Howdy, Tahalden here with the next installment of The 6 Design Values.
Ever heard of cookie-cutter builds? That’s exactly what Riot is trying to avoid by defining Meaningful Choice as a staple for League. All gameplay aspects have to adhere to this aspect of design: Champions, items, runes & masteries, team compositions, strategies, and so on.
The champion that truly embodies this particular design value is Kha’Zix, who has seen a lot of changes since he was first introduced in September 2012. Most of those changes deal with Kha’Zix’s evolutions, in order to balance them to be equally viable, but with different applications. Needless to say, this has not been an easy task.
Let’s dive in. Welcome to Design 101!
(Artwork by kkako)
The second design value Riot holds dear is an essentially simple concept: it makes no sense to offer a choice for something that isn’t really a choice by virtue of being one-sided. If two options are offered and one is significantly better, typically no one will pick the other. While straightforward conceptually, achieving meaningful choice in a competitive game such as League of Legends is actually a very complex problem.
RPG players know the phenomenon of cookie-cutter builds. Spending skill points on a mastery tree in League is very similar to character customization in RPGs but are you truly customizing if you pull up Google to look for builds for every new character you play? Customization should always reflect either personal preference or a certain goal through which you want to achieve victory.
“A meaningful choice requires tradeoffs. If it’s a no-brainer, it’s not interesting. If nobody understands the consequences of their decision, it’s not engaging. If there’s a better choice rather than a different choice, players become followers rather than pioneers. We support new strategies by ensuring that tradeoffs exist for the game as a whole.” (source)
So then why offer choice? Would it not be easier to just lock down the options that make the most sense for each case? Well, choice is what makes the game fun. Without choice the game would be rather dull and it’s human nature to want to try things out, experiment, figure out optimal ways of playing a game.
In fact, choice defines a game. In League this is immediately obvious when you consider there’s 119 champions (Gnar-ly 120, in the next patch) to choose from.
But that choice must be meaningful. There’s a very interesting article over at Gamasutra.com discussing this topic in the context of RPGs. While vastly different in design and goals, MOBAs can take away a few perks from RPGs and their vast pool of techniques to offer meaningful choice.
Meaningful choice requires the following four components (source):
- Awareness – The player must be somewhat aware they are making a choice (perceive options)
- Gameplay Consequences – The choice must have consequences that are both gameplay and aesthetically oriented
- Reminders – The player must be reminded of the choice they made after they made it
- Permanence – The player cannot go back and undo their choice after exploring the consequences
These four components can be applied to almost anything in League that requires a player’s choice, but whether or not the implementation is successful in each and every case can spawn many articles such as this one. Let’s focus on one gameplay aspect that applies Meaningful Choice most obviously: the evolutions of Kha’Zix.
Meaningful Choice – Applied to Kha’Zix
As a reminder of what those four evolutions entail, as of Patch 4.9:
- Q – Evolved Enlarged Claws: Additional bonus damage to isolated targets, as well as slightly increased range for auto attacks and Taste Their Fear.
- W – Evolved Spike Racks: Number of Void Spike projectiles increased to three and fired in a cone, as well as a more powerful slow. Grants vision of nonstealthed units for a short while.
- E – Evolved Wings: Drastically increases Leap range and resets the cooldown on kill or assist.
- R – Evolved Active Camouflage: Adds an additional charge to Void Assault and doubles stealth duration per charge.
Excellent! Kha’Zix gets to enhance his abilities by a significant margin. So what’s the catch? Well, players get to choose only three evolution meaning they’ll miss out on one of them.
- As indicated in the tool tip for Void Assault evolving an ability is part of leveling up Void Assault, i.e. up to three times. Hence they are aware of having to make a choice and the options are clearly lined out.
- Evolutions enhance specific abilities and visually change Kha’Zix but lock out one enhancement. These are important gameplay consequences that can make a difference during a late-game team fight.
- Ever chose not to evolve Kha’Zix’ Leap? In that particular game, did you encounter a team fight that ended with every enemy team member at low health bars? Sucks to be reminded that you did not evolve Leap.
- There’s no save button in a game of League. Any evolution you choose is permanent.
As elaborately explained in the Gamasutra article, the third aspect of reminders actually concerns the emotional impact a choice might have on the long term in an RPG. This emotional aspect is less relevant in League but can still be related to the joy or pride you might feel when pulling off an amazing play.
Or… yes, the anger and rage players feel when things go bad (don’t use chat when that happens!)
The other components of making a choice meaningful are readily translatable from RPGs into League and it looks like Kha’Zix’ evolutions are a great example of that under the assumption that the choices are not one-sided. If one of the four evolutions is sub-par, it will always be left unevolved thereby defeating the point of offering the choice.
Ideally, each evolution grants Kha’Zix a new tool to adapt to the situation. If you start the game as Kha’Zix and already know which abilities you will evolve, something’s wrong with the offered choice.
Balancing Kha’Zix’ evolutions have proven to be quite a challenge and this showcases how difficult it is to successfully implement Meaningful Choice.
Kha’Zix is arguably the champion that’s seen the most balance changes since his introduction to the League without seeing his kit reworked entirely. His identity has swung from an assassin to a fighter and back a few times. While not necessarily a problem to allow Kha’Zix to fulfill both roles, it does become an issue when he can fulfill both at the same time.
Kha’Zix’ primary role has always been to assassinate key targets during skirmishes or before a team fight even starts. Prior to Patch 4.9, Kha’Zix’ Void Assault reduced incoming damage by 50% turning him into a tanky late-game fighter that could:
- Get in.
- Kill squishies.
- Play hide and seek in the heat of the battle.
- Kill tanks.
- And survive.
Unhealthy pattern for the game. Like, really.
In the end, Kha’Zix saw the removal of damage reduction on Evolved Active Camouflage, and no more execution damage or additional damage to nonisolated targets on Evolved Enlarged Claws. As compensation, Evolved Spike Rack now slows more, grants vision of targets hit and does more damage to jungle monsters.
Interestingly this unhealthy pattern came to be because Riot tried to make Evolved Active Camouflage as viable as the alternative evolutions. They had been funneling power into the evolved ultimate from Evolved Spike Rack (and Void Spike with it) in earlier patches, because of the over-the-top poke potential of the latter. It took a while before players caught on to the different play style, but they eventually did and that caused the changes to Kha’Zix in Patch 4.9.
And so came to be the assassin-fighter pendulum of Kha’Zix because buffed/nerfed evolutions continuously pushed the champion into niches that he didn’t belong in. Riot‘s valiant attempt to introduce meaningful choice in a different way (and successfully at that!) did cause quite a bit of headaches for the live-balance team.
Much Variables, Such Balancing, Wow
With as many variables as League has, there are bound to be certain aspects that just boil down to being “cookie-cutter”. Any change aimed at tackling these particular aspects can trivialize other choices in the game, which makes this problem a tough nut to crack. Champions, itemization, masteries, runes… A huge amount of possible combinations exist and none of them can be the ultimate choice to achieve victory. If one combination starts to dominate, it must be dealt with.
This is especially relevant for the overall game plan a team is going to follow to achieve victory. Team compositions typically focus on a few gameplay aspects rather than being jack-of-all-trades; master-of-none. As an example, a poke composition focuses on sustained ranged skirmishes with the potential for disengaging a premature team fight. If the enemy team realizes the goal of your team composition during champion select, they can adapt their own composition to include hard engage and hence disallow your team to poke your enemies down before engaging in a team fight.
Live balance thus also means making sure there is no all-powerful strategy that trumps all others. Due to the competitive nature of League such a strategy would be the prime focus of every team. This makes balancing the game so complex: if a given strategy becomes too dominant in the scene, it has to be reined in, but not to such a degree that it becomes unviable. This requires designers to figure out the key aspects of a strategy for some targeted rebalancing.
A great example from the professional scene is the omnipresence of lane swaps in the early-game. If a match-up with the opposing bot-lane duo is too unfavorable, many teams choose to swap their bot-lane duo to the top lane. While definitely an interesting strategy with many far-going consequences, it should not be the only way to approach the early-game. Too few trade-offs existed for lane swapping, and Riot has been working carefully to correct for this absence. Among other changes, the early-game value of Dragon has gradually increased over the patches. If your marksman-support duo are top lane you cannot realistically contest an early Dragon.
Every choice must have a trade-off or it is simply not meaningful.
Perfect Balance vs. Perfect Imbalance
Ideally, no one choice holds an upper hand with respect to alternatives. Perfect balance would imply that any champion can be played into any composition regardless of macro strategy or item choices. Frankly, that would make for a rather boring game.
The beauty of a game like League is actually in its imbalance.
This includes the existence of various strategies and ways to approach a match, all of which have advantages and disadvantages. The balancing act game designers perform in this case is to achieve an equal amount of advantages and disadvantages for every possible choice such that none of the choices are better; just different. Over the years, Riot’s balancing has become increasingly more careful and calculated, which is why it can sometimes take a few patches before a solution is found for a given problem while also increasing/maintaining diversity.
This allows players to devise strategies on a macro-level, complemented by their strengths with certain champions on a micro-level. However, this is always balanced out by the plans of the opposing team and the champions they pick. If you make a choice in a match (does Kha’Zix go for jungle clear speed or for dueling power at level 6 — i.e. Evolved Enlarged Claws or Evolved Spike Racks?) there should always be a way for the opposing team to react to that choice (invade Kha’Zix’ jungle or not?). This leads to the next design value, counterplay, and will be discussed in the next article!
Meaningful Choice in League is about offering different options without being one-sided. Drawing from the design of RPGs — the ultimate games of free choice — these options should have four particular properties:
- Players should be aware they are making the choice.
- There have to be significant gameplay consequences for every choice.
- Throughout a game players should be reminded of the choice they made.
- Choices are permanent: there is no undo button for everything!
Most gameplay aspects in League do try to include these properties. Kha’Zix’ evolution system is an excellent example of a well-implemented meaningful choice. However such systems are notoriously difficult to balance and can take a lot of iterations before they are optimized. The assassin-fighter pendulum that defined Kha’Zix’ role in League over the last two years illustrates this.
Meaningful Choice is what drives game balance in terms of diversity. If only one strategy is considered viable or if only a handful champions are considered top-tier the game would be rather stale and boring. Balancing a diverse game, however, is a complex exercise that should be approached with care, rather than by wildly swinging the nerf hammer.
Where do you think Riot implemented a great set of meaningful choices? Or where do you believe Riot could do better to ensure there’s no cookiecutter builds in League? Drop a comment below!
To end, a big shout-out to Denise for providing the amazing splash arts to these articles, and to Fridgecake and Valkyrie for their editing!
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