Destructoid Interview: Riot Games on DotA trademark & LoL

[Editor’s Note: At the time of this article’s publishing, no genre term had solidified for the DotA style games yet. The “MOBA” term was around but disputed, and in the past few years it has gained some acceptance, but Dota 2 simply refers to the genre as Dota. The only thing that’s certain all these years later is that no matter what you call these types of games, they’re still growing in popularity after a decade of obsession, and are certainly here to stay. Don’t get caught up in the oddly placed “tower defense” labels.]

We’ve seen decades of RPGs, shooters, and action adventure games dominating the sales market. It’s rare that a genre emerges as a force to be reckoned with, and when that does happen (cough musical games cough) we all witness a tidal wave of sales and profits that slam the industry, leaving everyone else wishing they would have adapted sooner. With gamer statistics quickly changing again, Valve is banking on team based tower defense (TD) games being the wave of the future, and let’s face it: Valve isn’t wrong often.

Tower defense games have been around since the days of Rampart for the Atari, but it wasn’t until a decade ago when Blizzard fans started to become obsessed with them on heavily modded StarCraft and Warcraft real time strategy maps. Standing on the shoulders of previous giants, eventually one established dominance, and became even more popular than WC3 itself. Defense of the Ancients has gone from cult classic to currently having an estimated 14 to 22 million active monthly players across the world. With that many people, it’s arguable that Blizzard’s most popular game right now isn’t World of Warcraft, but instead a game they don’t even own.

We’ve seen iPhone and Facebook games catch on quick to these rapidly changing numbers, and you’ve no doubt played a few mild TD games in the past year casually, but what happens if a household name game company decides to jump in? Anticipating exactly this, both Riot Games and S2 Games rushed to take DotA to the next level in different paths, and just as the community felt comfortable that the future had been settled, Valve showed up late to the party and slammed its fist on the table by doing something no one expected. They hired the sole remaining developer of DotA, and then even tried to patent the name DotA.

The past month has been a whirlwind of anticipations and opinions, but the only thing that’s certain is that we’re about to see the tower defense genre take a big bite out of the games industry. To have Riot Games’ opinion on these matters I interviewed Steve “Pendragon” Mescon — a previous developer of DotA who went on to create League of Legends with others — about how they think the dice will roll. Hit the jump for the full interview, where I asked every relevant question I’ve seen asked, begged, and whined about online in the past few months.

LoL Akali

Thanks for this interview, and more importantly, thanks for being partially responsible for the tower defense craze that’s still gaining more and more fame and fans each month after all these years of updates. In my opinion, DotA styled tower defense games offer 5v5 strategy and excitement that no other form of online gaming can deliver.
The past few years of the DotA scene have been fascinating to watch as you and Riot Games brought League of Legends to online gaming, and S2 Games launched Heroes of Newerth. It’s refreshing to see game companies move so quickly with free updates for their community that turns a single game purchase into a multiplayer experience that changes and lasts for years without ever getting stale or costly.
Before we move on to League of Legends and current tower defense matters, let’s first take a look at the past. What do you think were Steve “Guinsoo” Feak’s most successful additions to the DotA mod in the past?

Steve “Pendragon” Mescon: If I had to choose two things, I’d say they would probably have to be the item combination system, and game modes. Adding tiers of items added a significant amount of depth to the DotA gameplay, and really made the game more interesting and exciting throughout the early, mid and late game, and the addition of modes such as allrandom went a long way towards retaining users that had varying play preferences, which really helped to grow the audience.

To help our readers get a better idea of what Riot Games is like, what’s the current size of your staff? Also, which career positions on your team are you planning on expanding over the next year?
Pendragon: We currently have more than 100 employees at the company spread over two offices – most are here in our Los Angeles office, which is our global headquarters, and there’s almost a dozen at our European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland. We are looking to hire new software engineers, new Web developers, customer service representatives and new artists to continue to develop and enhance League of Legends.
LoL Akali

Okay, let’s get to the crux of the tower defense (TD) community’s concerns. Even though gamers are able to play all of the popular TD games currently being updated each month, and there’s nothing limiting them to playing just one of these games, the mindset often seems to be that one of these TD games will “win” and the rest will fade and disappear. They think it’s like a modern day version of the battle between the NFL and AFL for the “official” football league, except that it’s currently a digital war for the tower defense throne. What are your thoughts on this? Is this mindset warranted or not?
Pendragon: There are benefits to currently being the most popular game in the genre, so we can see why people would want a clear-cut “winner”.  For example, League of Legends has been selected by the WCG for their Grand Finals and the ESL for their Major Series, which we think is partially because of our rapid growth and wide popularity.  However, as long as other developers in the space bring unique innovations to the table, multiple games can exist.
With Valve and their humongous budget hard at work with IceFrog on an official release of DotA, what will happen if fans’ hopes and worries become true? What does Riot Games plan to do if the majority of the TD community all migrates to Valve’s DotA after its launch? Would Riot Games change its current strategy and approach towards the TD community?
Pendragon: Having a developer of Valve’s caliber recognize the genre that we have been working in for years is exciting.  We are eager to see what innovations they can bring to the genre.  However, not knowing what their game will be it is hard to speculate on what will happen when it comes out. We just hope that they let the DotA community continue to dictate the future of the name because we believe the game belongs to the dozens of community members who contributed to DotA.

We’ve got some really amazing updates in the pipeline that will further change the way people play the game, continuing to evolve the genre. We think we’ve got some great content that will continue to attract new players and keep veterans returning for more for years to come.  We’re focused on continuing to provide the best possible game and experience to our users and believe that if we continue to keep doing what we have been doing, we will continue to have success.
LoL Garen

As someone who has followed professional competitions such as Asia Dota Championship, David Vs Goliath, Electronic Sports World Cup, and World Cyber Games, I definitely empathize with TD fans’ frustration that professional DotA competitions are continually over shadowed by FPS and Madden tournaments.

The intensely strategic and entertaining replay videos are out there, the Babe Ruth and Ali sized idols have come and gone, but the money still isn’t there to allow teams to play full-time and gain the attention they deserve. Riot Games is definitely leaping in the right direction by having League of Legends Season One offer $100,000 in player prizes. How long will Season One last for, and when will Season Two begin? 
Pendragon: We haven’t announced when the end of Season One will take place, but people can expect that it will run for months. We want as many people to get into Ranked Games and get onto the ladders as possible, and since you have to be at least level 30 to participate, we realize it will take some players some time to get the experience.

But you can definitely expect League of Legends and other games in this genre to gain in traction in the competitive gaming scene. As we mentioned, we’ve been selected by some of the top competitions, including the WCG Grand Finals taking place next month, and the ESL Major Series, to elevate the game to new competitive levels. We’ll also be holding smaller tournaments and events for our community to keep things fresh and give everyone a chance to win awesome prizes.

LoL Garen

Have fun and take a wild guess at when we’ll finally see a gaming championship of any multiplayer genre televised in the future. Pick a year!
Pendragon: A televised championship would be cool but honestly I don’t think it’s really necessary anymore. The Internet is so powerful and has the ability to reach millions of people and it’s where our audience is; in fact, we just had over 17,000 simultaneous viewers watching the League of Legends WCG USA Finals online and expect more viewers for the upcoming World Grand Finals.
Here’s another fun question. Your new Season One trailer was fucking awesome! Can we expect another badass cinematic video before the Season Two trailer? Keep ‘em coming!
Pendragon: Thanks for the feedback. That trailer was a lot of fun to work on because we were able to bring some of our favorite characters to life in ways we had never thought of before. There will be another trailer, but I won’t spill the beans on when that’s coming.
What content updates can we expect over the next six months? Any new maps? How many new characters, items, and costumes? Any changes or additions to gameplay? 
Pendragon: Yes, yes and yes. We roll out with new content about every two weeks – that includes Champions, items, skins and balance tweaks.  We’re also working on a new map, which we’ll be sharing more information on soon.

We’re also working on some more long-term League of Legends projects, but those things are still a secret. We’ll be sure to fill you in on those in the coming weeks and months as more information and assets become available.
LoL Malzahar

Do you ever plan on adding more gameplay modes? Or even a mode that just increases the difficulty of games, such as including “denies” or other small tactics of DotA that you dropped in LoL?
Pendragon: We are always thinking about gameplay options.  But we don’t plan on adding denies into the game – that was something we talked about in the game’s initial development but we felt that denies rewarded passive play, which wasn’t as exciting.  Gamers who have played League of Legends love the fact that we don’t have denies and are strongly in favor of us keeping our fast-paced play.  We’ve changed a lot of people’s minds on this topic and wouldn’t be surprised to see other games in the genre follow suit on many of the design ideas we’ve innovated.
What’s your stance on gameplay mods and interface mods?
Pendragon: We are big supporters of the mod community – after all, we started out as modders ourselves. We think some of the best content and freshest ideas come from the community, which is one reason why we regularly ask our community for feedback on our game and ways to make improvements.
Do you think “leaver” punishment and player rating balancing has been perfected yet? What about online communications with friends and game hosting connections? What areas do you think have already been nailed by you or other TD communities, and which do you see as still a work in progress?
Pendragon: Since we operate League of Legends as a service to our players and continually improve and refine the experience, we will definitely be adding features and making improvements to the product for a long time to come. For example we clearly didn’t stop improving the game when we launched, and we’ve made significant improvements to combat leavers already, but recognize that there is more work to be done.

LoL Malzahar

Regarding the recent news of Valve trying to patent the “DotA” trademark, Steve Feak recently commented that “I was aware that trademarking the name was possible, but originally I had no intention of filing for any DotA-related trademarks because DotA is owned by the community. DotA is a mod that many of people have contributed to, not a single person or development team like most typical games. As soon as you step away and create a new game, like we at Riot Games did with League of Legends, it’s no longer DotA. After all, DotA wouldn’t be where it is today without the many contributions the community has made over the years. Neither Pendragon, Riot Games nor I have any desire to dictate the future of DotA.” 
Pendragon: That is correct.  We welcome competition, but we think that there are legal and ethical questions here.  We always wanted to forge our own path with League of Legends because we strongly believe that “DotA” is and always should remain owned by the community and that it’s far bigger than one person.

You’ve also said that if you succeed in getting the DotA trademark, you’ll do nothing with it, which means not dictating the future of DotA could potentially be disastrous. With IceFrog working at Valve, if he stops updating the Warcraft 3 version of DotA, the community would be at a loss for who should take over, and the DotA WC3 scene could be hit with a dark ages, or even permanently disband. If you don’t plan on using the DotA name anyways, and there’s a strong possibility that the WC3 DotA community will crumble, then why fight for the trademark if you won’t even use it?

Pendragon: We don’t agree with the idea the game will disband. We think that the DotA community is one of the most creative and passionate communities.  There are many people who have and still are participating in the development of DotA.  Just as Guinsoo took over for Eul and IceFrog took over for Guinsoo, it seems likely that someone will take the reins and continue to lead development if they aren’t legally blocked from doing so.
Yes, but in the past it has always been a case of someone handing the crown over to another modder. This time — patent or not — it’s IceFrog boldly taking his crown with him to Valve. I’d be surprised if anyone tries to step up and continue updating WC3 DotA when it would clash against the choices and changelog that Valve’s “official” game would create under the guidance of IceFrog. Not to mention Blizzard’s outdated WC3 Battle.Net software is a pain to use for DotA.

LoL Olaf

Your defense in the past has been that “As soon as you step away and create a new game, like we at Riot Games did with League of Legends, it’s no longer DotA.” However, should IceFrog and Valve choose to change nothing in the conversion, then it still essentially would be DotA, and with more authenticity to its updates than the Heroes of Newerth clone can boast. If that were the case, then wouldn’t it deserve to use the DotA name?
PendragonDotA is tied to the Warcraft 3 engine – the looks, the graphics, the characters and the mechanics are all built on top of that engine.  However, even if Valve is exactly able to copy the mod that so many developers worked hard to create, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they should control the future of the name.  If a company aside from Bioware was able to duplicate Mass Effect exactly, that doesn’t then give them the right to take the name Mass Effect.  The difference is the DotA community never protected the name for themselves to prevent another company from using it.

It looks like the community — or Blizzard — should have protected themselves, because like it or not, the name is definitely up for grabs and is far too valuable to not fight for.

It’s good to see that, despite the gameplay and legal differences between you and your competitors, all parties involved still seem focused on the fun development of the TD community. It’s great to see game companies that love their communities so damn much. Do you think Blizzard missed out on a great opportunity? 
Pendragon: We have a lot of respect for Blizzard, and given their phenomenal success it’s hard to second guess any of their decisions or their commitment to their community.
Many players on Battle.Net feel as if Blizzard has habitually ignored their community, with a popular opinion being that “Blizzard doesn’t care about nonpaying customers.” With players needing to download extra applications to ban players, use bots to host a game, and use Web sites just to find available games to join, you can’t blame disgruntled DotA players for being frustrated at having to jump through so many hoops. Do you think the rise of LoL, HoN, and Valve’s DotA will cause Blizzard to finally go back and update the WC3 Battle.Net to the level that StarCraft II has seen?
Pendragon: I don’t want to speculate on that.
LoL Olaf

Blizzard doesn’t deserve all of the negative spotlight though. How do you feel about the TD community, which is notorious for being one of the least noob-friendly multiplayer circles that the game industry has ever known? Not to mention their quickness to abandon support for professional DotA teams after each of their few but inevitable tournament losses. What would you like to communicate to the entire TD community about their responsibility in all of this for the ensured success of the game genre in the future?
Pendragon: With League of Legends, we try to foster a friendlier community so that all players have a better experience.   We’re continually working on building up and improving the League of Legends and so far the results have been very positive and our users has appreciated our huge focus on creating a friendlier atmosphere. 

Okay, now for an easy question! Who is your current favorite LoL champion to play as?

Pendragon: Right now my favorite Champion is Master Yi. I’ve gotten 3 penta-kills with him!
Thanks so much for your time today. In closing, are there any future secrets you want to announce or hint at? Give our readers a new detail or sneak peak picture to drool over!

Pendragon: We think Valve is a great company, which is why their move to take control of the DotA name away from the DotA community is so puzzling.  However, we’re focusing our efforts on the upcoming new map and further improvements of League of Legends for all players and will continue to do so for years.

Okay, Dtoiders! Add your own opinions on these topics in the comments, and feel free to pose more questions of your own in case Destructoid can arrange a Valve, IceFrog, or S2 Games interview in the near future. And for the love of gaming gods, if you still haven’t tried a top tier tower defense game yet, then what more are you waiting for?! High resolution League of Legends concept art wallpapers can be found in the gallery. Enjoy!

Tom Fronczak