Monday, March 16, 2015

Comparative Analysis of Games Workshop and Riot Games Part 1: Game Design

This article is the first of a series I am composing on these two games.

I was considering the other day the popularity of these two games, the design philosophies, the competition, and furthermore, the communities that gather behind these two games. Some of these elements are extremely similar and worth discussing. It may give some insight into these two games.

Part 1. Design Philosophy
I have been a part of the community for both games for a very long time, playing 40k for about 10 years and League for about 5. I have seen a great deal of evolution by both companies, and I have reaped the benefits and downsides. Let's look at the similarities of both, and compare them in somewhat even terms.

Comparatively, Games Workshop designs Codices and Army Books that have wargear, rules, and more to play an army on the tabletop versus other armies. It is intended to be a 1v1 type of game, with competition as perhaps a sidebar element to the narrative elements of the game.

League of Legends is a game that is part of the MOBA genre, featuring teams of 5 players controlling champions, established characters with 4 abilities and a passive. These characters earn gold over time and purchase items to increase their power.

Now, both of these games have to work to balance two major elements, which I refer to as internal balance and external balance.

Internal balance of Games Workshop games involves units within the codex being comparatively good to each other. Unit X should be as useful/effective as Unit Y assuming they serve a similar function within the game mechanics.  Internal balance of League of Legends comes from the math to create abilities and items. Bloodthirster should grant X Attack Damage with X Life Steal. Garen's Judgement ability should deal X damage.

External balance in both games refers to how the units interact with other codices and how champions and items interact with other champions and items. Certain units in Games Workshop games nullify major strategies of other codices in terms of the very math. A certain Armor Value can not be penetrated, and a certain Toughness value cannot be wounded. The missions in Games Workshop games also provide a source of external balance. Units become better or worse dependent on how they must achieve victory. In League, the items and characters can be impacted similarly, but to a lesser extent. It will just offer a significant advantage rather than a out and out negation of the opponent's strategy.

Games Workshop's Struggle With Balance
Games Workshop struggles with balance of both types. Often new codices appear with units that are just leaps and bounds better than other units within the codex. Eldar Wave Serpent is just so much better than the Falcon, based on its point values and rules. Players can choose to play either vehicle, but in the end, even the most novice of players can see the discrepancy. Because of this, the external balance fails as well. The Wave Serpent is so effective against a wide range of the opposing armies that it sees a tremendous amount of play. It serves to see then, that regardless of the mission or the opponent, the sheer strength of the Wave Serpent can really benefit the player immensely. A lower skill player can overcome an opponent with higher skill.

Riot Games's Struggle With Balance
League then also suffers from the same sort of balance problems. Sometimes, the designers release a Champion that just does not do enough damage. They then need to readjust their numbers to be more suitable for the environment. The same is true of items as well. A new item can be released and just allow champions to do horrific amounts of damage. Any scaling ability in League can be affected by this misappropriation in numbers and values. There was a time in League that Diana ruled the map. She just did so much damage that she was unstoppable. She was fixed eventually, but it required a few changes to get right. It then allowed lower skill players to win against a higher skill player based on the champion selected.

See the comparison?

Balance Issues Due to Evolution/Identity 
Both game companies struggle to maintain balance; this we have established. I think that both companies suffer from these issues due to at least one similar reason. The game design philosophies change so often and so drastically at times.

Games Workshop releases new editions of the rules for their systems. This changes the game from the base up, affecting armies and units ubiquitously. Riot releases patches that change many elements of the game, from towers to the jungle. These changes affecting the game and all of its items and champions. From there then, both companies play catch up in reducing power levels and increasing power levels based on the "new edition" that surrounds the internally balanced elements.

But of course, neither company stops the design of the game there. As businesses, they need to release new internal units, which of course draw customers and consumers.

However, due to the timing of their releases, they then create some "time warp." Suddenly, this unit from Q Codex is not the only one with this ability. Suddenly, this character has this ability! As new units and champions come out, the older additions become out-dated, less effective, and less unique over time. This then leads to codices like 5ed Dark Eldar in 7ed, and champions in League like Urgot. Both companies then struggle to simultaneously maintain their previous elements and create new ones, often creating imbalance and overall non-functional elements within their games.

The evolution also seems to create some disparities in the external balance as well. Why should a Wraithknight have super awesome guns AND close combat ability? Some design evolution later, and the Nemesis Dreadknight has decent guns with exceptional close combat. League suffers similarly. Why does Nocturne have a high engage, spell shield, attack steroid, sustain and flexibility in terms of laning/jungling? Then enters Bard that has only one damaging ability, a heal, utility and a non-damaging ultimate. Suddenly, the champion design is drastically different and then creates champions that must be in one role and have no other function.

The final point to make is a question of the unit/champion's identity. As game designers and artists, it is hard to sacrifice creative children. Kassadin, as a champion, should have the ability to warp across the map dealing high magic damage and taking less in return. This is how his story and champion identity work. The Wave Serpent, as an ancient and powerful technology of a sagacious alien race should wreck Space Marines and protect their troops very effectively. That is how the story goes. At some point though, game designers must realize that the "fluff" just can't sustain the game design in a healthy way. Eventually, the designers rework the ideas to be a bit more reasonable, but at the loss of a creation.

Stay tuned for my next article on the Competitive elements of these games. Parts 3 and 4 will feature some comparison on business model and the community.

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