Category Archives: Design Practice

LoLCG public preview


It’s been six months since the LoLCG project kicked off, a pretty intense six months at that. We’ve gone through several major incarnations since then and it’s time to show the working a bit. I’m releasing the first playable preview of the game today as a celebration of six months for us, the World Championships and the end of Season 3 for all. Looking for something to do while LCS is off the air and you await the upcoming preseason changes with anticipation? Look no further- you can try the LoLCG today!

Right here, right now! 

I admit I’m a little scared to put this thing out. It’s been a lot of work and what you see here is only a tiny part of it. It’s also fresh off the presses- we haven’t tested this little preview set at all, so in a sense it’s a bit of a test in itself. Will it be understandable? Will it be cool? Most of all, will it be fun? Those are questions only you can answer, so be our guest and try it out.

I’d like to thank both the LoLCG testing group and Riot themselves for their incredible assistance in keeping this thing trucking along- almost any other company I know would probably have C&D’ed this project, but as far as I can tell Riot actively altered their policies to allow it- and other fan projects like it- to happen. They are, in the most genuine of senses, champions.

As always, I welcome your feedback in whatever form it comes- the best way is through the project email at There’s a lot of work still to do, there probably won’t be a real release until sometime next year, but I hope this whets the collective appetite.


The Prototyper’s Dilemma

I’ve been rather quiet of late, mostly because I’ve had quite a bit of design stuff going on. Not only is the LoLCG project now worthy of the title- a project of more than one- but the prototypes for Wild Abyss arrived and getting both sleeved, sorted and played has been taking up pretty much all of my time.

There are other things in the works, too, but I’ll leave those for later. I have the next part of the ERI framework series about half done as well as a bit of writing on bioshock: infinite, but I think the latter has been done to death so it probably won’t see the light of day.

In the meantime, I’d like to talk about a particular issue I run into as a developer, that might be interesting for other people interested in taking their design a bit more seriously. It has to do with that most terrifying of processes, playtesting. I’m also going to use the opportunity to show off some of the goodies I’ve been working on that have been keeping me quiet.



In any game design, it’s important that you go beyond the people you are familiar with for testing purposes. Whether that’s your inhouse studio folks for an indie developer or a regular gaming group, these people will be familiar with you, your style and idiosyncrasies. They’re good for providing people against whom the most basic of tests can be performed, but beyond that any data you get from testing with them is likely to be inaccurate compared to how the game may perform in the market.

So you need to go about finding independent playtesters. If, like me, creating a commercial NDA and paid testing environment is impossible, that means finding volunteers from outside your normal circles.

This is where the prototyper’s dilemma strikes. In a perfect world, you could post your paper-slip prototypes and nascent ideas on the internet and get a bunch of enthusiastic, capable playtesters interested in a moment. In reality things are a little more difficult. Back when I was 14, I spent around 3 years prototyping and developing a warhammer army book. I wanted to make sure this thing was balanced and interesting, so I tried to organise playtesting. That experience taught me more about game development than all my university education put together. If you want to get tests done, you need to present your testers with a product that isn’t entirely dissimilar to the quality of commercial product they are used to… or at least one that looks like it. You need to get them to buy into what you’re doing through giving them a clear indication of just how serious you’re taking this. Hand scrawled notes on notepad paper do not do this.

One of the reasons the LoLCG looks so spectacular is because of those lessons I learned. You cannot get good, unbiased testing happening without that level of production pre-invested in your designs. Enthusiasm will fizzle, tests will be delayed, people will drift away and you will lose momentum or end up getting frustrated and making decisions based on insufficient data. To keep people attached to the project, you have to give them something that, even if it doesn’t play that well, looks and feels like it should.

The dilemma, however, is that a playtester coming in from the cold, especially one with little experience of the development process, will look at yourdesigns and assume that’s the best you can do, that your first prototypes are the equivalent of a videogame public beta, when in reality the guts of the game are about as polished as a rotten stick in a peatbog. This in itself creates expectations and dissappointments- I’ve found people tend to overlook the visual design of the LoLCG cards in order to focus on the text because they feel the text is more important.

While in the long run, that is true, the text of cards and the precise wordings are the last thing that needs polishing during the card design process. First the parameters under which those wordings must be constructed must be established- how much space do we have, what symbols are available, how many can we use before the cognitive burden becomes to high. There needs to be text there for the testing to actually be valid, but the balance of these texts is by nature rough and ready until it can be established what the restrictions under which a polished version must be constructed are.

Unfortunately, the sort of people likely to volunteer for playtesting are the sort likely to fixate on these sorts of discrepancies and thus you end up distracting your testers from simply playing the game in a relaxed, open state where you can get good information on how the areas you want to isolate are working out. Add on the natural focuses of the various kinds of players, whether you use Bartle’s suits metaphor or Mark Rosewater’s timmy, johnny and spike etc, and life is hard.

So this is the Prototyper’s Dilemma: Without achieving superficial similarity to a finished product, you will not be able to attract and retain testers. The more effort you spend in that regard, however, the more your testers will have unnatural reactions to the parts of the material that most need testing.


I’ve discovered that it’s not as simple as simply getting your game to the tabletop or screen as soon as possible, nor is it about polishing like a madman before doing any testing. Like many things in game design, there is an elegant balance to be struck between conveying the identity and overall mechanisms of your game effectively and not jarring your testers into over-analyzing things.

I should note that the impact of this is largely dependent on just how hardcore you take your design. For games like LoLCG and Wild Abyss, everything matters- colour choices, fonts, layouts, grammar, amount of cards, visibility, even the size of a playset.

This might not seem important, but it IS. If I want people to be able to realistically play a game, having a set of cards that will fit neatly into a schoolbag or a hoodie pocket or similar is the sort of thing I take into account
very early in the process. Isolating and testing these kind of dynamics is really important to getting the desired experience for a player. Tweaking and perfecting mechanics are the last priority, not the first.

So, how to resolve this? Unfortunately, the point of a dilemma- in fact the very meaning of the word- is that there is no simple solution. Luckily, unlike the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma, this one isn’t exactly binary in its solution space. For Wild Abyss, I’ve taken what I learned from earlier games and attempted to create a prototype which strikes that balance. The visual designs are colorful at a distance but minimalistic and simply executed.


The result is a game that looks impressive but only took me around 30 hours to prototype from start to finish- less than a week’s work in the evenings. This whole game went from initial concept to first prototype in 16 days

While polished, this is clearly a first prototype- not least because it’s written all over the thing. The ship designs are just too far on the clumsy side to be finalized, the resource card designs are clean and generic etc. I’ve had a good reaction from my playtesters for this game- they’re happy to just play it, and aren’t overly inclined to focus on technicalities. The result is after only a few games I’m getting a lot of good information on where I need to make changes, and after the twenty or thirty more I want to get done with this first prototype set I should be able to make some really significant choices that will benefit the game based on solid, unbiased information.


LoLCG begins

So, I finally got enough proofing and polishing done to print my test set for the LolCG. The very first cards, hot off the presses.

After about six hours of sitting at a table that looked like this:



The LoLCG finally went on her maiden voyage!

Courtesy of Master Summoners Pachi and Mike





This is one of the most joyous culminations in the cycle of design and development, seeing your baby hit the table or the screen in a serious game for the first time. Pachi tried a strong jungle deck, but forgot to draft any good jungling champs, while Mike played my more conservative summoner spell heavy engagement deck.  At the end, Mike came out on top, but it was a close run thing. The game MVP was Warwick, healing himself through Singed’s poison clouds to build a solid lead and a strong point from which Mike could leverage his offensive.

All in all it was a promising start. Note that we’re still recruiting stage 1 testers for another few days, so if you want to get your hands on these early and are willing and able to do glados proud, sign on up!



LoLCG is ready for testing!




If you’re interested and you find this post, please share it through twitter/FB/tumblr/forums, however you like. The more interest we get, the better the game will be! Autosharing links are available if you click on the post title.




Introducing Wild Abyss


I’ve had to pause the development of LoLCG for a little while so I can work out any remaining niggles with Riot (don’t worry, things are going fine there), so I’ve had a few weeks between when I hit what I felt was the most I could do safely on that project and now. In the intervening time, I’ve had a shot a whole new game, this time entirely of my own design and style. I’m using a lot of what I learned doing the LoLCG project both in terms of gameplay mechanics and technical development skills.

The result is looking pretty swell for a first prototype. Not as swell as the LoLCG, but I’m drawing all my own art here (well, the non background stuff anyway)

Wild Abyss

I’ve loved and adored civilization and epic strategy type games, ‘4x’ especially, since I played civ 1 when I was very young. Risk was the only real boardgame of that kind of scope back then, and while fun it wasn’t that great. Since then there’s been a determined attempt to bring 4x to the tabletop, from the sprawling Twilight Imperium to the sleek 7 wonders. Unfortunately, the pendulum swings one way or the other too much. From intense complexity, endless rules and hundreds of pieces, to elegant simplicity that loses much of the depth an narrative that the 4x is so good at conveying.

Wild Abyss is a space-based 4x game with an emphasis on resource allocation and combat rather than territory control, negotiations and maneuver. It’s almost entirely card based, with no star map or persistent board, meaning it doesn’t need a lot of space. Turns are largely simultaneous, so games with loads of players don’t take much longer than ones with only a few. It has a combat system that’s not much more complex than games like eclipse or TI, but offers a lot more in terms of both tactical and cinematic depth.

I’m looking forward to talking about it more in the coming weeks. I’ve kept a kind of stream of consciousness diary of the process which I’ll put up once I can edit into something that makes vague sense.


Indepth: economies of time

This week I’m going to have a look at time economies, which is to say the way players allocate their time during games. Economies are a pretty basic part of game design, any time you have a limited resource it generates an economy for that resource. Since the advent of the videogame, time has become an important one of those resources, but even in games that are technically not time-constrained, time is often modeled through limiting actions per turn or some other similar mechanical resource. This article will look at both designing a real-time ‘attention budget’ and and interesting example of a simulated time economy, specifically in Android: Netrunner.


Time is one of the most fundamental resources available for a game designer to manipulate. In videogames you’ll usually find it taken into account either in terms of player attention- providing a greater amount of time spending activities than the player has time to perform in order to force them to make choices about where to focus their attention, or in terms of commitment- going to the store takes 30 seconds, going to the healer takes 30 seconds, and overall time is limited in a very similar manner to a cash-resource system- you only get 30 seconds before the next wave of baddies, so you have to pick one and stick to the decision.

Precisely because it is so fundamental it is easy to overlook as a subject of design and analysis, but examining how time is handled in a game can often be incredibly fruitful in problem solving and generating new ideas.

A particularly valuable exercise, and the one I’ll focus on here, is plotting out how much time you intend players to spend on particular aspects of your game, either overall or focused in on a particular area.

Lets say I’m designing an RPG. How much time do I want my player to spend exploring? Fighting? Reading/watching narrative stuff? Browsing their customization menus?

In a fight, how much time should be spent making actions and controlling characters? How much spent planning and strategising? How much watching the action unfurl?


If my focus as a designer is on the the narrative immersion of the player, I might want weight the player’s time economy on talking to characters, exploring the environment and engaging with the stuff I spread through the game. If my focus is on a particularly elegant combat mechanic set I’d come up with, I’d want to push a player to invest more of their time exploring that to get as much out of it as possible and so on.

So in this way you can start building up a fairly complex ‘spending plan’ for time, something like this:

early game 

  • 40% exploration/familiarisation with setting
  • 40% experimentation/learning mechanics
  • 15% combat/achievement
  • 5% character customisation


  • 20% exploration
  • 30% experimentation
  • 40% combat/achievement
  • 10% character customisation


  • 5% exploration
  • 5% experimentation
  • 70% combat/achievement
  • 20% character customisation

This one is just off the top of my head, but you should be able to get the general gist of it. In the early stages of the game I want to invest the player in the setting, get them comfortable and encourage them to spend time messing around and getting a feel for the mechanics and what does what. Combat and character customization are light and more intended to add flavor and points from which to build learning than challenge

In the main section of the game, I want the player to move their time balance out a bit. Still spend a lot of it figuring out the mechanics, as this is one of the key components of engagement in almost all RPGs, but now they’ve got a model of what’s going on to work with, I want them to spend more time mucking around tweaking their character than digging into the background material.

In the last stages of the game, the world has largely been explored and the plot established. I want the player to have figured out how all the various mechanics of the game interact and so not need to spend time mucking around- they should know how they can approach the challenges the game throws up. So we turn that up to 11 and give them a flood of such challenges to reward the knowledge they’ve built up. As with most RPGs, the last stage will also be accompanied by a fair bit more fine-tuning and tweaking of characters to overcome the challenges thrown up.


By going through the process of establishing a ‘time economy’ you do a very important thing: you give yourself clear targets and goals in your design. You can look at the way your prototypes are developing and say- ‘man, people are just not getting into this setting enough, I need to give them more things to spend time on there’, or ‘people are just fighting all the time, I have to give them incentives to slow down a bit and look at the scenery’

I should be clear that this time economy is the one you think best expresses what your game has to offer. Individual players will always have preferences and will lean towards one or another kind of time spending, so you want to give them room to do so- nothing sucks more than a game that rails you into spending exactly the amount of time the designer prescribes on something, no more, no less. Your designs upon the player’s time should be guidelines, not hard and fast rules (unless you’re using time itself as an acknowledged resource for the player to spend, of course).

This isn’t just a useful tool for videogame designers though- I recently played Eclipse, one of many 4X boardgame attempts. Though it’s apparently one of the more elegant products of its type, I found it incredibly clunky. I did a kind of time budget in my head as I played and for the small scale, three player game mode we were using (which is apparently the fastest and most intense), the time budget for players seemed to be something like

  • 30% setting up the game and putting it away
  • 20% figuring out what you want to do
  • 5% doing it
  • 35% waiting for your turn with nothing to do

This is even accounting for the fact I was a first time player, having to figure out all the mechanics on the fly and that there were only 3 players of a potential 6. Any designer worth their salt should be able to look at that outline and immediately see that there’s some seriously frustrating games waiting to happen. People might be willing to tolerate it because, admittedly, the actual gameplay is pretty solid. Tolerance, though, is not a pretty word.


Another note is that I’m using very general stuff for my time economy profiling here. If I was designing half-life, for example, I might budget for things like ‘physics puzzles’, ‘travel’ and ‘recuperation’. Again, by making you put your thoughts down on paper, doing this sort of analysis will help you identify these categories of behaviour and action

One last thing the time economy does is really force you to pin down what you want your game to be about. You only have one hundred %’s to play with. Your player can’t be gazing at your amazing backgrounds 80% of the time and fighting desperately for their life 80% of the time. So planning out a time economy isn’t often a fun task for the designer. Just as much as the player, you want All The Things, but you know as a designer that is rarely a good choice in design. Figuring out your game’s time budget forces you to put, in paper, where you want your player to invest their time and, consequently, where you should invest yours.


The second part of today’s discussion is perhaps a bit more palatable for the more math and statistic oriented crowd. If you don’t like bouncing numbers off each other, however, this next bit might not be for you.

As part of working on the League LCG, I’ve been studying up on the market. In particular i’ve begun to play Netrunner with friends and watch a lot of content there to get a feel for how FFG are managing their LCG model. It turns out Netrunner is a really good game as well and one that has some really nice mechanic/dynamic outcomes that revolve around time as a resource.

Netrunner is somewhere between Magic and chess. Where in Magic you can do whatever you want in a turn so long as you do it at the right time and you have the resources and in chess you can do one thing once per turn, in Netrunner you have a limited amount of actions per turn, but those actions are pretty versatile. Most important for us here are three- you can spend an action (you have 3 or 4 per turn) to draw a card, earn 1 unit of currency (bit) or play a card.

First up, this instantly tells us that these three actions are of equivalent worth. Drawing a card is worth 1 unit of currency, as is playing a card, and so on around in a circle.

So, for example we have a card called Diesel.

It seems pretty amazing (if you’re a magic player anyway). No cost, draw 3 cards. holy moly. But in Netrunner, playing this card costs an action, which you could use to draw a card anyway. So you’re only really up 2 cards. Not only that, but it doesn’t actually do anything for you but give you more cards, when Netrunner puts a premium on getting a lot out of your cards. So that’s really another card down. All in all, you’re up 1 card over just spending an action to draw.

Then there’s a card called Quality Time that costs 3 bits to draw 5 cards. So the card cost is 1 action to play and 3 actions to earn 3 bits to pay for it. Four actions total. In magic, it would be utterly broken, but the time limitations in Netrunner make it, at least without considering synergy, worse than Diesel.

Netrunner, however, is a subtle beast. In general, a card on its own only gets you ahead of your basic actions very slightly- with increasing power based on how hard it is to play. For example, there’s a card that costs nothing to play and gives you 3 bits, for a net bonus of 2. There’s another card that costs 5 to play, but gives you 9 bits, for a net bonus of 3. Because as a condition of play you need to have 5 bits lying around, it’s a little bit more efficient- but only a little bit. Other cards are even more efficient but have trade-offs.

Pad campaign gives you money every turn, but it costs money to play, so you need to keep it alive for 3 turns to break even (1 to pay for the action spent playing it and 2 for the actual cost) . Once you do, however, it’s a gold mine. Because it gives you 1 bit WITHOUT costing you an action, you’re effectively getting an extra action per turn- going from 3 to 4, an increase of a whopping 25% in efficiency from one card. So if your deck can keep it alive, it’s amazing.

Typically, your opponent has to spend 1 action and pay 4 bits to ‘kill’ it, so it costs them 5 overall to get rid of it. If they do that right away, you end up 2 bits ahead, but some cards let them kill it cheaper or give them free money to do it with, so you start getting this incredibly complex time-economy where players are trying to end up coming out ahead by 1 action worth of a resource- be it a card, a bit or something in play. Over the course of the game, a couple of good action ‘trades’ like this can give you a lead to let you do something that would be impossible if both of you were on even footing and thus win the game.


Coming back to our original cards, Diesel is a great card if your deck has, for example, a lot of low cost cards, so each card draw action is worth comparatively more than if your deck was full of high-cost cards that put a premium on taking actions which earn money. If you have a lot of synergy that allows you to efficiently generate bits, then quality time becomes a better card than Diesel, since that 3 bit cost may only convert to one action, not three.

In this way, Netrunner creates a complex dynamic of time management in a non-realtime setting. A player feels incredibly constrained by their few actions, so tools which give them more ability to act feel liberating and powerful. Because pretty much every economy card gives you one or two actions worth of resources overall (excepting some which give you more but as a drip feed like pad campaign), how you fuel your economy is entirely dependent on card synergies and the structure of your deck. Time is expressed as a resource extremely successfully and good, efficient Netrunner decks are all about time management- creating efficiencies that give the player the time to execute the strategies necessary for victory.


So there you have it. Time is something that you can explore as both mechanic and dynamics. As an overall design tool you can plan out how time will be spent playing your game to focus and clarify your design and give you signposts to use during your testing and iteration. You can also use time in a more focused way as a resource in games which aren’t formally time-constrained in order create an aesthetic of intense action without forcing real-time constraints on the player.


LoL DDCG week 3: Item design

Disclaimer: LoLDDCG is an independent fan project, it is unaffiliated with Riot inc. or any employee of Riot inc. Use of Riot’s graphics is intended for the purposes of prototyping and makes no attempt to challenge ownership of those graphics. All original graphics, system and design are displayed under a CC-BY-NC licenceLeague of Legends is (c) Riot inc.

This week’s work in preparation for the first alpha tests has mostly been producing the set of item cards. All up I built 56 items this week. I’m not sure if all of these will make it into the initial release, but they provide a good baseline set from which to work. In that light, this week I’m going to talk about how items work to provide gameplay for the LoLcg

First, there are a few major conceptual differences between the card game and videogame items. The main one is that players can only have 3 items at any one time, so choosing which items to buy in which order is far more important.

Second, items are generally more powerful and more expensive by unit- a longsword in the card game will provide a far higher level of power than a longsword in the videogame, and this is multiplicative- a champion with 2 big items in the card game is more or less equivalent to a champion with 6 items in the videogame.

healthpotionHealth potion restores over 50% of many Champions’ basic hitpoints

This was done for two reasons. For one, the numbers in the game have been kept low and simple- an item in LoLCG cost between 1 and 6 ‘gold’, while items in the videogame can cost anywhere between 35 and 1600. So if you take the health potion and needlessly large rod, which cost these amounts in both games, a health potion in the card game has to do a lot more than a health potion in the videogame to be worth what you’re paying for it- it’s a consumeable that costs half as much as a basic item like a longsword, not one tenth as much.

The same sort of idea is true across all items. Weaker items are generally stronger than their equivalents when compared to bigger items. Since the base stats of champions don’t scale innately in the card game, items are the only way your champions are going to get stronger. I felt it made sense, then, that their impact is comparatively more significant in raw terms as well.

For two, items in this game provide the same kind of complexity that card subtypes provide in other games. In Magic,, many cards will have synergistic effects with specific subtypes of creature or spell. In Netrunner, subtypes of program determine how they interact with each other and how they can be interacted with by other effects. While this is rarely absolutely critical to the effectiveness of a card, good players keep track of what their opponent is capable of and work around it using these subtypes as guidelines

In LoLCG this same functionality is provided by statistics. Just as in the videogame, if your opponent is stacking physical damage you want to build armor, if they’re stacking magic damage you want magic resistance, and if they’ve got a balanced output or true damage you need to build health.

MaladyThe rightmost statistic vaguely represents magic penetration and is quite rare, making malady a valuable synergy item

Not only this, but when attacking Champions sometimes receive a ‘synergy’ bonus that replicates multiplicative scaling in the videogame. A Champion with three points in a single physical statistic will deal three damage, but one with a single point across all three stats will deal four damage.

By limiting item space to 3, a champion cannot simply itemise a bunch of small items perfectly tailored to their position. They need to make hard choices and upgrade their items with more expensive advanced items in order to fit in some more stats. Gamers familiar with tower defences will understand this kind of tension. While on the surface it would be more efficient just to spam an entire TD map with low level turrets than upgrade a few to high level, the amount of prime real-estate on the map is limited, and upgrading towers with synergistic effects near to each other yields great results (an upgraded slowing tower near to an upgraded splash damage tower is going to do more than if it were next to a long row of un-upgraded ones, only a couple of which get the extended firing time granted by the slow.). This limit is enforced more harshly here- you only have three spots to put your towers on, so you better make sure they’re the right ones for the specific challenge your opponent presents you with.

Banshee'sVeilLike in the videogame, banshee’s veil provides a good, but expensive, way of dealing with champions who can blow you up with one ability

Onto the items themselves

The core set has most of the basic items in the game. Currently the only ones that are excluded are vision wards (not sight wards) and some of the tier 2 AD items (cloak of agility and recurve bow), for a total of 20. On top of this there are 36 of the advanced items in the game, mostly simpler ones that fit into the alpha ruleset neatly.

Because of the way the economy of the game balances out, Champions will often only get to one large item in a game, sometimes not even that. Champions are also more likely to have to build balanced stats since the cardgame doesn’t take into account mechanical skill- no matter how good you are, if you build all damage you’re going to blow someone up and then get taken down in short order. Since one big item for damage is plenty and every champion has to be able to stand their ground on their own, I expect to see a little more hybridisation in terms of what items get bought. Carries will need to itemize some defenses, tanks and supports will need to itemize some damage stats. This sort of balance also means I can give big items some more powerful or wierd effects since there won’t be that many floating around a game.

RodofAgesRod of ages has a particularly complex effect that I tried to avoid including. Since you’ll rarely see more than one in a game, however, it’s  justifiable

I’m hoping that this will also make building champions feel a bit more unique on a game by game basis. Champions will likely have a signature item that perfectly synergises with their ability and statistical kit that they want to build towards. Unlike in the videogame however, this will be the only completed item they get over the course of the game, so a morgana might have a zhonyas hourglass while a twisted fate has a lichbane, instead of both having a zhonyas, lichbane and deathcap as they would at the same stage of the videogame. This is one of the things I’m most eager to see come out through playtesting, whether this more rigorous itemization can make up for the loss in individual character the champions incur from being simplified for the card format.


For another preview, last week was mostly spent building up the first draft of the playtester’s rulebook. When testing games and rulesets with distributed testers (ones you don’t have direct, personal access to during tests), I think that you need to go to a lot of effort to get the aesthetic feel of the game right, since people who aren’t specifically trained to be able to ignore those things will often get tripped up when working with low-fidelity prototypes. I take this philosophy even to doing rules, making sure rulesets are well formatted, presented and accompanied by diagrams and examples, just as in a published rulebook. This also has the upside of making playtesting a more pleasurable experience and, since I’m not able to pay testers, will make it less likely I get a dropoff in testing.



That’s it for this week. Playtesting draws ever closer, I’m hoping to begin recruitment around the second week of may. If you’d like to get involved, please subscribe and you’ll be the first to hear when the doors open!