Multiplayer online battle arena games aren’t really my scene, mostly because I don’t do much gaming on my fairly high-powered but absurdly warm laptop. But for the second year in a row at E3, I sat down with the folks at Riot Games, maker of the free-to-play MOBA game “League of Legends” to find out what they have in store. In my relatively brief meeting, I got the skinny on a new spectator mode that you can actually see in action today, as well as three upcoming champion characters Riot will be rolling out in the near future.
If you’re unfamiliar with “League of Legends,” it’s a free-to-play PC game that pits two teams of up to five players each against one another in an online battle arena. It’s inspired by “Warcraft III’s” “Defense of the Ancients” custom scenario, which pretty much spawned the entire MOBA genre. Each player controls a champion, and Riot’s been rolling new champions every few weeks since the game’s 2009 launch. (Riot makes money by charging for specially designed skins for champions or speedier unlocks.)
As someone who’s always juggling multiple games, reviewing them and quickly moving onto the next one, I’m pretty much an outsider in the world of electronic sports. (The closest I’ve ever gotten is running, winning and participating in “Culdcept Saga” leagues over at CuldceptCentral.com.) But I’ve long loved it when games make it easy to tune in and watch the masters at work, whether its spectator mode in fighting games or uploaded user clips in action games like “Ninja Gaiden II.”
That’s exactly what “LoL’s” new spectator mode is all about. Riot’s Ryan Scott gave me a little tour, sort of zooming around the interface and giving me the highlights. Before I go much further, though, I should mention that if you want to get an idea of what spectator mode looks like, you can actually head over to this link to watch both taped and live action from the “League of Legends” Season One championship.
The Season One championship is being decided at DreamHack, a LAN party in Sweden that draws hundreds of thousands of gamers from around the world. The final is set for today at 3 p.m. PDT. Yesterday’s stream drew something in the neighborhood of 950,000 viewers, so you’ll have plenty of company if you’re checking out the live feed.
The spectator mode isn’t out in the wild yet, but the videos Riot is showing online of the championships capture their in-game footage using the mode.
What I saw of spectator mode looked pretty well thought-out. It’ll essentially allow several players to join a match and observe as spectators without playing. They’re allowed to zoom around the map, check out both teams’ movements and tactics and view statistics such as kills, assists and items purchased in real-time. You can click on individual players and follow them around, so if you spot someone cleaning up with your favorite champion, you can just sit back and watch a master. Alternately, you can zip around and watch the hot points of the match. Spectators will be able to chat, but only with other spectators. (There’ll be a delay, currently about 15 seconds, between the in-game action and what the spectators see on screen to prevent cheaters from relaying in-game advice via Skype or other out-of-game voice chat services.)
Initially, spectators will only be able to join a match when it’s beginning, Scott said, though Riot is hoping to add more functionality in that regard later.
Of the three new champions Riot was showing off, I thought sentient scorpion Skarner sounded like the most badass. Scott said one of Skarner’s powers, which is still being honed and balanced, will be an ability that lets him sting a rival champion and haul him away from the fray. As a big fan of playing as a Smoker in Valve’s “Left 4 Dead” games, I could identify with the kind of player who might want to try out Skarner.
Another champion we’ll be seeing is Yorick the Grave Digger, who can summon a number of undead minions to play support roles like exploding or slowing down rival champions. Scott was pretty clear in referring to Yorick’s minions as “schlubs, not one pet that’s powerful.” Given his summoned minions’ disposable nature, Scott said Yorick will be pretty tough himself in a fight. He won’t simply hide behind his helpers.
The other character we saw was Lorna the Radiant Dawn, a female tanklike character who’ll be able to wade in and soak up a ton of damage. She’ll come with a suite of sun-based paladin powers that Riot is hoping will give her a different flavor from some of the already-existing male tank champions.
Even though some of the jargon being slung around in my meetings between Riot, other journalists and myself flies over my head, the developer’s passion for delivering new content its fans want and tendency to overhaul existing systems based on player feedback make the small studio one I can root for.
As an example, I had one other journlist/”League of Legends” fan crash what was scheduled to be a one-on-one meeting because he was so excited to see Riot he couldn’t wait for his appointment the next day. He was literally bursting with jargon-filled questions about what features he wanted to see from spectator mode and in the game in general. What I thought was refreshing was the way Scott talked about how he’d love to implement a lot of these ideas into “League of Legends,” but that the team was focused in getting a basic spectator mode out sooner rather than later so that fans can begin enjoying it right away, rather than holding the product back so that they could continue adding more features.
It’s pretty common when meeting with developers to hear them talk about trying to deliver features their fans want. It’s also pretty frequent that I come away feeling like the game industry has a sort of love-hate relationship with its biggest fans, who, let’s face it, can act like a bunch of entitled whiners sometimes. In my meetings with Riot at the last two E3s, I’ve detected no such cynicism, which makes the tiny developer one to watch as it continues to bump up against competition from similarly minded games like Rohnert Park-based S2’s “Heroes of Newerth” and Valve Software’s upcoming “DotA 2.”