League Of Legends' [official site] Lead Gameplay Designer, Andrei Meddler van Roon, was in Birmingham over the weekend as the UK's huge LAN event, Insomnia, was also playing host to League Fest – a dedicated League Of Legends event. I couldn't get up there but I managed to get a bit of time with Meddler on the phone and, after recommending the Sea Life Centre, we got to discussing the recent patch kerfuffle, the rhythm of game tweaks, favourite game additions and more:
A quick primer/interlude before we start though! If you've not been following recent developments in League Of Legends, there was a patch – 6.15 – where Riot introduced changes to alter the early portion of games, particularly professional games where a technique known as lane-swapping had become the default playstyle. I explained more about what the patch does and why in our dedicated lane-swap post if you want the details. The big thing to note, though, is the timing of the patch. It arrived just before playoffs in the regional leagues like the European LCS and North American LCS.
Playoffs decide things like progression to the World Championships as the first seed from a region as well as the general standings for the end of the summer split so it's a big deal. A patch that changes the game in a significant way can mean teams need to ditch things they've spent a long time practicing and learn new strategies. It can really mess with team standings as teams who were proficient in the now defunct style of play become vulnerable, losing access to the thing that had seen them dominate a season of play. I go into the fallout from the patch change and associated discussions about team finances and viability in this post if you're curious. But this should be enough groundwork for this interview!
Meddler is the lead gameplay designer for League of Legends, which means he works with the teams that make new champions for the game, that update existing champions, that do game balance, and which make things like the items characters buy and changes to the map they play on. In other words, he's a good person to ask about the patch.
Pip: Can we talk about the current patch situation? In terms of the work you guys do, I know you wrote quite extensively about why the changes were necessary in terms of the lane-swap meta but I wanted you to go through the timing of the patch and why you guys felt it was necessary to implement it before play-offs rather than waiting for the pre-season?
Meddler: Certainly. To answer that one we need to go back quite a few patches to just before the mid-season period. At that point in time we'd seen the early-game interaction as a problem already in pro play. We got a couple of things in to try and address it then, the first being higher damage from towers to try and make it more realistic to defend them in a 2v1 or a 3v1. The second being putting a lot more value into dragon again in the mid-season update.
Our hope was that both things would be enough to move the needle and get more early-game engagement between teams. Unfortunately that didn't hit the mark. They were too soft a set of changes. Ideally we'd have followed up probably around 6.12 in hindsight, once it was clear that stuff wasn't doing enough and we'd seen some pro play on them. Unfortunately it took us a few extra patches to identify that it wasn't working and come up with some solutions so we ended up making those changes in 6.15 instead which, as a number of people have expressed their concern that we quite agree with, is just before play-offs - in fact the play-offs patch.
We did think that trade-off was still an important one to make but we need early-game action effectively for it to be an engaging and significant test of skill. Actually, let me rephrase that slightly - a significant test of SOME skill. There's a lot of skill to lane-swapping but there's a number of things - particularly the head-to-head thing - that we weren't testing as much as we'd hoped to. So we made the call to put that stuff into 6.15 despite the timing being far from perfect.
Pip: The other thing I got while I was reading through some of the discussion was - and do correct me if this is a mis-perception - but last year's Juggernaut patch caused quite a kerfuffle and it felt like you guys had conceptualised this 6.15 level of change to the game as being different to what happened there?
Meddler: The biggest difference with the Juggernaut patch was Juggernaut stuff came in after the patches that qualifiers and regionals were played on which meant effectively we didn't see it in professional play until the World Championships itself. These changes, by contrast, while they may be later than we prefer, are coming in before regionals and qualifiers. So there's effectively a 2.5/3 month period where teams are either playing on them or certainly able to scrim on them at the very least in that lead up to Worlds. Certainly there's some cost, particularly to the teams that have practiced under the prior conditions. We do feel there's a noticeable contrast though to the state with the Juggernaut patch last year.
Pip: Have any of the pro player reactions taken you by surprise?
Meddler: We did expect there would be some very understandable pro player / coach / analyst frustration with things and some reaction of both understanding why this has been done [but] this timing doesn't feel good. It did feel that of our options of "don't make these changes" or "do and bear the cost" that it was still the appropriate call to make. We did also get some really good feedback from some of the coaches and analysts especially when we first announced the changes we were going to make which included an additional change to how some of the minions in the lanes worked. As they pointed out those were much more disruptive in some respects than we'd identified.
Pip: The cannon minions?
Meddler:Exactly, so we ended up pulling that one out, which was really great feedback to get from those folks.
Pip: I spoke to Colt 'Ezrael' Hallam about this last year but I'm also interested in your take – what's the experience of watching a pro match like for you as someone who actively works on the game?
Meddler: It's a combination of - you're still watching them as a regular player in terms of excitement and the general fun of it, but, as I'd imagine Colt expressed, you're also really trying to see if the changes we made had the desired effect. Is the game in an exciting and engaging state from a viewer perspective? What sort of problems should we address? Are there some classes of champion or individual champions who are too dominant? Some strategies that aren't particularly acceptable, or whose reward doesn't justify their risk that we should be trying to support better - that sort of thing.
Pip: There's a difference between how a thing works mechanically and a player's perception of that thing. How do you go about balancing for that? I believe that was part of why you made certain changes to the cloud drake.
Meddler: We want both a satisfying game and a fair and balanced game. There will be a number of things that hit one of those goals but not the other. In the case of the elemental drakes, finding the appropriate numbers provided they're still within the range of appropriately balanced is - all four don't need to be identical - so finding the appropriate numbers where it's appreciable and played around enough was really valuable there in terms of the player experience. In other cases we'll rework champions, for example, to get some better counter-play in them. So, even if they weren't necessarily overpowered beforehand, they're fun and interesting to play against or as.
Pip: Is there anything you're watching for particularly at the moment? Is it responses to the current patch or elements you're thinking of for the pre-season or something else – where's your personal focus right now?
Meddler: I'll talk about our current work and then pre-season. Most of our current work is very focused on the pro scene for the next month - until the next patch 6.18 is locked. Assessing these 6.15 changes is one of the big things there. In particular trying to get an understanding or did we end up pushing a number of champions that were good picks out of the meta entirely? Are there characters we should be buffing or nerfing based off these changed states - that sort of thing.So far we haven't seen dramatic shift in the champions being picked but it's also possible that teams are playing the things they've practiced a lot and over time will migrate to other, more optimal, picks.
For the pre-season the assassin class update is one of our big focuses and we'll be looking at some item adjustments and probably some other systemic changes – things like stealth or maybe how armour penetration works that will tie in with that. We've also got a couple of other things underway but they're still pretty experimental so we're not yet ready to talk about them.
Pip: How do you feel more generally about the cadence of patches - are you happy with the current rhythm or would you prefer a shorter, weekly cycle with smaller changes or more infrequent but with seismic shifts or...?
Meddler: I think there's a good discussion to be had there. We've been on a two-weekly balance patch cadence pretty much since the game launched with some irregularities along the way occasionally, which I think has worked fairly well for us. I can see some good arguments for either going shorter and doing, as you say, one week balance patches and each being quite a bit smaller, or going to monthly and doing larger ones or maybe going for different types of patch. At the moment we do pre-season and mid-season patches which are substantial and every other patch is roughly the same size. I can see the argument for small-small-small-small-large cadence - bear in mind that this is just personal thoughts off the top of the head, though!
Pip: One of the things mentioned in the talk regarding 6.15 was not just regarding how it feels to play and that it's a different type of early-game but that it was aimed at making these things more fun to watch as well. Could you speak a little bit to the role of spectators in influencing some of the decisions you make as League isn't just a game to play, it's a game to watch.
Meddler: Certainly the spectator, who is often the player in regular LoL games, is very much in our mind when considering changes to the game at that sort of level. A lot of this question falls more on the esports part of the company than myself so I'm not going to be able to answer it very usefully - my apologies!
Pip: Something which came up at MSI was that you guys have a debrief after each major patch and talk about what it was good for and how the meta felt and do a kind of deep analysis. I was really curious to hear more about that - sort of bottling the essence of a patch and trying to understand it?
Meddler: It's not so much a single debrief as more a series of them for the big patches. We'll be able to do - one or two weeks after - an initial assessment of what's grossly out of line or what feels really good so far, but for more subtle or more game-as-a-whole affecting stuff it can take months - many months in some cases - to build up that understanding. Particularly as players master the changes or demonstrate what's now possible. So a lot of that stuff then goes into our planning for the next pre-season or mid-season.
Pip: Do you have a personal favourite patch or a previous iteration of the game?
Meddler: Ooh - interesting. I tend more to have patches I enjoy because they introduced something that I felt was really cool. The patch that added the scuttle crab, for example, or the baron buff that instead of raw stats that's great for everything, made it more of a pushing thing to end sieges I look back on really fondly in terms of what that did to the experience, ending some of those endless stallouts. I've also got a real soft spot for the elemental dragons we did this year and the feeling those evoked, getting away from the stat-ier buff and getting at least a little bit of theme in there. Also they look cool!
Pip: Do you have an idea in your head of what a "perfect" version of League would look like, or is that a really unhelpful concept with a living game?
Meddler: A Platonic ideal for League, effectively?
Pip: Yeah. I mean, do you want every champ to be as viable as another or... something different. What's the thing you're working towards either in terms of a feeling or a Platonic form of game?
Meddler: Off the top of my head it would be something along the lines of players feeling empowered to pick whichever champion they think is coolest or that best suits their personal playstyle rather than whichever champion has some of that and is strong enough or is the most dominant. Trying to take power out of the equation and focus on what they player wants and how they play instead.
Pip: What have you brought to League that you're proudest of?
Meddler: I've still got a real soft spot for Ziggs. Partly because he was the first champion I got to work on by myself but there's also a fairly wacky and fun personality there that I really enjoyed and still look back on very fondly.
Pip: Thanks for your time.