Breaking Up With "League of Legends."
Hi everybody, I’m Kevin and I have a problem with games.
Recently, I stopped playing League of Legends because it was eating my life. Whenever I’ve mentioned that LoL was eating my life, on or offline, at least one person has commented – not unreasonably – “Woah, at least it wasn’t WoW. Or EVE. Or any other MMO!”
But the thing is that there’s a reason I don’t play those games. I’ve never played an MMO, period, or any other game based around a subscription model because I know it’s likely to cause me problems. I thought I’d be safe with LoL, but it turns out that it shares a bunch of the same elements that make MMOs so compelling, and that kind of snuck up on me.
Before we get too far into this, though, I want to make a quick nod to discussions of whether games are addictive. Certainly, the idea that games are ‘addictive’ is something that gets spread around in the news, and people point fingers at videogames for corroding western civilization just as they have every other development in storytelling for the last forever.
Fortunately, I don’t have to recap the whole discussion here, because others have already covered it for me: Rob Cover digs into all of the reasons that the same rhetoric and social discourse that is used for drug addiction is applied to videogames, when they’d otherwise seem to be very distinct things. Rock, Paper, Shotgun have a great summary of the discussion to-date, including material from ‘Project Massive’ by Ph.D. researchers A Fleming Seay and Robert E Kraut, who don’t use the term ‘addiction,’ preferring to go with ‘problematic use’ instead.
Rather than getting caught up in the whole mess that is defining ‘addiction’ as relevant to games, ‘problematic use’ describes scenarios where someone’s game playing causes them problems, they’re aware of those problems, and keep playing anyway.
I’ve spent some time thinking about this, and here are the traits that I think pushed me over the edge.
An Ongoing Conveyor-Belt of Content.
New heroes every couple of weeks; new free champions to try every week; sales on champions twice a week to give you a chance to snaffle those that appeal.
This means I was always on tenterhooks waiting for something, and speculating for what might be coming next. Whether particular champions might be on sale soon, or – having been soundly trounced in a game by one I was unfamiliar with – whether it’d surface in a free rotation soon. There was always something to look forward to.
I found myself structuring my time around League of Legends announcement schedule, and acquisitively pondering over and over when or how to get a given champion, when I had enough already that I wasn’t learning how to play them because I was focused on Newer Things.
The issue is I can look at this from the studio’s perspective and say, “Well, yeah.” Having regular updates and consistent shifts to the freely-accessible landscape of the game is a given. Without it, you’re going to be shutting down things which accomplish two tasks: firstly, reminding existing players about the game, and secondly, being interesting to potential new players by showing them Shiny Things.
Deeper and Deeper Down The Rabbit Hole of Comprehension
As I say, I have never been good at the game. I’m crap, and only figured out that ‘last hitting’ was a Thing To Do when a friend sat me down and explained the concept when I was past level 20 – something that Jeff Groves has helpfully covered for us here. The issue is that there was always something new to try and comprehend.
Each rough layer of play I started figuring out showed me more of how things connected. Things started falling into place, like how opponents had achieved something with a given champion which I couldn’t duplicate given the same level and build, or why a particular item build made sense.
The intricacies of how LoL’s systems interrelate are hardly unreasonable: allowing players to comprehend different levels to a game’s mechanical depths is likely to increase long-term playability, and be a defining element of what separates experienced players from those who are still learning.
My issue was that I couldn’t put it down. I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibilities of different options with different consequences and an endlessly fractal spreading chain of contingencies, which was a serious problem when my skill at the game was completely dwarfed by the schemes I was stuck thinking about.
And then there was the fact that every time I played the game, win or lose but mostly win, you got XP and in-game currency, and climbed that little bit further towards progress. Each level you get helps your stats in the game. And that meant I started to draw lines from where I was now to where I had to be in order to unlock those. I had to play a certain number of games in order to get there, while knowing that if the win/loss ratio wasn’t in my favour it’d take more. Time spent doing anything else was time I could have usefully spent playing LoL.
This wasn’t a healthy idea to have in my head.
The part of LoL’s design which does foster this kind of engagement is that your first ‘Win Of The Day’ gets you an extra 150 in-game currency, on top of whatever else you might get from winning that match. As the name suggests, this is supposed to happen once every 24 hours. Which means that if I get my first win at 11pm, then tomorrow it’ll be the first win I have after 11pm. So if I’m hanging out for that win, for those precious points I might otherwise not get if I, say, sleep, then I’ll be playing later and later as the days proceed to chase that precious time-sensitive reward.
As I’ve said, my intent with this piece is not to have a go at League of Legends. There isn’t anything malicious in the way the game is designed – the point is that I’m far from the only person with who might respond badly to how it works.
I’d stayed away from MMOs because I knew they might cause problems; clearly, elements of a sensible Free-To-Play economy can also be a problem for me. However, I have spotted that I’ve engaged with other games since I quit LoL which haven’t been a problem in the same way, and I’m interested in asking why that might be.
I’ve been on a Team Fortress 2 hiatus for a while because other games have had my attention, but the ‘Pyromania’ update brought me back. It counts as a FTP economy, and doesn’t trigger the same kind of thought processes as LoL does. My best theory as to why that might be are that:
1) It lacks any real grind, unless you want optional high-end items: if you play the game a lot, you might get random drops but mostly you just play the game a lot and get the experience of doing so. There’s nothing you’re missing out on if you do something else instead.
2) Mechanical transparency: TF2 doesn’t have much in the way of secrets – or at least, it doesn’t during basic play. If you pick up the game today, the core mechanic and process of playing the game will be 99.987% similar to someone playing when it was released. Heavies do the same thing, for example, the core question is how they’re tricked out.
Admittedly some of the items do add mechanical complexity, but they’re variations on a theme rather than gradually revealing what’s behind the curtain to the audience: no matter how long you play the game, capturing points works the same and you can’t affect how that works through More Knowledge. Craig Pearson’s discussion of life in TF2 after your 850th hour of play does show the impact that greater knowledge and experience can have in captivating you and encouraging you to learn more, but in my case I’m simply not good enough at the game for that to ever be relevant. Mediocrity as defence!
Valkyria Chronicles for the PS3 interests me because it does have the concealed mechanical depths and grinding that sunk into my brain with LoL, but it’s been a much safer game for me to play: time is under my control. I can put as much time as I want into playing Skirmish missions and grinding my troops, or I can advance the story, but there’s nothing I’m losing by putting the game down for a few days. The other factor is that the game is finite. In comparison to TF2 or LoL, it is something that I will (eventually) finish. And, being me, I’m likely to finish the game long before I master its mechanics, which means I can relax about trying. That way, when I figure something out it’s a eureka moment, rather than part of an infinite journey towards possible competence, like it was for LoL.
I guess that suggests that the safest place for me and people like me is in games which end, rather than the open-ended experiences found in MMOs, competitive multiplayer worlds and Action RTS games. (Although I own Minecraft, I’ve been treating it with the same wariness as big, shiny button that might – or might not! – end the world: it calls to me, but is Not A Good Idea.) Alternatively, games which don’t end but which lack any grind or concealed depths are reasonably secure.
Of course, at that point I’m speaking just for myself, and there might well be people out there who’d still find that context Problematically Compelling.
At heart, all we can really do is recognize that every element of games that is intended to keep an element of the audience coming back could well be an issue for some members of that audience, and work accordingly.