By Kristina Ensminger

As a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, playing video games meant eating 8-bit mushrooms and collecting gold coins as Mario or Luigi. These days, video games are recognized as a competitive sport (yes, eSports is a real thing), and professional gamers have salaries, health benefits, and retirement plans. In 2016, the video game industry generated $30.4 billion in revenue in the U.S. alone and $91 billion worldwide (comparatively, the film industry’s global box office revenue was $38.6 billion in 2016). Things have come a long way from the warp whistle in Super Mario Brothers 3.

Professional Gamers playing at an eSports Competition

For any other modern-day video game novices out there, there are typically three ways to game: with a controller, with a smartphone, or with a keyboard and a mouse.

League of Legends is a PC game, and it’s known in the gaming world as a MOBA (which stands for “multiplayer online battle arena”). It’s a team-oriented strategy game, and both teams have five players, each with a separate role. The main characters in the game are called champions, and each champ has a unique origin story, personality, set of abilities, and gameplay style.

In 2016, there were more than 100 million active users per month, and those numbers continue to rise. It’s one of the biggest games, and one of the most popular eSports, in the world.

League of Legends eSports Players

One of the reasons League is so successful is the philosophy behind its gameplay design. The game runs on a patch cycle, and it’s updated every two weeks, which creates an ever-changing landscape for players and provides an opportunity for constant evolution. League has a rare staying power in a market where the latest-and-greatest changes every few months, and after nine years it is still at the top of its game.

There are currently 140 champions to choose from in League of Legends, and there is a single gameplay designer behind each of them. Mark Yetter, the Lead Gameplay Designer for the Champions Team at Riot Games, is responsible for managing the entire team of champion designers. His team is responsible for creating new characters and updating old ones, and Yetter has to consider the entire ecosystem when introducing new variables into the game, which is quite a balancing act.

Mark Yetter, Lead Gameplay Designer at Riot Games

Yetter ensures that all the parts work together seamlessly and strives to create an environment where players on all skills levels can experience the “endless replayability” that League promises its community. And although he started out on a more traditional career path, he found a way to break into the extremely competitive gaming industry by starting small and dreaming big.

KRISTINA ENSMINGER: What was your path to becoming a gameplay designer? Did you start your career in another field?

MARK YETTER: I started out as a computer programmer and engineer. I got my undergrad degree in computer science from Harvard. I’d always been a huge gamer, and a lover of movies, films, and books. But even with that love of entertainment and storytelling, I ended up on a pretty traditional computer programmer path. I worked for Microsoft for a couple of years after graduation. Then I did a brief stint at a hedge fund. Not to say that those jobs weren’t challenging, but my heart wasn’t in them. Those jobs helped me realize that I wanted to do something I cared about for a living. That’s when I shifted into game design.

KE: What was your first gig in the gaming world?

MY: I got my first game design position at a studio called TimeGate Studios outside of Houston, Texas, which was a good place to break in. I learned a lot there. And I found that game design was a perfect field to merge my technical, problem-solving background with my creative interests.

KE: How did you learn about gameplay design as a career? Was there someone or something that opened your eyes to that possibility?

MY: I didn’t know anything about the industry before I started researching opportunities in the field. When I read some job descriptions for gameplay designers, I realized that my skills and background could be useful in that role. And the title sounded cool! But I didn’t have any industry-specific experience. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of education or entry-level positions available, so I ended up doing a lot of reading on industry sites like Gamasutra. I also read books to get a grasp of the fundamentals of game design. I knew enough to land my first gig, but most of the learning happened on the job through trial and error.

KE: What was the application process like in the gaming world?

MY: In the software engineering industry, the top companies push to recruit people, so they are all competing for YOU. But it’s the opposite in the game design world. There are far more people who want to work in games than there are positions. Early on, I was naïve about that fact. I thought, “Well, what are my favorite studios? I’ll just apply to those.” Eventually, I realized that I needed to cast a wider net. I’d never even heard of the first studio I worked for, but that’s how it was possible for me to break into the industry without experience – that was the key. Once I got there, I realized that it didn’t matter where I started. The work was all the same, and I just needed experience doing the work. So, working at a smaller studio to start was the best thing I could’ve done.

KE: Once you got some experience, was your goal to land at one of the dream studios you thought of initially?

MY: I think every developer is motivated by something different. Maybe they want to make a game completely on their own, maybe they want to work on the biggest game in the world, or maybe they want to make a particular game in a specific genre. Personally, my motivation is impact. So, my big dream was to make games that reached a ton of people and created enjoyment for as many people as possible.

KE: Is that how you ended up at Riot? League of Legends is one of the biggest games in the world. Was Riot one of the companies on your big dream list?

MY: I’m not sure if Riot existed when I was first starting out. If so, they weren’t “a thing” yet. I was a big fan of the original DotA custom map in Warcraft III in college, and I thought League of Legends was a great MOBA, so I had a lot of respect for Riot before I looked into working here. But I didn’t know much about them early on.

KE: What was your path into Riot?

MY: After my first gig at TimeGate Studios, I worked for Treyarch (an Activision studio in Los Angeles). I primarily worked on Call of Duty: Black Ops II. And that was a great experience. For me, it was a big leap from a smaller studio operation with mid-tier titles to a massive game like Call of Duty. With that amount of reach and such a huge player base, there was a higher degree of scrutiny and a higher level of excellence to achieve. That experience helped me grow, and I learned a lot about what it takes to become a world-class game developer working on that game.

KE: How long was the production cycle for Black Ops II?

MY: About two years. That’s a typical cycle for those type of games. For a publisher like Activision, and a big game like Call of Duty, their ship dates are super important. The release date schedule for these bigger games is similar to films in the sense that you have to hit that holiday release deadline. So, Treyarch was committed to having a new version of Call of Duty ship every two years, and they were very driven by that schedule.

KE: That’s one of the things that’s so different about League of Legends and working for Riot. League doesn’t have that kind of release schedule. It’s a living game that changes and evolves, so it’s perpetually shipping, right?

MY: In terms of lifestyle and work-life balance, being on a fixed deadline creates crunch and pretty heavy overtime. As things tend to go, the work all piles up in the end, and it’s a race to the finish line. Whereas, being on a more consistent service delivery model, which is what we have at Riot, the work is more spread out and more balanced. On this schedule, you might have to work late one night a week to ship something, which is different than working overtime for months on end.

KE: What are some of the things that attracted you to Riot? Other than the giant demonic teddy bear in the lobby?  

MY: The sculpture of Annie and Tibbers wasn’t there when I started [laughs]. But that would’ve made the list! I’m driven by an environment where I feel challenged and pushed to grow. Riot had an extremely talented design team, and a culture based on feedback and collaboration. I realized it was a place where I could accelerate my growth and be challenged by people I respect. And I felt aligned with their core values as a company. Riot is more about creating long-term trust than short-term gain. And I loved playing League, so I was passionate about the product.

KE: Was it clear to you back then the kind of impact Riot was creating worldwide?

MY: I joined Riot in 2013, so League was pretty established by then. Riot had already achieved some big things when I came on board. So, I could see what they’d already created, and I could see the bigger vision of where they wanted to go next. I’m excited to be part of that next step.

KE: It seems like Riot gives employees a lot of room to experiment and take risks. Do you think that approach allows for more creativity and growth?  

MY: Riot is willing to let people push themselves to extremes, especially if the passion is there. Sometimes it’s a huge success, and sometimes people fail miserably. I think it’s a valuable experience either way. It’s a risk-taking strategy, and some incredible things can happen with that approach, especially from a creative perspective. Since I started here, I’ve been able to push myself and stretch so much.

KE: Riot’s mission is to be the most player-focused company in the world. What does that mean for you from a design perspective when you’re creating champs for League?

MY: There are the more obvious design-related things, like the fact that we’re more interested in the player’s having a positive experience than them paying us a lot of money, for example. But getting into the more nuanced elements of the actual game design, we want to deliver a lasting satisfaction for the players, rather than a flash-in-the-pan experience.

KE: How do you approach the design of a champ in League?

MY: When you’re designing gameplay for characters, monsters, and levels you have to traverse, the foundation is a mix of hand-eye coordination inputs – pointing, clicking, aiming, response time – and decision-making and strategy. We want the decision-making aspect to be dynamic enough that every single time you play, you feel like you see something new. Once you’ve solved something, it’s known, and you don’t want to keep returning to something you’ve already accomplished.

KE: Let’s talk about some of the things that make League of Legends different than other games. First, it has one of the largest online communities in the world. Many gamers have been playing League for years – and many ONLY play League. From a gameplay design perspective, what keeps people coming back?

MY: The game has to have insane replay value. A community like that can’t form unless people are coming back to play the game over time, so that’s where the gameplay design team is focused. Also, League is a social game. It’s a team game – 5v5 – so interacting with other people is core to your experience. That helps a lot in creating a community. It’s also an ensemble cast game with 140 champs for people to choose from, so they form an identity with certain characters.

KE: Yeah, it seems League is identity-driven in a few ways. Not only by the choice of which champ to play but also but also the choice of which role to play within the team.

MY: Players approach their champ choice from so many directions. Usually, one person will have a couple “mains” they play with—their favorite champions. Maybe a player likes a certain role on the team, like the support role, and they find a champ they enjoy playing within that role. Or it could be that they really like the look or the gameplay or the voice of a certain champ, so they learn to play a different role on the team. And sometimes players are in a position where their friends have already chosen four of the five roles, and they’re missing a jungler – so they learn how to play a jungler!

KE: I know there’s a wide range of champions to choose from already. When you think about bringing a new character into the champ ecosystem, what are some of the things you consider?

MY: There are many other factors to consider within the ecosystem. Each character needs to be genuinely unique for the system to work. If one character is too similar to another, then there’s a high likelihood that one of those characters will overshadow the other. We also want the characters to have appropriate strengths and weaknesses from a gameplay standpoint to keep a good balance. And we want the champ’s personality to click with players as well.

KE: Let’s talk a bit about the DNA (design, narrative, art) that goes into the champ design. How does the collaboration process work – is there a DNA sequence?

MY: It starts simultaneously in all three departments. Everyone approaches the character from their respective angle. The designers might make a couple of pitches about gameplay ideas, the artists will offer options for visuals, and the writers in the narrative department will pitch story ideas for the character. Sometimes we’ll pick the top two or three ideas and dig a little deeper on each of those until one clear focus becomes apparent. Once we hit something that’s exciting, everyone else gets behind that idea.

KE: Who was the most challenging champ you’ve designed so far?

MY: Probably someone like Kayn, who was three characters in one. There was a lot of detail and a lot of moving parts with him. How does he transform? How do we balance his different forms? That design was a challenge, but it was an exciting one! I think the real challenge is when we’re creating a character and we haven’t found something exciting to build around. If we’re still searching for that special or unique thing when we’re about to release a champ, then that’s tough.

Kayn character art, League of Legends

KE: So, the real challenge is when you haven’t found that gem that drives the design and you have to move forward anyway?

MY: Yeah. If we know there’s something great there, but it’s a complex design, then it’s achievable. It will just take a lot of work and problem-solving. But when someone hands you a blank piece of paper and says, “Go write the biggest movie of the year,” that’s when things get tricky.

KE: Were there any champs that didn’t hit the mark or weren’t received well by the players?

MY: I feel like we tend to catch more heat when we’re updating a champ because there are people who have been playing that character for so long. One of the first updates I worked on was for a champ named Skarner – a lot of players gave feedback that they didn’t like it. So, we went back and reworked a lot of it. We mitigated the damage with that one, but it was still an improvement. We want to make sure we get things right in the long run.

KE: One of the unique things about League is that you have the opportunity to keep updating, improving, and changing things along the way. Do you feel like that’s part of the community building aspect with League – that players feel they have a voice and can see their changes being implemented?

MY: I think our communication strategy with players is to genuinely listen to them. We can’t always give them what they want, because they all want different things, but we always listen. We thoughtfully consider their feedback, and I think they can see that. The players know that they can speak up and that their feedback can lead to change.

KE: I have a sense of what keeps the game alive for players over time. What keeps you coming back as a gameplay designer?

MY: For me, it’s about constant improvement. League is an excellent game, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get better. I love finding the right angles to improve – that’s what drives me. If League next year is better than League this year, then I’ve done my job.

League of Legends Gameplay

KE: What would you say to the next generation of designers out there who dream of getting paid to make video games for a living? What advice would you give to the younger you about how to break into this industry?

KE: Most players have heard about the BIG games, but they don’t realize how many opportunities there are to get experience with smaller developers. Working on indie titles at smaller studios is a great way to learn, meet other gaming professionals, and develop your skills and relationships. Then approach the bigger gaming companies once you have some experience. Don’t be afraid to start small.

All photos courtesy of Riot Games