Why Riot’s “Exploring Runeterra” points to future titles.
A band-aid solution allows flexibility in the future.
Earlier today, Riot Games published a lengthy blog post regarding the future of their narrative canon as it relates to their juggernaut game League of Legends. In it was something interesting — the mechanics of the game and how it relates to the plot would be changed so that they no longer were a 1:1 match.
This alters how the game functions, as we were to believe that the matches taking place, the players themselves (labelled “Summoners”) and the organization managing the conflicts all related to how the outside world of Runeterra worked. We were fighting matches in order to settle political fights that were started by nations that were represented with champions.
Having the narrative and game play interwoven like this was unique, as it gave us a reason to be fighting the other side. We could easily identify with heroes from the nations that appealed to us, believing that we were settling scores and kicking ass in the name of Noxus, Demacia or Bilgewater.
However, as Riot notes, this was a bit of a hamstring when it came to crafting new stories, as Summoners, the Institute of War (who regulated matches) and the game itself grew too powerful; it became difficult to justify meaningful changes and danger without having it be handwaved away by already-established rules.
Every new champion needed a reason to join and remain in the League, and as their number grew, the net result was that over time the world started to feel, well, small, and eventually less interesting.
The institutions we’d designed fostered creative stagnation, limiting the ways that champions, factions and Runeterra itself could grow and change. Furthermore, the very idea of all-powerful Summoners made Champions little more than puppets manipulated by godlike powers. The background we’d created to explain in-game action was ultimately restricting the potential narrative development of the game’s defining characters. — Tommy Knox (source)
However, I don’t think this is all Riot is up to with this.
On Quora, I once answered a question of where Riot would go from League of Legends, and how they could expand past the game. After wracking my brain, I came to a startling conclusion:
Riot cannot move past League of Legends because they are the game. The identity of their employees and how it relates to their chief property are different than almost every other company.
League of Legends has grown to its mammoth size partly because of Riot’s involvement in its community, eSports and infrastructure. They are not a Valve Software which have multiple titles in multiple genres, or an indie company that have made a hit and can expand elsewhere. They live, breathe and radiate the intellectual property that they have created, and in my opinion from working for the company and knowing its employees, they could not easily separate. Riot are a not a company who would suddenly sequester off a team and say “go work on something not related to League.”
However, this doesn’t mean they can’t make a new property using the League of Legends characters, setting and functions.
We saw Activision-Blizzard do this to tremendous effect with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, where suddenly everyone who played World of Warcraft, (the game from which it draws its setting and characters) was clamouring for a beta key. Regardless of whether they played WoW in Vanilla, Burning Crusade or still do today, there was enough references, content and familiarity to provoke nostalgia and reward people who are attached and invested in the universe’s lore.
This essentially means that Blizzard can fast-track the onboarding process because people see things they know and can take comfort in that. It’s the same, but different — enough of a twist to bring back people who have long since left and want to try something new, but not making them learn a whole new universe. It’s not quite a remake or a reboot, but something that both builds on previous success and explores new ground.
Riot wants to do the same thing by divorcing its setting from “League of Legends the game”. Especially when the functions of the former was so dependent on the latter, it keeps them from expanding and using that setting to bring in new players to whatever they come up with next.
Something that League of Legends has over other games that it competes with is the amount of fanworks it generates. Regardless of gender, orientation or background, someone can find something that appeals to them in characters, settings or themes.
It has a bright, cartoony atmosphere with different amounts of cute mascot characters and badass anti-heroes. It both serves the demographic that wants to intimidate or entertain; you can both feel deliciously evil or bust out an “aww”. While other games with large casts could arguably do the same thing (Dota, Heroes of the Swarm), they tip far into a darker aesthetic that can keep creatives like cosplayers, fanartists or vloggers away. It’s no real wonder why League attracts a younger player base, but these are the people that increase visibility by showing up and being visible with costumes, art, fanfiction and obsession.
We all know the stats about players (27 million per day, apparently) but something to note is that those are people who identify with the game on different levels. I know people who are absolute trash at the game, but still love being able to joke about how champions would react to each other, who would date who, or what their daydream skin would look like.
You can’t buy that kind of engagement — you need to earn it. And introducing a new game that doesn’t take advantage of that foundation would be multitudes more work for Riot when they could change things now to be able to say “Hey, come to this convention or meetup! We’ll be bringing things for both League of Legends and [Game 2] fans! If you like one, you’ll find something to like in the other, too!”
They would be able to leverage the previous fan base to jump-start the next one, and then use the shared setting and characters to make idea generation and engagement that much easier. While I can’t talk much about staffing, I could imagine that simultaneous launches across two games would be easier to concept and brainstorm, and it wouldn’t create a harsh divide in the company’s corporate culture: there would be no “League Rioters” and “[Game 2] Rioters”, but one unified front.
Again, Riot is not their company, but their games and their community. They cannot easily break that close association, so while we may not see any new titles for a while, this would at least sets up an easier transition for the most advantageous position.