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League Of Legends: Wild Rift's Brian Feeney on Riot's new mobile MOBA

League Of Legends: Wild Rift is promising to bring a faster paced Moba experience to mobile (pic: Riot Games)

League Of Legends: Wild Rift is launching an open beta later this month, so we caught up with design director Brian Feeney to talk about bringing the world’s most popular esports to mobile.

League Of Legends and other MOBAs are notorious for being deep and complex experiences. It’s not rare to put over 100 hours into one and still only feel like you have a surface level understanding of its systems. MOBAs take a lot of mastery and knowledge to become a truly good player. From hero knowledge to basic concepts like who should be doing what in each lane of a map, it can be a daunting experience to jump into for the first time.

That’s why League Of Legends: Wild Rift is such an ambitious project. Riot Games has taken it upon itself to port a facsimile of their esports grade PC experience onto mobile. It’s hard to overstate what a huge shift that is. MOBAs, notoriously, have a ton of controls really only suitable to a mouse and keyboard. Bringing a competitive and recognisable version of League Of Legends, albeit a specifically designed spin-off, to a phone with limited inputs is a monumental task.

Brian Feeney is one of the masterminds behind making that happen. As design director on League Of Legends: Wild Rift, he was one of the key members responsible for figuring the problem out. We recently got to sit down with him and talk about that process, including the changes Wild Rift brings to its bigger brother and how the team arrived at key decisions.

Patrick Dane: So, putting League Of Legends on a mobile phone seems like a pretty ambitious project. For you, when did Riot start looking at the platform?

Brian Feeney: Yeah, so I don’t think it’s a secret that Riot started as a PC gaming company, right? That was kind of our roots. Most of us came from a PC gaming background and so I think it did take us a while to start taking the mobile space a little more seriously and start considering it and until we started hearing, over time, more and more players asking us for stuff like, ‘Hey, I really like League Of Legends, but I just can’t fit it into my current lifestyle anymore’ or things like that. It was sort of a slow roll, I think over probably the last five or six years. But I think you’ve seen that just in the general trend of mobile as well, right? It’s like it started off kind of small, and then just has been sort of exponentially exploding, year after year after year.

In terms of Wild Rift specifically, I joined the team… man, all the time blurs together for me a little bit, but it’s a little over three years ago was when we first started on this project. It was a hyper experimental, tiny prototype team. I think I was like the sixth or seventh person to join and we were really just trying to prove out the thesis of, ‘Okay, can we deliver a really compelling core League Of Legends experience on a mobile platform or with a controller?’ So that was really our first experiment. That probably took us about the first year to really kind of prove to ourselves that we could actually deliver something that we were happy with.

PD: MOBAs are notoriously complex, especially when it comes to input systems. Where did you start that process? It doesn’t seem like you could jump in and tackle everything, so what was step one there?

BF: Totally. I would say there were actually two major design steps and we did those basically simultaneously. So, there’s the very obvious one, which is controls, right? As you mentioned, MOBAs are notoriously difficult, they have really high input complexity and there are all these things that internally we referred to as sort of like ‘League moments’. That stuff, where you get those really amazing plays where you can’t believe what you just saw, right? Because somebody’s doing something so exceptionally well, like outplaying their opponent, doing things that you always aspire to as a player, but can never seem to execute in-game, right? Trying to deliver those moments on controller and touchscreen was one of the major workstreams that we were pushing for. It was trying to prove out, can we get these controls right?

The second major problem and this goes a little bit more understated – the controls one’s fairly obvious, right? It’s a different platform. But an equally difficult one was actually game pacing. It’s like, how do you take a 35 minute, on average, League Of Legends experience and boil it down to 15 to 18 minutes, and still have it feel like it’s League Of Legends? And not that you’re just cranking up all the numbers. You can’t just double the clock speed and have the game still feel correct, right? That was the single hardest thing – to still get that laning phase, still get that mid-game, still get that end game, those team fights are really pivotal things to make League feel like League versus just any other MOBA.

PD: Going back to controls, that seems like a big core issue to figure out. We’ve had older Grand Theft Autos on our iPhones for a decade now. For you, was it taking what had been done before or was it really a lot of iteration?

BF: Yeah, it was a combination of stuff. There were a few things that just worked, right? So, skill shots are one of those things where it’s like… we had to do a lot of behind the scenes tuning to make it actually feel right. There’s a lot of micro-optimisations there. So, a really easy example is when a player visually drags a line out to basically fire in a direction, their thumb actually probably doesn’t go in a straight line. It feels like a straight line, but we have to kind of interpret what is the player intent here and try to really optimise for that, but that wasn’t too complicated in the grand scheme of things and so some things just worked.

From that standpoint, ‘Hey, if you know that skill shots work, you have a couple of characters that just fundamentally work. So that was why we started with Ahri and Lux. These characters that, okay, if we have this one targeting type that works, we know that those characters could work. At that point, it’s like, ‘Okay, we know at least you can probably get 20-30 champions of the league roster. That’s probably enough to make a game, but while we’re doing that, let’s try to push the envelope and see if we can get other skills and other types in.

So from that point, it was sort of slowly building our toolkit of, ‘Okay, can we get positional skills to feel right? Okay, can we get dashes to feel right? Okay, can we get dashes that are also positional skill shots to feel right?’ Every one of those you check off, you bring in more and more available roster. Our initial target was… we didn’t think we could be able to hit every champion, but at this point we actually feel pretty confident that we could move over any champion from League PC onto Wild Rift without lots of issues.

PD: That’s interesting to me because obviously in the main game, you have 154 champions. How did you go about deciding how to pare it down, who to leave out and who to bring in? It actually seems like an interesting chance to curate a meta and roster.

BF: Yeah, it was a couple different stages. The first stage was ‘Okay, who are the super simple champions we can use to prove out this model?’ That was Garen, that was Lux, that was Ahri and one other one I’m blanking on but it was like four champions that we started with. Just like, can we get enough to field a basic five vs. five comp in a playtest. So those ones were really just out of raw convenience, right? It’s, ‘Okay, we know these are fairly staple champions in the League roster, we probably would want them at some point anyway, but – just prove out the controls, right?

That was our first five champions. The next set of champions was actually on the opposite end of the spectrum. That was basically the ones where we started saying, ‘Okay, once we started proving out the model and thinking we can get more rosters, let’s really push ourselves in that prototyping phase. Let’s say, can we get a Yasuo to feel right on our platform?’

Initially, we were kind of staying away from that champion and some of the other ones because ‘I don’t think we can get this to work’. But we wanted to really prove to ourselves that we could and so that was where you got champions like Yasuo and Zed, right? It was really to push the limits of our control scheme.

After we basically had those bookends, we were pretty confident we could kind of do whatever we wanted in terms of pulling whatever champions we wanted. Stage three was really about procuring from roles, archetypes, and a gameplay standpoint. It’s like, ‘Okay, we did this, but we’re short on supports. Okay, oh, now we’re short on tanks’. It was basically trying to fill out those things.

We were also looking at a lot of other factors such as playstyle and resonance, that kind of stuff. Because, we know we’re not going to be able to, or even necessarily want to, bring over all 160 champions, but we do want to be in a spot where players who have champions they like on PC can come over to Wild Rift and have a champion that they really do enjoy and identify with. So that’s where we’re trying to make sure that we at least get somebody’s top three, even if we can’t get their top one. That was a lot of it, just trying to flesh out some of the rest of the roster, make sure that we capture as many players to make people as satisfied as possible.

League Of Legends: Wild Rift brings MOBA action to mobile (pic: Riot Games)

PD: One thing that must have been interesting is figuring out the UI experience. On PC you don’t have two massive thumbs covering what you are trying to look at. How was it trying to crack the viewing and playing experience?

BF: It was a lot of back and forth and a lot of compromises. It’s one of those things where I think on PC, we take for granted… I mean, we do a lot of work on PC, we try to reduce visual noise, we try to make sure that the camera can see as much game space as possible. We try to reduce clutter, all that kind of stuff, but the pressure is so much higher when you’re on a five-inch screen than when you’re on a traditional PC monitor.

A lot of things we take for granted, like even something like a buff bar, right? Where it just has a bunch of little icons at the bottom, it’s not really obtrusive. You can still read the icons when they’re three millimetres tall, that kind of thing. Three millimetres is all of a sudden, you know, you basically 10x that in terms of how much visual space it’s taking up on mobile. So we have to really be considerate about, ‘Okay, every single pixel that includes game space, which, on a phone, is every single pixel, we have to do a lot of back and forth about how valuable is this piece of information?’ Is it worth it and, then, in what context?

It’s also difficult because we’re trying to support all play styles, all audiences and sometimes those needs are very different. Sometimes players want all the little details from, ‘I need to know exactly when the other player’s ultimate is off cooldown’ or many of us just don’t care and they’re like, ‘Let me see more of the screen, please’.

PD: MOBAs are so dense. From a core gameplay perspective, you’re trying to destroy the other team’s base, but there is a lot of minutia in there that must be hard to translate, such as concepts like last-hitting. How did you come about translating that minutia, which really does end up differentiating the MOBAs from each other, so that this still felt like League Of Legends even with a less intuitive control scheme?

BF: Yeah, I mean, part of the thing that we did that was really helpful for us was trying to bring in a team with a bunch of diverse backgrounds, right? For example, we had people that were very experienced mobile developers who could basically advocate for all of this sort of simplicity, sort of best-known practices for all the things that you would expect – like what makes a mobile or console game really function in this space.

How to optimise for a controller. That’s something I didn’t have any personal experience with before, because I’ve been predominantly a PC developer, right? But having somebody who’s, worked on – we actually have a designer, for example, who worked on a PC FPS, and then moved into mobile FPS and console FPS, and so had worked directly in those kinds of things before and who knew a lot of controller best practices and that kind of work.

Then the other side of it is, you know, I’ve spent the last 10 plus years now on League Of Legends the MOBA, and some of the other developers came from the PC world as well and so we can speak with a lot of authority and like, ‘Okay, what are the critical elements? What is most important to these players and where do we make those trade-offs to optimise for the platforms but not lose the kind of magic and the really critical elements that make League, League?’ So it’s always a balancing act between those.

There are over 40 champions in League of Legends: Wild Rift. (pic: Riot Games)

PD: There are also a lot of intricacies to MOBAs that many players may not have been exposed to in their time in the more casual mobile space. Things like what kind of character goes in the top lane, who goes in the middle, who goes bottom? If you’re a casual player who has only played mobile games, how did you go about communicating, from a team standpoint, these tenants of how you are ‘supposed’ to play League.

BF: I actually think it’s often a little bit unfair to categorise mobile gamers, particularly globally, as more casual gamers and so that’s just not our experience. There obviously are casual mobile gamers, just like there are casual PC gamers, and there are casual console gamers, but I think there is a need and kind of a hunger for some more real crunchy kind of… the terms overloaded but ‘core gamer’ style games, right? I think the mobile audience is really, really ripe for it.

So that’s our space. Kind of buck some of those trends, those expectations, where it’s, ‘Can somebody sit down and play a mobile game for 20 minutes?’ And our answer is yes, there’s actually demand and need for that.

When we were looking at it, we had a number of different audiences that we were trying to look at and try to see, ‘Okay, does this product meet their needs?’ We tested console players, we tested mobile players who have never played a mobile MOBA before, we tested players with a lot of League PC time who don’t have any mobile experiences, right? I think every single one of those individual groups that was trying to move over had challenges and they’re all different unique challenges.

I think, unfortunately, there just aren’t a lot of games in this space for the mobile audience and so there is a learning curve to try to approach and try to get those players. So we did specifically try to build in features for different audiences, right?

If you look at players who are completely new to MOBAs we actually have a lot more things in our game than we do even on PC that tell you what a MOBA is. ‘Okay, it’s five players, they’re going down the lane, you want to blow up that big thing.’ At least start there and then they can learn all the other tens of thousands of hours of depth in intricacy after knowing the basics, but we can’t assume that they have that knowledge. Whereas on PC, there was such a MOBA rich environment as we were growing, that we could really make some of those assumptions.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have these really hardcore League PC players who have put thousands of thousands of hours into League on PC and their problems are very, very different. A classic example here, we do a camera rotation if you’re on the second team. Because of the way the HUD’s laid out, if you’re going the opposite direction, you’re shooting into your own thumbs, right? So, we knew we had to sort of make that camera change, but if you spent thousands of hours on the PC, that camera change is like the most jarring, tilting thing imaginable, right? You end up just having this muscle memory and you end up going to the wrong lane over and over and over again. Actually, that prior knowledge and experience works against you.

That was where we put a lot of extra work and features into, we have these giant indicators that are telling you, ‘Hey, here’s a fresh reminder, these are where the lanes go’ and then we also even do a camera rotation at the beginning of the game just to kind of help reorient the player if you’re on that second team. Now, players who have never played LoL before, that’s gonna be fairly meaningless, but it’s all about trying to build in different features and accommodations to match the different audience needs.

PD: Riot certainly isn’t known for shying away from esports. League helped build what it is today, and you’ve now just tried your hand again with Valorant. Was it a consideration to bring that kind of esports calibre play and is it something you are looking to get into?

BF: It’s definitely one of the ones that we always wanted to leave as an option, right? Even from moment one, when I was talking about controls earlier, our key thing was to say, ‘Hey, can we deliver these really critical high-level, crazy outplays that you see? If you basically removed the HUD layer, and just looked at the screen, could you imagine this happening on PC, or does this look like a different game?’ Our goal was always to make sure that we can deliver those really amazing plays, those really amazing experiences.

So, from day one, (well, actually from day 30 or 40 after we proved the basic tenant), we were trying to say, ‘Can we make a game that can support esports if we want to go down that direction?’ So that was built in from the foundation as it’s really core to League’s DNA to be a game that can support those moments.

I think at this stage, it’s like, ‘Okay, we have a game that can be an esport, now we need to figure out what exactly we’re gonna do with it, right?’ We haven’t really done much esports with it yet. Obviously, we’re not even fully launched yet, but it’s something that we are interested in. I think the exact kind of way and shape that that forms is somewhat TBD. We’ll have more announcements on that as we go from there.

But I think it would also honestly have to evolve a bit with the community as well. Because, you know, our esports scene on League PC didn’t grow overnight, right? It took many, many, many years of evolution in building and kind of accommodating to fit the correct audiences. There’s all these different complexities and especially when you get into international and different global scenes, trying to compare different regions together and how all that kind of stuff works is super, super complicated. Thankfully, the esports folks can get a handle on that crazy amount of work, but it’s something we’re definitely very interested in and I think you’ll hear more from this soon, but it will be an evolving process.

PD: Going back to translating League Of Legends to mobile, you’ve obviously changed the pace quite a bit here. You don’t want people sitting in 50-minute matches, which I’ve had before. What was the balance where you needed this to feel like a substantial MOBA game with LoL’s DNA, but also one that you could play on a bus journey?

BF: That was actually my first task when I jumped on was to try to work specifically on the game pacing and try to get it to feel like League. So most of the work is not like… there are some very obvious things you can do, like try to crank up the gold generation, experience, all that stuff and hope that kind of works out.

In practice, it doesn’t actually do that good a job. What it actually tends to do is basically just flattens the experience universally and so really, what we were trying to do was have a lot of very micro-decisions around, how do you get people to engage in a laning experience with the same general timings? How do you punish people just enough for when they need to go to buy some items but not punish them too much that the lane snowballs out of control?

Some really tactical examples here: we’ve changed how the timing of recall works, we change the timings of death timers, how fast the base heals you when you’re in there, but I think one of the biggest changes we did was actually change the rate of minion spawns. One of the key things that mattered here was minions actually spawn faster than on League PC, and actually, they change their timing with the course of the game.

So, in the middle of the game, they slow down and the reason they slow down is so that it offers a little bit more space, meaning players have more freedom to actually go roam, take objectives, all that kind of stuff. But, there’s a lot more pressure to stay toe-to-toe and fighting in the early game, where you really need that laning experience to get that feeling of duelling, that feeling of one vs. one and two vs. two. Then in the late of the game, we pick up the pace again, just to make sure that the game can end and all that kind of stuff.

That’s a change. On PC, the minion timing is relatively flat because there are other kinds of systems at work that can accommodate that. To make Wild Rift’s flow work we had to do a lot of these micro-optimisations and small tunings to get things to feel right. Then just a lot of playtesting, seeing ‘Okay, where does this break? Okay, what happens if we throw five players in mid lane? Okay, does this break?’ And a lot of testing those extreme edge cases to really kind of fine-tune and hone our systems.

PD: That seems quite elegant. It’s all super interesting. It’s obviously a pretty unique project.

BF: Yeah, definitely one of those ones where it’s super, super unique. I mean, I spent a long time working on League Of Legends. It was like, ‘okay, I know this pretty well’, right? Then you throw even something like a platform change and a small little game time adjustment, it’s a whole new animal, even if it feels the same. There’s so much work gone into this project to make it feel like we didn’t do a lot of work.

League Of Legends: Wild Rift is launching in open beta on March 29th on iOS and Android in North America. Other regions will follow on unspecified dates.

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