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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