If you know me, you’ll know that I play a lot of League of Legends. If you really know me, you’ll know that my favorite champion in the game has always been LeBlanc, the Deceiver.
For those of you that play League, forgive me for what I have just told you.
For those of you that don’t, let me explain a little bit about what LeBlanc can do. LeBlanc is a high mobility assassin who uses a combo of abilities to kill low armored targets as quickly as possible, and then uses teleportation magic to escape unscathed. She is the very definition of an assassin in League of Legends, which may be one of the reasons I was drawn to her so strongly.
However, in a recent series of updates, LeBlanc’s ability to kill her targets quickly and her ability to escape quickly were both drastically reduced. I was puzzled by these changes. Her win-rate in games was only 47%, and the games she was winning were only because the players had the skill to spend countless hours mastering her incredibly detailed skill chains. LeBlanc—from a balance standpoint—was not overpowered, and was certainly not broken. These LeBlanc nerfs were not an isolated instance: Riot (the company behind League of Legends) had been weakening assassins and single-target mages (such as Fizz, Veigar, Syndra, Zed, etc.) in several prior patches. So why did Riot Games decide to nerf LeBlanc? Their claim was that her combo was “hard to react to”, and by decreasing the speed in which she killed her targets, opponents would have more counter play options.
Needless to say, LeBlanc’s already mediocre win-rate plummeted. This isn’t really surprising, since assassins in League of Legends require a few things to compete; high damage, quick burst to execute it quickly, and the ability to escape once they’ve killed their target. LeBlanc’s ability to escape wasn’t changed, and her damage was still in-tact, but she was no longer able to kill her targets quickly enough to be the assassin she needed to be.
It’s easy to see how playing against a champion like that might lead to frustration. Dying in a quarter of a second is an agitating thing and may lead to the feeling that there’s nothing you can do to prevent it.
The issue here was clear – Riot Games had a vision of what they wanted interaction to look like between players, and assassins weren’t in that vision. This gets me to the heart of my question – is sacrificing the opportunity at customization worth bettering player interaction?
Customization is essentially the ability to either tailor your character to your personal desires, or pick a character that benefits you the most. In a role-playing game, tailoring your character is part of the fun. You can pick a class you enjoy and choose your items to help build your character into what you want to be doing. In a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) like League of Legends, there are over 100 different characters to choose from, so even if the amount you can change each champion is small, you still have ample opportunity to pick one that supports your playstyle.
On the flip-side, player interaction is a vision of how the developer wants gameplay between players to go. For example, Halo and Counter Strike are both first-person shooters, but the gameplay interaction in skirmishes is very different. Counter-Strike is very reliant on getting the drop on your opponent, since damage is very high and health is very low; headshots are incredibly important. In Halo, most shootouts are very extended fights that often end in Melee battles, which require careful spacing and knowledge of how to use the terrain to your advantage better than your opponent.
League of Legends has over 100 different champions which means countless different player interactions. In the case of assassins, the goal for the target is to prevent the assassin from having the opportunity in the first place. This means sticking with your team, making sure you know where everyone is at all times, and not leaving yourself vulnerable by wandering into unknown territory. This is doesn’t sound like gameplay to most, because you’re simply trying to avoid the fight before it even starts, but it’s actually a whole new form of gameplay which includes new strategies on how to play against these characters. But that raises the question – is that what League is supposed to be about?
I talk to people about this idea a lot; the driving principle behind your game. What is your game supposed to be about? I don’t mean setting or theme or plot or genre, I mean what is the player supposed to feel like they spent their time doing? A good example of this is in an adventure game. You might make all the damage incredibly realistic leaving your player constantly hurt from the shootouts they got themselves into. This is fine. But you need to accept that a large portion of your player’s gameplay will be them looking for health potions so they will be capable of surviving the next fight. On the other hand, you could make your character an indestructible monster that destroys enemies with impunity. Depending on which route you took, your player would get a completely different sense of feel from the game.
Including assassins as an archetype in your game is perfectly fine from a customization standpoint. It’s a very valid playstyle that appeals to a wide variety of gamers. However, it adds aspects to your game that may be viewed as unhealthy depending on what you want your game to be about. In League of Legends, high-level play is based around carefully controlling vision and making sure that your team sticks together and doesn’t wander into unknown territories, so having an archetype of character that specifically punishes wandering off is mostly okay.
Another example of game where the assassin archetype is present is Team Fortress 2, and the assassin archetype is the “Spy”, who can backstab players for an instant kill and disguise himself as their teammates. There is a noticeable balance of power in the spy—he is very hard to play well, and if you are caught before you can execute your backstab, you have very limited means to escape or fight back. However, including Spies in the game leads to unintended gameplay, where players will “spy-check” one another, which just means shooting people that are on your team. Because there is no friendly-fire in the game, there’s no risk to this, and there’s a chance you’ll actually kill a spy. This is a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of the game, but it does push the issue of how having a wide-range of archetypes can sometimes bring unexpected “gameplay” into your game.
Just because something is balanced in terms of power level doesn’t mean it’s fun to play against, and just because something isn’t fun to play against doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to play as. Even though customization is a good thing, it’s not always worth sacrificing gameplay for. Remember that your game needs to be focused on the gameplay that matters to you as a developer – don’t get distracted, and don’t include ideas that warp the experience of your game. Games exist to be both a source of entertainment and a world of free expression. Making sure that the two go hand-in-hand is important to making a balanced environment that everyone can enjoy.