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GDC 2013: Teamplay and Counterplay in League of Legends

JAlbor March 29, 2013 User blog:JAlbor

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Wikia is at the 2013 Game Developers Conference, where I just had the chance to listen to Tim Cadwell, VP of Game Design at Riot Games, discuss "Counterplay and Teamplay in Multiplayer Game Design." While I don't think his talk will make me better at League of Legends, it does highlight some of the studio's thought processes that go into creating a lasting and compelling multiplayer experience. Check out the highlights below!

Brieg Mechanics Review

"Mechanics should create satisfaction," Cadwell states. Satisfaction is birthed from fun, engagement through nuance, and mechanical payoff of actions having predictable and satisfying repercussions. The "Fireflow" from Mario Bros. is a classic example. Fire balls in the game have great SFX, bounces merrily, kills goombas, and offers techniques to master its use. "It's a good mechanic."

That being said, Cadwell continues, satisfaction for one player does not necessarily mean team-wide satisfaction. "You need to think holistically," finding a way to add mechanics that only improve the experience for everyone.

Counterplay

The elements of counterplay:

  • Possible: Is a response possible? For example, there is no meaningful reaction other than getting out of the way to Corki Corki's True Damage on basic attacks.
  • Clear: Is the need for a response clear? For example, an invisible fireball cannot be dodged. League of Legends fails in this regard sometimes because things are hard to read and understand.
  • Interesting: Are responses varied and nuanced? For example, the original version of Evelynn was completely invisible, it was "too binary, no satisfaction for either player" and it "forced players to counter with stealth detection." To increase fun counterplay, they gave Evelynn partial visibility at close range. The result is that "Evelynn actually has to sneak, find vulnerable moments," and the opponent is "rewarded for quick reaction time."

These elements are elaborated of course. "Does the response have its own healthy counterplay," Cadwell asks? Kassadin Kassadin's Riftwalk.png Riftwalk ability, for example, has only limited counterplay. It's not necessarily bad design, but it is "a missed opportunity."

Cadwell offered three examples of counterplay. Ryze Ryze's Rune Prison.png Rune Prison, for example, doesn't have great counterplay. Morgana Morgana's Dark Binding.png root, however, is a skillshot ability, so immediately offers a powerful "emotional investment" for players on both sides. The ability has immediate counterplay potential in dodges and predictive shots. Her ability also interacts with enemy minions, creating diverse scenarios that "adds value" to gameplay. Interestingly, Morgana's stats on Dark Binding feels like a stronger ability, but it's balanced by the skill required to pull off the ability. As Cadwell states, "the manner in which you give power determines the satisfaction created." Additionally, "satisfaction is not zero sum," players can have fun even when opponents are empowered.

Similarly, the Death Knight in Warcraft features an AOE instant daze that lacks counterplay. In Mists of Pandaria, the Death Knight was given an AOE slow with much better counterplay. It is a highly-visible aura that causes a stun after six seconds of being within its effect range. This feature allows players to adjust their strategy accordingly. Likewise, as the Death Knight, players can change their behavior to keep other players within range.

Garen Garen's first iteration of Perseverance.png Perseverance regenerated health every second, all the time. "There was nothing to react to," Cadwell laments. Now, combat damage turns off the regeneration. As Cadwell explains it, it "creates an opportunity to respond." It also "creates a goal around normal actions that can sometimes create a better context for satisfaction." Hitting Garen, which you likely want to do anyway, now has more meaning.

Lastly, Caitlyn Caitlyn's Ace in the Hole.png Ace in the Hole offers an excellent example of counterplay. The ability to block the bullet and "take one for the team" adds immense counterplay. "Good designs can enable heroism," Cadwell explains, "this is actually teamplay in some sense." The team response to the gameplay and is incredibly rewarding.

Teamplay

Teamplay follows the same framework as counterplay:

  • Possible: Does the ability create an opportunity for teamwork? For example, Twisted Fate Twisted Fate's passive offers no teamplay opportunities, "teamwork is not increased."
  • Clear: Can teammates notice and understand the ability? Nunu Nunu's Blood Boil.png Blood Boil ability, for example, is too subtle in team fights for players to react accordingly.
  • Interesting: Is the teamwork that occurs both varied and nuanced? World of Warcraft succeeded here in the Death Knight's Gorefiend's Grasp ability, which pulls in all monsters within 20 yards of a target ally. It creates opportunities for creative teamplay.

As Cadwell sees it, "experiencing teamwork is very satisfying." In the case of Thresh Thresh, his Dark Passage.png Dark Passage lantern opens up amazing teamplay opportunities. The team specifically wanted to avoid a "Scorpion" like maneuver where he pulls allies back by force. It's a huge power, but it's worth it. As Cadwell explains, "if an ability requires teamwork to use, the reward can be larger."

The Shaman bloodlust ability in World of Warcraft is also an excellent example of teamplay. Unlike an passive aura, the spell must be activated to boost a team's damage. It's a call to action for the team and demands teamwork to use the ability to its greatest effect within its limited duration.

Q&A

Q: In 150 words or less, what is the worst designed ability in LoL and why?
A: The Hextech Shrapnel Shells.png Hextech Shrapnel ability is one of those, but the team is committed to always improving these.

Q: How do you create good design without making something that feels homogeneous?
A: "The challenge there is to have great game designers and encourage them to try to break the rules once and awhile."

Q: Does Thresh bring too much teamplay and counterplay? Is there a limit?
A: "Sometimes you can have a play balance problem." While Cadwell suggests you can never have too much teamplay, you can have too much power, so it's always a balancing issue. Creating new characters is also always a risk.

Q: How much does the difficulty rating effect the desire for teamplay?
A: Cadwell explains that the team doesn't actually think about it that much. Instead, the rating is meant more to dissuade new players from playing a very difficult to learn champion.

Q: To what degree do you quantify and compare power budgets of characters?
A: "Generally, we don't really quantify it so much. We do want to make sure every character is held up to a framework," that measures the pros and cons of each ability.

Q: Can too much counterplay make an over-reactionary game?
A: "I think that's a different problem." If inaction is an "optimal" move, then you are limiting the quality of your game. Counterplay has to work.

Q: Is there a concern the skill cap for some characters is too high for the average player?
A: "We do want to make a competitive game, but I also say skill cap and skill floor are decoupled." Both desires, as Cadwell sees it, can be met by design. Additionally, good matchmaking should limit this concern.

Q: How do you make counterplay intuitive?
A: There are two techniques. First, thematic association and clarity is important. "If a lightning bolt was to freeze you in place for 10 seconds, that would be a cognitive disconnect." Additionally, when players learn over time, designers can get away with more.

Q: Should all skills be satisfying?
A: "You should aspire to maximize as much as you can," Cadwell states, but of course game design is a balancing act.

Q: Will you be removing moves like chaining Thresh Thresh's Death Sentence.png pull with Blitzcrank Blitzcrank or maintain that?
A: That ultimately depends, Cadwell explains, on the larger design team. He believes it's a cool and memorable maneuver and they will likely keep it in the game.

Q: Will the complexity of League of Legends make an insurmountable burden of knowledge over time?
A: We do have common patterns in games, Cadwell explains. "All design is a trade-offs," so they just have to make those tradeoffs.

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