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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  • #16 tzdanof

    Can you reinsert the picture at the top? Thanks, and loved the article!

  • #15 linkinpark13crazi

    Another great post Diff, thanks!!!

  • #14 VVinrar

    Use reddit button, free frontpage!

  • #13 Blueflame1196

    Great article Diff! I was able to spot some stuff from a game design workshop that I took 

    Image removed due to an invalid URL: /content/js/tiny_mce/plugins/emotions/img/smiley-wink.gif

  • #12 Smayo

    It cannot yet be argued that LoL will beat Dota2 yet, as Dota2 is still in beta and is restricted access.

  • #6 angrymandinners

    I always knew being the right gender, building museums, saving the earth, and being in the military were at the heart of game design.

  • #2 swebb1991

    This is a great article, I spread it around my circle of friends in LoL and will share it to anyone I think needs to see it. Very well written and correct on pretty much every point!

  • #4 DiffTheEnder

    "Spread it around my circle of friends" - WHY DIDN'T I GET ONE!?!

    Haha just kidding. Thank you for the kind words :D

  • #1 mkeene91101

    This was a fantastic article to read and all those ignorant haters (dota 2) need to pop on over to take a look. Besides I know league players who would thrash those elitists in a game.

  • #3 DiffTheEnder

    Thank you for the kind words <3

  • #5 m0a0t

    Quote from mkeene91101 »

    all those ignorant haters (dota 2) need to pop on over to take a look. 

    Ok. I'm an DotA 1/Dota 2 player(you can call me ignorant hater if you prefer) and I've read this. Now, I want you to read this and the quote that follows it.

    Burden of Knowledge(BoK) is a much bigger deal in LoL than it is in DotA/Dota 2 because of it's buisness model. In DotA/Dota 2, you can play any hero at the get go, LoL by default only let's players pick from a limited pool of champions but also allows players to buy champions, either through IP or RP.

    "With an open hero pool like Dota, one can simply open a practice game and test a hero out for 5 minutes to 'get' the basics of the hero.

    With a time/pay-restricted champion pool like LoL, a large percentage of gamers will be limited on their understanding of how to counter a champ because they learn solely from experience. With so many champs they can't try at will, the 2nd or 3rd time playing against it can be very frustrating, let alone the 1st.

    Cause you can't immediately open a test game to see why that champ is strong. You have to wait for the next time it's free. Or better yet, buy it.

    Because the environment Riot offers limits opportunities to learnthis is why, in their mantra, 'knowledge' is deemed 'a burden'.

    And their business model forces them to keep it that way.

    Because telling a complaining customer "it's your fault you don't know how to counter a champ you have no access to" is like saying "the reason you don't know you're losing is you're not paying us enough. Buy him. And if not try him in 6 weeks when he's free, or go watch a vid. But you can't try him right now, and it's not our fault."

    They have successfully gained favor with the lucrative casual crowd. But that means they can't expect their gamers to be dedicated in learning. And that means Riot has to take the brunt of the responsibility for Burden of Knowledge. Unfortunately, they've restricted their champ development options, as a result." - Player13 (

    Last edited by m0a0t: 5/26/2012 11:18:17 PM
  • #7 TheBirdOfPreyRoG

    actually a very intelligent reply sir, no offense but dota 2 ppl who don't play/like LoL usually never try it and are very arrogant. Thanks for not being them ;D

  • #9 m0a0t


    Quote from TheBirdOfPreyRoG »

    dota 2 ppl who don't play/like LoL usually never try it and are very arrogant

    Yeah, but that's the case for everything else as well. Heck, there's probably an arrogant someone who hates apples but have never even tried it.

  • #11 Smayo

    That is.... quite biased and not something I would expect from you BirdOfPrey. I personally split my time half way between LoL and D2 and, while there is some people who would take the view you said, they are basically the trolls of Dota and i imagine there are LoL players who would instantly disregard D2 . Every MOBA community has an unsavoury side and unfortunately, many are judged for that ( go to the Dotacinema hero spotlights to see all of the LoL trolls exclaming that X hero is a copy of Y champion despite the fact Dota came first).

    Personally I think they are both great games and that everyone should try out both to see which they prefer. At the moment, I'm more into LoL because I'm loving the tanky DPS/AP meta, but D2 is more complex in terms of hero design which is also fun since it gives you a real sense of achievement when you make a big play.

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