On sandbox mode and how not to communicate nuanced stances
Haha, oh dear.
First, Banksy has a comment on sandbox mode that is basically a TL;DR of this. I just wanted to think out loud.
So if today (http://na.leagueoflegends.com/en/news/riot-games/announcements/riot-pls) was a lesson in anything, it's how to not communicate a nuanced - and internally debated - stance in a public forum. I think discussion on reddit has hit that critical mass point where no new points can be introduced, so I'm just going to muse..
First, a mea culpa (that's latin for "whoops I fucked up"). When discussions get heated, I pick up an equally opposed perspective to see if a held opinion can be challenged. If I seemed like I was taking a hard-line stance on things, I was focused on getting that alternative perspective out rather than acknowledging arguments. Sometimes when you do that, it becomes "hey if you understand us, then do it!" and I didn't want to turn it into that but holy shit did I turn it into that.
I'm going to represent this view correctly: the concept of a training sandbox mode - something where players and teams can hop in to understand new champion abilities, in-game mechanics, or basic fundamental League skills like last hitting, flashing over walls, etc is necessary for a game that adds so much additional complexity (teamplay, map movement, strategy, etc) on top of fundamental mechanical skills. Learning one (mechanics) in isolation of the other is extremely beneficial so you can 'fall back' on it in the heat of the moment. Value-wise, if League is on its way (if not already there) to becoming a marriage of sport and video game, then a training mode - the ability to practice fundamentals - is a logical thing to ask for.
This is particularly true when you hit the highest level of engaged player (ie: pros) who expect the same level of investment from his/her peers. At a casual level you might get some heavy cultural pressure to sit in sandbox mode rather than engaging with the game, but that will always be the case whether it's bots vs. AI or limiting yourself to 5-person teambuilder games for fear of reprisal.
I wanted to make sure I properly represented that view because... I get it. And a lot of designers and Rioters do too. I think I was looking for acknowledgement on the other side (re: behavior expectations on what it takes to achieve mastery in a game) so I ended up chasing too hard.
Most players have said that "cultural expectations of sandbox mode grinding is just patently false" and have examples of other great games that have sandbox modes that don't run into problems. This is true. That said, in the early stages of League, I do think it was beneficial when the optimal path to mastery was (and still is) "just get into another game." This is how I got better at playing DotA - I just mashed thousands of games out with Puck and picked up a broad fundamental skillbase. It was a default expectation - either because there were no better alternatives (a la League) or there were sandbox modes available but playing games was the best.
Either way, that's not a great stance, especially when you talk about the pro scene. It's not bulletproof, it doesn't convince our largest detractors, and it only serves to divide people on an already contentious subject.
We also know this. I've had dozens of conversations past and present (oh boy particularly today) about sandbox mode and why we should or shouldn't do it. I'll reiterate: this is a heavily debated topic internally.
The problem we had with this message was that we wanted to do a few things with a single tool. We wanted to say "it's not a priority" because it's not (but might reconsider given your feedback). There are other things we've chosen to prioritize over sandbox mode because we think those will have a larger impact on a larger playerbase. From your feedback, maybe that's not the case and it's worth having another conversation. But right now, it's not on the list.
The other thing we wanted to do was make it firm. This was where I really screwed up. To me, replays have been an ongoing conversation for a while, and I've argued that it's because we haven't taken a firm stance on it. Re-prioritizing and shifting takes months at a time when you want to work at scale, so it was a conversation I wanted to put to rest (even if it meant getting punched) and then we could re-surface it if we realized it didn't philosophically align with our future goals.
Both of these things made this statement far more 'firm' than it really needed to be, and it was because we were going for an end result "no sandbox for now" rather than actually engaging on the topic. Talking about sandbox mode and its incredible potential for unlocking higher levels of pro play is important to acknowledge, but I think where we got quagmired was this:
An idea can be good and compelling for a group of players, but it can also not be a priority.
That requires you to talk about why you're doing all of these things and not this thing, but we didn't want to come out defensive and now we're... probably in a worse position. We chose our firmest stance and said "okay this is why we're not doing it" when really we should have just said "we aren't doing this because we have these other things that are very important to the longevity of League and its foundational structure. We still think it's a good idea." Totally our bad and something to learn from. Your feedback makes it a bigger thing that probably helps in conversations, so that's good.
I think we've come to equate acknowledging a concept as "good" as also a promise we'll do it. I wonder if we can get better at having open discussions about that.
Anyway, some last thoughts before I go eat. Sorry for the long post!