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.