Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Design (Part 7) Screwing your teammates


This will be a series of articles about game design, using the popular games DOTA and League of Legends as illustrative examples. The specific words, "Design is an Optimization" was coined by the design director of Riot. It means that to him, design is an iterative process of optimization.

Thus if some aspect of DOTA or LOL seems inferior or different to the other, it is because a conscious choice has been made by its designers – the trade-offs have been examined, the benefits judged more than the costs.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

One of the biggest causes of frustration in team games is getting screwed by your own allies, either unintentionally (they were inexperienced) or intentionally (trolls!).

Of course, the fact that this can happen at all has to be designed into the game. Riot believes such mechanics should be removed at all costs, as they can cause frustration and toxic interaction between players. Where possibly they have been modified - for example, Blitzcrank's Rocket Grab can only grab enemies - it can't displace allies, while Pudge's Meat Hook can. In general, Riot is careful to ensure that your abilities can't negatively impact your own allies, though there are a few exceptions, for example, Anivia's Crystalize can potentially block allied movement.

Icefrog doesn't care, and has left many such avenues open to players in DOTA2...

Abilities in DOTA2 that can actively harm allies

Bloodseeker's ability Bloodrage is a buff that will silence the target, increase their physical damage output, and do damage to them over time, and can be cast on both allies and enemies. It's meant to be cast on friendly physical damage dealers who don't rely on spells, or enemy spellcasters for the silence effect and who don't benefit from the increased damage. As you can imagine there is a lot of potential for this ability to be used wrongly - getting a long duration silence from your ally is infuriating as a spellcaster, or even being killed from the damage.

Naga Siren's ability "Song of the Siren" will put enemies to sleep, but makes them immune to damage for the duration. This skill is meant as an initiation and positioning skill (allowing your team to get into position before the fight) or as an escape skill. Used at the wrong time however this skill can cancel the damage and stuns your team was trying to inflict on the enemy team, causing your team to lose the fight in the end.

Nature Prophet's ability "Sprout" is erects a ring of trees around the targeted area. It's usually meant to trap enemies, but it is often used on himself as a defensive measure. However, improper use of this skill can trap allies within it by accident, causing their doom.

Tiny's ability "Toss" will toss the nearest unit towards a target of his choice. "Nearest unit" could be anything - a creep, an allied hero, or an enemy hero. Sometimes he uses it just for the damage potential, but it can also be used for positioning - for example, Tiny could blink into the enemy team, and throw their carry back into your team so you can kill him. Or Tiny could throw an initiator like Axe or Slardar into the enemy team to wreck havoc. There is a potential for the wrong target to be chosen, however, as Tiny may accidentally throw someone he didn't intend to - throwing the enemy initiator into your team, for example, or throwing your support into the enemy team. Also, a popular method of trolling allies at the end of the game is to throw them towards the enemy team so they die.

Further discussion

There really isn't much to say on this topic.

The trade-off is pretty clear here - you can design some really interesting abilities and make them very powerful, but only if you balance them with drawbacks and the potential for failure - which also increases the skill cap of the game. For example, if the Naga Siren's Song of the Siren didn't stop damage and stuns from applying to enemies, how much weaker would it need to be to be balanced? If Prophet's Sprout didn't stop allied movement through it, how much weaker would it need to be for it to be balanced? By removing the negative effects of those abilities, the primary effect has to be made much weaker, diluting the power and impact of the skill.

DOTA2 is designed around the philosophy that skills should be powerful and game changing, with massive impact. This is balanced by longer cooldowns, higher mana costs, and bigger potential for failure when compared with skill in LOL. The drawback is that the minimum skill requirement to play the game at a decent level gets a lot higher, as it's not only possible to fail at using the skill, but to fail so badly that your allies are directly harmed by it as well. LOL's philosophy is that they want to lower the barrier to entry yet be able to keep the skill cap the same - it's just as hard for a pro player to land a Rocket Grab or a Meat Hook. LOL's argument is that you can have your cake and eat it too - making it easier for new players and casuals to get into the game, while not degrading the play experience for the top players.

That is true as far as gameplay is concerned - and as I've mentioned, LOL is very concerned with gameplay - but this does hurt the game in terms of giving it interesting and impactful skills. High risk, high reward and high lethality moves in the game frequently give rise to infamous DOTA2 teamfights like "The Play" (also see - multicam edition) that simply can not happen in LOL, which overall makes LOL less interesting to spectate - in my humble opinion, anyway.