How Lead Game Designer Riot Meddler Keeps League Of Legends Balanced

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  • PC
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After the League Of Legends ranked season ends, and the World Championship is nothing but a twinkle in the eye of Marc Merrill, Riot Games releases a wave of changes to their game known as the Preseason. It’s a time for experimentation. New items, abilities and hijinks are added, all with the potential to introduce chaos onto the battlefield.  Past years have redesigned marksmen, jungle monsters and even the face of Summoner’s Rift itself. It’s a time where anything can change and for dedicated devotees that spend every waking moment playing League, it can be quite terrifying.

“We’re not after change for the sake of change, but change where it’s a clear upgrade over the previous state of the game”

“We think it’s important to keep League fresh, continuing to improve it over time,” said Andrei "Meddler" van Roon, the lead game designer for League of Legends. League, like most popular online games, constantly evolves: there will never be a final, definitive version of the game. Champion reworks and updates alongside constant balance changes in bi-weekly patch notes keep the game fresh, rewarding players who want to learn and experience change. Finding out that a major update has affected your main champion or play style can be pretty infuriating, I’ve lost many games on a Wednesday after missing a tweak to an item in a thick patch week. Trying to create something new without pissing off fans requires balance, like trying to get Rammus to walk across a tightrope.

“We try to make periods of change smooth and intuitive, but inevitably there’ll be some people who respond to things changing in a way they don’t like or don’t understand by leaving,” Meddler said. “Finding the correct amount of change is pretty important to us as a result, as is trying to make changes that are clear upgrades, rather than replacements.”

This Preseason of League Of Legends does away with the old Runes system, which forced players to grind IP if they wanted to be on the same-level playing ground with their opponents before a game even started. Meddler and his team were limited by what Runes could do, since each Rune page was broken up into 30 different pieces. Combining them with Masteries has allowed for a whole new realm of possibilities, “one that creates a more interesting pre-game and condenses it down to a number of impactful choices,” Meddler said.

These new Runes can change your Summoner Spell in the middle of a game, shield allies and give near infinite bursts of attack speed. Creating crazy effects like these required a lot of playtesting and tweaking, sometimes with hilarious and buggy results. Here were a few of Meddler’s favorites.

  • When Ornn -who was still in development at the time- had the Biscuit Delivery Rune, he would randomly stop in the middle of combat to hammer away at his anvil. Since the game thought the Freljordian brute was shopping whenever a Biscuit dropped into his inventory, his passive would activate, starting a channel and immobilizing him.

  • The Guardian Rune -which applies a shield to an ally- used to apply the whole Rune to whoever was buffed, essentially giving them two keystones for the rest of the game.”The Guardian Virus playtest was a fun, if short lived and not productive.”

  • A Rune that didn’t end up getting into the game -with the placeholder name “Tiny Luden’s”- dealt magic damage to a target before bouncing to another. For its first playtest, someone forgot to put a limit on the amount of times it could bounce, “so it would basically just bounce back and forth grinding people down until they either died or moved far enough away from each other.”

  • Another Rune that didn’t make it, called “Summoner Roulette,” would give a random Summoner Spell on a shorter than usual cooldown. It was a love/hate relationship for playtesters, who didn’t enjoy the unfair advantage “because your opponents got lucky with what came their way.” This eventually transformed into the Summoner Specialist Rune, “which, while it lost some of the excitement and forced adaptation of the random model, addressed the major problems and still delivered well on the flexibility and creativity side of things.”

Finding a set of Runes that fit well for all 140 champions in League Of Legends wasn’t easy. Keystones proved even more difficult, with the Inspiration tree causing the most trouble. “We wanted to avoid offering direct damage or tankiness there which limited our options quite a bit,” Meddler said.

The eventual keystone, Kleptomancy, was decided upon in a group brainstorming session on a Friday evening, right before everyone left for the weekend. Collecting ideas on a whiteboard in a crunch for time, they settled on a combination of the Bandit mastery and a spellblade effect. Over the weekend, designer Brad “CertainlyT” Wenban created a prototype, adding in extra items that were already in League’s code. Playtesters loved it almost immediately, picking it more than the six other keystones that were vying for the spot.

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Nothing is safe when the Preseason comes into town. Photo: Riot Games

With every massive overhaul to League Of Legends comes the potential to break the game. In season three, a change to the Black Cleaver item made it the best option for most Attack damage champions, creating a meta where some players would just build six of that item. Meddler and his team are always aware something players notice could slip through the cracks, but they are ready for it.

“We’ll have a lot of follow up balance work to be done after this pre-season goes out, to both champions and runes,” Meddler said. “It’s also likely we’ll find some gaps in the system where specific champions or subclasses of champion aren’t having their needs met well enough by the system. Assuming that happens we’re expecting to do work to either make some runes more effective for them or potentially build additional runes to meet those needs.”

Constantly innovating isn’t easy, but League will never stagnate. I may hate having to read a massive wall of text before playing a videogame, but I’d be bored if the system lacked anything new. There have been a few hiccups along the way -anyone remember Soraka mid- but overall League Of Legends has improved with time.

“We’re not after change for the sake of change, but change where it’s a clear upgrade over the previous state of the game,” Meddler said.

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