Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Practice 2012: Building a Legendary IP: Growing Creative in League of Legends

Christina Norman, lead creative director at Riot Games, talked about the current problems of the League of Legends IP and how the company is taking measures to fix them.

  • Christina was previously the lead programmer of the dialogue system in the first Mass Effect, and then became the lead game designer focusing on combat in the Mass Effect sequels.
  • League of Legends is currently the most played game with 32 million monthly active users (MAU) and three billion hours played a month. The average player plays above 30 hours a month. It's a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) with 107 champions at the time of the conference.
  • League of Legends is an e-sport and not a narrative focused game, but the story is still important because the players love the characters. Players have deep emotional relationships with the champions.
  • Outside of the game, players also spend time in forums discussing the game and making their own media about the game. Players love great stories, but the League of Legends lore needs work.
  • The lore has issues. It was appropriate for a small action game, back when the goal was to get to 20,000 concurrent users. But now the game has reached 30 million concurrent users.
  • There are four key issues with the current lore and storytelling.
    1. Tournament IP.
      1. The lore explains that to stop the warring between Noxus and Demacia, a magical tournament was created to resolve all conflict. In this world, all combat occurs in the field of justice, the powerful summoners control everything including the champions, and there is effectively no war. This restricts a lot of conflict and limits suspenseful storytelling.
      2. The lore also over explains things, including game mechanics. To explain how allies or family members occur on opposite teams during some games, the lore says that the champions are mind-controlled by the summoners. To explain death and revivals, the champions are snatched right before they enter the underworld and are magically restored to life. The over explanations create an awkward and unbelievable world.
      3. To create an awesome IP, you have to respect what the players love and revise when necessary. Riot Games want to tell stories outside the tournament and outside the game mechanics.
    2. Lack of character depth.
      1. The champions in the game have a lot of personality, but no depth. Mordekaiser, for example, is an undead death knight that's so badass that when he kills you, he makes your soul turn on your allies. But Pikachu is also badass that he deals extra damage when it's the trainer's birthday. Being badass doesn't give a character any depth.
      2. The old process of creating a character involved someone getting inspired, they would write a one or two page bio of the character, the bio gets peer reviewed, and it gets iterated. This resulted in pretty good bios, but it was not good at creating depth.
      3. Christina was inspired by writer's rooms, putting several creative people in a room for several hours to talk out all the details. She instilled a new process of character creation which involves a bio slice being defined, creative people from different departments would talk for 4 to 12 hours about the character, notes are taken and written into a full-fledged bio, the team approves and validates the bio, and finally, the group iterates on the bio.
      4. This is a powerful collaborative process, but the drawbacks include long ideation sessions, needing a showrunner to provide leadership and creative direction, and potentially average ideas resulting from design by committee. The key benefits, however, are higher quality characters, team buy-in and shared vision, and the group is more creative than any one individual.
      5. Depth is added to the characters by giving them motivations, relationships, and complications. In Mordekaiser's revised back story, he is an undead general who enslaves souls to join his army and doesn't remember his life before his death. Now the character is deep enough to write a television series about.
    3. Lack of world depth.
      1. There are 12 major factions in the world of Valoran, but they are not clearly visualized to the player. One of the locations in this world is the Shadow Isles, which previously was just the place where the evil undead characters were from. There was no sense of a real background history or visual identity of the place.
      2. Christina looked outside of game narrative for inspiration. She found the House Lanister from Game of Thrones, which has a very distinctive personality and identity that support its characters. The characters in turn support the world. Riot Games also instilled a new world creation process that's very similar to the character process. 
      3. The visuals of the revised Shadow Isles were inspired by x-ray flower photography. In this area, life doesn't belong here, trees and flowers are spectral, and if you die here, you stay here forever. Characters are not just an undead horde from this location; they have motivations and reciprocal relationships.
    4. Wall of text.
      1. The narrative and back story of League of Legends were told in long walls of text hidden in the character details. This is not the ideal way to tell a story, but when your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.
      2. Riot Games needed more tools to tell stories. One new tool they developed was login voice over monologues. These were delayed by 30 seconds so that they didn't annoy players every time they opened the game, but they had a positive side effect because it made them feel like a discovery.
      3. Another tool was in-game voice over. This is not new to games, but it was especially hard to implement in a game with so much action going on. The team added some story bits when capturing alters at Twisted Treeline, a map that takes place in the Shadow Isles.
      4. One other tool was themed content releases. In the month of October, they focused their content releases around Halloween and the Shadow Isles. The map, two champions, bios, icons, skins, and ward skins all released in tandem to set the theme.
  • With a revised lore, characters, world, and storytelling techniques, the League of Legends IP is now ripe for future content. Movies, comics, and novels are all possible now.
  • The key takeaways are to create lore that supports stories outside of the game, use collaboration to develop character depth and rich worlds, and promote less reading.
Question and Answer
  • At Riot Games, anyone can submit a character idea. There is no formal structure to submit because adding a formal structure would make it feel like an exam and discourage people from doing it. The submitted idea then goes through curation and the creator makes a one-sheet. Keep the bio as short as possible because nobody reads documentation.
  • Skins exist outside the lore, but some fan fiction are inspired by skins.
  • People who enter the writer's room come in with the knowledge that 90% of ideas are going to get shot down. Sometimes an idea is saved for another character, but isn't right for the character they're talking about.
  • Riot culture supports moving around a lot. Employees need to be talented in creative and technical fields.
  • Christina plays about 20 hours a month of League of Legends outside of work.
  • You need simple in-game, surface level metaphors for the characters.
  • Christina is not concerned about the new narratives getting wasted if the company decides to never do anything with them outside of the game. She is more concerned about not having the opportunity to expand on the characters. She wants to keep the door open for these possibilities.
  • Character names are the most debated and passionate topic at Riot Games.
  • Be wary of code names because once the name is out, people get emotionally attached to it.
  • Dota 2 mostly uses functional names than the character names. People get anchored to the name already and they stuck with it.
  • In e-sports, people get and form narratives surrounding the players as well. Casters also help further these narratives.

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