Player Interdependency

How much should the success and enjoyment of a game depend on the performance of teammates? That’s the question struggling to find an answer in League of Legends and other MOBA games.

Plenty of developers despise use of the term, but I’ll apply it here: LoL is addictive. I continue to play for some reasons obvious and others less clear. In truth, I’m right in its core target audience. As a recovering DoTA player, I spent countless hours with WotC co-workers as we moved from one Blizzard RTS game to another, culminating in DoTA. Along the way, we became better players and got to see another form of exception-based design take hold in RTS games of the 90’s and 00’s.

Generally, interdependencies are encouraged in RPG-like and class-based systems. A good way to make each player feel special is to make them simply different from one another. That’s doubly true when you’re selling the unique bits for real cash. Even outside of the considerations of the business model, player differentiation adds to the variety and longevity of the experience. The addition of RPG-like leveling during an RTS match creates something like WoW PvP at Alvin and the Chipmunks’ speed. You level to cap in fifteen minutes, and you can outfit your character with gear equally quickly. The complexity is certainly there, but players can be exposed to complexity over time in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. In truth, then, the issue with LoL’s team-orientated play lies in its non-character structures.

To review as briefly as possible the design: teams of five face off, with each player controlling a unique character. Once begun, a match takes place inside a sealed environment that lasts until a team loses its citadel. Destroying the enemy citadel is the winning condition, but throughout most of the game, players focus on killing enemy champions. This is not unlike behavior in the typical shooter match: most players play for kills, regardless of game mode or objective.

That’s okay, though: the rewards for killing an enemy are huge. While a player gleefully sniping away on a Conquest map may do nothing to help you win Battlefield 3, a player with a good k/d ratio in League of Legends can win the game without ever assisting in the invasion of the enemy base. Killing an enemy has all sorts of good things going for it:

  • XP. Leveling makes the killer stronger.
  • Gold. Buying upgrades makes the killer stronger.
  • Free time. With your enemy dead, you have time (30 seconds or more) to farm additional experience and gold in relative safety.
  • Negative gold and negative XP for your victim. Each death invokes both respawn time and time to get back to the battlefront. Nothing is being earned during this period.
  • Feelings of dominance and confidence. The endorphin-winning psychology of “I beat you” and all that.

Are such benefits necessary? Of course it “feels appropriate” that you get rewarded, but kills have to be rewarded to some degree. Kills don’t directly help you to destroy the enemy’s base, but indirectly, they help like nothing else in the game does. The material gains for the winner and the opportunity costs for the victim make team kill/death ratios highly predictive of which team wins. Kills bring the game to its conclusion. The positive feedback loop puts one team into a commanding position, and ultimately it is common to destroy the enemy base when its defenders are dead and waiting to respawn.

Which brings us to the point of today’s blog post: player interdependency and its consequences. Generally speaking, the effective way to kill an enemy character is to bring a friend to the fight. Outnumber your enemy, push some buttons, profit. This 101-level strategy encourages players to work together and coordinate, and it rewards map knowledge and awareness during offensive and defensive play. A small edge in strategic teamwork can easily hand victory to a team composed of players that are individually weaker.  In terms of consequences, teamwork encouragement is beneficial. So far, so good.

The corollary is that after slaying an enemy champion three or so times without reciprocity, the victim’s state becomes debilitating. The player must bring in assistance to stay even, or risk additional deaths. Here’s the big kicker: killing an enemy player makes you more effective not just against that player, but against all other players. That’s true even with the inclusion of diminishing gold returns for an individual player’s subsequent deaths and the reduction of XP for killing lower level enemies. Both work to nullify the effect of one player dying repeatedly, but it’s not enough to change much. Once one of your allies has died a few times, he’s likely to have empowered an enemy so much that not only can your ally not handle a 1-on-1 encounter, but you can’t either. Hence your team’s Achilles heel is your worst or least experienced player. His failure is a single point of failure capable of bringing the entire team down.

That’s a fundamental difference from what we see in other multiplayer games genres. It’s this point that a mass audience has trouble accepting. The propensity for teammates, especially players new to LoL, to lose matches through poor play (or intentionally poor play, aka “griefing”) causes a poisonous social atmosphere. In-game player ranting, often the only form of in-game discussion to take place, showcases the sewer of anonymous internet interaction, made in colorful four-letter invectives. Why such passion and hatred? Because your teammates’ poor play not only makes it difficult for your team to win long-term, it also directly hurts your own moment-to-moment play.

It isn’t a good sign that players would quit many of their LoL games if they could do so without fear of being “punished.” In fact, they continue to ragequit when sufficiently broken of spirit.

There are excellent, team-based tactics to respond to a struggling teammate. Get a gank of your own in against the emergent threat. The increased bounty rewards for ending an enemy kill streak try to encourage this. Or have your weaker player switch lanes to be with a more successful player. Do some more jungling. Those strategies work well enough for an organized team. The fact is that LoL is so highly player interdependent that it’s best when played with premade teams. In other words, tournament-style play. Great for e-sport, but not the game I would design for a larger audience.

A Conquest/Domination map should be more approachable than DoTA-style laning

How to increase LoL’s accessibility? Well, you can adopt a new game mode entirely. You could change the game to support either more players (each player thus having less effect, for good or ill) or fewer players (reducing the chance for a random player to throw things off). Five versus five may be a un-sweet spot of player interdependency. But what if you wanted to make alterations to the current game mode? The solution is less clear. If you reduce the bonus for killing or the penalties for dying, would games drag on too long? Game length is already a problem. I’d still start there — reduce the respawn time during the early game to zero, reduce some of the kill bonuses — and see what happens.

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