Welcome to Piltover Parley!
This is a series (Sometimes audio and sometimes written) where I interview significant figures in the League community and get their viewpoints, thoughts and ideas about the game!
With the advent of Preseason 7 (soon to be Season 7), there was no change more controversial and questionable by the playerbase than the introduction of plants. In an effort to get a deeper understanding of the system, I sat down with Jo “Riot Fearless” Graylock to get his insights, thoughts and even some regrets he might have about the system.
David aka “CaptainMarvelous”: Thanks for sitting down with me! To start things off, why don’t you give us a quick view on who you are so we don’t just keep calling you “The Plant Guy”.
Jo “Fearless” Graylock: Hey! I’m Jo “Fearless” Graylock, Design Lead for the game systems team on League of Legends. I do a pretty even split between managing the well-being of the designers on the team and helping our designers do their best work and constantly growing in their capabilities. I’ve helped to create Plants, Elemental Dragons, and the Marskman Item rework, along with many other projects. Before I took this position, I took on the Sona rework, built the 2015 jungle along with Riot Axes, and built the Cinderhulk jungle enchantment. Previously, I worked at Obsidian Entertainment for most of a decade.
CM: That’s quite the career indeed. Shifting a bit more to the topic: Let’s start with what you and your team saw as the biggest problem plaguing the jungle.
JG: Route differentiation had really broken down, with many junglers having very similar starts and early clears, leading to the laning phase getting very rote. On the other side of the spectrum, a lot of the optimization points were poorly communicated. This meant the jungle was both solved and fairly arcane, which tends to be a worst of both worlds sort of situation.
CM: So the obvious criticism I, and many other players across Twitter, boards and reddit, was that “Well just fix the smite buffs”. What was it about smite buffs that made your team go “Yeah, no, this isn’t going to work out at all.”
JG: Smite buffs were a huge part of what was causing the situation. They created very strong right answers for jungle routes, and separated junglers pretty hard into routes with very little in-game decision making. We’d also seen the impact of the best case users of the smite rewards strongly limit the power we could put into the buffs, which put a limit on how strong we could ever make them.
CM: I’m still going to miss my raptor buff though. Now, with plants, some other games such as DOTA 2 have similar systems in place. In that game’s case, magical floating runes sitting in the river. What was it about plants that made it seem like the right call to add thematically?
JG: The plant theme was a pretty quick find due to how strongly our map has built up the theme of the jungle into every detail of the geometry and texturing in those spaces. Magical runes or crazy technical devices really don’t look reasonable in the setting, whereas fantastic plants very easily integrated into the environment. League also has some notable examples of plants that do big magical things, so it was a very clean fit.
The Response to Plants
CM: To be blunt, the initial reaction to plants was equivalent to stepping on a wasp nest right next to a lion who absolutely hates humans and wasps. Did you forsee the reaction being as volatile and vicious as it was?
JG: Yes. I was very unhappy with our initial messaging on plants, and players had every reason to be concerned if all they had to go on was those initial articles and videos. I was confident players would be much more positive once they had a chance to play with plants, but I totally understand the concerns we created.
CM: One of the most common criticisms you get is of your ranking in the game itself. “Why is a gameplay designer in silver?” and so forth. Giving you the platform, what would you say to those who hold up your rank as damning evidence that you harm the game more than help it?
JG: My only critique would be that I think very few people understand what my job actually entails. I’m not the lead designer of all league gameplay, I don’t do live balance, and I constantly seek out the opinions of the experts that do that work. We have plenty of designers and experts that are extremely talented players, and I have no concerns that awesome players are involved in our design process. On the other hand, we have very few designers on LoL with a long history of design experience, and I’m confident I bring a lot on that front.
CM: On another note of criticism: A response to those who say that your previous work such as, say, the Marksmen items is another fact against you when it comes to gameplay design? Especially considering how it often makes you a punching bag beacon.
JG: I’d say it’s to be expected. I’ve made a career out of taking on projects that no one else wanted to do or knew how to do. This leads to taking on a lot of unpopular projects, even if they were necessary and important. Systems design is frequently about doing the work to set the foundation for exciting projects. Sometimes we get to do something like elemental dragons, but very often it means doing the work that sets up the new champion or reworks, or the cool items six months later. I very much know that part of that work also means tanking the frustrations of players that can’t see what comes next or what our work makes possible in the future. It also means that I get to be quietly satisfied when the projects that are meant to be in the spotlight succeed, partially because of the work that we’ve done.
Plants on Live Servers
CM: Despite all the petitions and harsh words, plants have arrived on the live servers. What are your initial thoughts on the system now that players have gotten their hands on them? “Horrendous Herbs” or “Victorious Vegetables?”
JG: Plants have been pretty solid so far. We’re mostly looking for what interactions look like after plants stop being new and novel.
CM: Let’s fast forward a few years with our own zero-driver. What would be the best-case-scenario plan for plants in the future?
JG: I’d love to see more plants in the system, and probably a few more spawn locations or variety in the spawn rate, etc. We tuned the system to be pretty damn conservative at launch, and I’d love to find some ways to bring back a bit more adaptation rather than memorization and planning.
CM: On the opposite end, what’s the worst-case-scenario for plants? Do you think you guys would ever pull plants if it turned out the doomsayers were right and they actually were the death of League?
JG: No single element is truly sacred in systems, so any system that has more negatives than positives will eventually get tweaked, reworked, or removed. Plants is not an exception here, though currently they’re trending well.
CM: Moving back to the present, what would you say to all the plant detractors who had their own feelings on plants, be they eloquently worded or the narrative equivalent to poison?
JG: Thanks for the feedback. We’re lucky enough to have a tremendous number of players that care about this game quite a lot. I expect to tank a lot of concern and discomfort when we make changes to the game. The personal attacks are a bit draining, but if that’s the infrequent cost for the hundreds of awesome player interactions that I get to have, then so be it.
CM: So what would be your thoughts on plants in pro-play? Do you think they might be the thing that’ll make games increasingly exciting and unexpected?
JG: My hope is plants allow for windows of aggressive action that either were much too risky before or simply weren’t possible for many champions. On a smaller scale, I also hope we’ll seem some gank routes and general jungle approaches unlocked by the new jungle and some of the early blast cone possibilities.
CM: With plants out, what do you think would be your next project? Some sort of system or mechanic in the game that you think really needs a good wrench thrown at it?
JG: I’ve been very open with the fact that I think runes and masteries have a ton of issues, and I hope we’ll get to address those in the future. Those systems are rather large, but they’re also limiting, outdated, and generally just a poor use of the possibilities they present.
CM: Looking back as you move on, what do you think would be something that you’d tell of past Jo? Some sort of hindsight that you really wish you could have changed?
JG: Given what I know now, the season 2015 jungle would have been much better off with more direct changes to the camps, rather than the addition of Smite rewards. I think if I’d had more confidence about changing the more fundamental elements, rather than adding to what was there, the jungle would have been a much better feature long term. I also really wish I’d done a better job on plants messaging. I cause a lot of pain and frustration that could have been avoided with a little more patience and attention on my part.
CM: Finally, for the most hard-hitting question I could have ever come up with: What’s your favorite champ?
JG: I’m actually hoping I’ll have a new favorite with Camille. I’m a giant cyberpunk/transhumanism fan, and seeing us create something in that space is incredibly exciting to me.
CM: There’s a joke about machines and plants but I’ll spare you. Thank you for the time you’ve taken with me today and I hope this will give players some insights on how and why you do what you do. Best of luck on whatever system you plan on tackling next!