Inside the never-ending update and balancing process of the world's most-played games
Inside the never-ending update and balancing process of the world's most-played games
Today, Summoner’s Rift, League of Legend’s iconic arena, is mossy and torchlit, with muted forest tones, broken cobblestone pathways, and whorls of malicious-looking thorned vines. But back in 2009, during its closed Beta, League was as hideous as a dollar-store holiday display. Lime-green trees that belonged in a Lego set dotted the rock-candy landscape; every champion, from the "sexy" Katarina to the unabashedly polygonal Blitzcrank, were comprised of variously sized triangles.
On October 27th, 2017, the most popular game in the world will turn eight years old. And like most eight-year-olds when compared to their squalling infant selves, League of Legends will look almost completely unrecognizable to its old self.
In art, narrative and principles of design, Riot has outstripped its past dramatically. The latest character to receive this treatment, Galio, is a fitting metaphor for the game’s own transformation over the last few years: he went from a teal gargoyle with an underbite and laser eyes to a square-jawed colossus of white marble and gold who bashes enemies with stylish, charming narcissism. So many elements of the game have been replaced, it begs the question: is League of Legends the same game nowadays? Will it be in five, 10, or even 15 years?
The game’s startling rate of change doesn’t concern Greg Street, Riot’s design director. According to him, metamorphosis has always been the point. "Back when Riot was founded, the people who started it were sick of real-time strategy games," Street says. Prior to his time on League of Legends, Street worked at Blizzard, on the World of Warcraft team. As cautious as he is to avoid bad-mouthing his former employer, Street is almost certainly referring to the early days of Blizzard’s 1998 sci-fi strategy game, StarCraft, that would – for a while – define the genre.
Despite having an expansive cast of wisecracking pixelized units, StarCraft lost a lot of strategic diversity at the highest level of play. There were clear optimal strategies and build paths in the game; differences in skill had more to do with mechanical execution than the ability to think and act tactically. "It made the game feel shallow," says Street. "Theoretically there were all these options, but experienced players knew there were only two or three in reality. There was all this potential out there that wasn’t being realized."
StarCraft would receive no patches for anything other than bug fixes until its expansion, Brood War, was released a few months after the main game. Brood War went on to become one of the most highly-played competitive games in the world, but it wouldn’t get a patch improving the game's balance for another three years.
Contrast that with League of Legends, which gets a new patch every two weeks or so. This pace of updating, which Riot has maintained for the last seven years, was unprecedented in 2009. Fans of Defense of the Ancients – the game on which League of Legends (and all subsequent games in the MOBA genre) was based – usually had to wait months between balance patches. For titles released on consoles, like Capcom’s Street Fighter series, support essentially ended the day of release.
While Riot has broken their strategic metagame countless times via over-tuning or brutally dismantling popular champions and items, the speed at which the game changes means that conditions are never oppressive for long – at least not in the same way. "We put out a lot of fires, but that’s part of the bargain," says Street. "That responsiveness is why players pick League as their game – if something feels like bullshit, then it won’t be there for long."
Riot’s live team – which consists of around a dozen designers and a few QA people for good measure – handles most of the week-to-week changes. Street described them as EMTs for League of Legends’ competitive metagame. "They’re never going to be able to prevent car crashes, but they can get in there and stop the bleeding," he says. The live team adjusts numbers, tweaks items, and makes sure that there’s never an egregiously powerful strategy kicking its way through Summoner’s Rift for long.
In addition to these minor tweaks, Riot is constantly rehauling major parts of the game, often in batches. Most recently, they released an update for champions in the “assassin” subclass, a character type designed to catch players out of position and kill them before they have time to react. "Assassins have been a problem area for us for a while. In a multiplayer game, you’re not making a lot of interesting decisions when you get caught and instantly die," Street says. "We slowed down the burst window, to give people more time to hit buttons. At the same time, we tried to give assassins a little more survivability."
The result, Street hopes, is fights that last a second or two longer, and give players and their teammates more meaningful decisions than to simply avoid dark alleys in the future. This phrase, "meaningful decision," comes up over and over in every discussion with Riot on its guiding principles of game design. It's their North Star, one of the few constants by which it steer the ship, and something the team can return to when everything else about the game is in flux.
At this point, Riot’s ambitious gamble – that a living, breathing, constantly evolving game might outpace those that require expansions and sequels – has paid off in spades. According to recent estimates, over 100 million people play League of Legends every month. That’s one out of every seventy people on Earth. That’s one out of every 36 people with internet access. It’s a staggeringly large player base, the biggest in history, and it just keeps getting bigger.
Of course, you don’t get this successful without someone taking a page out of your book one of these days. Ironically, the next major "living game" seems to have come from Blizzard, Street’s alma-mater and the developer of StarCraft.
Several times, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan has said that the launch of the game was only the beginning. Aaron Keller, Overwatch’s assistant game director, reiterated as much: "We put out balance changes monthly. A year from now, we’re still going to be doing this. We wanted it to feel like this game had a consistent heartbeat to it."
On top of monthly patches for balance, three characters have been added since the game’s release in May. It was with one of these characters, the supportive sniper Ana, that the Overwatch team encountered their first major balancing challenge. "Ana has a lot of options and flexibilities in her tool kit," explains Geoff Goldman, Overwatch’s lead hero and balance designer. "Her weakness was supposed to be her lack of mobility. She was a sitting duck, so you could change to Tracer in order to go attack her." The problem was, Ana didn’t need to get away from highly mobile flankers like Tracer – often, she could outright kill them. To mitigate this, the team reduced the damage from her gun, and lowered the healing on her biotic grenade, which she could throw at her own feet to increase her survivability.
If there’s a guiding principle evident in Blizzard’s approach to balancing Ana, it’s a healthy mix of strengths and weaknesses in all their characters. The Overwatch designers treat their game, in many ways, like an extremely complicated game of rock, paper scissors, one to which they are constantly adding new hand configurations.
Overwatch has grown not only steadily but remarkably quickly, going from seven million players on release in May of last year to 25 million as of January. For a while, it was even more popular than League of Legends in the PC bangs – cafés with connected PCs for gaming – of South Korea. While both games differ in their approach to the constant tightrope walk of balancing a living game, they share a common trait: extraordinary commercial success. Whether Overwatch will have the staying power of League, or whether it will someday outpace it entirely, is a question for another time – but both are possible.
The problem, for both League and Overwatch, is that balance is ultimately a moving target. Both games are constantly adding new content, and despite their best efforts to the contrary, delicate ecosystems don’t always take well to new arrivals. Which, of course, calls for more balancing.
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, a constant, endless, uphill battle towards something that might just be impossible – a perfectly balanced game. But for Greg Street, imagining that possibility, no matter how far-fetched it may seem, is key. "We should aspire towards this utopia of perfect balance, where we just stop making patches," he says. Realistically, Street knows that’s not going to happen; the game is simply too complicated. "But as a philosophy, I would hope that that encourages us to make the right decision. Now, I’m not saying we’re going to get there by 2020 or 2040 or lifetimes later, but if we try to make the right decisions, then we’ll avoid bouncing between extremes."
As for Blizzard’s own Sisyphus, Aaron Keller – he's content to push that boulder up the hill with no end in sight. "Our job is fun. We get to come into work every day and it’s a blast," he says. "I’m not scared of working and noodling on this thing for many years to come."