Teamfight Tactics' second season is in full swing. The autobattler, developed by Riot Games, sits atop its genre's throne in a kingdom founded at the start of this year by the Dota 2 mod Auto Chess. For those familiar with League of Legends it may seem strange that TFT is already in its second season, given the mode launched in June, but the rapid content flow is exactly one of the reasons why it has been so successful.
At the 2019 All-Star event in Las Vegas we caught up with one of the faces of TFT's development, Richard "MapleNectar" Henkel. He told us about the fast development process of Teamfight Tactics, the lessons he and his development colleagues have learned so far, and what players can expect to happen to TFT in future seasons.
Could you give us a little bit of your background in game development at Riot Games?
I started at Riot about five years ago. I joined as the lead of the Summoner's Rift gameplay team, oversaw the bi-weekly patches for Summoner's Rift, gameplay additions, balance, kind of holistically how Summoner's Rift feels to play. So not focused on new champion development, but everything else. I did that for around four years, and then earlier this year I moved over to TFT, when we decided that it was a game that we wanted to explore and invest in. I've been there since February for the past... I guess ten months?
When did the opportunity to work on TFT come to you? Is it something you were part of from the very beginning?
I joined the project about three weeks in. In the beginning we knew we wanted to explore, like "Hey can we actually make this?" The first thing we did, was take a few designers and an engineer, stick them into a corner, and then they spent a few weeks working on getting the foundation of TFT together. Just: "Can we load a champion onto a chess board as opposed to running around like a normal League of Legends champion?" I joined in March, actually, and then we worked on TFT for March, April, May and June, and we shipped at the end of June.
Yeah! It was insane, but was a lot of fun. On Summoner's Rift I usually got used to just bi-weekly patches—every two weeks you just ship a new patch. When I think of TFT, it was only eight patches and then we'd built an entirely new game, which was freaking awesome.
Why did you guys develop it so fast? Was there a sense of urgency, or was it an easy project in terms of programming? You kind of had a lot of the models already.
Great question. I think it's a bit of column A and a bit of column B. There was a sense of urgency—we wanted to see if we could bring the experience to market quickly, because we knew there were other people that were focussing on it. Auto Chess had proven to be such a great opportunity. when you look at their performance. Tons of people were playing Auto Chess, and it was a game that we ourselves really, really loved. So we knew that if we liked it, other people certainly were going to, and were probably trying to make an experience of their own.
And then, as you mentioned, we have our own engine, we have our own champions and animations. We had a bunch of the pieces that we needed to put together to make the game—it was just a matter of putting them together correctly, and making some of our own innovations to make the game feel like our own. So there was a sense of urgency, but we had a lot of the ground work done through the previous ten years of work that had happened on League of Legends, that we were able to leverage to help us bring TFT to the market really fast.
What would you say is the main difference between League of Legends players and Teamfight Tactics players? There are gonna be League players who think "I might as well try it out" but there also is a unique audience for TFT.
When we were building TFT, the core audience that we were targeting was the older League of Legends player, who may not be as interested in super high mechanical prowess and skill as the way to prove themself to be one of the best players. With TFT, I think it wants you to think more strategically, and not be so focused on being a mechanical god. It's not about clicking fast, and putting key inputs very quickly in the right sequence. It's about thinking and strategizing, buying champions and adapting your plan as the game goes long and you're presented with either champions or items that should dictate where you want to go.
Are the models the same models present in League of Legends?
The exact same.
Season 2 of Teamfight Tactics saw many changes. What was the hardest one, you think, that players had to adapt to?
I think the hardest one was probably just visual identification of champions. In season 1, for the most part it was all base skins, things players were already very familiar with. All the champions looked like themselves, with some exceptions like Vayne, who was Arclight, Graves was more pirate-y, same thing with Miss Fortune. But with season 2 we explored more of the skin lines that we created over many years. You look at a skin line like Infernal, and it's cool, but at a very quick glance it's really hard to tell Varus apart from Zyra, apart from any of the skinny, humanoid fire champions.
Our skin lines have been designed over the years so when you look at the splash art you can be like: "Oh that's Infernal!", or whatever skin line it is. They're identified in a grouping. But it was never intended as a player being able to make a split-second gameplay decision, if they want to buy this champion like in TFT. It was a shop cart piece of UI. It's a thing that we need to solve for the future, because we want to use our skin lines for many of our sets, going into the future.
So I think that was the hardest thing. I think we kept a lot of the foundation for TFT the same. Champions used the abilities that they know, placement on the board is the same—we made it bigger but it's still 'pick up a unit, put them down, they attack', items still combine. There weren't too many core system changes that we made, so it was still pretty true to TFT.
"One of the things we want to do (...) is bring back more champions that players are familiar with, and bring back more traits and origins that players know."
Do you think the changes were too rigorous? Many players had to basically re-learn the game.
So, I think that with set 2 we wanted to swing for the fences and take the largest swing we thought we could possibly ever take with TFT, to see if players would have an appetite for the amount of changes that we were thinking of with set rollovers. We've seen that it was probably just a little bit too far.
So for set 3, one of the things we want to do, now that we have two sets worth of content, is bring back more champions that players are familiar with, and bring back more traits and origins that players know. So like, make Assassins, Gunslingers and Void things that players may see again. Bring back champions that may have been seen in set 1 but not in set 2, like Cho'Gath, bring him back and have him cast his Q just like in set 1, so that players don't have to do as much reloading.
And honestly, the more you play TFT, the more pieces of it will feel familiar. Even if they were never seen side by side together in a set before. I think we made a lot of change—generally we saw players really enjoy it, after they got past the first game of "holy sh*t, they've changed a lot", but then we've seen people be pretty happy with the changes overall.
What new champion on the TFT roster are you having a lot of fun with?
That's a good one. I'm gonna cheat and say two. I think Nocturne, when you get Blademaster Nocturne, and having him go full Beyblade with four Blademasters and also give him a [Guinsoo's] Rageblade so he's just spinning constantly, I think that's pretty fun. But I think Kha'Zix is also just super satisfying to watch. When you give him a Seraph's [Embrace], so he's just stealth constantly, running around the board and critting people for sh*tloads of damage. That's one of the more satisfying ones. Or at least one that I find really, really fun.
If you could add any one champion to TFT, which one would it be and why?
Ooh that's hard. We have so many champions.
When is True Damage coming?!
Oh yeah that's a great idea! Maybe someday we do like a battle of the bands, with Pentakill, True Damage and K/DA. We have to make a few more music groups to be able to do that, but that'd be freaking hype.
But let's see, who would the best champion be... God that is so hard. I think the type of champion that excels really well in the game are champions that we refer to as 'high spectacle'. Think of Draven from set 1, when you get him in the corner and he starts to get his bouncing axes off and you just watch him taking people down in one shot. The fight starts and there's this one champion that starts going off and keeps going, and that's your hyper carry. Champions that add a bunch of tension in the game.
If I think of Summoner's Rift, I think of champions like Urgot. When he hits a champion with his ultimate, and you're just waiting for him to pull them in once they get below the health threshold. I think it would be really cool to get moments like that, where you're just waiting for this timebomb to go off. So I guess I'd say Urgot would be one I'd like to see.
And if you could remove any one champion from the current roster?
It's fair if you say "no one"!
Yeah, everything's perfect, everything is absolutely perfect! [Laughs] I think players would probably answer things like Zed or Singed, because they're strong. But I think it's important that we have strong champions that have really, really high moments that players get excited about. I think champions like Ivern, who doesn't really add too much—he's ranged, which is kind of good. But he just shields.
Shields have a place in the game, but I think it's pretty boring. With Thresh it's an AoE shield. You make him a front liner, he kind of plays like a tank because he's a Warden... He has a bit more of a place. Ivern just is just this weird "Hey he unlocks Druids", he heals a lot and casts shields, he stops people from dying. He has a place, but it's not something I'm super excited about.
What can you tell us about what we can expect for TFT in the upcoming months?
Hm, what can I say? I think you can expect to see us adding more champions to the game, much like we did during set 1. We've already shown Lucian, Senna and Amumu, who are on the PBE. They're coming out really soon. There's just more champions that are coming, expanding the roster and the amount of viable strategies within TFT.
From the balance side, we want to make more of what we call 'vertical comps'. Going for like, six or even full nine unit unlocks for certain traits. Make that feel powerful and feel really exciting. Right now a lot of them feel kind of underwhelming. When you think of Inferno, when you think of Ranger or Berserker, they're strong, but they don't really feel like I can go all-in and really win a game, or that they feel as satisfying as Blademaster or Gunslinger from set 1. They're just ok. We want to make those investments make feel really good for players. So you can expect to see that.
Beyond that, we're actually gonna be trying to slow things down, so that the last two months of the set players can really start to develop their strategies and don't have to worry about what we are going to balance next, as we get ready for set 3 which will be another large refresh for the game.
Alright for the final question: which new project of Riot Games are you most excited about?
Honestly, probably Arcane. I was never much of a strategy game player. For [Runeterra], the game looks amazing, and I've heard from card game players that they really, really like it. But I'm not personally super excited about it. I think Ares is really cool but I suck at shooters, so I probably wouldn't be good at that one. But Arcane, I think, is the first real foray into an alternate form for us to enjoy the League universe that isn't a game. It's so exciting. The artistic execution, the storyline... I've only seen teasers of it, as a Rioter, but for us to go on a journey with players to discover more of the backstory of the champions we have invested in for so many years... Yeah. Arcane would be the one, pretty solidly.
Storyteller by heart. If something is competitive, I am interested in it.