Our next stop at GDC is the League Of Legends postmortem panel with Tom Cadwell and Steve Snow, design director and senior producer at developer Riot Games. Its free-to-play MMOG, inspired by Warcraft III’s Defense Of The Ancients map, launched in 2009 and passed a million downloads in its first three months.
Steve Snow says it is Riot’s aim to be “the most consumer-centric developer in the world”, requiring an adaptive approach to development right from the off. Beta phases can no longer be used to find bugs, he says, “because you’re working with potential customers.” Giving a good first impression is vital: early adopters are also early advocates.
Riot thinks of League Of Legends as as much of a service as a game. “You’re never going to be done with feature development when your game is a service,” Snow notes. “You are always going to be introducing new features.” This poses a fresh challenge to the development process – bugs are going to appear on a daily basis, and fixing them has to be balanced with fresh feature development. Snow also admits Riot was ill-prepared for the game’s sudden popularity, saying: “We completely underestimated network operations,” with only three senior admins initially on board.
While the game is based on Dawn Of The Ancients there were elements of the design on which Riot felt it could improve, Cadwell describing it as “needlessly inaccessible” in parts. It removed the "denying" mechanic, which saw DOTA players kill their own NPCs to stop an enemy from getting a reward. The game’s loyal fanbase, which liked the advantages it gave, were initially up in arms, and a percentage of users left.
Riot’s response was to engage with the community, explaining in chatrooms and on forums their reasoning and the advantages of the other gameplay systems they had introduced. “Because this was logical,” Cadwell says, “the players changed their minds. We don’t really hear about denying these days. It’s a tiny blip on what people care about now.”
That loyal following also had thousands of hours of DOTA muscle memory, as Riot soon learned. Moving the minimap to the opposite side of the screen – and some ill-advised hotkey swaps, which Cadwell admits was the least successful change Riot made – prompted complaints from those whose brains were hardwired to the original controls, and the same complaints again when they changed the latter back. The lesson, Cadwell says, is that “small changes that don’t give much game improvement can cost highly.”
However, the pair believe that Riot’s overall tweaking in development of League Of Legends has been positive, and fosters teamwork. DOTA’s mechanics discourage positive team experiences, they say: friendly fire, kill-stealing, weak team incentives. They reward individuals, not teams. They changed many aspects to encourage “more positive team interactions”, such as shared gold rewards. On the whole changes are accepted as long as they are positive: “Adding is easier than subtracting,” says Caldwell.