League of Legends dev details missteps

GDC Online 2011: Riot Games design director Tom Cadwell shares stories of bad decisions made for freemium online game and the lines of thinking that led to them.

Who was there: Riot Games design director Tom Cadwell delivered a talk titled "Designers Are Humans Too--Causes of Poor Design Decisions."

League of Legends is not perfect.

What they talked about: Cadwell started off by explaining that poor design decisions can come from really good designers as much as, if not more than, from poor ones. He identified a few reasons talented designers make serious mistakes. For one, the processes a developer has in place can impede good decision making. Simplifying the point, Cadwell said it doesn't matter how good designers are; if they are told to make a AAA game in a day, it's not going to happen.

Second, designers can be influenced by social or emotional motivations in their lives, and that impedes their abilities as a designer. Finally, designers accept unnecessary constraints that can convince them a compromise is necessary when, in fact, a different approach would get around the supposedly inflexible constraint.

Getting specific, Cadwell told the story of a character named Omen, which was planned but never included in the game. Omen was a quadruped demonlike creature that wasn't great, but few people on the team thought it was actually a bad design. There were some reasons it didn't fit. It wasn't clear from the design if it was a ranged character or a melee character. It also had some overlapping design with other League of Legends heroes, and about halfway through development, the team realized it wasn't getting any better. Eventually Omen was scrapped in favor of Riven.

The real problem with Omen was that the management didn't communicate to the team just how important it was for everything to be exciting. They hadn't made it clear what the standard for "good enough" was, and they didn't actually lay down the law and say "no." The problem is it was difficult for people on the team to say Omen was bad, so Riot needed to make it easy for people to say it wasn't good enough. What they should have been doing was asking the decision makers on the team if they would think this character would be a 10, Cadwell said. And nobody thought it would be.

The next problem Cadwell talked about was "The Grand Unveil," which touches on a problem with iteration. The Grand Unveil happens when the developers ask an artist or designer to see what they're working on and get a response of, "Oh, it's not quite ready yet." The problem is, early iteration is important, and that process eliminates valuable feedback that could keep things on track. While the situation was a little different, on League of Legends, Cadwell said the Kayle and Tryndamere remakes were delayed because there wasn't enough play test time for the team to get feedback on them.

The solution is to treat the first crack at anything as "a crappy first draft," Cadwell said. If the expectations are set low, there's very little downside for people seeing the output and giving valuable early feedback. On top of that, Cadwell said it's important not to let people hide their progress and to ensure that early peer review has no negative repercussions so there is a mistake-forgiving culture in the studio.

Cadwell's next trap was "Too Awesome to Cut," which is typically when the team members have an idea they love (like a shark with a laser beam on its head) and they try to bend the game over backward to make it fit. When developers get excited about a thing like that, Cadwell says they invest emotion and lose objectivity regarding it. On top of that, when the entire team is excited about it (since excitement is contagious), nobody wants to be the buzzkill to tell everyone it's a bad idea.

For example, Cadwell pointed to League of Legends' Shaco. Early on, Shaco had a permanent stealth ability that was clearly not going to work after a few days of play testing. However, the team was so married to the idea that it wasted an entire month working on it before settling on a tweaked version of the ability.

The solution is to make sure decisions are reviewed by peers who weren't involved in the creation of the idea and so aren't "interested parties." The team should also structure processes to identify the opportunity costs of pursuing these ideas to put the choice of including something into a new perspective.

Cadwell then moved on to talk about the problem of forgotten goals, as evidenced by a Monkey King character in League of Legends, based on the mythological Chinese character. Riot wanted to make a character the global audience would enjoy and one that was true to the Monkey King lore. Speaking generally about League of Legends, Cadwell said that the team wants a variety of complexity in characters.

When the Monkey King was first devised, he had a clone following the player around and mirroring all of his moves, which they found incredibly complex to control. However, since the original goal with the Monkey King was to bring new players into the game with an accessible character, the team decided the original goal had been temporarily forgotten with the Monkey King.

To prevent those goals from being forgotten, Cadwell said it's important to check the work in progress versus its original goals from time to time. Beyond that, team members need to be crystal clear on what those goals are and trained to look for deviations from those as they arise.

Creative fatigue is also a major problem, Cadwell said. It usually manifests itself a couple of ways, starting with an inclination that when a lot of creative effort is required, people schedule really long meetings to get them done. However, psychology shows that creativity tapers off after a short time, so three-hour-long meetings are just going to wear people down and result in poor ideas.

Another way creative fatigue occurs is when the team is given a bunch of constraints (it can't be blue, has to be a human, can't be more than 400 polygons, and the like). Eventually, he said there's no wiggle room, and all that comes out of it is a bunch of mediocre solutions. He pointed to Poppy the Iron Ambassador in League of Legends as an example. When designing her, the team gave her three working abilities but was stuck on the fourth "ultimate" ability. Eventually she was given "diplomatic immunity," which Cadwell confessed is a "pretty problematic" ability. In retrospect, he said the team should have made one of the basic abilities optional and instead replaced it with an ultimate.

Finally, Cadwell talked about the problem of designers designing for themselves. It's a common thing for designers to do, but Cadwell said it often winds up too complicated or niche, and it just results in lower-valued features for the players to be prioritized over higher-value features. Cadwell did this himself in League of Legends with the "inverse power law of ninjas." For every ninja in the game, each ninja lost a hit point (the joke being that in movies, the more ninjas they have, the more fodderlike they are). Cadwell got a good chuckle out of it, but it didn't make the game better for players, and there were bugs that cropped up that made it not worth it at all.

Quote: "We all know what we like, and sometimes that's not what our audience likes. Even as you become experienced as a designer, you have to worry about this because the audience changes."--On the dangers of designers designing for themselves instead of the audience.

Takeaway: Mistakes happen, and people make bad decisions. Even experienced and talented designers fall into these traps, so it's crucial that a studio have a variety of processes in place and peer review to keep problematic design decisions from becoming time sinks and hurting the final product.

[UPDATE]: This story originally appeared under the headline, "League of Legends dev admits to Bevy of Blunders." It has since been changed as it may have misrepresented Riot Games' design director Tom Cadwell's comments during his session.

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Discussion

12 comments
Yajarobi
Yajarobi

I give this company a lot of credit. They have really blown up over the past year, and as far as I can tell, they are still getting bigger and bigger (for now). I am sure its taken everyone at the company for a head spin as fast as they have had to expand.

Richardthe3rd
Richardthe3rd

Honestly, I think Omen sounds cooler than Riven. A demon? Definitely cooler than whatever Riven turned out to be. I also thought they did a good job with Dominion. Really opened up a lot of champs I didn't favor in SR like Nocturne, Akali and Vayne. Definitely some balancing issues but it's fun all the same.

Vesica_Prime
Vesica_Prime

Riot Games still commits the cardinal sin of balancing the game for people who cannot play and facerolls the keyboard rather than balancing the game for people who can play or play competitively. Case in point: Nerfing Mordekaiser because pub scrubs can't beat him even though every decent player and their dog can easily counter him.

TurambarGS
TurambarGS

Have encountered some of those issues myself - especially the creative burnout one (usually from trying to cram for deadlines). Good to see that they're aware of them as a dev and have found ways to address them. Also, I don't have a problem with Dominion other than: most ranged dps are utterly outclassed by their melee dps counterparts (and usually just get preyed upon by the assassins the whole game) and tanks are always at the bottom of the scoreboard because there's not enough points given for defending a point compared to hero kills. Other than that, I love Dominion - much more my game type than regular matches.

Sigil-otaku
Sigil-otaku

@ebonized Dominion is a blunder for only one reason, they say it is designed to get new players in and ease them into the game by having it more action and less strategy. Lets just say I've played over 500 games and even I found it a little daunting initially when trying a character I was not used to as you feel you don't have time to look at the equipment and make smart choices but you just need to buy something and get back in the fight. You stand there thinking 'do I need life steal, oh maybe but I need damage and damage always works so I'll buy it'. Then you remember you really needed armour pen too :/ You get over this quickly when you've played a lot but early gamers don't have the time to even get good equipment. Dominion isn't a failure though, I'd say it's a massive success with how popular it is and how it's expanded the MOBA genre's perspective a little. You'll see Valve wanting to do more unique things now that Riot has led the way.

FallenOneX
FallenOneX

@ 2bitSmOkEy I find it worth applauding. It doesn't matter if the the developer makes PC or Console games; The fact that they actually had the guts to go onstage and give a great speech about bad decisions using their own company as an example was exceptional. I would love one of the big 3 in consoles to do a speech like that.

2bitSmOkEy
2bitSmOkEy

Sad to see Gamespot resort to a headline like that. I always feel like GS will do anything in their power to make anything related to pc gaming look bad. I don't even like nor play League of Legends, but this seems pretty low.

jakesnakeel
jakesnakeel

GDC is a convention where game developers get together and share experiences, techniques, and talk franky about the industry. It's what makes the game industry different than most other, there's a real sense of community. I think it's lame that GameSpot plants reporters in sessions in order to grab a catchy headline.

ebonized
ebonized

Dominion was a blunder but they don't realize it yet. Should have spent those resources finishing Magma Chamber and "Project Shiny"

Razorocfu
Razorocfu

Keep charging 975RP or 6300ip for every new hero, besides the fact that their pure CABBAGE!!. Nice Dominion mode, didn't even sign in to play that crap. Goodjob wasting your time.

TrueIori
TrueIori

LoL problem is that all their heroes are basically the same , every damn hero now needs a damn cc. Can't wait for Dota 2