As everyone enjoys Hexakill: Twisted Treeline, it felt like a good time to give some insight into how we make Featured Game Mode’s by analyzing our approach to the previous mode, Ascension. Hopefully I can give you guys some insight into our iterative development process, what we take away and learn from each mode, plus some stories about things that didn’t make it.
We start each Featured Game Mode by trying to define what kind of experience it should be. There are design pillars which help guide this, but we often want you to “discover a new or interesting way to engage with your favourite champions in League of Legends”. Of course we still want modes to feel like LoL to some degree, so you can expect to level up, gain power and fight other champions, but we’re not afraid to bend the rules. Sometimes there’s an overarching theme we’re working towards with a mode (e.g. Shurima) and other times it’s a fun mechanic or rule change that just wants to be turned into a mode (e.g. One For All, URF). The golden rule is that regardless of its shape, a mode has to be fun!
With Ascension, we wanted to highlight the Shurima event and bring some of the pervasive lore themes like “power corrupts” through with fun gameplay. It needed to feel scrappy and intense so we started drifting towards a Team Deathmatch (TDM) kind of feel. The Crystal Scar’s circular shape made it a strong initial candidate for that kind of gameplay. The tower pads nicely doubled as spawn points enabling a strategic choice for players when entering the battle (and also neatly solved design issues around TDM spawning in the LoL ecosystem). It wasn’t going to just work ‘as is’ though, so we ripped out the towers and minions to fast forward through the laning phase of regular LoL, enabling you to get straight to the fighting! With those changes, daily playtests began to have a running theme emerge: a constant ‘struggle for power’.
Two problematic design issues became evident during prototype playtests that I want to zoom in on:
Ascension initially felt very snowbally, and while we want to reward #bigplays, it doesn’t feel great to make a single mistake and never be able to recover. We tested and eventually kept the following ‘anti-snowball mechanic’ in Ascension; all players on both teams had exactly the same gold & XP at all points throughout a match. This meant that at any point in time, you always had an equal chance to win/lose any teamfights. There was no mathematical ‘snowballing’ possible in Ascension, making the Ascended buff the only actual statistical advantage on the map. Even if the other team was stomping, you had as much chance to win the next Xerath fight, Ascend, and make a comeback. A side-effect was that even when losing badly, you could still get valuable skirmishing practice right up to the end of a game, due to never actually being ‘behind’. We were pretty happy with how this solution played out across Ascension’s lifetime.
2) Lack of ‘strategic choice’
There was also an early lack of ‘strategic choice’ in the mode. Original prototype playtests felt too sparse and barren for a TDM, which led to us shrinking the map into the tighter, more action-packed jungle area of the Crystal Scar. This increased the action, but still felt like a directionless TDM. Our team internally dubbed it “Murderball Simulator 2014″. The prevailing meta was to just group as 5 and roll around the map killing anything that moved. :/ While murderball was fun in short bursts, it was too monotonous, and we’d tire of it after only a few games. There were no peaks or valleys in the tension curve across the game life. It needed a higher objective layer to float above the TDM, giving purpose to your rampage (rather than killing everything in sight being a means to its own end). We eventually settled on the Relics of Shurima & Ancient Ascendant Xerath combo that shipped, but here’s some of the ideas that didn’t make it:
- Transferring the Ascended buff player-to-player based on the killing blow. This was one of the earliest prototypes and just led to a snowbally comp style with monotonous gameplay. Badtimes.
- Capturable towers that provided an area of vision around them while held. These were basically ignored as the vision wasn’t valuable enough to directly affect the scoreboard. “Hmm, I could grab some vision… or maul someone’s face off with Udyr… face mauling please!”
- Transforming the 4 remaining teammates on an Ascended team into ‘sand soldiers‘. We wrote a whole new kit for these ‘sand soldiers’ based around helping the Ascended track, hunt and lock down kills. Turns out that taking away your ability to play your favourite champion is a terrible idea. The kit tried to walk a middle-line of doing everything, and ended up being good at nothing in particular. “Why am I this sand soldier guy trying to slow guys and shield the Ascended? I could be doing this as Lulu… and WAY BETTER!”
We often hear from players that they would like more ways to express their skill level visually. With the ‘Perfect Ascension’ icon, we wanted to try making a ‘challenge mode’ icon to reward exceptional play. It needed to reflect actual gameplay excellence to be valuable (if it were easy, it would have no value right?) and not be compulsory in any way. The icon didn’t require any deviation from regular Ascension play or strategy, and happened naturally in the course of playing to win. You just needed to win VERY convincingly (IE: play the perfect game). Many strategies were kicked around as the best path to a perfect game, but we largely saw that if it ever came down to a scrap at Xerath, then your team probably wasn’t playing the perfect game. For those of you who did earn the icon though, nice work! You now hold one of the rarest summoner icons there is.
Each mode brings with it a new wild west of meta where initially “anything is possible”. After about a week though, the sands settle and most players seem to have a good grip on “what’s OP”. It was pretty widely accepted that “assassins were strong in Ascension”. But let’s look at some comparisons.
That may or may not surprise some of you. However… who was actually strong in Ascension?
Yeah that’s Taric up there in 5th, despite having a stunningly unpopular pick rate. Oh don’t worry, we never saw that one coming either… truly outrageous. This is a good example of why having these modes as temporary is a boon. It gives us the freedom to experiment without the burden of having a static and well-documented meta.” Featured Game Modes don’t have comparable depth to Summoner’s Rift, and having them on for a few weeks at a time keeps them fresh and exciting (if Ascension was permanent these meta numbers might have staled fairly quickly thereafter).
Featured Game Modes are a great chance for us to learn what’s fun in LoL, what doesn’t work, or what we’d like to do better next time around. The Perfect Ascension icon highlighted for us the possibility of misalignment between players on the game’s win condition. Specifically, resolution of the icon shouldn’t have been possible before the end of a match. This is something we’re taking on board.
We were originally going to make Perfect Ascension an ‘opt-in experience’ and lock it to premade 5-mans, as not everyone on a team might be bought in on trying to earn the icon. This felt too limiting though, and we wanted to give everyone a chance to be rewarded for playing that ‘perfect game’. One thing that we noticed overall with the Perfect Ascension was that it forged a lasting memory for everyone, whether they achieved it or not. This is something we’re keen to do again, with maybe a different shape.
There was also the eventual solution for how we shrunk the map size and limited player movement using the ‘black darkness’ on the ground. It was a functional, but not terribly coherent solution. While it did its job (barely) for the first outing of Ascension, there were lots of readability issues for players when initially encountering it. Even after multiple interactions, it was still often unclear to many players that it represented the ‘edge of the playspace’. If we ever bring Ascension back, that’s one of the first things we’d like to tidy up.
Both of these examples show the value of Featured Game Modes being temporary. While we might have let something like the ‘black darkness’ solution hold back shipping a permanent mode, the temporary nature of Featured Game Mode’s let players enjoy the mode for a few weeks and make some #bigplays. The highs and lows felt chasing the Perfect Ascension (and the permanent memento for those of you who got it) also would not have been feasible to try. Plus when the mode is done, we can learn from your feedback, and use it to inform any similar upcoming design features, or maybe tweak the mode and bring it back at some point.
In the near future I want to chat about the current state of Featured Game Modes. It’s been over a year since we started doing them and is a good time to take stock of what we’ve done, where we are now and what we’re aiming to do in 2015. Until then, see you on the rift! ^_^/
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If you have any questions, feel free to ask me at @NoL_Chefo or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org