Despite being a very fun game, there are many, many things in League of Legends that desperately need to be fixed, improved upon, or added in the first place. A key figure at League’s development studio Riot wants the game’s tens of millions of fans to know that delays for crucial improvements aren’t the result of misguided priorities.
Jeffrey Lin, Riot’s social system designer who’s better known inside the League of Legends community by his handle “Riot Lyte” (or just Lyte) gave an explanation for Riot’s workflow last night on his ask.fm page in response to a fan question that many players have been wondering about: why hasn’t the game gotten a new (and hopefully better) replacement for its outdated client yet? Developers at Riot have spoken about releasing a revamped client for more than a year now, but players haven’t seen any hints of the thing show up in the game yet.
The concern from fans is both a popular and real one. It’s easy to look at things like League’s archaic in-game client, or its awesome-sounding-but-never-fully-functioning “team builder” matchmaking mode, or Riot’s many attempts at a streamlined system to combat player toxicity, and see little more than a bunch of exciting but unfulfilled promises. And the situation only looks worse for fans when Riot keeps making bigger and crazier promises before actually seeing through the ones it’s already made, like the company did at the beginning of 2015 by announcing the crazy lag-killing network its working on. That, and the fact that Riot excuses delays for things like a new client by saying they take time...while simultaneously pumping out stuff like priced character skins and new champions with the speed of a charged up gatling gun.
Add all that up, and you can understand why many reasonable League of Legends players like myself sometimes feel that Riot has got its priorities wrong: taking its sweet time with much-needed fixes that they can’t really charge people money for, while continuing to put out premium content that will deliver them short-term returns. In his response, Lin counters this line of thinking by pointing out that producing stuff like characters or skins doesn’t mean Riot is not prioritizing important things like the new client. It just looks like that’s the case because, unsurprisingly, releasing an individual character skin is a hell of a lot easier than making a whole new client for 67 million-odd people (emphasis mine):
It [a new client] is a priority. However, to explain a little bit about development, we have many different teams with different expertise. For example, a Champion Team has team members who specialize in game engineering, art, game mechanics design, and although they can make excellent champions, they aren’t well-suited to make new skins or systems like Leagues or Tribunal or a client. So, different teams have different priorities and every project is a different size and timeline. So, Feature A might be a 3 month project, while Feature B might be a 6 month project and Feature C might be a 9 month project. But, Feature C might be the highest priority at the studio, even though it would ship “last” in this example. You really can’t determine a studio’s priority based on what “launches,” because all of these features launch on very different cadences because of their scope, not because of the size of their teams necessarily or their priority in the studio.
As a studio, you tend to have a few “big bets” at a time which are big projects that take quite a long time, but we believe are worthwhile. The client and Team Builder Draft are considered mid- to larger sized projects so it takes longer to launch these than say, one new skin. So, when you see a bunch of smaller features and projects “finish” before the big projects, it does NOT mean we only prioritize smaller features and projects—it just means smaller projects tend to have shorter timelines and therefore ship earlier and more often.
These sorts of “why is it taking so damn long?” questions have been on Lin’s mind a lot this month. Earlier in July, he sounded aggravated responding to a similar question about why Riot “takes so long to implement stuff.” He suggested that concerns like this are “naive and ignorant” about the realities of game development:
I’m going to be honest, every time someone asks about why Company A or B is moving so slow developing new software whether it’s a game or app, developers are crushed inside. It’s such an unfair question, and people need to stop. Many years ago when I was just a gamer, I used to think the same things. I thought, “Why does it take so long to implement this feature, it seems so easy.” I was an idiot.
I started visiting studios whether it was some at EA, Ubisoft, Blizzard, Valve and Riot, and companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. We can all agree that these are respectable companies, and guess what? All of them have their pros and cons and you can’t even imagine the challenges that face these companies everyday. How long do you think it took Google to develop Gmail? How many projects lasted years at these companies and had to be canceled before you ever heard about them? How long did it take Facebook to re-design their Thumbs Up icon? Developers do what they do because they are passionate about building stuff. They put all of their heart, sweat and tears into these games and products. There are nightmares in the games industry about “crunch” where teams work excessive hours every single week just to get a game out the door a few months early and guess what? These developers burn out and quit and never make another game. How many amazing games will never be made because of the non-stop harassment and stress that gamers put on them? Developers are never going to be fast enough in some eyes because the outside person doesn’t know how difficult it is to build industry-changing, high quality software that can scale to the global masses.
“Could we be faster at Riot? Of course,” Lin concluded. “Every company could be faster, and there are always things to improve. But, when you’re making stuff for over 67 million players around the globe, even the simplest designs become quite complicated.”
Lin makes a lot of good points that are supported by League of Legends’ recent history. When the developer finally got around to putting out an often-asked-for update to its in-game HUD recently, the game’s forums and subreddit exploded with hyperbolic exclamations about how it’s the worst thing ever. And when they redesigned a woman champion recently to make her slightly less of a “sexy MOBA lady,” fans recoiled in disgust in an almost identical way. Having an audience the size of League’s can make the developer seem risk averse and conservative by any number of people’s individual standards.
At the same time, Lin’s points are ones that game developers always seem to rush to whenever they’re faced with criticism from fans and players. The “you don’t understand how hard it is!” line can be legitimate, but it can also be an easy way to disengage from a fight you know you’re not going to win, to put it in a very MOBA way. Lin can’t really account for the ways that League of Legends’ neverending parade of new premium content makes Riot Games tons of money that a) its publicly-traded parent company Tencent Holdings undoubtedly demands that it makes and b) pressures them to keep making new pricey stuff rather than diverting more resources to something essential that they couldn’t charge people for, like a new client. If League of Legends existed in an economic environment that didn’t require it to churn out content at a nonstop clip (much like Gawker Media, the company that owns and publishes Kotaku), then its publishers could hire more developers to focus on improving and maintaining the content that already exists.
But calling out gamers for harassment is a much simpler solution than taking a hard look at the business models that’ve been applied to League of Legends as a free-to-play game and Riot Games as its publisher.