Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Steve Jobs and the League of Legends

I'll make no bones about it: I didn't like Steve Jobs.  There has been and are far more influential people in the tech industry that will never receive the amount of attention that Steve Jobs has garnered.  However, most of all I dislike Steve Jobs because he's a lot like me (give our take a billion or so dollars) and I know I'd dislike me if I wasn't me.

Steve Jobs' greatest achievement was giving people what they needed instead of what they wanted.  He literally had no technical breakthroughs with any of the things he was involved with.  He simply ignored everything customers and critics ever leveled against him and forged ahead with his vision.  For him it worked because he controlled the vision; viciously.

The Steve Jobs approach.  The giving communities of people what they need instead of what they want.  This.  This is still a very valid and increasingly needed approach to all products.  Actually, its an excellent barometer to use when comparing forces in other markets.

The more I become involved in the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) community, through playing League of Legends, the more I like to look at what has happened in the (MOBA) market and what is coming up.  What I see reminds me a lot of the Steve Jobs Apple.

The three big players in the MOBA mareket are: DOTA (the original Warcraft III mod), League of Legends (from Riot games), and Heroes of Newerth (from S2).  The 500 lb gorilla in the room, currently in beta testing, is DOTA 2 (from Valve). 

The current king, by all measurements, is League of Legends (LoL) which boasts 15+ million accounts on its Free 2 Play model.  Heroes of Newerth (HoN) in comparison had approximately 400,000 accounts when it was a standalone boxed game, but it recently moved to Free 2 Play model and new player numbers are not available yet (regardless, its still well below LoL's numbers).  There is no reliable way to count the number of DOTA players due to the fact it is still a mod, but estimates are over a million players for the original DOTA (again well shy of LoL).  Valve's DOTA2 did attract over 500,000 beta requests and goes into full scale testing soon.

LoL is considered a simpler version of DOTA and it's developers, Riot Games, actively support this notion as they designed the game to be easier to learn and have produced a non-DOTA game mode.  HoN is a near clone of the original DOTA.  DOTA2 is the literal clone of DOTA and is exactly the same game, but with Valve's Source Engine and a focus on more community features.

Even with DOTA2 spinning up and Blizzard threatening with their own official DOTA flavor on the Starcraft 2 engine, LoL is dominating the market.  And to me LoL is the Steve Jobs of the MOBA genre.  LoL by no means does what it's players want.  It does what the players need, whether they know it yet or not.

If you ask LoL players what they want you will inevitably come to the conclusion that LoL players want:

1. Replays
2. Spectator Mode
3. A better game client/launcher

Riot Games has been slow to develop any of these.  Not to say they haven't worked on any of these areas, but if you spoke to the LoL faithful you would quickly think that Riot hates their core community.  It's practically a crime at this point that LoL doesn't have replays, or spectator mode and that players are still forced in to the Adobe Air game client (FROM HELL!).

Funny thing is, all of these items are things players WANT (seriously, they won't shut up about them), but in no way is it what a MOBA game NEEDS.  MOBA games, especially those inspired by DOTA, have a reputation problem.  The original DOTA community sucks.  It's intolerant of new or bad players.  While DOTA offers an incredibly deep and competitive experience, the community continually keeps the vast majority of new players away.  Replays, spectator modes, and game clients can not fox that problem.  A MOBA game can not be successful on the DOTA model without dealing with the community.

As LoL players screamed for the listed items above, Riot Games focused on other endeavors, one of which is an absolute key to their success: The Tribunal.  The Tribunal is a community polcing tool.  If a player acts the fool in a game of LoL, players can easily report them for various infractions (most often, verbal abuse).  These reports are then later reviewed by players who get to say yay or nay to whether the conduct reported was detrimental to the community. The recommendation of the players is then forwarded to Riot Games who makes a final call on the punishment.  More times than not if a random selection of players votes that someone was being a jerk, Riot agrees and warns (or bans) the account.

LoL and Riot Games have taken this to the bank, millions of times over while their competitors (mainly HoN) tried to simply redeliver the DOTA game.  To no one's surprise, the bad community vibe followed right along to HoN.  Now that HoN is Free 2 Play, its easy to compare the two communities.  HoN is terrible.  LoL is no picnic all of the time either, but there is satisfaction to be had knowing that fellow players will be judging the retards who can't keep their fingers off the /all chat key.  Overall, LoL has far fewer problems because of the Tribunal.

Problem is, LoL players feel cheated because development efforts went into the Tribunal, which most players felt was just a waste of time (after all, we should all just accept terrible communities because there are mute buttons  AMIRITE!?!).  Players WANTED replays. They wanted LoL, the then second generation of DOTA, to fill in features that DOTA had, but could not capitalize on due to being tied to the Warcraft III engine.  Riot put their head in the sand and said NO.  They pushed on what they knew was going to make their game a success.  They made LoL accessible and policed the 12 year olds (in 30 something old bodies).

This is not a blanket "Riot did everything right statement."  Riot has made it's share of mistakes.  Riot was right though and delivered to the needs of their players.  Players were the DOTA-like game's worst enemy and they essentially fixed it while making LoL accessible.  Had they made the game accessible and not fixed the community, the game wouldn't have survived.

Moving forward, DOTA2 is coming down the pipe line.  We don't know if it will be Free 2 Play.  We don't know what Valve is doing to tackle the community problem.  However, we know DOTA2 will have replays.  DOTA2 will have spectating.  DOTA2 will have a lot of what the players WANT. My concern is that DOTA2 and Valve may not be focusing on what players need.  However, Valve has a stubborn history themselves.  All one needs to do is look at the history of Steam itself to know Valve knows what players need well before we even know we need it.  Let's hope Valve is ahead of the curve with DOTA2.

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