I had a chance to talk with Blake Midstokke, Gameplay Producer for Legends of Runeterra, and ask him some questions about the state of the game and what we can expect in the future. Be on the lookout for Legends of Runeterra to return for closed beta early in Q1. If you did not already have access you can still register at the LoR website.
Neonangel: I understand Legends of Runeterra has been in development for years, but was there ever a point that you were approaching it as another game mode, like Teamfight Tactics for League of Legends, or was it always designed to be a stand-alone title?
Blake: From the beginning of LoR’s development, we felt the opportunity to launch a card game with a truly player-focused business model and deep interactive strategy was large enough to warrant a stand-alone experience.
During very early prototyping, we did uncover a few promising directions that we passed along to other Riot teams, but LoR itself was always planned to be a stand-alone game. Our hope has always been to build something that players will love to keep coming back to year after year!
N: When Hearthstone was first released it focused on actual characters from World of Warcraft but slowly drifted further away from that strict scope of storytelling until it eventually shed its “Heroes of Warcraft” subtitle to become simply “Hearthstone”. Does Legends of Runeterra plan on taking players along for the ride with League of Legends characters or will they just exist in the same world?
B: With the amount of content we get to pump out with each new set, we're very excited for LoR to be at the forefront of character building and storytelling in the world of Runeterra.
League of Legends has introduced some really amazing alternate universes that we may explore at some point, but for now our focus is squarely on introducing more of our core world. By building that world and partnering with other teams at Riot to expand on their stories, we're super excited to grow Runeterra into an even richer and more vibrant setting.
Senna, Sentinel of Light and Tianna Crownguard are my favorite examples so far. With Tianna, we got to work with the Comics group to explore her story and how she fits in with Lux and Garen. As for Senna, players can experience her pre-Thresh in LoR, and then play her post-Thresh incarnation in LoL.
"I can remember bringing in Madden one year to demo and analyze what they were doing with their draft mode."
N: It’s clear that your brainstorming sessions to identify elements that work from existing digital card games really paid off. The current state of the game is exceptionally polished, intuitive, and fun! How many iterations of the gameplay design did you have to go through to get it there or can you share any details from early attempts?
B: Thank you! It's always strange to see people call the game polished, because when our team looks at LoR all we can see are the things that we still want to make better! We feel like there's still a lot of room for improvements, both our own and those inspired by feedback from players.
Although we're die-hard card game fans, we also have a lot of other loves and tried our best to learn from outside of the genre as well. As a rare card game + sports game fan myself, I can remember bringing in Madden one year to demo and analyze what they were doing with their draft mode. There have been some amazing innovations all over the industry, and if we wanted to surprise and delight within the card game genre we knew we needed to look for inspiration outside of it as well.
In terms of the amount of gameplay iteration...the short answer is "A lot." The most recent change between Preview Patches 1 & 2 was that we now always reveal what Champions are in your opponent’s deck. Before we had player feedback we had to rely on Rioters’, and that led us to some other big changes during development. Two examples—in early 2019 we updated spells by adding Burst speed to the game, and in 2018 we did a lot of explorations into how to make Champions more impactful, and discovered our Champion Leveling system that we now love so much.
N: The board, card abilities, and win conditions feel very familiar to those who have played this genre previously. It’s interesting to see alternate ways to win a game, like Fiora, rather than just reducing your opponent’s Nexus to 0 Health. Are there plans to add different paths to victory like this in the future and are there any you tried and didn’t like?
B: Our base set is just the beginning! One of the challenges we gave to our team for the first set was to have enough spice to help experienced card gamers see some of the space we could explore in the future, but not so much complexity that League fans who are new to the genre get overwhelmed.
In our future sets, we're excited to expand on play patterns and create exciting champion designs, but obviously need to be very careful with paths to victory that circumvent our normal win conditions. We’ll want to get them in when we have the perfect idea, but definitely don’t want to overdo it.
Fiora is a great example of an alternate path to victory that we like because she forces you to interact with your opponent. But a lot of alternate paths to victory in some games end up with you ignoring your opponent while you try to get your engine online. We've found those to generally be less fun for both players.
N: One of the interesting new features is the mana bank overflow used for spellcasting. Did the priority system prompt this addition in order to give players a chance to not only respond to opponents with a unit, but also a spell?
B: Knowing you’ve already lost in other games when you missed your two-drop feels really bad, and spell mana actually originated as a way to make poor opening hands less punishing in LoR, though it’s got a variety of positive effects like the one you mentioned. We want players to constantly have opportunities to interact with their opponent’s plays, and spell mana is an important contributor.
The more we played with the system, the more we liked it as we uncovered the added strategy and branching decision paths, especially in the early game. If you’re against a Fiora deck, should you spend your early mana on a two-drop to try to race them down? Or do you bank the mana knowing that you’re probably going to want the mana in Round 5 or 6 when your opponent starts throwing down spells to push for the win?
N: When I played the first Preview Patch, I found the positioning of attacking units to be a bit clunky by not allowing you to move cards around without clearing everything off the field. Is this something you are attempting to smooth out in the future?
B: Definitely! We've felt the pain ourselves and have it called out as "Rearrange Attackers" in our backlog. We hope to get to it soon(TM), but it’s got to get prioritized along with all the other work we’re doing to get the game ready for next year. Quality-of-life features will become more important for us once the game is regularly available and we’re able to more consistently gather feedback, so although this issue is already known, we'll be on the hunt for others just like it.
N: A lot of players are stunned at the amount of rewards that can be earned for a free-to-play game that will not be selling packs of randomized cards. Should we be expecting to see lots of cosmetics and skins to support this type of monetization scheme or do you have something else planned?
B: We’ll have more info on cosmetics down the line, but we're generally interested in trying to mirror some of the successes of League’s business model—make an awesome game that players enjoy, make it highly accessible, and then find avenues other than power for players to support us and demonstrate their love of the game.
"We’re looking to update cards about once a month, and release new sets about once every four months once we launch."
N: I understand that your team is dedicated to frequent releases and balance updates in order to keep things fair and prevent the game from becoming stale. How many releases should we expect to see each year and how quickly can you react to necessary balance changes for cards?
B: Keeping the game fresh is one of our top priorities. We’re looking to update cards about once a month, and release new sets about once every four months once we launch. We’re definitely willing to make urgent balance adjustments outside our usual cadence, but we generally want our patches to be predictable, and we want to equip players with the tools to self-balance metas when one thing or another catches on in popularity.
N: Do you already have plans for set rotation, so if a new player starts two years down the road, they won’t feel overwhelmed with trying to collect a mountain of cards from multiple different expansions?
B: We know rotation of some variety is inevitable, though we don’t have concrete plans yet. For now, we’re focused on expanding LoR to the other regions of Runeterra. Whenever we do implement any kind of rotation, we’re committed to maintaining the same level of competitive integrity and balance across all formats.