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Ghostcrawler on lessons learned from plants, the assassin update and preseason changes

Part one of our three-part interview with Riot’s Lead Game Designer.

Greg Street, known as Ghostcrawler to World of Warcraft and League of Legends players around the world, has been Riot Games’ Lead Game Designer since January 2014. Now entering his fourth preseason with League, Street took the time to catch up with The Rift Herald last week about this season’s changes, feedback from players and the direction of the game’s design choices.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This is part one of a three-part interview. The next two parts will be published Thursday and Friday.

PV: Why were the changes that were prioritized this year chosen for this year’s preseason?

GS: I would say a combination of two things: because we decided to make assassins the next class we looked at, that informed a bunch of item changes, a whole overhaul of the stealth system, which then affected wards, and so on, so that was kind of half of the stuff, and then the other was the changes we made to the jungle, which is kind of our latest attempt to make the jungle more interesting, which we’ve kind of failed to do three or four seasons in a row now. This time for sure.

PV: One of the biggest changes in the jungle is the addition of plants, which brought a lot of criticism from the community when they were announced but have changed a lot since the first iteration we saw. Have you seen a different reaction from the community since they went live?

GS: Yeah, I would characterize it exactly the same way. So a couple of things happened. Our messaging was not good. We pitched plants in kind of the same way we would do a champion promotion, like ‘Hey, we’re going to hint at this thing that’s coming up,` and that is not a good idea to do when changing fundamental rules of the game, it really scares players.

Along with that were these two videos showing like ‘Oh, I’m gonna use this plant to win the game and get Baron and it’s totally going to be a game-changer,’ so our messaging was not great. Even internally, I was excited about the initial pitch of plants, but I knew it was going to have to be play-tested a lot. So weeks and months went by, and internally people were like ‘Yeah, this is fun! We’re getting some really cool moments without it suddenly allowing a less-skilled player to beat a more-skilled player every time.’

Riot Games

So we felt like it was in the right place, and we knew that we needed to figure out a way to get the players to try it. So the two lessons we learned are not only with the messaging having to be very explicit about systemic rule changes, but also we need a way to get players involved earlier, whether that means a longer beta test, or we do more internal testing and bring players to the campus to let them try it out, just something like that to let them assuage their fears that this is going to be super-intrusive, super random, which I don’t think it’s proven to be.

PV: You brought up the blast cone video, which I think was probably the biggest source of concern for many players before playing it. But since then, the spawn frequency and locations have changed — do you think if those changes didn’t go through, the reaction would have been closer to what it was in the PBE cycle or was it just that people needed to play with them?

GS: I honestly wish ... we probably, I don’t want to say overreacted, given the concerns players had, but I wish we had been able to go out with a version that was slightly more random, knowing that if that was too much that we’d have a fall back. Now it’s going to be hard to ever expose players to what the original version was, to get their feedback like ‘Oh this is very cool.’ We do want to make the system about noticing changes to the map and reacting to them rather than, you know, memorizing where things are. There’s a lot of that in the game already and we wanted to reward more of the reacting on the fly to changing environments, and the other two plants still do that a little bit.

PV: You mentioned the assassin update, and now that we’ve had a little bit of time, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise but the win rates for many of them are pretty low. Is that something that was expected, because of the kind of champion that assassins are meant to be, do you think it’s too early to tell whether the update was closer to what you all had envisioned that class to look like?

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GS: Any time we make changes like this, win rates are going to be low for a while, until players figure out the right way to play them. Coupled with that, we’ve had some matchmaking problems with flex and ranked starting, which makes it a little harder to respond because we can’t tell if somebody won because they picked an overpowered champion or they lost because they picked an underpowered champion, or if they were just playing someone at a dramatically different skill level. That’ll start to stabilize here over the next few weeks as we get better data in. I know the team is already making some changes to a few of those champions to give them a little boost here and there.

PV: One of the other big changes this preseason was the introduction of Courage of the Colossus, which has been extremely strong so far. I know it’s on the list of potential nerfs for 6.24 ... would that be just a numbers thing or is there some thought to making it only active if there are X amount of champions around?

GS: All we’ve talked about is a numbers thing, you know, duration, cooldown, stuff like that. Anything can happen at this stage, but last we talked about it they thought they could get it just with tuning.