What do you get when you take one of the world's most popular player-made Warcraft III mods and break it out into its own game? League of Legends: Clash of Fates.
League of Legends began life as Defense of the Ancients, a custom scenario for Blizzard's real-time strategy game Warcraft III, which features teams of player-controlled hero units trying to infiltrate the opposing team's base in order to destroy their Ancient - generally a strategically placed destructible building. Widely considered to be one of the most popular gaming mods ever created, Defense in its various incarnations is also one of the most played player-created gaming mods, in some parts of the world even rivaling the popularity of Counter-Strike, the ridiculously popular mod to Valve's Half-Life.
So how does a popular gaming mod make the leap to full-fledged video game? Just ask the team at Riot Games, the developer behind the upcoming persistent strategy title League of Legends, which takes the core gameplay of the Defense of the Ancients mod to the next level. Better yet, we asked them for you.
The Evolution of Defense of the Ancients
Marc Merrill, the Executive Producer for League of Legends and President of Riot Games, explains that League came about primarily due to the limitations of Defense of the Ancients as a game mod. Being an offshoot of Blizzard's Warcraft III, there were simply too many features that players were demanding that wouldn't work within Warcraft's framework.
"League of Legends primarily came about because the fans and players of (Defense of the Ancients Allstars) were constantly demanding more features and better around-game services that simply couldn't be provided in the mod. All of our guys felt this pain as early members of the (Defense) community and came together to help address this gap and to deliver something awesome to fans."
League of Legends' Director of Systems Design Tom Cadwell elaborates on some of the features that players craved that Defense of the Ancients couldn't deliver, such as matchmaking, stat tracking, and methods to deter players from simply quitting halfway through a match when their team was losing, which has ruined many a Defense game.
"It also lacks polish in a lot of little places — there are no custom hotkeys, the interface is built for an RTS, not for (Defense), there is no tutorial, etc. And of course, the item shop gameplay is tricky to use since the War3 store interface is not designed to support it. As we thought about developing LoL, it became more and more clear that there were many areas where we could make things better suited for a (Defense)-style game and provide a much more fun experience for players."
Assembling the Team
With exactly that goal in mind, Riot Games was formed in late 2006, with the intention to create League of Legends as its first product. Over the course of the past two years, the team has grown to include nearly 40 members spread across design, art, gameplay, engineering, platform engineering, and community.
Riot Games' team member credits include Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, World of Warcraft, Total Annihilation, Neverwinter Nights 2, Counter-Strike, Dungeon Siege, Sly Cooper, and Heroes of Might and Magic, but despite the high level of pedigree among the professionals, Merrill explains that the core development is still being driven by "the mod guys", including original Defense of the Ancients Allstars co-creator Steve "Guinsoo" Feak.
"The product vision is really being driven from the consumer point of view and is largely in the hands of Guinsoo and the mod guys; they have amazing ideas and are really talented guys."
Tom Cadwell himself worked extensively on the talent system on World of Warcraft, as well as heading up play balance for Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne during his time with Blizzard.
"When I was working on War3 at Blizzard, a lot of us were fans of (Defense). It's been a lot of fun to work with Guinsoo and the guys to instill some additional game design principles into League of Legends."
So What is League of Legends?
While League of Legends does benefit from the incredibly large fan-following Defense of the Ancients enjoys, Merrill explains that introducing new players to a title that is very nearly a new genre - team-based tactical role-playing - presents a real challenge.
"By far the more difficult thing for us will be explaining to non-(Defense) users how the gameplay works and why it is fun. It's extremely fun, but it's also new to many people, so breaking through that user education challenge is one of the problems we're focused on solving. "
Breaking out of the Defense of the Ancients mold a bit, League of Legends presents a much more persistent experience. Players take on the role of a Summoner - an avatar tied to the player's account that advances in power and grows over time. Summoners call forth Champions to represent them in combat, aiding their team in defeating the enemy team. Champions come in many different forms with a variety of unique functions, delivering what Merrill compares to the experience of playing different classes in various traditional role-playing games.
So rather than building up forces as you would in your normal real-time strategy game, you pick one Champion at a time, selecting them based on the powers and abilities you feel would best enhance your team's performance. League of Legends in effect adds specific classes to the RTS formula, similar to a game like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare giving players a choice of which role they hope to fill in their team.
The Call of Duty 4 similarity is no coincidence either, as Cadwell reveals the game was a major influence on League of Legends progression system as well.
"There is no perfect gaming analogy to capture the Summoner / Champion relationship, but some games are starting to come close. We drew a lot of inspiration from the COD4 and Battlefield 2142 unlocks system in designing this system. These offer very simple advancement compared to an MMORPG, but players love the sense of progress and purpose they get from knowing that a couple more wins will unlock something cool. We feel that by further expanding this, and creating a cool persistent identity that players can customize based upon their accomplishments that we can create something even more fun. "
So, in a nutshell, League of Legends is an online team-based strategy game with persistent-world elements akin to the sort of ranking system you would find in a first-person shooter like Call of Duty 4.
Creating a League of Their Own
Taking a mod for an established title like Warcraft III and crafting it into a standalone title takes more than just building upon the gameplay elements established in the Defense of the Ancients mod. The team at Riot has poured a great deal of effort into breaking out of the Warcraft III aesthetic, creating a world that is truly their own.
Art direction plays a big part in creating any game, and especially in a title that springs from
"Our Art Director, Hokyo Lim, is the key artistic visionary for the look and feel of League of Legends. Hokyo was previously on Sly Cooper 1, 2 & 3 up at Suckerpunch Studios in Seattle and just has a phenomenal eye. He brings a very stylized look to the game and has a team of talented guys who have worked on distinctive stylized games like Jak and Daxter and Psychonauts prior to joining Riot. "
The artistic pedigree of the League of Legends certainly shines through in the design of the world and its Champions, a motley crew of super-powerful beings that the player's Summoner can command. From the adorably deadly dark child Annie to the mysterious cardmaster Twisted Fate, each is completely unique to the world of League of Legends, the products of a creative team positively overflowing with new ideas.
"We've created a robust internal process that allows everyone to create Champion ideas," Merrill explains. "We have so many cool ideas, Champion themes and ability kits that by far the hardest part is filtering them down to focus on the best ones that also fulfill a core design need of the game."
Further aiding in making League of Legends is the team's focus on keeping things fun, creating what Tom Cadwell calls "a unique blend of whimsy with hardcore."
"Humor is pretty important to League of Legends. We wanted to create a universe that appeals to the hardcore while maintaining the ability to make fun of itself and not take itself "too seriously". We think that a lot of great games (Team Fortress 2 and World of Warcraft come to mind) have managed to create great gameplay that appeals to the hardcore gamer with lots of badassery, but still manages to have a good sense of humor and reach a wide audience. "
For an excellent example of Riot Games' sense of humor, be sure to visit their team bio page, where each team member is not only given a brief paragraph explaining their existence, but is also assigned a special power, such as Marc Merrill's "Night Merrill" ability.
Marc temporarily enters Beast Mode, which causes all employees to fervently increase in productivity by 300% for the next two hours.
What Comes Next
Nearly two years in development, League of Legends is rapidly approaching the the initial beta phase, where the game will be put to the test by the same people who inspired the original Defense of the Ancient mod, and Tom Cadwell couldn't be more excited.
"We're excited to have gotten the reactions we have seen so far, but ultimately can't wait to get users in the game because that is really what matters. That's really what it's all about for us. For me personally, all of my best experiences in design have been during betas, when you get to see how the stuff you worked on plays out, and see people enjoying the work you've done. "
Players interested in getting in on the ground floor of what could be one of the biggest games ever to sprout from a game mod can visit the official League of Legends website to get the scoop on upcoming beta dates while checking out the game and the talented team behind it.
As for what's coming next from Riot Games, the developer currently has two more games in the works, and while Merrill was tight-lipped about details, he assures us that Riot will continue to innovate in the multiplayer gaming space.
"Our plans for the future are to continue to develop titles that leverage our core technology platform that includes a proprietary back end as well as a game engine and associated toolset, while staying true to our core design philosophy which focuses on replayability through multiplayer emergent behavior, instead of creating massive amounts of linear content that you really only want to play through once. "
For now, Riot continues to work on League of Legends, taking a relatively simple player-made mod for Warcraft III and creating something hopefully as legendary as its name.