Ruminating on "League of Legends"

4 May 2011
6:36 am

The "Defence of the Ancients" genre has exploded in recent history, inspired in part by highly successful spin-off titles such as League of Legends. In turn developed by some of the people involved in the original Warcraft 3 custom map, "LoL" has won a number of prestigious awards and boasts a userbase in the millions.

I first tested a review beta of it back in September 2009 and while my initial impressions were not at all favourable, a few months ago I started playing it again out of curiosity at its immense success given the lacklustre experience I had originally. Compared to other similar games like Demigod and Heroes of Newerth, LoL lacks a lot of visual polish — its appearance has improved considerably since its earlier incarnations, but it is definitely stuck in the same Warcraft 3 visual aesthetic that Blizzard carried over into their MMOG; while the cartoon graphics have allowed both of Blizzard's properties to look all right even though they're approaching ten years old, the style is still dated and getting long in the tooth.

Despite LoL's popularity, I do think Demigod/Heroes of Newerth are better games. LoL isn't so much an evolution of the original Warcraft 3 map as it is a direct copy (in matches other players have repeatedly referenced Dota characters as "play this guy like that one," although I miss most of the references since I played Dota a handful of times). Nevertheless, in terms of sheer numbers, LoL is the reigning champion. My average time waiting in queue for a match is in the seconds, and I don't think I've ever spent more than a minute before being placed in a game no matter the time of day — this is quite nice given that my Australian day is usually late afternoon/evening for the US, so I'm usually at off-hours for much of the internet.

Demigod, especially, was a lot prettier, but Stardock's abysmal handling of its launch and server problems pretty much botched it to the point of irrelevance. Heroes of Newerth beats LoL on one thing: cross-platform compatibility. The latter is only on Windows, while HoN also natively supports OS X and Linux. I have been able to run LoL in a Parallels virtual machine without issue — and it runs pretty well given the game's low system requirements — but it's an additional hassle. A Cider port for OS X has been in development for a long time but there's not been any additional information in months and it's missed multiple promised release dates.

While Stardock bungled Demigod for me by appalling tech support, Heroes of Newerth was a disappointment by the decision of its developers to offer DLC of a decidedly homophobic nature. The game has an item shop that allows you to purchase cosmetic items with real money; one category of items are audio taunts delivered by an "announcer" that other players hear when your character makes various successes, such as player kills or building losses. Your own character doesn't hear these but they're irritating/obnoxious cues sent to enemy players in order to, presumably, rub salt in the wound. A recent update added a "flamboyant" audio pack of a voice that is quite unquestionably intended to be a derogatory reference to flamboyant homosexuals — some of the remarks the announcer makes are sexual in nature and the entire thing is explicitly intended to be a dig against gay people. The inclusion of this DLC was immensely offensive and upon its addition I asked S2 Games to disable my account entirely.

That brings me to a side comment on LoL's community: it's probably the most appalling I've ever played with; the hostility makes the World of Warcraft forums look friendly. Beyond the general shit-talking you hear in competitive games, I think the matches I've played without being reminded of what a faggot, queer or "noob" I was can be counted on one hand. That's in addition to the litany of racist and sexist remarks that accompany most matches. It's not simply smack sent by the enemy team, but your own teammates are often abusive and rude at the slightest provocation. Riot Games (LoL's developer) have a list of abuse-report categories presumably intended to deal with this, including incredibly granular things like "intentionally helping enemy team" and "unskilled player," but while I dutifully report the hate speech after every match I've never gotten so much as an automated notice or a followup. Riot's apparent solution for this is to institute a "Tribunal" that allows other players to mediate abuse reports and dole out punishment for offenders — I don't quite know how to vocalise the ways that this misses the mark, especially since presumably some of the people deciding on whether or not "CockKnob69" should be punished for hate speech are likely of the YouTube comment variant that sees no hostility in such remarks. Or, worse, they've used the same offensiveness themselves.

It's hard in even small online communities to combat the antisocial behaviour which accompanies anonymity, but I often feel that those abuse reports are meaningless. I still send them in hopes that they aren't, but it does feel pointless.

A few people complained about my earlier LoL preview article, especially its comparisons to Demigod and HoN, because the latter was a free-to-play title and the others are "full price games" for $30 (or so) a pop. I don't entirely think that's relevant, since free-to-play games with item shops that supply content which have a material effect on gameplay are not really free to play.

While LoL has seventy-something champions available, the majority of them are only accessible 24/7 after buying them with one of two currencies: Riot Points are available in bulk amounts with real cash, while Influence Points are earned through playing matches. Some content can only be bought with Riot Points (and, thus, real cash) and no matter what the ratio of Riot Points to Influence Points price always favours the former.

Some of the item shop content is cosmetic, like skins that provide your various champions with new appearances. Much of it is not, from buying the champions themselves to buying time or win-based "boosts" which increase your overall Summoner experience gains or Influence Point accumulation at an accelerated rate. Every week, a rotating selection of ten champions are made free to play as a sort of "demo" to entice players to pony up for the full cost, or allow those who don't want to spend cash to still play for free. The majority of LoL is accessible to those who don't want to fork over a credit card, but an important selection is restricted to Riot Points only.

That brings me to probably my greatest criticism of LoL: champion balance. While it's slowed down recently, Riot used to release new champions every week or so. Now it comes every few weeks, but it invariably follows the same pattern: a champion is pushed to the public servers which is so outrageously overpowered that it entices players to pick it up immediately in order to have a serious advantage in other matches. New champions are not included in the free rotation at their launch, so you have to either cash in Influence Points (new champions are usually some of the most expensive purchases, too) or real money in order to get it early. Depending on the champion, their inclusion in an opposing team can range from "irritating" to "this is a lost cause." It goes on for a few weeks until the inevitable nerf typically timed with the release of another new overpowered champion.

While one should not suppose malice without evidence, their insistence on this pattern really does seem intentional. It's not a leap to see that an overpowered champion will push people to buy it only to have that advantage for themselves, and when the character is smacked back into reasonable submission weeks later it has a taste of bait and switch.

All that said, and while many of my comments here are criticisms, I've been having a lot of fun with the game despite my initial exposure and despite my complaints. I've got somewhere around two hundred matches under my belt, with each match running between thirty minutes or an hour on average and depending on the type (matches are split between 3v3 teams or 5v5 ones), that's a pretty decent chunk of time I've spent with LoL now. I do think, however, that the title has room to improve, and hopefully Riot decides to spend more time focusing on areas like community standards.

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