John Harley Game Designer

What are the right Pillars for a new e-sport game to design around?

A colleague recently asked what are the best Design Pillars to use for a new e-sport game he was making. He had seen a session given by Riot on the e-sport pillars they use for League of Legends.

The 6 pillars they discussed were:

-Meaningful Choices
-Team play

These are certainly great pillars for a popular game, but would they be the best for a game that was just getting a community established?

Here are my thoughts:

*On Building a playerbase in the early days vs. Designing for Mastery*
Designing for Mastery satisfies hard core & loyal players but has a negative effect on player population when your “concurrent average online player count” is low. Seeding players into an active community is extremely hard in 2013/4. There are many competing products.

In plain language, for a newly released game, matchmaking is starving for players, so it has to match noobs with masters. In a system with low variance and tuned for mastery, it means the hardcores determine all game outcomes. The noobs don’t get a lot of satisfaction.

Riot has the benefit of a high player count so they can shift the design towards mastery since matchmaking is never starved for players.
Additionally, MOBAs have particular mechanics which allow noobs to contribute by fighting PVE to infleuence the match which is much easier than PVP interactions. Your e-sport game might not necessarily have these “PVE” mechanics.

*A player’s skill growth vs. their effect on the game*
Say you describe your players on a three point scale: Beginners, Talented players, and Mastery players.
The increase in capability/influencing the match should be very steep as the Beginners become Talented, but then level off dramatically as they advance from Talented to Masters.
Put another way, you want a player that correctly uses the controls of your game to have 85-90% of the same amount of effect on match outcomes as a Master. This gives design very little room for mastery growth.
eg. a Talented COD player can have close to the same effectiveness as a COD Master in Team v Team.

*Variance for noobs vs. unhappy hardcores*
Introducing Variance can be an effective way to let Talented players beat Masters sometimes, which can be thrilling for Talented players, at the cost of some frustration of the Masters. The Team Fortress 2 Critical Hit system is an example of introducing a Variance mechanic to a skill game. I think it works well. Note: Not all game communities are equally accepting of variance, so you have to design it carefully. eg. Quake3 (No variance) —> CCG (tolerant for variance).

*On always getting feedback to detune variance*
Usually, Forums ONLY have loyalists/Masters (due to self-selection). So you will generally ONLY hear complaints about Variance, even if it is benefitting your playerbase at large.

Loyalists generally have a shortcoming of recommending feedback that would optimize the game for themselves at the expense of noobs, so you have to be pretty careful about making game decisions from that.

So maybe, if your game is just getting started you cannot afford to top-line Mastery as one of your pillars, and you need to contemplate including Variance in the list…