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Game Design In Theory

Discoverability (Your Honor, LoL part 2)

☰ Table of Content

Nobody is building Akshan right.

Akshan, as a character, has a very complex set of abilities. One could easily argue that he has the most overloaded kit in the game, right now. He has on-hit effects that can be triggered rapidly with clever skill usage, he has stealth for getting in and movement speed boosts to get out again, he has a movement ability that lets him do all sorts of weird jukes while hosing down enemies with bullets (and which refreshes its cooldown on kill or assist), and he has an ultimate that automatically homes in on its target and does increased damage against enemies with low health. Did I mention he can resurrect allies?

But, see, League veterans are used to complexity. Even before characters like Akshan, they were happily diving into the combinatorial explosion that is item choice, so clearly they know exactly what they’re doing when they build crit chance and attack damage…

Except that they don’t. The numbers don’t lie; Akshan does way more damage with “on-hit” effects–items that simply apply an effect whenever he lands a basic attack or basic-attack-like ability–like his E, which triggers on-hit effects with its rapid-fire spray of bullets. On-hit effects also don’t scale with the damage of his basic attack, which is important, because that second hit on his basic attack actually deals significantly less damage. Oh, and if you build Runaan’s Hurricane, you can stack that three-hit damage effect on three enemies at once.

So how is it that the best players in the game have entirely the wrong build plan for this character? It’s simple, really: Akshan’s abilities are a giant wall of text that nobody has time for, but everyone can see that his big fancy ultimate scales with attack damage and crit chance. Crit builds are also generally good, a fact that is reinforced by the way critical strikes have much larger damage popups than regular hits. And there’s not a lot of room for experimentation when your livelihood depends on winning the game–as noted in that video linked in the title of this section, pro players are actually not very experimental at all.

And all of this comes back to a single, simple problem with League of Legends’s design: discoverability.

Perhaps a simpler example will help.

Ask anybody who’s risen above iron, and they’ll tell you that map awareness and the strategic layer are key to winning League at low-level and mid-level play. In fact, the most famous early-game terrors–characters like Teemo, who is infamous for being a nightmare to play against early on–are rarely a threat in upper level play, because their advantages are easily defeated with map awareness and knowledge of your strategic goals. It’s easy to guess where Teemo’s placing mushrooms once you understand where he’s expecting you to walk–and a good Teemo places mushrooms specifically to foil ambushes and protect objectives. The difference between your knowledge of how you need to move around the map, and Teemo’s knowledge of how you’re supposed to move around the map, is the difference between losing to Teemo and defeating Teemo.

So why isn’t this common knowledge? Because the game’s not really designed to tell you that the strategic layer matters. The tutorial isn’t designed to teach you the strategic layer of the game, either.

See, there’s this thing called last-hitting. Minions drop gold, but that gold only goes to whoever got the last hit on that minion–so if you tag a minion with a basic attack, but one of your minions finishes it off, you don’t get gold. This is vital to your growth throughout the game, because that gold is the largest difference in power between you and your opponent–and the game emphasizes this with a neat little popup that shows you how much gold you got from that minion.

Great visual feedback, except that last-hitting is an attention-hungry task–one that takes your attention away from things like paying attention to the minimap, or figuring out when you need to head over to the dragon pit or baron lair for a teamfight. There’s not a lot of visual feedback for “your team needs to gather here”, nor is there much visual feedback for “look at your minimap to figure out when Fiddlesticks is gonna spook you to death”.

Contrast with Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard is a terrible company, which is a shame, because HotS doesn’t have this problem.

There is no last-hitting in Heroes of the Storm.

There’s no gold, either. Instead, enemies drop XP orbs on the ground when they die, by any means. So long as you’re in your lane and vaguely near the frontlines, you gain XP. Not having the attention-hungry task of last-hitting frees up mental capacity for things like “oh god what just jumped out of the bush at me” or “maybe I should go to the objective marker” or “hey, the entire enemy team is in toplane, maybe I should go help my team”.

Speaking of objective markers, HotS also goes out of its way to signal when objectives are available. Each map has its own announcer, who will eagerly inform you of upcoming objectives; the markers on the minimap glow and flash, with big yellow highlights around the ones which are active; the benefits are things like cannon volleys and giant monsters stomping toward the enemy base, instead of being buffs that aren’t immediately obvious (you have to hover the icons on the scoreboard to get an explanation).

Now, League has gotten better about some of these things. I’m not saying the Elder Dragon buff isn’t visually clear. But where League has an icon on the minimap for when the dragon is spawned, HotS has a snarky crow god muttering in your ear about collecting tributes for him, lest he punish you for your insolence. And where League has complex micro-management that has a powerful but subtle effect that continues throughout the rest of the game, HotS…doesn’t bother you with those details.

You can’t get good if you don’t understand what you’re looking at.

And “I don’t understand what I’m looking at” is a problem that mobas in general have. There’s so many things going on, and so many complex interactions, that even professional commentators at the League of Legends World Championship sometimes struggle to explain just what in the hell is going on. This is what I mean by the “discoverability” problem. It is very, very hard to look at a video of some League gameplay and explain who did what, how it affected the game, or whether it was a good play.

I don’t know if this problem can be solved. Part of the appeal of League of Legends is in that complexity–in having the flexibility to build champions in weird ways, and having the ability to influence the lategame with careful or skillful play in the early game. I’m sure there’s a lot of League fans who will balk at the idea of removing last-hitting, because it rewards good timing and smart positioning with a tangible advantage throughout the game. This doesn’t change the fact that League’s design makes it hard for new players to understand why they’re losing.

In Part 1, I talked about teamplay and team reliance. Check out Part 3, where I talk about how important counterplay is to a good game experience.

Update: 2021-08-05

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