not top tier.”

Despite Cadwell’s years in the game industry, he admits that designing for League of Legends can still be daunting. The stakes are higher than for most other games a designer can work on, in some ways, because the details are so important.

“We’re making a complex, competitive PvP game. You have to be a lot more careful as you make decisions. Because if I’m making an MMO and make a level 35 boss too easy or too hard, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter that much,” he said. “But if I make a LoL champion too easy or too hard, or I make a play balance decision wrong, it has dramatic impacts on the experience of everybody all the time. So we have to be a lot more careful and really think deeply about, if we do this, what are the side effects? What are the unforeseen consequences?”

Farther and faster

Unforeseen consequences are something that Riot deals with a lot. Co-founder and CEO Brandon Beck remarked that because their initial goals for League of Legends were so small, they’ve struggled to catch up to their own growth.

“We architected a lot of solution with [30k to 50k users] being the dream, being the target. So we’ve had to play catchup for the last three years trying to expand upon the plane while it’s flying in midair. Adding an engine, and a wing – and that’s been difficult.”

They’ve made a lot of mistakes, Beck admitted. Riot have been surprised time and again by the complexity of the tasks they’ve set for themselves, and by the challenges of managing a smash hit and a huge community. In some ways, Beck and Riot take reassurance from their mistakes.

“We incorporated the idea of making mistakes into our culture. If [we’re] not making mistakes, we feel like we’re not moving fast enough. We’ve become risk averse. We kind of want to kick our own ass at that point.

“We but we don’t like to make the same mistake twice.”

It’s a philosophy that was painfully, yet admirably evident during the League of Legends playoffs. Beck was self-effacing about the problems that wrecked their quarterfinals and semi-finals, and their own ill-conceived stage design that made it all too easy for players to cheat. Of the cheating, he admitted that Riot bore much of the blame for making it so easy, when with a couple changes it would not even have been an issue. But neither did he regret Riot’s headlong plunge into trying to throw the biggest eSports event of all time.

“We’re not the type of company that’s just going to sit on our hands, patiently, and stand idly by, or accept compromise on this level of experience. We’re just going to jump into the deep end and learn how to swim,” he explained. “And speaking of jumping into the deep end, we never fancied ourselves league commissioners. It wasn’t on our top 50 list of things we wanted to do. But as you’ve already seen this week, we’ve had to make some challenging decisions. But we get it. We’re creating a professional sport. It’s part of our job.”

If Riot’s overconfidence made for a bad playoff weekend, their response exhibited the company at its best. No sooner had the postponed the semifinals than Riot had decided to abandon their flawed venue and created an offline tournament mode for League of Legends. In less than a week, they tore down their stage at LA Live, developed new tournament software, and built a new venue at USC’s Galen Center. They’d made their mistake, and now they’d ensured they would not make it twice.

Co-founder and president Marc Merrill is quick to admit that Riot’s commitment to eSports is a huge undertaking that may not translate to greater profits and business growth. They have gone into eSports in part because that’s something Riot has always been passionate about, and in part because they think their community wants eSports and will pay Riot back in other ways.

“We lose a lot of money on eSports,” Merrill said. “It’s really not something that we do to try and drive return or profit. It’s focused on bringing value to our players. And maybe down the road that will change, but this is something where again we believe as a company, philosophically, if we do a great job delivering value to our players, they’ll reward us with engagement, excitement, evangelism, things like that. And we derive every decision in our company from that perspective.”

Mind games

Setting aside game design, the most important part of keeping players engaged might be protecting them from each other and from themselves. That’s why Riot brought in their “professor-doctors of science math” to help them curb the League of Legends’ community’s worst instincts and hopefully create a more welcoming, “sportsmanlike” environment.

Dr. Jeffrey Lin is Riot’s Lead Designer of Social Systems, and probably the next poster child for gamification. He’s a doctor of cognitive neuroscience, and for the last several months, he’s worked on getting the League of Legends community to play nice. Along the way, he’s learned a lot about the mechanisms that guide player behavior, the incentives needed to change it, and why it’s not just trolls who can make online play so toxic.

While being able to report players, and the League of Legends Tribunal system had cut into abusive behavior online, Lin noted that the incidence of poor behavior remained stubbornly high. “If we remove all the toxic players from the game, do we solve the player behavior problem?” he asked. “The answer’s actually no.”

The problem with League of Legends is that, in a 5 on 5 game, you’ve got ten people playing a competitive game together, and the odds are good that at least one of them isn’t having a good day. The average League of Legends player will have a low but significant percentage of games where they lose their temper and start acting abusive toward other players. That’s really all it takes for a game to become poisonous, because other players will rise to the bait and suddenly the game looks like a troll convention. This happens a lot even when no trolls are present, and it makes the LoL community look more aggressive and nasty than it actually is.

The Honor initiative was created in part to respond to need to give players something positive to strive towards, something that would encourage them to better behaviors, not just try and curb their worst.

“One of the most interesting stats is the fact that 23% of formerly toxic players, players that have been banned before, are actually improving their behavior,” Lin told me. “They’re actually earning honor now, and being less toxic in their games. But when you talk to those players, now they’re just trying really really hard to earn honor. Where before there was nothing for them to earn, to aspire to, and compete against.”

Better all the time

Competition and improvement, in all things, are what drive Riot forward. Mistakes happen, the unexpected derails the best-laid plans, and the community struggles with its demons. But Riot keeps working to improve the infrastructure and community built around League of Legends, without losing sight of the fact that ultimately, it all comes down to people having fun.

That’s why a designer like Tom Cadwell doesn’t beat himself up for game imbalances, or bother with a hopeless pursuit of design perfection. League of Legends is a fast-moving target, driven by a community as passionate and dedicated to improving as the people who make it. Riot’s chief responsibility is making sure there’s nothing in League of Legends that will ruin anyone’s fun.

“The natural consequence of having a competitive game with a high skill ceiling is that your community is always getting a little better than you,” Cadwell admitted. “As that happens, people learn new things, new strategies become favorites, things change. And as you make changes to better balance the game in context of new strategies and new approaches, especially if you’re adding content like new items or champions, you’re going to continue to make changes. And we actually think that’s fine as long as the game is competitive and fair at any particular moment, in terms of how players experience it.”

The dynamism of a vibrant competitive game, however, is where Cadwell thinks League of Legends gets its longevity. The shifting metagame, the evolving balance of items and champions, and the way all these other factors change matchups give players reasons to keep coming back.

“You’re always having to learn to stay at the top of your game. You’re always having to adapt to be the best player you can be.”