Interview: League of Legends: Dominion and Riot Games

Earlier this week I had the pleasure to be at Riot Game’s announcement of League of Legends: Dominion. While I had a lot of fun with the game itself, calling it “23 minutes of awesome”, what I enjoyed even more was getting to talk to the developers and seeing how excited they were about unveiling what they’ve been working hard on. I got a chance to sit down with Travis George, Lead Producer, shortly after playing it for the first time and I picked his brain about details on the game type, the ideas behind Dominion and also how Riot Games designs new champions.

Travis George: So first of all, what’d you think?

The Escapist Magazine: So I actually wrote, in my notepad, 23 minutes of awesome.

Travis: That’s great. That’s the best, I’d want to put that on the theoretical box.

TEM: It was just an amazing and very dynamic map. I was just so surprised at how it different it played and felt from the normal Summonor’s Rift map. Where the start of the game is you know, alright I’m going to last hit this mob, last hit this mob oh wait, here comes a champion, alright I’m going to harass you for a bit. And it was just right of the map, boom, hey I’m fighting other champions.

Travis: It’s literally not the case of “Oh I accidentally got caught in the brush, and there was an accidental team fight at level 1 while we’re waiting for minions”. It’s like when you’re released, within 20 seconds there are some dudes, and they’re trying to do the same thing you are so you better fight them, right? It’s a completely different map and we’re really, really excited about it. We’ve been playing this thing for a long time now, played like hundreds of games, and we’re so happy that people are getting to play it finally, and see what we’ve been excited about for a long time.

TEM: So where did the idea for Dominion come from?

Travis: Well, you know, capture and hold isn’t, well call it like it is, capture and hold isn’t really a new concept and in fact it’s a pretty standard game type that’s pretty relatable and I think it conjures certain images and expectations of what players are doing, and I think we meet those expectations. We’re capturing points in Dominion, but I think from there, you were kind of mentioning this also, that’s kind of where the comparison stops.

So the idea was always kind of floating around, we’re always kicking ideas, what should we do for players, what do we think they would like? How do we kind of continue to evolve the genre? Which is something that, we really, we really look at kind of something that we’re always trying to do is give players new exciting experiences with this really kind of untapped genre of games almost.

So the idea itself wasn’t the hard part, the hard part was kind of and I’m going to turn this into a verb before the end of the night I swear it, kind of League of Legends-ifying Capture and Hold. Cause we put in just the standard capture points and threw some champions in, and it wasn’t what you see today. So through the iterative process that we really believe in and kind of admitting when something isn’t awesome and fixing it, you know? We really took a long path. Actually we’ve been working on Dominion for about 9 months. We’ve been thinking about Dominion for a long time but actual heavy development for about that long and it’s just through that process it’s been kind of evolving all the things you see today. I was telling someone else upstairs it’s like, we all sat down and drew out maps we thought you would play Dominion on in this Capture and Hold mode before it was really even Dominion, and we were all wrong. Right? All totally way off base, because it just wasn’t fun, and we didn’t know it. We had to solve, how do you make all the character types viable? Which is a goal we have. I wouldn’t release something where you have a subset of champions because players have their favorite champions and we want all those to be available, right? We had to figure out what to do with minions, we had to figure out how to use items effectively, we had to figure out leveling up as you were talking about early, gold, we had to figure out all that stuff and it was through the iterative process that it really came about, tons and tons and tons of play testing.

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TEM: I can really see how that work paid off, even with just like little things, like at the start of the map, the ramps kinda coming out, and there’s like the cranes picking up rocks, and even the map itself has come alive a little bit more from what we normally see.

Travis: One of the things we wanted to do with Dominion was, and just in generally League of Legends, is we always want to make everything better, we patched out some, we re-did some old champions recently with new models, new animations etc, just to make them better, for no reason other than we wanted to improve the quality. And with Dominion, we really look at that as kind of our new milestone of quality, like you mentioned the map has things that’re moving around, like cool animations, the starting game ceremonies, this intricate ceremony where stairs slide in and the crystal comes up, and we really just wanted to up the quality bar with everything we do, and really just kind of make everything better across the board. Even with Dominion there’ll be things that will be better in classic League of Legends too, we’ve got a new scoreboard that’s in, we’ve got a new end of game screen and some enhancements to PvP Net. So we’re just trying to get as much as we can as good as we can. And really I think the biggest attribute to making Dominion successful was having the patience to let it be great, instead of just okay, right? We could’ve released it earlier, and it would’ve been fun and it would’ve been cool but I don’t think it would’ve had the depth, I don’t think it would’ve had the polish, I don’t think it would’ve had the refinement and the quality that we expect from ourselves and most of our fans expect now.

TEM: So going back to the point system you mentioned, what was the inspiration behind this, I’m guessing possibly to promote some more team play other than ganking and kill/death ratio?

Travis: So to be successful at Dominion, it’s not directly tied to kills, deaths and assists nearly as much as it is in Summoner’s Rift, also, death really isn’t nearly as punishing on Dominon, as it is in classic League of Legends, and so what we really wanted to do is promote, exactly like you said, promote objective team play. For instance, in Dominion dying on a point, and holding off three people, even if you die, may give your team the opportunity to capture two more points and turn the tide of the whole game. So we wanted to reward that kind of behavior. We wanted to signify to people that, really, the point of playing Dominion is to win the game and beat the objective, not just kill the most people or get the most assists. Those still factor into your score, but really we wanted to come up with a scoring system to emphasize behaviors that will lead the team to victory. So I think the perfect example is you get points for defending a point, and dying, potentially even. Whereas dying is generally considered pretty bad in classic League of Legends.


TEM: So certain items, like the banshee’s veil, are out. What was the reasoning behind some of the changes like that?

Travis: One of the main things that we wanted to do was again make sure every champion was viable and playable in Dominion. And so, the way we went about doing that instead of changing core things about champions, is we did that through itemization. So, for instance, one of things is is, that early on in development, tanks and fighter-tanks were super, super dominant in Dominion. Health is itemized cheaply in Summoner’s rift, versus carry items like infinity’s edge. Giant’s belt is a huge advantage versus infinity’s edge which takes a lot more gold. And so, this was a problem that we were encountering in Dominion. So we addressed this through kind of itemization rebalancing, and removing problem items like banshee’s veil, because you get more gold at the beginning, you can start off with a catalyst and have a banshee’s veil five minutes into the game. And everyone would just get Banshee’s Veil, and it made it kinda unfun, made it unbalanced, it biased character selection towards a certain type of champion, and so we really used the item shop to level the playing field. So you’ll see quite a few items that aren’t available, elixirs aren’t available at all, but we’ve also added in a bunch of items that are Dominion specific that really kind of fill some of those gaps, and help characters of certain archetypes be really viable and competitive and fun in Dominion as well.

TEM: What was the reasoning why you were starting everybody out at 3rd level, with 1375 gold? Just to kind of minimize that “Ok, you got the early, powerful champions versus the long-term carries”?

Travis: So the experience and the gold gain were two of the challenges we had to translate when we were League of Legends-ifying Capture and Hold. So we knew we wanted shorter games, and one of the challenges with goals, specifically was, it’s really fun to get awesome items and we didn’t want to change the cost of existing items to confuse players even more. So we didn’t want to have infinity’s edge cost a different value in classic League of Legends versus Dominion. And so, one of the ways we solved that was, we essentially kind of increase gold gain as a whole in Dominion, so that you’ll have essentially the same amount of gold roughly within the same target as a 45ish minute game of Summoner’s Rift. And so, that allowed you to actually kind of itemize, with those better items because it’s fun to get better items. That’s part of the depth of League of Legends and we wanted to preserve that. And so, gold gain across the board, not only just starting value is different. For some minions you get like 75 gold for killing them. So if you want to farm up, you can farm up. And the ambient gold gain is also faster, and that’s really just because of the condensed game length, that we wanted players to be able to buy items and diversify and change strategy and have the same amount of fun in as in classic League of Legends.

With the experience system, the reason we did that, we start at level 3 and also that was another one of those challenges we had to solve because traditionally you earn experience by killing minions, and champions and towers in classic League of Legends. Because of the extremely dynamic nature of Dominion, what we found is farming sometimes isn’t the best move for your team. Now minions can help, minions can actually help you capture a point that’s under enemy control. But sometimes you just need to run past because sometimes it’s a race to a capture point. So we didn’t want players to have to choose whether they should level up or do the right thing for the team. So one of the things we did was we started all players at level 3, and also there’s ambient experience gain throughout a match of Dominion. And it’s influenced by champion and minion kills, but not nearly as much as in classic League of Legends. Because we didn’t want to create a huge level disparity for people to have a weird choice of “should I gain personal power, or should I do what’s right for the team?”


TEM: So Summoner’s Rift had the npc bosses, and you could kill the jungle monsters to get their buffs. In Dominion you’ve got the movement speed and the HP ones, and then the single team buffs in the center. How did you decide on these?

Travis: Right, well, so the middle part of the map, what we would traditionally call the jungle area, I don’t know if we should call it the jungle, cause there’s not jungle creeps, we actually had that at one point, but again but it was one of those weird decisions of “Should I jungle in the middle or should I help my team capture a point?” There was nothing we could do to make that viable for you to do that in most situations, it just wasn’t a fun decision to make. So we put in the relics, the health boost is essentially that, you run right over it and pick up health! The speed shrine, you run through it and you go faster. It’s really to help kind of promote play inside the middle, and then the greater relic, as you correctly mention, only one person on your team can have that at a time, but it’s an essential point where both are located, so often times there are team fights around who can take control of their relic.

TEM: The closest distance between two points is a line, and so going through the center is often times going to be the fastest way to get to the other side of the map.

Travis: And going through the center is dangerous, right? Because, who knows who’s in there? You have permanent vision around the outside kind of circle lanes, but inside it’s dark, it’s just like the jungle in Summoner’s rift with the twisted tree lines. So, what we didn’t want to do was make it so people had to stand in their cause there’s a lot more traffic in there, and so we opted for the relic system which is much more pick up and go kind of thing as you’re kind of veering somewhere else. We just didn’t feel like traditional jungling was an interesting decision that we wanted players to make… So, but it’s super dangerous in there.

TEM: So what was the purpose of the permanent vision around the edge of the map? To further promote more of the tactical play where you can see where the enemy team is?

Travis: Right.

TEM: Can you talk to me a little bit about the capture points themselves? You capture it and basically turns it into a tower?

Travis: Yeah, the points have an interesting mechanic. So the defensive mechanisms or ‘tower’ kind of conjures the term from summoner’s rift where it’s this thing that you destroy, it always attacks you. These kind of defensive structures are permanent on capture points and can’t be destroyed. And so the way it works is that when one is under your control, and you are actually on the point itself, and then the enemy is there, it will attack the enemy. If there is no, same-team defender there, uh, an enemy is free to take it and it will not attack.

So that actually promotes kind of ninjaing points behind enemy lines if you will, without being pummeled in the face by a defensive structure but it creates kind of a safe point, if you will, for players who control that point to run to and fight attacking champions. Because you don’t want to have a square, 1 v 1 fight when someone’s trying to take your point and so the defensive structure will give a decent advantage to you if you’re defending. So 1 v 1 is generally tipped in the defenders favor. However the attacker can also bring a wave of minions which will also take it down as well. So it’s kind of a, “how do you want to play it” situation, and it’s another interesting choice that players have.


TEM: So I have one question of more personal interest, not related to Dominion. I was curious about what is the process for creating new Champions? Someone mentioned that five months is the turn around to complete one, but how does the ball get rolling on that? Is it just like, some concept artist goes “hey, I had this really cool idea for something”? For instance, on Pantheon I’m guessing someone must have read Frank Miller’s 300, and went, “hey we should totally do a Spartan”

Travis: Well, the thing with champion design is that there isn’t really a set origin for champion design. What’s most important to us for a champion is that we have a really unique, creative theme that permeates everything about the character, and that’s really clear and unique to League of Legends, and sometimes even the genre as a whole. A character like Orianna is a completely unique one that plays differently and looks different and is super fun. So there’s no real set origin; it can come from a sketch that an artist does, it can come from a concept a creative designer has. It can come from a mechanic’s kit that one of our guys on the champion’s team was R&Ding, like that’s how Orianna started. There was literally no theme attached to Orianna, but one of our champion designers was just messing around and created this really really fun kit in mechanic, and we were like “We need to make a champion out of that.” And so we crafted the other parts of it. I look really at it as a kind of a triangle of a champion, there’s an awesome theme, there’s a great look, and a really fun gameplay hook. And it can really start in any of those areas, and it’s all about filling out those other areas with things that are just tens all around. Sometimes we have great kits that don’t have great visuals, and we do not release those champions. Sometimes we have great visuals and we can’t make it fun, and so we don’t release those. It’s really about filling out those three points and making it awesome. But the origin can come from anywhere.

In fact, we actually we have champion submission forms that anyone in the whole company can fill out, and they don’t have to have great design ideas, they don’t’ have to have great articulated themes. They just have to have some kind of essence of what they think will make that champion awesome. And we let everyone in the whole company do that because we don’t care where the best idea comes from. We just want it in the game.

TEM: If you had to give, a ballpark estimate, what do you think the percentage of champions don’t make it out the door?

Travis: Based on all the way through the process, from if you took the very nebulous submission process to champions we make. I mean, we only have a finite number of champions that we make. So it’s really small. I don’t know if I can put a number on it, but it’s easily less than 10%.

But that’s really kind of what we want. We really want to find like the best kind of holistic champions, if we can’t nail down the visuals and make it really look awesome, maybe we shouldn’t do it, or maybe we should send it back and let it marinate for longer and rethink it. We do that a lot.

TEM: Has there been any specific champion recently where you decided it isn’t quite right and had to sit on it until it finally came together?

Travis: I think one of the champions I’m most proud of recently from our team is Leona. Leona is often described as a Female Tank, but like a Female Tank can mean a lot of stuff, and is a vague concept and is actually potentially kind of boring from a thematic standpoint. And so I think taking Leona and this archetype that we knew players wanted and that we knew we wanted to do, was actually way harder than it sounds. So tying her into this theme with the sun and giving her a really unique look, and kind of tying her kit into that created this really cohesive theme around her. She’s not just a female tank but she’s a shield and sword user that’s really tied into the sun and everything about her permeates that.

TEM: Alright. Thanks for talking to me. Any final thoughts?

Travis: I’m really really excited for players to be able to play it. I can’t wait for GamesCom and PAX, I’m personally going to be dead from all the travel and talking, but we know players have been wanting new awesome stuff and that we really hope they responded as favorably as we think they will to Dominion and all the fun gameplay that we’re going to be introducing really soon.

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