Friday, June 3, 2016

The TLDR on Solo Queue vs Dynamic Queue

As usual with my blog entries, I'm starting to write this right in the wee hours of the morning and it's about to ding 5am PST. The inspiration and desire for me to blog usually comes when a thought is eating at me that something doesn't feel right or I need to get something off my chest. The thought that hasn't been sitting with me well today is about all of the back and forth & misunderstanding that has happened around solo queue vs. dynamic queue and the resulting player angst associated with the recent video where our tone was one of finality around putting the nail in solo queue's coffin.

I think there are two important things to get straight:

1. Some background on why we (Riot) are inconsistent with communication - some days we are awesome, connected and in touch, and other times we come across as tone deaf or are radio silent and how this ties to feelings of confusion, hurt and anger for some players

2. What our philosophy on ranked & team play actually is (and development philosophy in general)

So let's take some time to see if we can provide some additional perspective here.

First of all, as players have pointed out to me when I dove into the subject on Reddit a couple of days ago, apparently we said multiple times definitively that we are bringing solo queue back, other times we had said we are evaluating the situation, and recently we released the video mentioned above with the tone of finality saying it's gone permanently. Clearly, players who are confused or feel misled have very good reason to feel this way.

So how does it possibly make sense for us to be in a situation like this where we can say this stuff with a straight face?

The fundamental reason that this type of inconsistency happens in some external communications with players are twofold:

1) Riot structures our organization in an empowering way that enables teams that "own" different parts of the experience to make decisions.  We create frameworks and high level philosophical guidelines and empower our teams to go crush. Thus, many specific choices of how things will manifest are not "run up the flag pole".  New or controversial things tend to get more eyes on it rather than established pipelines (like champions), but once there is conceptual buy-in, teams move fast and don't often check in again with details.

2) Long ago, we made a decision at the company to encourage all Rioters to "be themselves" and "engage directly with the community" on forums and on social media.  Brandon (Ryze) and I largely credit Steve "Pendragon" Mescon for helping us realize the power of this idea and we love it when we see Rioters develop meaningful personal relationships with the community. We have great examples of this all over the world where this works out well and we think Rioters and players who connect really enjoy this.

But in other cases some Rioters end up getting harassment and death threats.  This stuff is pretty disgusting which makes us periodically waver in our commitment to this ideal and is likely the type of experience that has caused pretty much every other large game company to only communicate via very structured and formal announcements / dehumanized corporate speak.

Even with Riot, you can note the difference between formal things like the patch notes and polished videos we produce, with informal statements where an individual jumps on social media to chime in, which then gets picked up on Reddit and is perceived by players as being an "official" statement from Riot.

Riot is a large and diverse team of passionate gamers
Now, to really understand why Riot sometimes comes across as inconsistent or contradictory,  you need to understand the mindset of a Rioter and what our working environment is like.  First of all, we've grown relatively quickly, and as every single business person will tell you, it is hard to grow and it is incredibly hard to grow well and stay aligned.

Rioters are indoctrinated from day one to care about core gamers. If you don't, you are extremely unlikely to get hired and/or you will likely be managed out.  A lot of our negative glassdoor reviews are oriented around "feeling like an outsider" relating to lack of culture fit (most often meaning not being hardcore about games, even if they don't interpret it that way), or criticizing our relative lack of structure desiring more direction and being told what to do in a more prescriptive way.

Rioters are taught that we aspire to put players at the center of all of our decision making and always try to do right by our players. We believe this is one of the primary reasons many of the incredible men and women that work at the company choose to be a part of the team and is one of the core factors that makes Riot a great place to work. We think this intention has been incredibly important and has helped Riot make many unconventional decisions (for our industry and genre) and do things differently for players in the face of huge resistance. Some examples:

Industry-Related Decisions

  • Launching a free, multiplayer only game on the PC in 2009 when PC gaming was supposedly "dead"  according to industry conventional wisdom
  • Building our own publishing business (the company was originally just intended to be a developer) because after meeting with the publishers of that era, it became clear they didn't have any understanding or capability (at the time) of what it would really take to launch a successful online only game and build a healthy community
  • Bringing eSports in-house and leveling up the production values at a rate to a quality bar never seen before in the history of our industry

Genre & Game Development Decisions:

  • Demonstrating that MOBA's were more than just Dota with many controversial gameplay decisions such as:
    • Focusing the laning phase on fighting against another player by making big mana pools, lower cooldowns for "spammier abilities" and different resource types instead of passively "denying" minions in lane while just last hitting 
    • Trying to de-clutter the environment to focus on the relevant gameplay space by removing destructible terrain, day & night cycles, etc
    • Making the game more team oriented vs. hyper carry dominant with items, stats role and champ design
    • A full roster of completely unique characters
    • Adding summoner spells and some out of game progression to try to add interesting depth at the meta layer and out of game decision making / analysis
  • Releasing a patch every 2 weeks (much of our team thought this was an impossible and unreasonable goal originally)
  • Launching the game without ranked play and introducing it later via the Season One update
  • Focusing on core gamers only.  No single player.  No deep tutorial.  Very little hand holding. 
  • Constantly updating / tweaking the game (many said the game will never be able to be an eSport if the core game isn't static)

I could go on and on. Much of these may seem obvious in hindsight, but every single one of these were extremely contentious with investors, potential recruits, with early adopter players and potential international partners. We faced resistance every step of the way where very smart and rational people would dispute our plans with well-reasoned arguments.  We faced doubt and wavered on many decisions at times, but we learned over time to have a healthy amount of skepticism towards conventional wisdom and popular opinion.

If we didn't push, we'd never achieve
anything worthwhile & difficult
I would summarize to say that our history has taught our team to be open to different opinions and to listen deeply, but to be ultra focused on the player experience and not be too married to any preconceived notion for the "best way" to accomplish a particular thing.  Our mindset is one of trying to push hard beyond what is obvious or easy to try to deliver an incredible experience to players. Sometimes we are right, sometimes we are wrong.

That's a lot of background, but I think it may help everyone understand why Rioters come across the way that we do.

Do we always succeed at putting players first?  No. We have made many mistakes, but part of what we try to do is acknowledge those mistakes and fix them. One of my favorite examples is the story of our awards that we promised our Refer-A-Friend grand prize winners of having them come out and help design a champion with our team. To make a long story short, we didn't fully deliver this (at the time) to all of the winners due to dramatically underestimating the number of people who would hit 10,000+ referrals as well as the effort and feasibility of this. Years later, after the company became more stable, we reached out to the winners and tried to make up for failing to see our prize through by flying everyone out to work directly with the developers to prototype a champion.  This led to the decently well known story of  Total Biscuit donating his award to the make-a-wish.

Anyway, back to the core point.  We know that this can feel bad when you care deeply about the game, have a strongly held opinion about the direction it needs to go, want to help by offering suggestions and can't understand why we don't agree with something you are advocating for, why we wouldn't seem to listen, or why we would seemingly promise one thing and then do another.  We really do understand that you guys care.  The thing we'd like you to understand is that we DO listen, even if we don't agree or react immediately. Listening and respecting another persons beliefs does not mean that you will always agree.

Something that makes me incredibly proud though is that when issues pop up or disagreements happen, many Rioters feel hurt, sad, confused and motivated when they see players distraught and upset with the company over any issue. This has happened many times since the launch of League, and the comfort that Rioters feel to internally debate complex issues and iterate about "what is truly best for players" is actually the element that helps us keep improving over time and make up for our mistakes. The LCS contract leak overreach that initially had a clause banning pros from streaming other games was a great example.  Rioters internally were like WTF?  Which helped the team be like "oops" and switch course.  We perceive ourselves as not being overly proud or stubborn, except around our values where we are extremely stubborn.

Which brings me to the core point.

What is Riot's Philosophy on Ranked / Team Play?
I personally hate black licorice, but I love League
League of Legends is a competitive game focused on core gamers. Unless our Chinese overlords slay me and Ryze (or we leave), this will continue to be the case (and even then will still likely be the case - it is deeply ingrained).

It was designed since day one to be a competitive game. We have also made intentional decisions all along the way to not focus on a wider audience despite internal and external pressure to do so. "If we care about gamers, why not try to serve ALL gamers" goes the argument.

Our answer is because League is not designed for everyone.  To quote Ryze, "Riot & League of Legends are like Black Licorice. Some people love it, some people hate it.  We are not for everyone.  We will never be Vanilla, nor should we aspire to be."

Yes, League is the largest online game in the world. But that sure ain't because we tried to focus on "casual gamers" or "go broad".  League is hard to learn.  It takes years (literally) to understand much of the nuance of the game in the same way that it takes years to master a team sport like American Football, Soccer or Basketball.  

League went into beta in 2009 and here in 2016, we are bigger than ever and we keep growing.  The game has evolved a ton and will keep evolving.

Regarding Dynamic Queue vs. Solo queue, the bottom line is this: we believe we can create a competitive League of Legends experience where you can play with friends in ranked play and have deep ways to measure and compare individual skill on a relative basis with other players.  We know we haven't accomplished the individual skill part yet with the current implementation of Dynamic Queue. We are working on many different things to accomplish this, not simply trying to improve dynamic queue.  We think the real solution we are going for is far broader than that and requires multiple other systems. In other words, Dynamic Queue is a start, not the end state. This will take us some time to keep iterating through and developing all of the complimentary features, but we believe in the teams vision and capabilities to make this happen.

Some of you may wonder, "so why ship it if it isn't finished"?  Our answer there is nothing is ever finished in League. We make a call about when something is "good enough" and we get it out to the door and then we build from there.

Why has the team not stated their future plans concretely?  Because we know from past experience that a couple things will happen:

1. The internet will theory craft the heck out of the solution and rip apart every specific word with a very high probability of misinterpreting how it will actually manifest in reality

2.  If we pivot during the course of development the team doesn't want the response of "OMG you promised X, yet delivered Y!"  You learn a lot as you deeply dive into a feature or system and that learning may invalidate earlier assumptions that you had and communicated externally.  This isn't about our own sensitivities, but it's about not letting players down and disappointing people through wrongly set expectations.

In other words, we aren't done, will never be done and we're never satisfied if you guys aren't satisfied. This is true even if you doubt it, even if we sometimes misspeak or have to backtrack and even if we are slow to deliver.  We may fail at some execution for a time, but we don't forget and we do get better over time.  Think about lore as an example remember (or how much our art has leveled up).

People were like "zomg why reboot lore and take it away" - and now people are starting to see how cool this stuff is (and we have some winsauce coming).  Making cool stuff takes time and sometimes we have to "take stuff offline" to take it to new heights.  

When the servers were on fire in NA, Korea and EU, teams worked night and day to resolve the issue and then stability wasn't enough - we wanted to go beyond and we built a better internet for NA and EU (turns out Korea has a pretty good internet =p).

These blog isn't about making excuses. We know we have to deliver. This is simply an attempt to provide more perspective on what happens and why we think it happens the way things manifest to players.

And guess what?  If we're wrong and the stuff we're working on to improve dynamic queue and ranked doesn't work out the way we think it will, we'll re-evaluate and bring solo queue back IF it is the best solution.  The team set the right expectation with the message of "not bringing solo queue back" because we don't think we will need to. But we'd rather "get to the right answer" for players than "be right" and we'll be quite OK with eating crow and backtracking if we can't deliver the even greater outcome that we think we are hoping for.

But as with many of the controversial decisions in the past where we took a huge amount of flak and people called us idiots and worse, we hope we are right - not for our own sakes, but because we think the potential experience will be way better than solo queue ever was - and this is coming from a guy with thousands of ranked solo queue games who has been plat every season except season one where I was gold. Rioters are in the same boat as you guys, even if sometimes it doesn't feel that way.

In the meantime, LCS and chill.

- Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill

PS.  For further reading, I do recommend this post as referenced above.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Power of Perspective

Well it's taken me a lot longer than I'd hope to write another entry, but here I am.  Another early morning entry where I wake pre-dawn with some things on my mind and part of what sparked my desire to jump out of bed and get rolling was an email I received from a new Rioter - appreciated receiving your note this morning G :)

So what to write about?  The topic that has gotten the most consistent time of self-reflection recently has really started to cement itself in my head is about the power of perspective and the power of the cultivating a positive mindset. Before I dive in, I want to back up a step to reflect on the personal journey of the last three to five years and reflect on why much of this time has been particularly
challenging for me personally.

As many of those reading this blog will know, I co-lead a game company called Riot Games along with my long time friend and business partner Brandon Beck.  At the beginning of 2010, we were roughly ~60 people and fast forwarding to today we now have over 2,000 Rioters across 17 offices around the world.  We are a company who cares an incredible amount about our audience and believe that in order to serve our players well, we needed to (and continue to need to) cultivate a unique company culture of like-minded individuals who share the same values and work together extremely well towards our shared mission.

Turns out that scaling this strong culture rapidly and institutionalizing company processes and structures that can support this has been incredibly difficult and personally exhausting. It hasn't only been exhausting for me of course, as the many Rioters who are driving various parts of this approach have been on the front lines fighting the many little fights (and some big fights) that matter every day to make this a reality have poured huge amounts of themselves into making this happen while still trying to do awesome stuff for players.  It's not easy for anybody, but at the end of the day, we all love what we do, love our co-workers and love delivering great experiences to players. When things get hard and we take our lumps, it's important for us to pull back and remember this.

Driving these curves up is hard!
I tend to think about this scaling challenge as best expressed via a line graph where you see the top "growth" line (headcount, revenue, "things" needing to be done internally and externally), where the bottom line that lags is the "execution" line that represents the amount of things that be delivered effectively.  The delta between the two lines shows where "problems" happen.  Cultural misalignment internally from hiring the wrong people or from well-intentioned people who haven't learned key lessons yet, "technical debt", missed opportunities for players, poor handling of relationships with partners, poor communication or positioning of things we are doing, etc.

Whereas the bottom line represents things that are done well, on brand, well-aligned, tightly executed initiatives or capabilities that more accurately reflect the intent of what the company is trying to do and often leads to positive responses.

Now driving that "execution curve" up is where a lot of really tough leadership work occurs. Opportunity (or problem) identification are critical, but we believe execution is where the real value is created.  It's one of the reasons that we've often utilized the term "building the plane while flying" because as any fast growing company knows, the reason you are growing is to keep up with demand, and if you inherently care about your audience, then growth becomes an imperative.  It's simply not OK to not deliver to meet their needs and expectations. The challenge is that the more ambitious the desires, or in other words, the larger that top line, the harder it is to drive the execution curve up to "keep up" or meet the needs of the top line.

Extrapolate this same concept to your personal life and therein lies a similar challenge.  Many people want to be great at lots of things (large top line), but oftentimes don't want to endure the pain or pay the cost to achieve those things (lagging bottom line). Read a great blog recently about this topic that really resonated with me.  One framework I was exposed to that I thought was super helpful was the "pie graph of your life".  If you imagine your life as a pie graph from a time allocation standpoint, it would likely look something like this to the right, where we allocate the vast majority of our time to work.

But if you were to step back and abstractly think about the areas of your life that are important, it would likely look something more like this image to the right.  Replace buckets as needed or add some, but the point is that pretty much everyone wants to live a balanced life where we have our health, enjoy meaningful friendships, have a great family, a fulfilling career, financial independence, are able to allocate time to having fun and adventure, etc.  Now I'm not advocating quitting your job and allocating an equal time allocation to all of the aspects of your life that you care about.  That would be folly and economically unfeasible.  So in order to optimize and accomplish meaningful things in each bucket, we need to be thoughtful about our approach in allocating time, but also come up with clever ways to ensure that the time you DO allocate to each area is actually meaningful and moving the needle.

So, back to the core point of this post: my wife and I tend to set pretty high expectations for ourselves and have historically beat ourselves up a lot in any situation where we aren't meeting our own expectations.  This is probably a pretty common human phenomenon that many can relate to, which I think is a very good thing. Expectation setting is incredibly important in managing performance, whether for oneself, an organization, or another person.

But for the past couple years, my wife and I have taken on even more and in some cases really put ourselves in over our heads. We got pregnant twice and had two children, a wonderful boy and girl whom we love incredibly deeply. My wife got her MBA from UCLA Anderson doing a program during nights and weekends while fully employed. She also launched a clothing company called Lunya to fulfill a much needed niche for women. We started building a house. Given how this same period was the period of incredible scaling pressure at Riot (I'd love to tell these stories some day), while we were both trying to figure out how to be good parents, suffice it to say that we added many new demands and created a lot of strain on the pie graphs of our lives and needed to figure out how to get our personal "execution" curves to catch up to our growth curve. The biggest challenge for us though, has been the emotional toll all of this took on us and how this impacted our relationship. The last thing we felt like doing after long days of driving change, managing people, pushing the rock up hill, trying to stay healthy and being fun and energetic for our kids, was being a romantic pair since we didn't leave a lot of juice in the tank for each other. And since it is in both of our nature's to constantly try to do better, this was extremely frustrating for both of us to feel like we were each constantly failing to deliver on something we cared about and knew was critically important.
Relationships that are worthwhile take work!

Just like with all growth and change, this has been a painful experience with some failures and a lot of learning for us both as we go through this journey of being a couple, building our businesses and trying to be good parents and I wanted to share some of the things we are beginning to really appreciate.

A couple key realizations have occurred:
1. The power of perspective
2. The importance of having a growth mindset
3. Virtuous cycles vs. viscous cycles in relationships

The Power of Perspective
The first key lesson is that for any experience that someone has, they ultimately always have a choice about how they will react to that particular situation and how this impacts their happiness. In other words, you can have something terrible happen to you and you can still be happy and feel OK, or you could have something wonderful happy to you and you can still be negative and find all the reasons to be sad. Dan Gilbert has done an interesting Ted Talk on this topic and it's fascinating.

In other words, happiness is a personal challenge and I think I'm really starting to appreciate and learn how to better manage the internal systems that influence happiness. Part of my biggest issue with my own perspective historically is that I've struggled with "being content" when there is "so much to do" and so many "problems to solve". I am someone who is motivated by problems, so when a meaningful problem (or opportunity) resonates with me, it drives me a bit insane that it hasn't yet been "solved" (like education for society, etc). I've found that it is difficult for me to reconcile this with the idea of "contentedness" which I have long associated with happiness in a similar way to how Buddhists do.

Thus, it has been quite powerful for me to start to associate the concept of "choice" of feeling with the deep frustration I feel with meaningful problems in my life or in broader society that need to be solved. I have realized I can still feel the same deep frustration and desire to drive positive change but not let that frustration negatively impact my emotional state. This is incredibly difficult to do I have found and is closely associated with perspective, patience and self-awareness. I recommend reading an HBR article from Daniel Goleman called the Focused Leader on this topic as well.

One of the easiest ways that I have found to help re-adjust my perspective on a situation when I start to feel sad or upset is to start looking at the same thing from another perspective. So if I feel like getting upset that we aren't educating the underprivileged I can just recall how things can always be worse and have improved a lot which helps me feel better while still not undermining my motivation.

Maybe it sounds obvious, but from personal experience, even as someone who is largely considered an optimist by pretty much everyone who knows me, I believe this to be incredibly difficult and that this is just like any muscle; it can be trained, developed and made more functional.

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
Please go read Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck's book called Mindset: the Psychology of Success. This is an incredibly important read that speaks directly to the power of perspective. Her core lesson is that there are two main types of human mindsets, the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset.

Fixed Mindset
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

Growth Mindset
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Recent advances in neuroscience also demonstrate the power of brain plasticity and have demonstrated that thought can re-wire your brain (to a point) and you can grow new brain cells. These revelations should have an incredible impact how society works over time. Gone should be the beliefs that have anchored many entrenched hierarchical structures such as a caste system. Similarly, there is a growing body of evidence supporting the effect of ecosystems like Silicon Valley and the European Renaissance on cultivating "genius", which many have historically argued are simply "born".

There is massive correlation between success and these mindsets, which relates directly to why role models are important, why belief in oneself is important and why setting high expectations is so important and why Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right."

Virtuous Cycles vs. Viscous Cycles
In my experience with all of the most important relationships in my life that have frequent interaction and mutual reliance (spouse, partner, investor, parent, manager, brother, etc), I have noticed that little things matter a great deal. When my wife reaches out to me in some small way, whether through touch, a comment, or a question, how do I react? Do I engage in a positive way or do I shut her down, intentionally or unintentionally? When a business relationship gets angry about something, do I get angry back and hit them with the many things they have done wrong or do I reflect and truly listen?

Every day we are faced with countless minor interactions that I strongly believe can either lead to deeper relationships being built or frayed. Us gamers can easily conceptualize this as some sort of reputation system with various entities, with little +X's or -Y's happening based on the scope and severity of each interaction, but just because we don't have some nice real life UI showing these numbers, doesn't mean this isn't actually happening. It is.

When you are patient, thoughtful, kind, generous, resilient, etc, people will tend to react better towards you, which in turn makes these interactions more pleasant and builds relationships. Similarly, the inverse is true. If you run around as a grumpy face, being rude, impatient, short of temper, loud, etc, people will (eventually) react in kind and you will receive more anger, frustration and angst from others. It is remarkable how clear becomes when when you start to really pay attention here.

To me, all of these lessons reinforce something that my Dad always told me: "The hardest person to manage is yourself."  If you want to change your friends, your community, your significant other, your body, your skills, or the world, if there is one thing that has been continually reinforced for me throughout my life is that it all starts with yourself. Peter Drucker's seminal piece on Managing Onself is another great piece for anyone looking to learn more. We all can choose to do differently and feel differently in the moment.

Which brings us back to why I wrote this piece this morning. I had a great weekend with my wife. But what was most remarkable was that it had pretty much the same content and schedule as our usual weekends. The thing that was exceptional was our perspective and attitude about how to interact with each other and each experience we were having - and it was glorious.

- Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill