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League of Legends is a hardcore competitive multiplayer game, but it also has a rich back story and 118 unique characters, all with their own lore. How does Riot Games manage to walk the fine line between fierce competition and enriching narrative? At a recent GDC talk, Christina Norman, Game Designer and Writer for Riot, revealed various lessons and techniques about embedding a strong narrative into multiplayer competitive games.

Ground Rules

Before establishing her techniques and tips, Norman made sure to clarify two common misconceptions: story does not have to disrupt gameplay, and players will care about stories if you tell the rights ones. To achieve this goal, writers must follow four ground rules:

  • Story should never be irritating. Players need to be able to opt in.
  • Multiplayer comes first. Story should not pause or delay gameplay.
  • Story should not cause distractions. In a fierce battle, distractions can kill.
  • Story should not create conflicting goals. Rather, narrative should support strong team play, not undermine it.


Ambient NPC Voice-over

A common storytelling technique in single-player games, Norman explained, NPC voice-over can enrich a setting and tone, illuminate characterization, and provide valuable narrative information to players. At the same time, this technique can prove challenging in multiplayer environments. Scripted NPC dialogue can clash tonally with the game. NPCs could also distract players from the game or simply provide narration with no relevance to actual gameplay.

Riot addressed these concerns in their own work with the Shopkeepers in Howling Abyss. The vendor's dialogue takes place in a non-combat area, ensuring it never interrupts gameplay. The vendor will also comment specifically on player purchases, validating their gameplay decisions. Likewise, the shopkeeper will occasionally comment specifically on individual characters. Calling out Vi's sister, for example, provides interesting backstory in the character, and in this case, triggered a huge amount of player theory-crafting and discussion all over the internet.

HowlingAbyss SS161

Player-Character Voice-over

PC voice-over, as Norman described, faces many of the same benefits and challenges as ambient NPC voice-over. In this case, getting over those hurdles demands narrative that refers to and embraces gameplay. Rochelle from Left 4 Dead 2 is Norman's shining example of success. When disabled, Rochelle (and the rest of the characters) will call out for help, "Can somebody help me? Damsel in distress over here." The back and forth conversations, pertinent to game events, build relationships between the characters and between players. "The player and the character are completely aligned," Norman described.

Narrative Objectives

Frodo Baggins stands in as the prime example of a narrative objective. The little Hobbit has a goal: toss a ring into a volcano. The journey, beset with obstacles, established the narrative itself. Can we use in-game objectives like this, Norman asks, to improve multiplayer game storytelling? The initial problems, she explains, is that objective quests can feel repetitive, and when they are assigned to just one player, these narrative objectives can undermine team play.

Riot walked a fine line when creating narrative objectives in League of Legends, most notably the individualized hunts between Kha'zix and Rengar. If both characters are in the same match, they will each receive a quest to kill the other first. As Norman describes, this in-game quest allowed players to experience a narrative resolution through gameplay. Although this gave individual players a goal separate from their team, Riot found teams got involved in order to reap the benefits of success. Perhaps the biggest failing Norman described is rarity of the event, as very few players ever see, let alone have, an opportunity to accomplish this in-game side quest.

Khazix vs rengar

Story Events

Lastly, Norman offered story events as unique, albeit rare, opportunities for storytelling. These global events, such as World of Warcraft's Gates of Ahn'Qiraj event, bring players together under a narrative arc. In the case of League of Legends, the Freljord event created a narrative backdrop to encourage participation in the launch of the Howling Abyss. Of those who won ten games on the map during the length of the event, Norman revealed, 85% participated in the optional faction event. Likewise, Riot saw a significant increase in narrative retention after the event, with 64% of questioned players more likely to know which champions come from which region in League of Legends lore.

Despite common assumptions, Norman believes there are huge opportunities for game designers to enrich their multiplayer competitive games with powerful storytelling. Norman concluded her talk with several final lessons:

  • Tell stories in game you know players will love.
  • Let players progress narrative through gameplay.
  • Let players express themselves.
  • Bring in new techniques to competitive play.
  • Let gameplay inspire your stories.

So all you League of Legends players out there, how well do you think Riot incorporates story into the multiplayer space?

Interested in the full talk? You can find it here. You can also follow Christina Norman on Twitter via @truffle.

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