Game Design: The Burden of Knowledge

DiffTheEnder here again - and I want to bring you guys something insightful today! I will be talking about..

Game Design

Firstly, I'd like to clear up the fact that I am in no way affiliated with Riot (although I'd like to be!) and will be trying to explain design decisions by logical deduction in the aim of helping the readers realise facts that they took for granted.

In my research of game design across the web - I came across this picture (from MSU) and I found it extremely accurate in describing the amount of work that is required to design a game.


There is so much material/work put into a game that us gamers take into account for granted. However, today I will not be trying to climb Everest and talk about game design as a whole. Instead, let's walk through a simple concept that Riot has stood behind and see how that has affected the game today.

The Burden of Knowledge

For those of you who frequent the League of Legends community forums from time to time and keep up with red posts, you'll be aware that Zileas and Morello - two Rioters who have a strong influence on game design - cite anti-fun and the burden of knowledge as being reasons for not implementing X mechanic/gameplay factor. I'll be taking a look at the 'Burden of Knowledge' aspect today and hope to give you some explanation as to how this has affected the game we play today.

What is the concept of burden of knowledge?

The term Burden of Knowledge (henceforth referred to as BoK) signifies the concept that you have to know how something works before you are able to play against it.

A prime example is Bloodseeker's ultimate from DotA. The ability is named Rupture and it works as such:

At initial cast - your enemy takes a significant amount of damage. For a period of time thereafter - if your enemy moves, they take a percentage of the distance moved as damage.

The argument for the BoK of Rupture being too high is that a newer player will not realise that movement results in damage, is counterintuitive and anti-fun for the player who is afflicted by Rupture.

Obviously, every mechanic/skill in this game or any game has an element of BoK involved. Some are simpler than others, a prime example of this would be Morgana's Dark Binding; it comes in a straight line and if you get hit, you can't move. Simple, right? It's an ability that you'd learn the basic workings of after it has been casted on you once whereas an ability like Rupture would be much more difficult to learn about without having to read up on it.

A bit of history

Let's take a step back and take a look the MOBA(Multiplayer online battle aren) genre as a whole. The original DotA map can be considered the pioneering piece of the genre, bringing MOBA's to the widespread gaming community and has spawned several offshoots, LoL being one of them. It can be safely said that there are 3 major competitors in the MOBA market at the moment.

They are:

  • League of Legends
  • Heroes of Newerth
  • DotA 2

To summarise each game's design philosophy in a few words:

  • DotA 2 - a remake of the original DotA map with a new engine and updated graphics. A step forward to bringing DotA its deserved status as its own game and recreate the game that millions of fans have grown to love.
  • Heroes of Newerth - Originally intended to be an engine upgrade to DotA, the game has grown to establish its own identity and consistently comes up with unique abilities that would not be possible on the original Warcraft 3 engine.
  • League of Legends - Reflecting the Free to Play (F2P) model, LoL seeked to appeal to a wider market by reducing the BoK required to enjoy the game and has grown into the most popular game out of the three.

It's a testament to gaming history that League of Legends has become the most popular game out of the three. A much simpler design to its competitors, combined with a free to play model and great community relations has effectively guaranteed LoL the #1 spot in the MOBA genre.

The Learning Curve - how does it affect gameplay?

It follows logically that by having a higher burden of knowledge, the learning curve becomes steeper and the game becomes harder to get in to. By having a much more gradual learning curve as compared to its competitors, LoL ensures that players have a longer retention period in which they try out the game and come to terms with its nuances. By giving players a more gradual entry into the game, they can start focusing on learning other aspects of the game, such as securing global objectives and understanding how co-operation can lead to success.

A champion that is commonly cited as being great to play for new players is Annie. Her Disintegrate encourages players to learn to last hit as they are refunded mana instantly and players receive constant feedback that they are using the ability correctly.

Having continuous positive feedback not only increases the sense of being rewarded, but also helps train your brain to thereon perform these actions more naturally. To understand what I mean, think about your last hitting mechanics in lane - if you were ever to attack a minion without the intention of pushing it or last hitting it, you get the feeling that you are doing something wrong and berate yourself. This is as a result of constant reward from having gold credited to your champion every time they last hit. Every hit you do not get a sense of reward from feels unsatisfactory. I came across a wonderful quote that describes this inexplicable phenomenon:

"Constant novelty from a click can result in addiction"

This quote depicts the reason why social games such as FarmVille and The Sims, and the internet in general are so successful. The ability to feel rewarded or intrigued by doing little more than clicking is something that is not seen else where.

Back to LoL - having so many abilities in the game feel rewarding to use (if used correctly) breeds addiction to the game. A few examples of abilities such as this are:

It becomes even easier to understand the importance of having "reward" mechanics when you think about abilities such as Janna's Monsoon and Jarvan IV's Cataclysm. There is no clear distinction between knowing when you have used it correctly or have completely lost the teamfight as a result of improper use. While this increases the skill cap for players, it also results in moments like these:

Being rewarded and having an increased retention time for players helps players get into LoL much easier and is a key component of Riot Games' success. The more gradual learning curve, in short, has contributed heavily to LoL's success.

Complexity in LoL

Having covered the background of the BoK and gradual learning curves helping improve enjoyability. Let's take a look at the complexity of kits/abilities in LoL.

By now, we have established that LoL is the "easiest" out of its competitors. However, the more experienced players commonly criticise Riot for not releasing champion with more complex mechanics and releasing generic bruisers. I want to take a short detour here and take a look at the release of one the most popular champions in LoL at the moment - Lee Sin, the Blind Monk.

Lee Sin was something new to LoL - he was a champion that was more versatile than Nidalee and much more reliant on his skill shot. His extreme mobility and ability to displace enemies is something that is unmatched in LoL. He is currently viewed as one of the strongest champions in the game and is a common ban in draft mode.

Lee Sin on release, was cited as being extremely underpowered (his numbers were low, yes.) and was hotfixed with scaling ratios being doubled in some cases. Even still, the uptake on Lee Sin was slow. The combination of having a high skill cap and negative first impression meant that it took a good while before players realised the strength of the Blind Monk. His seven abilities, combined with managing his passive makes him one of the most versatile champions in the game.

Lee Sin relies on outplaying your opponent to snowball into an unstoppable champion. However his Burden of Knowledge was quite high compared to other champions. Here was a champion that could dash to an enemy or an ally, shield an ally as well as heal from spell vamp/life steal, deal AoE damage and slow you as well as displace you and knock up other enemies. Players needed time to learn about Lee Sin and in a month or so after release - we started seeing Lee Sin become a more common occurrence in games as he was being mastered by players and thereby helping pass on knowledge to other players in the game.

Here was an example of a champion who's kit was very well designed but the BoK was so high that initial uptake was slow. The Riot Designers have made it clear that they try to extract as much value from an ability as they can without increasing BoK.

My favourite designer from Riot Games is Coronach. Here is a list of champions he has designed:

Most notably, I want to pick out a few champions here - Akali, Brand, Katarina, LeBlanc, Shyvana, Wukong. Can you notice the common trend that they have?

Here's the answer - they are all simple but have an added element of complexity.

Take for example, Brand. He is simple by design. You have four damaging abilities that you can launch in any order you want. That's easy to pick up and play. However, his passive makes complex play possible. Now you can think about how you want to launch your abilities. Do you want to stun a single target? Deal more AoE damage? Have your Pyroclasm bounce quicker? Spread your passive around?

Here's another example - Akali. Extremely easy to pick up and play. You can throw a Mark and hit them to deal the damage again, you can dash to enemies and gain invisibility in a set radius. However, the potential of outplaying your opponent is great due to the potential of combining your skills in creative plays.

I don't want to sound like I'm in Coronach's fan club but his designs are extremely put together for the most part and are easy to pick up, but have a higher skill cap than one would first expect due to added elements.


LoL does not actively seek to include new mechanics, instead it works on what already works and combines them in interesting ways to create completely different feeling champions. Riot seeks to keep the Burden of Knowledge low while providing the best value possible from the mechanics that we already know and love. While this does limit the skill cap of the game as a whole, it continues to attract newer players and result in the game being more successful.

Providing the game with more difficult and complex champions a la Lee Sin, not only puts older champions in a league where they cannot compete due to their lack of versatility, but also is a step in alienating newer players as the Burden of Knowledge is increased. In my opinion, more champion designs like Brand, Shyvana provide an easy entry for newer players however provide elements of difficulty for higher skilled players.

Complex designs like Lee Sin are amazing for this game - but finding a true balance between not having a high Burden of Knowledge and providing originality into this game is not easy. Riot should recruit Akali to help out on this :)

I hope you guys enjoyed this post - leave me some feedback and tell me if you think I should make more posts on different aspects of game design!

Cheers, DiffTheEnder

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