For many games or sports, one playing field is quite enough. A rugby, football or hockey pitch need never change, while the ageless simplicity of the chessboard belies the complexity of the many matches that have been fought across it.
To alter any of these gaming arenas would, depending upon your point of view, be either an act of sacrilege or an act of revolution. And anyway, they have never been the point of the game, never the focus. They exist only as a platform upon which the strategies, tactics and even personalities of their players can be pitted against one another in endless combinations.
Once upon a time this was the case for League of Legends, a game that only ever needed one map, and a map whose origins can be traced back to the aging Warcraft 3 mod Defense of the Ancients (DotA).
For years, DotA and LoL players were used to one field of battle, two bases and three different avenues of attack down which teams would charge their champions. Then, last year, developer Riot Games introduced Twisted Treeline, a smaller and tighter arena designed for three-on-three combat. There were few complaints from purists and LoLís rapidly expanding community embraced both the new addition and the spirit of change that Riot demonstrated.
Now, with the announcement of League of Legends: Dominion, Riot has made Twisted Treeline look almost like an afterthought. Dominion is an entirely different way to play the game. Players must capture and hold five objectives on a brand new map known as The Crystal Scar. The task sounds very simple but, of course, the many possibilities that LoLís various champions present make it both challenging and complicated.
This represents an enormous addition to a game that has been traditional, almost conservative in adhering to its DotA-influenced style of play, and where the focus has almost always been on the development of new characters or new tactics. This Riot has started a revolution, and one that has arrived at just the right time.
When League of Legends first launched it occupied something of a niche. While LoL has not only grown from some 55,000 players per month to over 500,000 concurrent players, it has also seen the first signs of competition. Games like Heroes of Newerth and Demigod try to push into a market it previously lorded over, a genre its developers like to call MOBA: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena.
A Valve offering is now waiting just around the corner, boasting a former DotA designer on its development team, so it makes perfect sense for Riot to put a fresh spin on things - and the timing's perfect.
If heís worried about the competition, Riot co-founder and president Marc Merrill certainly doesnít show it. Heís full of excitement about the imminent release of Dominion, articulate, enthusiastic and excited to shake up the MOBA genre. He's a man driven by the enormous community that LoL has built and by Riotís ambition "to be the most player-centric games company in the world."
"Thereís constant pressure to get things out for the community, because we want to keep people engaged and excited. If thereís any secret [to our success] itís that we actually respect the player and try to deliver value. Itís not about us, itís about them," he says. "When youíre a gamer, you get so frustrated when a developer isnít listening to you. We encourage every employee to publish on the forums and directly engage with users. Weíre not aware of any other company that does that. We think itís healthy."
No wonder, as this is something that has constantly shaped LoL and will likely further shape Dominion. "We play League of Legends a heck of a lot, but they play it way more than we do. Thatís one of the reasons itís so important to us to have this great dialogue. We think itís a great asset to the company."
Those LoL players are certainly in for a surprise, perhaps even a shock. Itís immediately obvious that the feel of play is quite different. While player versus player combat would often tip the balance on LoLís other maps, here it can waste valuable time. In the midst of a fierce fight, sneaky players can outmanoeuvre those tied up in combat and, in just a few seconds, sit on an objective until theyíve captured it. Players working in unison capture objectives even quicker and a much stronger emphasis is placed on situation awareness and interception or disruption.
"You need to learn the mechanics of how to co-ordinate a capture. You need to learn a different type of map awareness," says Design Director Tom Cadwell, who previously worked on Warcraft 3. The pace of the game is incredibly quick, with matches now coming in at the twenty-minute mark. The hope is that this will appeal to new players after a quick gaming fix, as well as LoLís existing community. LoL players will certainly recognise the feel of their favourite characters and Riot has nudged rather than tipped the scales.
Though itís a fast game, Tom and his team have spent a long time poring over the minutiae of Dominion. Over the last nine months it has been endlessly re-tweaked and redeveloped in what he calls a "constant, iterative process." Wanting to incorporate all the old LoL characters and abilities into a new framework was a challenge.
"We tried several map layouts. We started with an X-shape, we tried a figure 8 pattern, we tried a bunch of different spawn rules, we tried twelve different versions of a reward in the centre. We really kicked the tyres on this one. We made sure that all character types are effective. We made sure that teams canít snowball to a victory."
The rewards he speaks of are speed power-ups in the centre of the map, while the new spawn rules cover a modification to the traditional minions, which now spawn from any locations your team has captured that are near enemy bases. If left unchecked, they can and will capture those locations for you.
Both Tom and Marc have a lot to say about the endless iterations that LoL and Dominion have gone through, seeing the finely honed and repeatedly re-balanced gameplay as the gameís strength. Itís also an area its rivals, including Newerth and Demigod, have been accused of falling down on.
Itís this rigorous testing of an endlessly evolving game, complimented by an enormous communityís endless feedback, that has Riot seeing any competition almost as an irrelevance.
"We do think weíre in the leadership position in this genre," says Marc, "Our goal always was, and always will be, to deliver value to players, and I think weíre winning in the peopleís court, that the approach is working." On paper, Riotís business model may look a little loony: the game is entirely free to play and players gain no bonuses through buying extras that they couldnít earn in the game anyway, yet the game is very profitable and a lack of subscription costs allows for an enormous player base, meaning anyone anywhere can find opponents or allies at any time of day. Dominion, like the rest of LoL, wonít punish casual players who hop in for the occasional game, an example of what Tom describes as "reaching our player base in as many ways as we can."
This broad, all-inclusive approach means Marc doesnít expect to lose players to Valve or, indeed, anyone else, and certainly isnít losing sleep over the competition. "Weíre really focused on our future and on just continuing to evolve," he says. "Weíre focused on trying to develop these great relationships so that, when people do go elsewhere, they recognise that many of those other experiences are not firing on all the same cylinders, and so they want to come back. I think thatís some of the pattern weíve been seeing."
Valveís trademarking of "DotA" caused some controversy, and many DotA players felt it was unfair to trademark what was a fan-made and community-supported mod. The former DotA developer on the Valve team is known as Ice Frog, and took over development of DotA in 2005, before joining Valve in 2009. His predecessor, Steve Feak, is now at Riot, alongside another key DotA figure, Steve Mescon. When I ask Marc if he or any of his colleagues feel disappointed, even betrayed by Ice Frogís decision not to work with them, but for a company who now own the name of their not-for-profit inspiration, heís guarded with his answer.
"I have a lot of thoughts about that," he says, but he doesnít want to talk about personalities. "At the end of the day, weíll see what shakes out. Youíre going back seven years of all the different relationships. Thereís a lot of history there and itís a pretty complicated situation. Our philosophy is weíre all about the players; weíre all about the community."
Itís that community he wants to return the discussion to as he focuses on a DotA team member he has, rather than one he hasnít: Steve Mescon, also known by his handle "Pendragon".
"I think that guy is an absolute prodigy. I think he, more than any other individual, is the reason DotA was as successful as it was." Steve was just a teenager when he effectively created the DotA community website that, as Marc puts it, "centralised the community, that allowed it to reach critical mass. He defined and drove the values-oriented approach that this is by gamers, for gamers."
It certainly looks like Riot has kept Steveís values close to their heart. Dominion is also by gamers, for gamers, and previewing to the press is a little uncharacteristic of Riot - its enormous community usually gives its game more than enough momentum. Ultimately, itíll be that community response it will be most interested in and, should any rivals want to encroach on their territory, it wonít just be the game itself theyíll be challenging. It will also be the loyalty of an enormous and very content fanbase.