Launching Teamfight Tactics
The latest spin on Auto Chess shows promise despite a rocky introduction
Occasionally, we get to witness the birth of a new video game genre. This year saw the debut of Auto Chess, a custom game mode for Dota 2 which fused chess and classic Dota 2 gameplay to form a completely new experience. As I mentioned in my previous article about Auto Chess, this game has a shared history with the original game mods that led to the creation of both League of Legends and Dota. This shared history is why I was interested in Teamfight Tactics, the new game mode released as part of League of Legends’ patch 9.13.
Being that Auto Chess only recently exploded onto the gaming scene, Riot Games probably had a short time to get Teamfight Tactics to a playable alpha. That being said, I think it’s interesting to see what standard this giant of the esports industry decided was acceptable for the public to first experience.
In one of my old articles about marketing and games, I mentioned that the game’s marketing should reflect the experience it is delivering. And that couldn’t be more true now in our age of online content creators and what Riot Games did to release Teamfight Tactics. When Riot Games first announced the game, there was no trailer and no gameplay; just a screenshot and the general idea of an Auto Battler. It was at this time that streamers were invited to Riot HQ where they were able to play, test, and provide feedback about what they think should be changed. Streamers and content creators enjoyed it and some content creators were even allowed to record early gameplay ‘streamer’ footage to be released at a later date.
This game was incredibly well advertised to the demographic they were trying to hit. Pretty much anyone who plays League or Auto Chess would know about this game. A few weeks later, Teamfight Tactics hit the League of Legends public beta environment. Upon its debut, many players decided to give it a try. The only problem was, the test servers were significantly smaller than live servers (driving the log in queue time to upwards of 24 hours). So, getting on was a long wait, with the added risk of encountering an error at the last second.
However, when you turn on Twitch streams, everyone is playing the game, and enjoying it. This led to the widespread belief that a ‘priority queue’ existed for content creators.
For me, this was just the reality of the League of Legends release pipeline; I wasn’t going to think about how Riot could have done this better, because this is the approach that works for every League of Legends patch, so I didn’t have an issue with the mild inconvenience associated with trying to play their game early.
After all, the game wasn’t even launched yet — everything would be fine upon official launch, right?
Well, not exactly. The day the game launched, gameplay video emerged, streamers were playing it, and all seemed to be going smoothly. I even logged on and got to play a few games during the day. At night though, when the rest of my friends decided to try to learn this new game, the servers couldn’t handle it. That queue time of an hour kept increasing; it was a tremendous waste of time to wait the hour only to play around 20 minutes of in-game action.
So to be quite honest, I was disappointed that the release of Riot‘s’ new title wasn’t smooth sailing. Although I suppose it is rare for a new online release not to come with some kind of server/connection issue. Currently, the game is playable within a few seconds of queuing up — and it’s still in beta anyway.
Despite the beta teething issues, Teamfight Tactics itself is fun, and there is a lot of complexity underneath its simple surface-level mechanics, just like Auto Chess. The design choices that Riot made are fascinating and are a step in the right direction for the Auto-Battler genre. The two main differentiators are the asymmetric hex board, and the carousel (or shared draft) segments. The board is different from the traditional chess board, and even something as simple as which corner should I put my units in, can now be a difficult and consequential decision.
The carousel round is a perfect break/checkpoint for players. It additionally acts as a comeback mechanic for players that aren’t spending their health efficiently.
In a blog post, the Teamfight Tactics dev team described their three pillars of design: Mastery, Playful Competition, and Discovery. I found these three things can kind of be boiled down to something that Alex Jaffe, a Riot Games Designer, presented in his 2019 GDC talk “Cursed Problems of Game Design.”
These were the big challenges that he said are the ripest for producing new game designs. I’m not sure if Alex had anything to do with Teamfight Tactics but I suspect this philosophy is probably shared throughout Riot’s design team.
The most interesting design choice that Riot made to the Auto-Battler genre, in my opinion, is how items work. In previous entries in the genre, items were purely random. And they still are in Teamfight Tactics. However, the item combinations that were present have been simplified down to an 8x8 combination grid, where any two items combine into one. This simple change to the crucial item component in Auto Chess successfully simplifies the perceived complexity this game has. As many people have said, this game/genre is incredibly simple, yet has so much going on under the hood.
There are still plenty of problems with the game, and I’ll be honest that I have encountered some pretty unusual and game-breaking bugs, as well as poorly communicated gameplay ‘features.’ For example: the krugs (monsters) that reset health when one of them dies, characters just disappearing after or even during a round, and even items disappearing randomly. Luckily Riot has deployed fast/small patches to combat the unbalanced item stacking, and item abusing that the community has been quick to figure out. This usually leads to emergency patch notes being released on twitter since the game isn’t in a stable place.
It’s great to see this level of communication between the developers and players around Teamfight Tactics’ launch — it certainly helps to build trust and a sense of community.
Ultimately, Teamfight Tactics is incredibly fun to play with friends, and there’s a ton of potential here for Riot to make this one of the best entries in the genre.