Behind the scenes on League of Legends: the evolution of the computer game/movie connection

Art, design, character, and story all imbue the game with a big-screen feeling that keeps fans coming back for more

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2015, 11:42am

When is a film not a film? When it’s a computer game.

In this case, that game is the online role-playing game League of Legends, which has about 67 million players worldwide, and even hosts its own championship competition with a US$1 million (HK$7.75 million) prize.

League of Legends was chosen as the focus for the inaugural event of Tribeca Games, an initiative to showcase the storytelling and crafts of computer games, launched by Tribeca Enterprises, the team behind New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Games have something in common with movies, says Tribeca Enterprises chief executive Jane Rosenthal, and that’s a unique way of telling stories. The recent “Craft and Creative of League of Legends” event was intended to illuminate the processes that go on behind the scenes.

The day-long event, held in Tribeca in downtown New York last month, was an in-depth guide to the gameplay, art design, and music of the game.

Gaming exists in its own universe, so those who don’t play games will probably be unaware. It’s an enjoyable fantasy oriented role-playing game (RPG) in which the player – acting as “the Summoner” – takes control of a heroic character such as Ashe the archer, or Darius the warrior, and tries to defeat an opposing force of computer-controlled characters and other real-life players.

The look is fantasy inspired, and swords, arrows and spells are used as weapons. Games can last from 20 minutes to about an hour and can be played by teams as an e-sport.

This has led to the formation of professional teams from around the globe – Koreans are particularly good at the game, and this year Korean team SK Telecom beat another Korean crew, KOO Tigers, in the World Championship final.

League of Legends is free to play, something that has contributed to its success. The game launched in 2009, and now has 67 million players a month, with 7.5 million playing at any one time, according to its creators, California-based Riot Games.

By comparison, the subscription-based World of Warcraft, an equally well-known online game, has 5.6 million subscribers.

Riot makes its money through micro-transactions – players can spend small amounts of money for extra items to use in the game like character “skins” that change appearance, although the company say that everything needed to play the game can be gained through gameplay alone, if desired.

The money would seem to add up: Riot, which only makes League of Legends, employs 1,000 staff and has its own in-house music team, and even a film department which shoots documentaries about the game’s fans and makes promos.

So why is League of Legends so successful? It’s all down to the actual gameplay, the game designers say.

Art, design, character, and story all contribute, but when it comes down to fundamentals, it’s the gameplay that matters – everything else is created to serve that.

“Who is having fun? The designer or the player? It has to be the player,” says game design director Greg Street. The designers are all avid gamers themselves, and all the elements they make are guided by an aim to enhance the gaming experience of the end user.

“We are always trying to give the players something interesting to do,” says Street. “Players enjoy overcoming obstacles to get from point A to point B in the game. If they overcome an obstacle, they want to feel smart.”

The obstacles can’t be too difficult, as that puts players off, much like a slot machine that never plays out, and the designer must find a balance between challenges that are too hard or too easy. In League of Legends, such obstacles and rewards are carefully placed throughout the game’s average play duration, to maximise player engagement.

Interestingly, the movie element of the game is as much to do with emotion as providing a cinematic look. When the first “cinematic” games such as Wing Commander came out in the early 1990s, the gameplay had screens with some basic movie-style visuals and characters that reinforced the action.

That was exciting at the time, but multiple camera angles and seamless 3D action are now par for the course in gaming, and players expect high-quality visuals as standard.

Street says that League of Legends tries to gain further engagement with the players by increasing their emotional responses to the action and gameplay, as if they were watching a movie.

All of the games’ characters have different emotional make-ups that are geared to their various themes. The characters have also been given extensive “back-stories” – personal histories – like movie characters.

For instance, Sona the “Maven of the Strings”, a musician whose power comes from magic melodies and chords, has a lengthy biography which begins: “Sona has no memories of her true parents. As an infant she was found abandoned on the steps on an Ionian adoption house nestled atop an ancient instrument.”

“Games can have sorrow, games can have fear, games can even have despair. We learned all this from the movie industry,” says Street.

A similar idea runs through the way that the characters are designed, and the way that their special powers arevisualised.

“The gameplay is key – you have to sell the gameplay first,” says VFX artist Shannon Burke. “You have to help the player feel like they are the character, as that’s why they are playing the game. You have to find a way of getting them to feel the character’s power.”

Soraka “the Starchild” is a caring character who channels the power of the stars. “She’s a healer, so we use soft colours to show that. It’s important to find the right way to visualise the character’s abilities,” Burke says. Some characters move smoothly to emphasise their self-control, others have a wilder gait, she adds.

Riot put a lot of effort into connecting with players outside of the game – community outreach, as it’s called in marketing – and the company produces documentaries about the fans who play the game, and why they play it.

Riot’s video producer Josh Finn recently shot a short promo film called Live/Play Fight, about Hong Kong-based professional Muay Thai boxer Tanet “Jacky” Puangngoen. The boxer is a big League of Legends fan, and flew to New York specially to appear at the Tribeca event.

“Playing League of Legends is much the same as fighting in a Muay Thai match,” Puangngoen says. “You need to train for Muay Thai and you need to train for League of Legends. You want to win the game, and you want to win the boxing tournament, so you have to practise for both, and learn your weaknesses.”

Puangngoen, who has played 3,000 League of Legends games as the champion Darius “The Hand of Noxus”, says that he spends 90 per cent of his time either practising Muay Thai or playing the online game.

Puangngoen’s girlfriend, who’s left with the remaining 10 per cent to see him, wishes he would spend a bit less time on both, he adds.