League of Legends recently reached a total of 15 million registered players. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that all of those players have played their matches on just two different maps, one made specifically for Defense of the Ancients-style 5v5 play, and one made for 3v3 combat (there are a few other maps in the game, but they're used for training, not full game modes).
That's about to change. Last week, Riot Games invited Joystiq over to its headquarters in Santa Monica, California, to see a brand new game mode for the online competitive title. It's coming along with what Senior Producer Travis George calls "the biggest update we've ever made for League of Legends," a new content release subtitled Dominion.
Dominion is a brand new gametype and is especially notable because all of the games in the growing DotA (or MOBA) genre have basically used the same premise: two armies of minions fight with equal strength across a series of parallel lanes, and player champions fight minions and each other to gain ground and win the battle. Dominion, however, is a brand new set of rules, combining elements of the DotA genre with scoring, much more akin to EA's Battlefield games or Call of Duty's Domination mode.
Before you ask (and if you're a big LoL fan, you probably will), Dominion is categorically not Magma Chamber, the long-awaited map-in-progress that has become Riot's Great Pumpkin. "Basically, we got Magma Chamber to a point where it wasn't what we wanted to do the most," says George. "We sat down and we said, what do we really want to add to League of Legends? Not only do we want to add a map, but we want to add a game style within the MOBA genre that's going to continue to innovate in the space."
Dominion takes place on a map called The Crystal Scar, an old mining town named Kalamanda that's a little more populated and active than the standard Summoner's Rift map. Instead of the three lanes across the map, there's a circle with five different capture points placed around it, and a series of jungle paths running through the center. The goal is to hold down capture points, which you can claim by standing on them and channeling a spell for a few seconds (the more channelers, the faster it goes, and damage will interrupt the process). This drains away "nexus health" from the other team. When one team is completely out of nexus health, the game is over.
Just that basic change in gameplay means a lot in terms of how the game feels. Riot is aiming for Dominion maps to take only about 18-25 minutes to play, as compared to the 45-60 minutes of Summoner's Rift. That shorter length has more intensity in it. There's no "laning" phase at all -- all characters start with about 1375 gold and three levels of points, gold from minions and kills comes much faster, and the general effect is that instead of counting on one side for safety and attacking the other, you're always fighting and defending points on both sides (and in the middle, if you spread out too much). Minions spawn from the control points when you grab them, so nabbing a point will gave you a wave of minions to fight with.
In the middle of the map are two different relics that can simply be picked up with a channeled spell (they take the place of the Baron buff, though they're a little easier to get, obviously). In the jungle lanes, there are also a few other pickups. "Speed shrines" can just be walked over to give your champion a boost of speed, and health pickups will grant you a few bars of health, scaling up to more as the game goes on.
The whole thing makes for very fast, very tactical gameplay. You might be heading out to a capture point from the spawn when the other team grabs it. Very often, you can go for a kill, a tower, or a buff, and it's up to you to decide what would help best. Controlled points do serve as defenses -- I thought they hit a little weaker than the Summoner's Rift towers, but Riot told me they could make the difference in a fight, so it's almost always best to try and defend on a point you hold.
Bushes aren't quite as important (the whole circle is always revealed for both teams, meaning wards and map control will happen in the center jungle instead), as there are lots of little loops, nooks and crannies to hide in and feint around. Dodging in the jungle lets you add a few seconds to your pursuers' routes, maybe giving your teammate at a faraway control point just enough time to grab it.
All of the game's champions will be available right away in Dominion ("That was the goal from the beginning," says lead designer Richard Hough), with all of the same spells they'll have in Summoner's Rift. The responsibility for balance, then, will fall mostly on the game's items -- some items aren't available to play with in Dominion, and vice versa.
Madred's Razor, for example, is one popular item that's locked out for Dominion. "There's much less of a focus on the laning phase in Dominion," says George, "and furthermore the concept of how the jungle works is much different. There aren't really neutral creeps, where Madred's is really helpful." One of the new weapons is called Ionic Spark. It adds health and attack speed, as well as a proc that does a chain lightning attack to a few nearby enemies.
Summoner spells are another place where balance has taken precedent: neither Teleport nor Fortify will be available in Dominion. In their places are Promote, which is an old spell from early in the game that will beef up an enemy minion to make it super, and Garrison, which will either buff one of your own towers with extra attack speed and damage, or nerf an enemy tower so you can claim it more easily.
Because there's so much going on, the UI for Dominion is significantly different. "Kill callouts" have been moved from the overhead text on the screen to a graphical update on the right side, another tweak more akin to a first-person shooter. "The great feature about that," says Hough, "is it's instantaneous feedback. Unlike what's on the server right now, kills won't queue up -- you'll immediately get to see what's going on. It also displays who's assisted for those kills." There's also more information that gets displayed right on your character -- you'll see kills floating over your head with damage and healing, and when you earn points for your new personal score those points will show up there as well.
That one requires some explanation: "The personal score was really created to de-emphasize the importance of a bloodthirst, or racking up a Kills/Deaths/Assists score," says Hough. "We've all played the game with the guy who's more interested in kills than winning the game. And so the goal of the personal scoring system is to reward you for contributions, including killing players, that benefit the overall team objective." Players will get personal points for doing things like picking up health, defending objectives, or even grabbing buffs, and presumably there's an IP reward of some kind for top scores at the end of the match.
There are also team "quests" that will pop up during gameplay, encouraging your team to attack or defend a certain point. Complete the team quest when it pops up on the screen, and your team will knock points off the enemy's nexus health total, as well as pick up a team-wide buff.
Riot has also implemented a new scoreboard screen. The level itself has lots of new "visual technology" (the starting area is actually on a separate platform for the first few seconds of the match, eventually opening up to the rest of the map after a walkway moves into place), and some of the updates, including the new kill notifications, will be brought back into Summoner's Rift. Some things won't make it back yet. The personal score is a Dominion-only feature to start with, as are the Garrison and Promote spells.
"We're going to take the same approach to a lot of things that we've done in Dominion and a lot of things we do," says George, "which is if we see something that might make sense to transfer over, we will. Obvious things like the scoreboard, the kill callouts and stuff, we're going to transfer over immediately. But we'll take the same approach we do with everything, and if it's working really well and we think it has a positive overall affect on the game, we may move it over."
Dominion will be missing a few things at the start: Ranked play, for one (though there will likely be both Normal and Draft versions), and bot play of any kind. Riot says that both are possibilities going forward, but won't be in when the new mode launches. Dominion itself is still a work-in-progress -- the company plans to show it off at both PAX and Gamescom later this year, so it won't be available to the public until at least after that.
Dominion certainly turns the genre on its head, in a way that retains the elements that are now standard, and tweaks the gameplay in brand new ways. Riot promised players that it would do something "surprising," and it wanted to bring something new to the genre, so Dominion seems destined to enable both goals. "The goal is to make a complementary experience in some respects," says Hough. "So you play a couple of fast high intensity games here, and then you want something larger, more strategic, you can go back to Summoner's Rift."
George says the goal isn't to make players choose between the two modes, but to provide two different options for players. "This isn't better or worse than Summoner's Rift -- it's different, and fun, and maybe more fun for a lot of people."
And that's Riot's real goal with Dominion. The DotA genre has basically been around since the StarCraft level that inspired the Warcraft 3 mod, and Dominion represents a new way to experience that original idea. "We look at ourselves as innovators within the genre," says George, "and this was the way we wanted to move the product to differentiate ourselves even further from all the traditional MOBA games that are going to enter the space."