In an early preview event, Game Design Director Steven Mortimer tells me that League of Legends‘ auto battler Teamfight Tactics (TFT) started off rough, and was almost shut down before player feedback saved it. Now, in the midst of its latest Set 7 Dragonlands, TFT has over 80 million players in its chess-based thrall, finding a comfortable groove in drastically shaking up its formula for each major update. I had a quick conversation with Geoffrey Virtue, TFT‘s Senior Director and Executive Producer, to talk about TFT‘s ruffled past, and its revivified path forward.
“Developing TFT is a little bit of a double edged sword,” Virtue tells Fanbyte. “There are a lot of people that are interested in some level of stability, and then there’s also a lot of our audience that love novelty, and having new things happen. So we’re actively looking at the best ways to cater to both aspects of our audience and how we create a safe environment for new players to learn TFT and really get onboard. But also create an environment where we’re able to shake things up with each of our sets.”
TFT, if you haven’t tried it yet, is an eight player free-for-all strategy game on PC and mobile where players build teams of itemized League of Legends characters and duke it out each round to see who has the ultimate board. TFT releases new “Sets” every three to six months which introduce different themes and new mechanics, completely shelving everything players are accustomed to except the fundamentals. The most notable addition in recent sets is the concept of “Augments,” mutations that players can select multiple points throughout a match that buff specific aspects of their boards/characters.
“Sets are kind of composed of four main components: the theme, Traits, Champions, and the fresh mechanic,” says Virtue. “One of the key learnings that we found with that early period in TFT, was really understanding how to mix all of those ingredients together to make the soup taste really good. So set over set, we take our learnings, listen to our players, listen to our own team of hardcore players, and kind of adapting those lessons and kind of immortalizing them into all of our future set development.”
In game development, it’s risky to completely change a bunch of aspects that players enjoy, but for TFT, switching things up is the foundation of its success. While Augments were a major shift to TFT‘s style of play, Virtue explains that the development team received “massive amounts of positive player feedback” on the addition. This is one of the reasons they decided to carry that match modifying mentality over into Dragonlands TFT Set 7.
“The reason in particular we find Set variance to be really important is it allows us to infuse a lot of new experiments into the experience,” says Virtue. “By changing out Traits, Champions, and mechanics in a new Set, if you’ve quit TFT, we might be able to bring you back and offer you something different. All while still maintaining the core game engine and game systems that players are used to, and have mastered, like: the economy, buying characters, and drafting at the carousel.”
Virtue tells me that the toughest day-to-day challenge with producing TFT is making sure everyone on the team is “empowered,” and feels free to voice their opinions at any point in development.
“I want everyone to have a seat at the table,” says Virtue. “Our team actually pitches all the Set ideas, and we have a great process where we run the surveys for our global audience to see how those themes resonate, and then kind of narrow that down into the theme that we ended up picking. Dragonlands [Set 7] was the theme that came straight from the team. I think the challenge is making sure that we’re always aware of how we represent the team and make sure that it’s a safe environment where everybody’s able to share their ideas in a safe way.”
The tactics and strategic self-expression in TFT are remarkable, but some aspects of the game’s structure are a bit beguiling, even resembling a casino. When you’re in-game, there isn’t a way to see the time or system clock without tabbing out and closing the match on your phone or PC; and during previous limited-time events, some cosmetics are locked behind loot boxes and $100+ bundles, with some players spending ridiculous amounts of money to obtain certain collectibles. Curious about how the development team’s efforts to prevent players, especially youth from developing unhealthy gambling addictions, I ask Virtue to explain what he and the team are doing to fight this.
“At Riot, we always are looking at any of our different regional laws and working very closely with our legal team to make sure that we’re player focused, and that we’re ensuring that we’re in correlation with any of the regulations for those regions,” says Virtue. “And then the most important thing for us is making sure that any of the different ways that we allow players to express themselves are player focused. We don’t want players to be able to pay for power to get an advantage. We offer direct purchase in the shop, but you can also purchase little legendary eggs. We’re trying to make sure that that entire ecosystem feels really, really player focused and player first, and then give options so that you’re able to have the choice.”
Virtue didn’t entirely answer my question here, and also said “you’re able to go in and you’re able to actually purchase anything,” which, I have to clarify, isn’t the case for multiple obtainable cosmetics in the Lunar Legends Festival event, and previous legacy items.
TFT Set 7 Dragonlands is a cunning, stimulating evolution of Teamfight Tactics that forces me to re-think a game I’ve played many, many hours in, and I commend it for that. That constant change adds depth and surprisingly retains players by taking risks. But, I deeply wish that TFT would shed its unnecessary, ambiguous, gambling-like cosmetic and visual attributes, because it’d be an infinitely better game without them.
[Disclaimer: Both Riot Games and Fanbyte are owned by the same parent company, Tencent.]