At GamesCom we had a talk with producer Travis George and designer Ryan Scott from League of Legends. Dan Griliopoulos was left feeling like the world's biggest doofus, for not having played their game and for having fallen behind on the special language employed in competitive gaming.
RPS: Okay, I've played all the other DOTAs but, for my sins, I've not played your game. Could you run through a potted history for me?
Travis: We launched with 40 champions, but we’ve been continuously adding new content, so we’re up to about 80 or 90 now. People like cool new stuff often and they like it even more if it's free.
Ryan: Ha, that’s real deep!
Travis: Yeah, we've also added a new map, called Twisted Treeline. We kicked off season 1 in June of last year, which was the kind of the start of our competitive construct. We added draft mode and ladders, and all kinds of stuff for competitive players, which culminated in the end of Season One championship this last July.
RPS: As the end of a season, did you leave it on a cliffhanger? You know, like 24?
Travis: Absolutely. We just had the final match end in mid-stream. We hosted the season one championship at Dreamhack in Sweden. At that time, we had one of the largest cash prizes in e-Sports for the grand finalists - $100,000. We set e-sports viewership records at that point too, breaking our own records; we had over 210,000 concurrent users on the stream at any one time, and over 1.7 million unique viewers over the course of the event.
RPS: Do you have a breakdown of where all these people are watching from?
Travis: All over the world, pretty evenly distributed between North America and Europe, based on the timezone you were watching, also there was a lot of pick-up from South-East Asia, China, Korea who had teams representing them.
RPS: Is it easy to get into the game?
Travis: While we've been working the competitive angle, it's a tough genre for new players to get into. So we introduced something called battle-training, a kind of guided game. You play with a team of bots against a team of bots; quests and tips direct you through. We identify a bunch of behaviours and tell the player whether they're good or bad. It's amazing how many people run face first into a tower and die, just from following the minions. While we user-testing, we put a big screen saying “you're about to die. Please reconsider what you're doing” and even that wasn't enough, so we put it up every time you try to run into a tower now. Also, because every online game community is a perfect bastion of helpfulness and friendliness, we introduced the Tribunal. Have you heard of it?
RPS: No. Is it mob justice?
Travis: Pretty much. No, it's a crowd-sourced community moderation tool. We thought we could go hire thousands of player support people, or we can put in simple tools to weed out the obvious worst offenders and reward them at the same time. it's a web-based tool. Let's say we don't like Ryan, which is true, as he's verbally abusing us in-game, he's very mean. All the logs are collected, the chat, so you can see if people are feeding, his scores in-game, the stats, and put on the website and high-level players get to log in and say “oh, that looks like he was actually being a jerk, and I'm going to punish him.” If enough votes go one way, he gets automatic punishment. Two things go along with that, to prevent mob justice; Riot reviews all offences above a certain severity and players are rewarded with points in the game for choosing the right outcome, which allows them to unlock champions and stuff.
RPS: As long as they vote with the majority, and the majority is right? It's great behaviour-shaping; a government would love to do something like this. Actually, that is what governments do.
Ryan: You give them money to judge, yeah.
Travis: There's actually a couple of websites dedicated to scraping the worst offenders off and posting them into funny constructs. Anyway, in October 2009, we had 55,000 players per month and 885,000 registered accounts. Today we have 1.4million active unique players and 4 million players a month, 15 million registered accounts. With 4 million players a month, we're one of the biggest games out there. We're really happy with where we're at. We grew so fast in Europe that we had to split our environments, because we overloaded one. Now we're actually growing faster because there's a better service now. None of those numbers include post-split or China, where we're just going into beta.
RPS: Is it a problem for you that there are only 6 Billion people on the planet?
Travis: If we run into that problem, we've got a great problem. When we launched the game, we had 55 people working on it and now we have 320.
(They load up the new Dominion game mode).
Ryan: so, one of the things players have been asking for is a brand new map. We thought we should do a new map, the Crystal Scar, and new game mode to go with it. It's a 5v5 capture and hold based game. There are a couple of big deals that are important about Dominion. Everyone starts at level 3 with a good chunk of gold; I actually think that sets the pace for what you're going to get into, because as you run out of the gates, unlike some other MOBAs (Bad Journalist Dan pretends to understand what they mean when they mumble that awful acronym) or the classic Summoner's Rift. This is non-stop action, fast-paced. Very different from LoL classic.
(Essentially, Dominion is a simple capture and hold DOTA game, with each side starting on 500 points, which slowly diminish dependent on how many capture points the opposition holds. It goes down at the rate of 1 per capture point per second. When a team’s total reaches zero, that team's Nexus explodes. There are towers defending and minions spawning, fighting and capturing alongside the player's heroes. The combat seems unchanged from the usual DOTA stuff and Dan finds it fascinating that League of Legends can be so popular with just two maps.)
RPS: Is that a little goblin riding a very big robot?
Ryan: Yes, it is. It's actually a skin for one of the champions, originally a little boy riding a Yeti.
Travis: This is one of the things that differentiates Dominion a lot; if you get into a fight early on in classic LoL or one of the other MOBAs, it's an accident if you die in the first ten minutes. In this, though, we're encouraging you to get in there. If you're not fighting someone in the first 30 seconds, you're doing it wrong.
RPS: I guess holding the majority of the points here would be hard, because you'll be dividing your defending forces over a wider area?
Ryan: True, but if you're holding four or five points, you're vastly out-skilling the other team, and the other team probably wants to be dying quickly, so they can get to another game.
RPS: Have you dropped any of your champions?
Ryan: As lead champion designer, I think that all of our players don't need to like all of our champions, but every champion needs to be loved by someone. There are a couple that have created challenges for us, in the 18 months of League of Legends. We do have a live balance team.
RPS: And players can always use a different skin, anyway.
Ryan: Yes, we try to make it so that you can buy cool little visual customisation options for your character; it's an easy way for us to say, “hey, if you're into this, you can just give us a small amount of money.” That exclusivity makes them feel special.
Travis: It's important to note that we don't sell any power.
RPS: Do you sell different skins for maps too? So players, though they're playing on the same layout, see different maps?
Ryan: We've done an alternate version of Summer's Rift, we've done a winter version, but we feel it's a little gougey to charge people; you should just have that.
Travis: we try to think what would be cool from a player's perspective.
Ryan: and what would make us angry if you said “pay for that” when I thought we should have it for free. We're all big gamers, so we use our own judgement.
(One team captures all five points)
Ryan: Oh, look at their points going down: crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. Though most of the games on Dominion end up being really close, sometimes you get blowouts. We just want to let those games resolve quickly, and move onto the next game. The other thing is that the map compared to our original year and half ago, the graphics are really upgraded, on the prompts, the ground textures, the prompts, the towers, are much better.
RPS: The map does look amazingly lovely, in a Warcraft III way; the only problem is that I'd spend so much time staring at my character, I'd never see it.
Ryan: You named Bloodlines: Champions as something fast-paced, but we don't think players have ever seen anything like this in a true MOBA before. That just makes us stoked. We've been sitting here working on this for a while, it's so rad.
(The losing team slowly turns the table).
Travis. You never want to be that team that was so hundreds of points ahead and gets pounded in the end.
Ryan: It's usually due to overconfidence that that happens.
Travis: It gets worse when you realise that it's happening, and because you realise it's happening it gets worse.
Ryan: You can see there's a lot of team movement around the map. You have to hit the right points at the right times.
RPS: Some characters seem better at attacking and others at defending; is that right?
Travis: We wanted to make it so that there wasn't a lot of turtling, so that you didn't win a point and then just dance around. By having five points with just teams of five we made it so that's lots of activity. We also had no idea it was going to be a circle.
RPS: Are the paths deliberately a pentacle / pentagram? There's basically a way through from every capture point to any other, though they seem to loop a little.
Ryan: Just like classic, over time you do level-up, but we've set it up to be a fast-paced waterfall of gold and experience coming to you. We've wanted it to be a natural progression. Meanwhile, the items are important as they're how you've customised the character; I'm going to buy a load of health and be a super-tanky guy that just gets in your way.
(The losing team five-cap back, to leave the score at 43-9).
Ryan: Now, you see how the capture point goes back to grey, a neutral state, before turning to the player's colour, and how the towers stop working. Now the minions are capturing it, Jax (one of the characters) is capturing it.
RPS: Wow, that guy's killing lots of people.
Ryan: There's a relic in the centre of the map that supercharges your guy for a short period; we affectionately call it the Quad Damage, because it fits that mega-buff you see in old-school FPSes.
(Green winds, by a hair’s breadth.)
Travis: And that's it! That's Dominion. That game was twenty minutes; that's one of the shortest games on Summer's Rift.
RPS: Will you be doing more maps for it?
Travis: If players want new maps, we'll give it to them. We'll see how Dominion is perceived. If it really takes off, maybe we'll do another map for it;; it's a mode, it's a rule-set. Just like classic LoL, where we have the 3v3 map and 5v5 map, ultimately we'll figure out what the players want.
RPS: Will the AI on your bots ever be as good as humans?
Travis: We could probably make some bots that are better than me. We have multiple levels of bots right now. Our basic bots are actually beginner or intermediate, we don't have advanced. Most of our players play the basic bots, as a learning tool. We're going to keep supporting them, as I enjoy trying out new champions on them.
RPS: Can you capture leading player's playstyles and model them?
Travis: Yeah, actually, we have a lot of top-tier players in our office, and we had them play against our intermediate bots. They were so used to the old dumb bots, before we redid the entire AI, where our top guys got boned by bots. They're pattern-based not fuzzy logic. If you started today, there's no content to unlock.
RPS: Do you have favoured champions or ones you hate?
Ryan: YES. Who I hate personally and who I hate as a designer are different. I have a long-standing hatred of Vladimir, the blood guy, mostly because he's annoying to fight against, though he's really popular to play as. As far as a designer, I have a real hard time with champions like Soraka, our priest-style champion, a dedicated healer. I write paragraph after paragraph about why that's a problem, but we're seeing it now where if you have a few healers, everyone kind of stands off and no-one does anything. As a designer, that behaviour's really insidious. The problem is to make a person satisfying who's job is only to heal, they basically have to be over-powered. He really doesn't have any other aspects to buff, so he has to be this awesome healer.
RPS: Is she good at healing herself?
Ryan: Oh, she's awesome at that. Tank-Soraka is a build that also infuriates me. I tend to gravitate towards mages, like Anivia. I like things that make other players slow, because I'm lazy and don't want to chase them. I also like Warwick and people who can jungle really well.
Ryan: Jungle. Go into the jungle and kill the actual creeps.
Travis: On classic, the PvE experience in the classic League of Legends, where you go into the woods killing neutral creeps for the RPG experience and only start PvP higher-level when they don't expect you to come out of the jungle and gank them.
Ryan: Which is why I like them.
RPS: What e-sports are you involved with?
Travis: We're involved with all three major ones: WGC, MLG, and Intel Extreme Masters Series (ESL). For ESL it's Starcraft II and us. We're very committed to making e-sports awesome and we just announced on, uh, Monday that for Season 2, we're going to have a $5 million prize pot.
RPS: Yeah. I saw that and my eyes bugged.
Travis: We have a huge competitive scene already, with 15 million players, and we want to grow that, bring the barrier to prize money and competition down. We'll still have the huge events and super-large cash prizes, but if you're in the top tier, but not in an elite team, we still want you to be able to participate actively in that scene.
RPS: Oh, like the UK lottery, where they have a ten pound prize just to make people feel good and forget about all the money they've spent?
Travis: Ha, we've discussed that, part of it is – how far down can we push the threshold with a mix of mid-and top-tier events.
RPS: And you're not taking part yourselves?
Travis: Ha! I asked my boss, the president, “so can I enter this?” I was thinking of quitting my job and going to play LoL professionally. He didn't think that was very funny. (laughs)
RPS: Last question: have you played DOTA 2 at all?
Travis: We have not. It's not open here, only for the teams by invite.
Ryan: We asked for a beta key, but they never sent me a reply.
Travis: We should just email Gabe. I've walked by their booth once or twice today. We're here really and if I was going to wait in line for anything it would be Diablo III, really. Actually, the Dominion line is really long. When I went over there, without my Riot shirt on, and just hopped over the line a bunch of guys were angry like who's that douche? It's amazingly popular, considering it was only a month and half ago we decided we wanted a booth.
RPS: I guess the DOTA guys are tremendously thankful that you've proved to them that it's a really very good idea to make DOTA games.
Travis: That's what we wanted to do with Dominion, if we've proved that's the case, then we wanted to take it to the next step, and evolve the genre.
Ryan: There's tons of room for innovation. We picked capture and hold because it would really be fun, but it's not the only idea we've got.
RPS: Thanks for your time.