Tom Abernathy on the Narrative Opportunities and Challenges in League of Legends

At GDC this year, the always pleasant Tom Abernathy — Narrative Lead at Riot Games — sat down with Sevencut contributor Connor Thomas Cleary to discuss how Riot Games approaches and delivers narrative content. And to all the League of Legends fans: if you look closely, you may spot a few hints of what is to come.

Abernathy is an award winning narrative designer, game writer, screenwriter, and creative director who has worked on, among others, such well-known titles as Destroy All Humans, and Halo: Reach.

He's also a damn pleasant fellow, always smiling and quick to laugh.

Since development at Riot is so mechanics-focused by necessity, how do you encourage the company at large to value narrative?

Tom Abernathy: Well, I don't encourage the company to do that. The company is doing that on its own. I think that's part of the reason why they were interested in me — and some of my other more recent colleagues there — and why they were interested in talking to us about working for them. I think what happened at Riot is the same thing that happens at most game companies, honestly, which is: narrative is not something people are usually thinking about at the beginning. And certainly with a game like League of Legends, it's understandable why that would be true. Even more so than at a company that might be trying to make a game that was more story-based.

When Riot first started out, we didn't really have writers at all. We had designers and other people who served the purpose — you know, people who had some skills or talents in that area — and they did some of the heavy lifting, narrative-wise. Then, over time, Riot started recognizing that there were people in parts of the company — like in Community, and stuff like that — who seemed to have a facility with words and some instincts as storytellers. So we would bring them on, and a writing team began to accrue after a while. We eventually started looking for, and hiring people who had experience writing — largely in other media. Not so much in games, but we looked for people who had been screenwriters, writers in TV animation, stuff like that. Eventually they hired a guy named George Krstic who had worked on the Clone Wars and some other stuff — a very, very talented writer — and brought him in to be the both the Narrative Lead and the Narrative Guru.

Riot sort of thinks of its content tracks in that way: there's a content-generation track and then there's a management track. For a while, George was doing both of those, but he was kind of miserable. [Laughs.] He really wanted to be the Guru. He wanted to focus on that stuff. So they added Aaron Ehasz, who had been a showrunner on Avatar: The Last Airbender; they brought Christina Norman over from BioWare, and she's not a pure narrative person, but she has a great affinity for it. Those three people really started the ball rolling more and more.

But the whole time, it was because Riot  recognized that, as time went on, they had accrued an IP that, maybe, they could do other things with. You know, I think we were inspired by Marvel, because there are some similarities in terms of what we do and what Marvel does: creating sort of superhero characters.

"Narrative excites people. Characters excite people. Narrative gives the experience meaning."

 It's a more involved process than just creating an NPC for another kind of narrative game; you're really creating player characters, but they're player characters who have very, very specific personalities and back stories. The process for us of ideating and building a champion — including the narrative character ideation, the art ideation, the gameplay kits ideation, and then development — all of that stuff from start to finish, frankly, can take a year and a half.


TA: Yeah. It's a very involved process. So by that point, that was something they had really developed as a pipeline. Which is awesome. And they started thinking: well, we have these characters and — as will not be surprising to you, nor would it be to me — it was clear that those characters were the main point of emotional attachment for the players. At least, for a lot of the players. The funny thing was, in terms of actual player-facing lore, there really wasn't very much beyond the biographies that were released with each champion. And even those, they would revise. They would be sort of... out of sync with each other.


"Human beings are storytellers and story consumers. We are hardwired for that at this point. That goes way, way back to before we had writing." 

It wasn't an ideal situation, but the thing kept growing and growing, and there kept being more of them. So I think they just realized: this is something they had the potential to do, that they hadn't necessarily put a lot of thought or resources into originally, but that now they wanted to do. Really it comes from a place — as everything does at Riot — of really gauging what gets the players excited, and delighted, and trying to give them that as best we can.

Riot's mission statement, which might sound a little corny — and there are a number of things about Riot that might sound a little corny to some people, but they're actually really bought into by everybody who works there — the company mission statement is, “We aspire to be the most player-focused game company in the world.” And I can tell you that everybody in that building (and around the world) who works for Riot really believes that. It's not just words. It's actually a value that drives us and drives our decisions, That's not to say we make decisions just based on, you know, oh: “X percent of players say that they want this.” That wouldn't be – We wouldn't be doing our jobs in that case. But we do pay keen attention to what seems to excite people.

The thing is, of course, narrative excites people. Characters excite people. Narrative gives the experience meaning. You can have a set of mechanics that are interesting as a learn-practice-master loop, and the example that I like to give sometimes is: Creating a set of mechanics where you take a sphere and you put it into a hole by shooting it at the right trajectory. That's a set of mechanics, and it's cool and it's interesting, but it's sort of limited in some ways: it's just that. You're probably not going to get emotionally wrapped up in it.

If, however, you put the player's avatar into a Lakers uniform, as Kobe Bryant, and you put him on the free throw line, with one second left in game seven of the NBA finals, and the Lakers are down by one, and there's, you know, twenty-five thousand people screaming their heads off. Now you've given meaning to what that experience is. You've given emotional value to it, and people love that.

Human beings are storytellers and story consumers. We are hardwired for that at this point. That goes way, way back to before we had writing. We had to pass on information from generation to generation about how to survive, how to hunt successfully, how to live successfully — and these things would try to explain the world around us, the universe, things that we didn't understand, all of that. Religious contexts, entertainment contexts, I mean, this is an innate human drive that developed as a way of passing on information. So it's not shocking that players love game experiences with narrative components.

That's my long way of saying that Riot just realized at some point that this is all true. We realized that this is something — if Riot was going to fulfill its mission fully — that we needed to pay better attention to and work harder at. And so, that's what we're trying to do.

To the players, new character generation can seem like such a trickle—

TA: [Laughs loudly.] That's so funny.

[Chuckles.] Yeah, I don't mean any offense by that—

TA: No, no, no. It's true. It probably does. Even though we put at least six of them out a year.

Right. [Laughs.] So my question is — and this applies to that list of people you mentioned as well — what does your day look like? What does your week look like?

TA: Well my day and week is not necessarily normative in terms of the writing team, because I manage the writing team. In addition to being a content contributor and a, sort of, high-level guider and consultant. I do some writing, but George's primary focus is his content generation and his secondary focus is management, and it's the reverse for me. One thing that's true for all of us — because Riot is a company that prizes open communication a lot, and transparency and collaboration — we have a lot of meetings. People at other companies think they have a lot of meetings; they cannot hold a candle to the number of meetings that we have. We joke about the fact that we are often double- and triple-booked. Sometimes we are quadra-booked. And even in the parlance of League of Legends, occasionally we get penta-booked for meetings.

That process is important, even though it's somewhat arduous, because it's in that communication that everybody stays synched up with everybody else. And because our champions particularly are such a collaborative work between artists and designers and writers and animators and other people all coming together and making choices in concert: they need to make choices that work with each other and that don't work against each other.

There's tons of buy-in there, too. Those are what we call “pods” — groups that create champions — everybody has input on all of those aspects. Collaboration is a value Riot prizes a lot. So we spend a lot of time doing that. That's part of why it takes so long for a champion to get out the door, but I do believe strongly — and I think pretty much everybody there would say this — that it means when the champions do go out the door, they're very, very strong.

Particularly, I'm really proud of the work that's been done on and from our angle, the narrative angle, for the last year-plus. I think if you look at each of the champions that we've put out over that time period, each one seems richer, and more interesting than the last. And the materials, the narrative materials that we put out to support them: the teasers, the trailers, the launch materials, the bios (which we're changing the form of), and now we're starting to do post-launch pieces of various kinds. Animation shorts, and stuff like that.

"I think if you look at each of the champions that we've put out...each one seems richer, and more interesting than the last."

It's all becoming richer, it's becoming more... More stuff is player-facing, and involves the players. I feel like we're hitting a really great stride in terms of doing some wonderful work that's really pleasing the players. And that's really what it's about. Exclusively. If all we did was please ourselves, and the players didn't like it, we'd be in rough shape — and we'd be out of a job pretty quick. [Laughs.]

By the way: Vel'Koz is awesome. [Chuckles.]

TA: I like Vel'Koz a lot! And the bio — I don't know if you've noticed, if you've looked at the bio but: The bio for Vel'Koz is the first one, and people noticed, that we did as a first-person thing. What was amusing to me is that it was not necessarily a completely uncontroversial choice. Although I think it's safe to say that pretty much everybody felt like: Yes, the bios had not been particularly effective for a while, and needed to be shaken up in some way.

Vel'Koz image from  League of Legends  site. 

Vel'Koz image from League of Legends site. 

Our plan going forward is, on a character-by-character basis, to make choices that seem to make sense for that character. So for Vel'Koz — because he's a giant... tentacled... space alien, y'know — the thing that seemed to make the most sense, because it's sort of hard to identify with him and to empathize with him, we wanted to get you inside his head. That way, you can have more clarity, more visibility on some of the aspects of his character that are a bit more fun, and maybe satirical a little bit. So the first person approach seemed like a good idea. The best part was that we put it out, and nobody went, [shouting] “Oh my god! What are they doing to the bios!?” You know? It was just... I noticed a couple people on the forums just say, “Oh yeah. Look at that. First person bio. Cool.” And that was great. That's exactly what we want. We don't want to frighten anybody, but we do need to evolve some things.

Obviously there's... some percentage of the player base that's into the lore and the characters — whether that's a majority or a minority, I'm not sure.

TA: I'm not either. I'm not sure that we have exact numbers on that, although we do know it’s a decent-sized chunk.

So how do you encourage a larger percentage of the players to engage with the narrative and lore aspects of League?

TA: That's a reasonable question, but I don't think we think of it that way.

First of all, I'll say this: Let's say, for the purposes of illustration, that ten percent of all League of Legends players cared, at all, about any of that stuff, right? I mean, we have 67 million players worldwide. So that's still seven million people. That's still a pretty big chunk, even when you're in small percentages.

I think it's probably, actually more than that. But I think it's correct to say that we don't think in terms of: We want to get more people interested in the lore. What we want to do is: We want to make the lore better for the people who are interested in it. And if that means that more people get turned on to it in the process? Then that's awesome. We certainly want to delight as many players as we can. But League of Legends — as a MOBA, as a professional sport, as all of the different things that it is — it has other imperatives as well. So we're not trying to take market share in that sense, if you know what I mean. We just want to do stuff that we feel is good, and that we feel is gonna resonate with the players who do love it — if that means more do, then awesome.

"So the first thing you do as a writer is you recognize that there are going to be limits...not just what you can do, but what's wise to do, in terms of putting things into the game."


What are some of the unique impediments to narrative projects at Riot, and in online multiplayer games in general?

TA: Well, that's a question that really would be better directed at Christina Norman who is going to give a talk on that, actually.

Author's note: Christina Norman's talk is available on the GDC Vault for GDC 2014, entitled, “Storytelling in Multiplayer Competitive Games." Her slides can also be seen here.

First, I think I would use the word “challenges” rather than “impediments.” Obviously, the first one you come across is that the game, being what it is — I think it's fair to say there is a limited amount of narrative... intrusiveness isn't quite the right word — there's a limit to the amount of narrative that you can include without beginning to interfere with the game as a process, and as an experience that people like for various other reasons.

 And, obviously, we don't have any desire to do that. We're not trying to break the game experience for anybody. Certainly, it is a challenge for someone like me who has spent a lot of time in my career — okay, most of the time in my career — working on games that were fairly narrative-based. They had stories, and characters that interacted with you and with other characters, and they played out in a more traditional way, in that sense. League of Legends is not like those, and it's never going to be like those. We may, at some point, decide that we want to make a game that is like those, and we may use the same IP, or we might create another one, I don't know. But right now, League is our focus. So the first thing you do as a writer is: you recognize that there are going to be limits to what — not just what you can do, but what's wise to do, in terms of putting things into the game.

Christina is going to talk about some of those things. They include things like — well, some things we've already done — for example, if you play Lucian, and somebody else is playing Thresh, and then you get in a lane with them, there are certain attack dialogue lines and stuff that are going to come up that are specific to the two of them. Because they have a relationship in the lore. And... not a very happy one. [Grins.]

There's little stuff like that. The shopkeepers in some of the more recent maps have gotten their own VO sets, so you get some sense of character and sense of place from them. And bringing narrative experiences into the game itself is more that kind of stuff: Doing it a bit around the edges. We're talking about other possible ways to do so, and I can't get too specific but: things having to do with matchmaking process; which characters are pitted against each other; things that might be keyed off of narrative events like the Freljord event that happened last year, or ones that we're planning for the future. That could all be really cool for the people who love that stuff. But again, that said: There's only so much you're going to ever want to do, right? So for us it becomes more a thing of: That's awesome. We want to do all of those things that we can, as we figure them out. And then also: We want to start telling stories outside of the game experience, in whatever ways make sense for us to do that.

We already released last year — it wasn't an elaborate “story” but — our first CG piece. Which was fun. And there may be more of those coming in the future. Like I said, they're not particularly narrative-based but, y'know, we're interested in sort of exploring the animated short space. You've seen some of that recently with stuff that's come out, for example, with Yasuo, and with Vel'Koz.

Basically, what we're doing is: Any storytelling medium that you can think of, we're either exploring the idea of doing something in it, or we're actually already kind of doing something in it in-house — occasionally working with outside folks. And that, for us, for the time being, that's gonna be the way it has to be. Our particularly rich storytelling stuff, most of that will probably happen outside the game experience. But, that said, we can explore a lot more channels than we have.

Like what I said with the bios. I mean, the bios in the future could be.... first person, they could be second person, they could be third person. They could be future, past, or present tense. They could be poems, they could be songs, they could be audio files, they could be videos — like the Jinx video. They could be anything we want them to be— Well, anything that we can get the guys who make the client make work. Or, if not, we'll have them live on the web, or something.

That's really one of the big head-spaces we're in right now: How do we change up the ways we've presented the champions in the past, and how do we do that in ways that give us more opportunities to do richer, more interesting storytelling, and more in-depth storytelling? In addition to exploring those, let's find other ways to do it, and other places to do it. Anything people seem interested in seeing or hearing or reading.

What are some of the unique opportunities for narrative projects in that same space? And how do you see your work at Riot promoting the trans-media possibilities of game IPs in general?

TA: They are linked, it's true. One of the good things is: We have backstories for all of our champions, but none of them are written in stone. In the same way that, if you track the evolution, say, of Wolverine from the mid-sixties to now in comic books — not to mention movies and other things — you'll see that various aspects of his background and his experiences have been modified, revised, done again in different ways. There's an analogous situation for us, I think. Insofar as, we've got these great characters that people really love, and many of whom — not all of them, probably — but many of whom have some real star potential as leads in their own kind of pieces. 

 "We want to do our world support the story rather than the other way around, because I think that makes the most sense for us."


That's kind of cool for us, because it really does mean that we can be very imaginative in the kinds of things we want to do. We can think of telling stories in ten seconds, and the kinds of things you can do in ten seconds. We can think about, not only stories that have to do with specific characters, but also combinations of characters, and their relationships. 

Like when Yasuo came out, there was a lot of speculation about who the real killer of the Master was, and that's something — that's a story that we want to tell... eventually.There's been a lot of speculation about Jinx and Vi, and what their relationship might be, and that's a story we want to tell.

And in a bigger sense, too, the stories of the places, of the world, and that's a part that we haven't— well, we've actually done a lot of thinking and even writing on it, but a lot of that is not player-facing at this point. So the Freljord event came out, and helped to illuminate and explicate some of the dynamics between the Avarosan and the Winter's Claw and the Frostguard. And you understood, maybe in a way that you might not have before, what the relationships are between some of the main Freljord champions. We're working on some events in the upcoming months that will similarly, hopefully, highlight certain areas of other factions and give you a sense of what their history might be, and how the champions fit in to that, how their stories fit in to that.

There's a sense that nothing is locked-down canon for us, so we may revise some back stories and stuff if we feel it's called for to make everything fit together more cohesively. In that way, we actually have a lot of freedom that people working on a more traditional, story-driven game might not.

There are a lot of great ideas, and we'll pick up the best ones and march forward with them. Then we'll come up with other stuff to augment them, and make them do new things. Again, as you would see a company like Marvel doing with their characters in various media.

The challenge that does exist then, as you're sort of looking at a trans-media approach, is that you want to make sure it's somewhat coherent. You want to make sure that, as my colleague George Krstic says, that you're always respecting the core themes of the characters and of the world. Sometimes those things have not been particularly fleshed out, so there's some work for us to do there just so we understand them more ourselves.

There's also some work, I think, to be done in taking — again, an IP which everybody knows was accrued over time, in a way which was not... entirely strategic (let's put it that way) — you want to try to make it make sense. You want the world to make sense. You want to understand what the rules of it are. To draw the analogy again to Marvel: you can have a universe that's broad enough that you can have Tony Starks and Doctor Stranges and Guardians of the Galaxy all in the same universe, you know? And Norse gods! That's a pretty broad swathe of potential! So it's not like you have to feel that you're locked in to stuff.

But we want to answer those questions as the stories that we tell require them to be answered. We want to do our world building in a way which is to support the story rather than the other way around, because I think that makes the most sense for us.

We're going to continue to be guided by what we can tell is going to turn our players on the most, and get the most dramatic and emotional mileage out of the material that we have to work with — which is... immense. It has a ton of potential.

The Interviewer: Conor Thomas Cleary is a professional nerd by day, and a regular nerd at other times. He is an author, gaming columnist, game reviewer and a web developer/designer. His nerdy journalism has appeared on GameShark, Gamasutra and BigShinyRobot. You can follow Connor's nerdy, random thoughts @ConnorTCleary