Whenever somebody asks me for a game recommendation, I'm basically thinking two things:
- Has this person played a lot of games before?
- Is this person into solo, collaborative, or competitive games?
And regardless of the answers, I'm going to ask the real question 'does the game need to have a story/narrative?' and if they say no, I'm going to recommend LoL, and if they say yes, I might anyway. Is this because I want more people to play with me? Honestly, I don't make a habit of playing with friends. For me, LoL is a competitive game, and while I will play a few 'silly/fun' games a week with friends, most of my games are in ranked queue. Is this because of referral points? I have yet to officially refer any friends. Is this because I don't know games well? I've played scores of computer and video games, probably near a hundred if we count individual games in a series. Is this because I'm lazy? No. Maybe. But ultimately, I think it's because Riot has the best gaming design philosophy of any company at the moment. They've secured a foothold for League of Legends as the premiere e-sport, beating out entrenched industries like fighting games, Halo, Call of Duty, and even Starcraft and Starcraft 2. League of Legends treats their game like a sport, not a game. This has affected their design in many positive ways.
What makes Riot's approach to gameplay so special? It is their dedication to transparency. There is plenty of complexity in the game, but that complexity is related to choice. And those choices may be hard, but their difficulty is not at all related to clarity.
Complexity vs Difficulty
What makes the complexity so apparent? Well, Riot has designed the game to be accessible. In general, e-sports have thrived on complexity. This is presumably because the earliest computer games were incredibly simple. Short of people who really enjoy the game Pong, nobody's going to watch a tournament of pong. With many early e-sports people soon discovered a number of exploits that made the game more complicated. Animation canceling, denying, muta-stacking, these are all strategies that grew out of a game engine that was designed not knowing how it would be exploited. As such, there has grown to be a mindset that a game which has complicating elements in it, a game which fights the user's very attempts to control it, is a good e-sport. Connoisseurs praise the difficulty of microing starcraft units, HoN and DotA 2 players critique LoL for having less complexity due to the lack of denying,
So let's go with that example, since this is ultimately about LoL. What does LoL have in place of denying? It has zoning. Zoning is the skill of positioning yourself such that your opponent cannot get to the last-hit. Presumably, if you are in such a position, you could easily also just deny those minions. In a sense, denying allows you an easy way to zone people; you just kill their minions with a click. So, sure, denying might add mechanical difficulty (one more thing you have to do), but it doesn't really increase the complexity of the game. To illustrate this, let's take an extreme example. Imagine a game called LoL2. LoL2 is just like LoL except for one thing. Every time you attack, you have to click on the nexus before you can attack again. Is LoL2 more difficult than LoL? Well, yes. But is it more complex? Not really. It's like saying 'basketball's too easy: basketball players should have to strap weights to their arms to make it harder!' Sure, that rule would make basketball harder, but would it make it any more complex, thus making it more fun to master or more interesting to watch? No. Why? It doesn't actually force any decisions. The game itself is the same, in nature; everybody has just suffered a handicap.
Where Riot really shines is in clarity. First of all, they keep needless particles to a minimum. This makes it easy to see what's happening. Second, they keep controls simple. For example, as compared with DotA, there is no inertia; characters can change direction at will. But most importantly of all, they design characters and items with the principle of clarity of strategy in mind. Zileas discusses his design principles at length here, but I will try to sum them up as I see them. Essentially, he covers what I see as three main principles: he never explicitly states these three principles, but they are very evident in his post.
Clarity of Effect
According to the principle of Clarity of Effect, a game mechanic is well created if it is relatively easy to see what it does just from observing it, or using it once or twice. The nuances of the ability may take more in depth exposure, but the basics come across very simply. For example, Nasus' ultimate is very clear. You use it and dark clouds swirl around you (nobody likes dark clouds, so they should stay out of them). On top of that, you get huge. In fact, size is part of universal code for 'hard to kill'; Renekton gets huge, Lulu's ult makes you huge, Cho is always huge; huge is the way a game tells you 'this guy is fuck-all hard to kill', and it paints a clear picture. Sure, sometimes small things are hard to kill, but it's typically for a specific effect. If I may digress for a moment:
Who played Final Fantasy VIII? How did you feel when you encountered your first Tonberry? You probably thought 'look at this little guy, I'll kick his ass'. And then you pounded a bunch of damage onto him, and he just stood wthere. And you put more damage onto him, and finally, he took a few steps towards you. And if he ever got to you, he poked you with his little knife and you died and you just thought 'HOLY CRAP WHAT WAS THAT?' And it made the monster memorable because it defied your expectations. But of course, speaking of not defying your expectations, how did you know Tonberry King was the boss Tonberry? Because he was bigger than all of the other Tonberries.
There are, of course, other examples, but the size one is the easiest one, in my opinion, to get right off the bat.
Clarity of Effect can also be used to motivate learning of the game. an ability with a clear effect also indicates clearly success or failure of the skill. When you shoot Jayce's Q, for example, when it hits, you feel good, and when it misses, you feel bad. But other abilities have other effects that are more complicated. These effects are also (generally) clearly understood. Examples include Annie's Q/Swain's passive/Cho's passive (yay, I killed a minion, sustain back), Brand's passive (yay, I got the stun!), Ezreal's Q (yay, cooldowns decreased!). These all give clear bonus effects for intended use, and, as such, guide learning the game.
Clarity of concept
According to the principle of Clarity of Concept, a game mechanic is well created if it has some unifying concept. As an example, let us take Soraka's W. It heals a target for a moderate amount and gives them a large amount of armor. Why armor and not MR? This may seem like an arbitrary choice, but it actually makes a lot of sense in the context of the way damage is split. Magic damage typically comes in burst, and typically comes up front. Physical damage, on the other hand, is naturally more continuous (auto attacks), and comes throughout the fight. As such, Soraka's W makes perfect sense. If somebody needs healing, it's probably because they've taken burst, and need healing. And if the fight continues, the damage they will take will most likely be physical damage focused. There are obviously exceptions (Ryze/Cassiopeia/Kog'Maw), but the general principle holds. So if Soraka's W instead gave MR, it would feel somewhat counter-intuitive: you might be tempted to think 'I should use this on my carry BEFORE he takes the mage's burst; that way he'll take less damage'. This would obviously be poor design for a heal, because you might decide to use the heal not for the heal. If such an ability were to be made, I would expect it to either
- Affect multiple targets (mages have a good amount of AoE typically)
- Have a low cooldown but be a lower heal (that way you wouldn't be penalized as much for using it to mitigate burst
- Be a delayed heal
- Grant additional health (like Lulu's ult) as opposed to healing
Let's go back to Nasus' ult. It makes you hard to kill, and it makes you hurt people around you. It has a clear concept: don't stand near this guy, because he's huge and trying to ruin your day. What would make Nasus' ult not a good ability? Putting it on an AD Carry. All of a sudden, you've got an ability that says 'look at me, I'm big and scary and going to stand in the middle of your team!' but you've got this ability on a champion who never, ever, ever wants to stand in the middle of the enemy team.
It doesn't have to be that obvious, though. For example, Thornmail had some awkward conceptual interactions. It was necessary for thornmail to reflect based off of incoming, not received damage. Otherwise, building more armor (so you wouldn't die to AD champions) would cause you to reflect less damage (so why get the thornmail?). However, no such exception was made for dodge, which meant that building dodge effectively made building Thornmail silly. Luckily, we don't have to deal with dodge anymore, and how often is thornmail bought, anyway? (basically never except in normals and lower Elo games)
This shouldn't scare game designers away from designing game elements which force hard choices as to HOW they are used.
Clarity of Choice
But while choices should be available, throwing in choice for the sake of choice isn't what you want in a game. Choices need to be meaningful to be satisfying. Good choices stem from letting the player say 'what am I going to use this ability for?' not 'what does this ability do?' For example, Amumu's Bandage Toss can be used to initiate a fight, and it can also be used to stun a key target, whether that shuts down the enemy team's damage dealer or protects your own. But this is a matter of choice as to how to use the skill. But what the skill is for (locking a target down briefly and letting you stick to them) is clear. This is, I feel, the heart of what makes Lulu's W unsatisfying. Sure, you could use it to run support with an AP champion instead of an AD champion, or an AD Carry with AP ratios like Tristana, but that choice never feels good. Why give a teammate some movement speed and AP when you could neutralize an enemy champion for 2.5 seconds? It might seem appealing to have the choice of speeding up your carry so he can escape, or speeding up your Amumu so he can initiate, or speeding up yourself so you can get to safety, but most of the time, you're just going to want to CC an enemy champion for 2.5 seconds because that's pretty good, right?
Consistency is also an important part of game design. Consistency is what allows for innovation, because the player knows that (for the most part) the game will work in a specific way. Without that predictive ablity, innovation becomes hard, because prediction becomes hard. Consistency tells you about the game as a whole: if you build health and armor and magic resistance, you get harder to kill, if you get attack speed and attack damage and crit you get consistent dps, and if you get AP, you get better spells for burst, heals, and shields.
Inconsistency of Tankiness
There should be things which fly in the face of these conventions, so long as they are not too ubiquitous. For example, Vayne is an interesting concept. Her silver bolts don't make building tanky pointless (the majority of her damage is still physical), but it does make it less strong. After all, against heavy physical/magical damage, you get resistances, against resistances, you get true damage or % Pen, against true damage or % Pen, you get health, and against health, you get % health damage. So health isn't really the right choice, since it's % health damage, resistances aren't the right choice, since it's true damage. On top of that, attack speed slows can feel underwhelming with tumble in the picture. So to many tanks, it may feel like there is simply no way to itemize against Vayne. And if her damage came entirely from silver bolts, that would be true. But even in a build designed around silver bolts, against a champion with high health and armor, silver bolts only does about 25% of your damage. Under normal circumstances, it does closer to 15-20%. The rest of her damage is physical damage, and itemized against the normal way: armor.
But Gentleman Gustaf, even if only 15-25% of her damage can't be itemized against, that's still 15-25% more than every other champion in the game!
In a vacuum, this would be problematic. But Vayne has one of the worst laning phases of any AD Carry. So, in a sense, she pays for this advantage somewhere else. And this is good design, giving a champion something strong one place, but making up for it with a weakness. So, sure, Vayne gets to break (partially) our rule of consistency that tankier = harder to kill, but she pays for it with a weaker early game. And she's not the only one who breaks our ideas of the dichotomy between burst, dps, and tankiness. Why do I say this? With the changes to penetration (% before flat), it becomes increasingly possible to drop targets to close to 0 Armor or MR.
Let's say, for example, you're an AD champion who wants Last Whisper and Black Cleaver (you don't even have to be the one to get it, if you have a cooperative teammate). Assuming you do have the Black Cleaver, and you take flat Pen Marks, how much Armor can somebody have and still be reduced to 0 Armor? Only 85. Is that a big deal? Well, it reduces your effective health vs physical damage by 46%, by allowing physical damage to do 1.85 times as much damage. Let's say your cooperative teammate is a Wukong, and uses Crushing Blow to help you out? Now anybody below 120 is reduced to 0. This reduces your effective health vs physical damage by 55%, by allowing physical damage to do about 2.2 times as much damage. So what happens if you pick up 100 armor to counter this? Under normal circumstances, 220 armor would give you 3.2 times your effective health vs physical damage. But reduction and penetration will bring you all the way down to 29 armor, giving you 1.29 times your effective health vs physical damage. This means your 100 armor purchase gets only 29% of its value, and you are still taking 78% of all physical damage (it's not true damage, but it's pretty close). This means that anybody who can take advantage of this with % health physical damage (Vi, for example) can essentially be doing % health true damage (not to mention having all of their physical damage be true damage). To anybody who thinks this is crazy, I would ask you to go back in time to the last patch and watch some games to see how many black cleavers you see, and how many teams you see without a champion who dealt significant magic damage. Yes, Black Cleavers no longer stack with themselves, but they still stacks with the many other sources of armor pen.
It's been covered to death that the combination of flat pen turning into % pen is an awkward choice: it means people who try to counter brutalizer early with armor can expect to get that countered with black cleaver. But I'd like to focus on an underappreciated item: Liandry's Torment. Liandry's Torment is a % health item that starts itself on the path to true damage: it comes with free Magic Penetration. If that thought alone doesn't scare you, just think about how much flat Pen is available to casters: enough to reduce anybody without MR items to 0 and then some. Most Carries will have about 48, for example. It's easy to get 48 Pen: just pick up Liandry's Torment (well, actually, you only need Haunting Guise, as pointed out by a commenter), Pen reds, and Sorc Boots.
Rather than go into more math about Penetration (oh, and don't forget that resistances are more expensive now), I'll give a general statement: in the old system, damage dealers had to choose: pick up flat pen to target squishy champions and force resistance stacking, or pick up % Pen to hurt tanks and punish resistance stacking. Now they can do both, forcing both heavy resistance and light resistance champions to almost 0 resistances. On top of that, % health damage is readily available to AP champions, from both Liandry's Torment and Deathfire Grasp. This creates a system where you don't have to make sacrifices (like Vayne does) to have access to spammable % health true damage; a scary situation indeed.
Positive feedback loops between damage and tankiness
Also interesting are champions who blur the lines between damage and tankiness. Skarner's passive reduces all of his cooldowns whenever he attacks. So the more attack speed, the more abilities he gets to use. Sounds good so far. One of his abilities is a shield. Now, all of a sudden, building sustained damage also gives him sustained tankiness. This was enough of a problem that it required gutting his mana through the cost of his Q, as well as later nerfing the cooldown on his shield. But he pays for this advantage with a disadvantage: he gets kited easily. Vlad is another example: the more health he gets, the more AP he gets, and vice versa. This lets him end up with health, burst, and sustained damage (due to reasonably low cooldowns). He pays for it with health costs on all of his spells, but he has remained a very difficult champion to balance for some time. Riven gets a shield that scales with AD, Irelia gets sustain with Attack speed (without even building any lifesteal), and now Rengar can heal based off of AD.
Am I saying that interesting champions who challenge our concepts of tankiness and damage should not exist? I hope you do not draw that conclusion. For one, Skarner is one of my favorite champions (although I hate Vladimir). They just pose interesting balance challenges.
Riot has tried to push the bounds of what a champion can do, and they have (largely) succeeded. I just hope they learn from Eve with Deathfire Grasp or 4 AD teams with Black Cleaver, and avoid allowing overly aggressive penetration stacking in combination with % health damage, or there will stop being reasons to take resistances, and maybe tanks, at all. And as well, I hope they learn from past mistakes with offensive stats feeding defensive stats, or vice versa. Neither of these two things is bad, but the more common they become, and the less linked to specific weaknesses they become, the harder they become to deal with.
Essentially, they take away one of the consistencies of the game: the trichotomy of burst, sustained damage, and tankiness. The former problem violates the maxim of 'tanky things are hard to kill', while the latter problem blurs the separation between the three. Again, neither of these is a design problem when used sparingly, but can become very scary in excess.
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