Mark Rosewater may not be a name that's familiar to the rank-and-file LoL or EVE player. He's been the driving force behind Magic: The Gathering for over 10 years and he knows a thing or two about creating new content for a highly complex game. The success of Magic is all the more impressive when one rewinds the clock back to 1997. Mirage, the fifteenth Magic set, had just been released and there was a general feeling that, while still a great game, there was a limit to the amount of innovation that could be done in Magic given only a few key fundamentals to the game (cards, life, mana). Fast forward to today and you see a game that is just as healthy and robust as it was 10 years ago. The pro scene for the game is still going well with money behind it comparable to any other top-tier nerd hobby.
Mark Rosewater writes a weekly article on the Magic website about game design. While he has a tendency to harken back unnecessarily to his days as a writer on Roseanne, it's still a generally enjoyable read, providing a fascinating insight into, what many of us would consider, our dream job. One of his big topics is around "design space". His thoughts have gone through three distinct stages:
- Early on, he considered the design space to be effectively unlimited.
- Later, he began to worry that there, in fact, was a limited design space.
- Presently, he thinks that mechanics are limited, but that still leads to an effectively infinite design space for cards.
So how does that all pertain to LoL? Riot recently announced that they were going to be ratcheting down the production schedule of new champions from one per two weeks to about one per three weeks. The reasons why they are slowing down are myriad. First of all, they already have 110 champions. There's a point at which even a pro's head explodes from the information needed to understand the game. Even if you could design 25 champions per year forever, would you want to be sitting here in 2020 with 300 champions to choose from on your loading screen?
Secondly, they want to spend more time on the lore, flavor, graphics and skins that they create. Riot has created a remarkably well fleshed out world considering their first champions were a pretty big hodgepodge of genres. It wouldn't shock me if, at some point, you began to see League of Legends novels in your bookstore (every other major IP in the market has a series of novels). From one point of view, there are 110 books ready to be written and revenue to be realized. Additionally, with the release of Pulsefire Ezreal, they've realized the value of making really fantastic skins. Not just recolorings of existing skins, but actual changes in graphics and sounds. Bad Santa Veigar dropping an Event Horizon with candy canes and Christmas lights strung around it is a really cool and impressive thing. Human history has taught us that art is a bottomless well from which we can invent new things. Focusing on skins as a big revenue source makes a ton of sense.
Lastly, and the reason I wanted to write this, is the concern that Riot can't make more champions while keeping the game simple and accessible. One of the beautiful things about League is that the game is incredibly deep without being overwhelmingly complicated. We have 110 champions, 56 masteries, 92 runes, 100+ items, and a map that's got some really nuanced and subtle things going on. Once you start a game, many of those complexities fade away, leaving you 10 champions with four abilities and six pieces of equipment. You have one goal to accomplish: take down the enemy nexus before yours gets destroyed.
Keeping it complex
The concern around complexity is natural. It's largely been created by this year's crop of champions who are fairly complex. Lulu, Zed and Jayce are not exactly "beginner friendly" champs. However, look at Darius, Diana, and Vi, and you can see how successful more straightforward champs can be. Darius is as subtle as a sledgehammer; yet, based on the number of times he shows up in game, he appears to have been a commercial success.
One of the really neat things about LoL is that you won't find yourself thinking, "Oh, this is just X champion with Y tweak and a different skin." In other games you get that all the time. Even with the new destroyers in EVE, how many people went, "Oh, the new Amarr destroyer is a mini-Curse"? And EVE is a game that is tremendously more complex than LoL.
Having said that, there are a number of barely touched mechanics that could be further fleshed out. This is exactly what Magic did, which was when Mark Rosewater began to stop worrying about design space. Cycling, for example, was a new mechanic that was very straightforward: it allowed you to replace the cycled card with a new card. As a card, it came and went. When they brought it back, they really explored the design space it opened up. Those second-generation cards are sufficiently different from their ancestors yet they all owe their start to that cycling mechanic.
Similarly, LoL has barely touched on:
- Collidable object creation (Anivia)
- Range as a resource (Tristana)
- Health as a resource (Vlad, Mordekaiser)
- CDR as a resource (Zilean)
- Stealth champs (Evelynn)
- Speed as a resource (Hecarim)
- Ranged champs with melee abilities (none?)
- Auto-attacks that heal/buff teammates (none?)
- Debuffs (there are surprisingly few outside of flavors of slow)
That's by no means an exhaustive list. Those all have the potential to spawn a number of other champions, each distinct in both flavor and mechanics enough that no one feels like they just bought a slightly fancy Anivia skin.
How many is too many?
However, we're still left with one concern: what number of champions is "too many"? I said earlier that if we're here in 2020 with 300+ champs, that might be too much. So what's the answer? Answering that question is the major challenge for Riot. They really only have two options: figure out a way to continue to grow the champion pool without creating overwhelming complexity or figure out a way to make their business model work with significantly curtailed champion releases. Their decision will likely determine much of the future of the game.