‘League of Legends’ Developer Gears Up for Next Big Game (EXCLUSIVE)

The goal for Riot Games moving forward is to release a handful of big games every decade.

Nine years after launching international mega-hit “League of Legends,” the company behind the most played PC game in history is planning its next creations. Each of which, Riot Games’ co-founder Marc Merrill told Variety, will be the same sort of fan-driven ultra niche title that made its initial game such a spectacular success.

Just what Riot Games second title will be, though, remains a mystery.

“It’s an exciting time for us as a company,” Merrill said. “We’re emerging from being the ‘League of Legends’ company to whatever it will be in the future. We’ve been working for such a long period of time on so many things.”

That Tweet
Merrill ignited a firestorm of speculation and excitement last month when he tweeted a single question: “Should we build an MMO?”

Coming from one of the creators of “League of Legends,” the tweet about a possible massively multiplayer online game caused a stir both among fans of the company and its game as well as internally among the 2,500 or so employees.

The tweet was a bit controversial internally,” Merrill said. “Absolutely there was some risk, we may never deliver on that question, on the other hand, it is so validating and exciting to have  players’ minds focused on what could come.”

Shortly after the tweet, Merrill told Variety that he was just joking around when he asked that question. But it turns out, that’s not entirely accurate.

“The reality at Riot is that we are exploring lots of different games,” Merrill said this week. “We have a whole bunch of RND teams exploring different opportunities that we think would resonate with players.”

When Riot Games released an interactive map last month allowing players to further explore the lore and fiction behind “League of Legends” and its many characters, Merrill saw a chance to expand that fan discussion beyond the company’s one existing game.

“It felt like an opportune time to check the pulse of the community,” he said. “To ask, ‘What do you think about this? Should we do this or not?’ It was a surprise to hear so many people interested and passionate about the idea.”

When asked if Riot Games is working on a massively multiplayer online game, Merrill side-stepped answering.

“I’m not going to answer that directly,” he said. “The question that is really interesting and relevant is, ‘What does the future of MMOs look like?’ I think we have a view, others have a view, players have a view. ‘World of Warcraft’ continues to be a dominating game. There is a really good argument that going head-to-head with ‘WoW’ may not be the best move, but who knows. We’re exploring a lot of stuff, thinking about a lot of stuff.”

Putting the S in Riot Games
“In our view the ‘S’ in Riot Games is aspirational,” Merrill said, laughing.

That may be a bit of an internal joke, but it’s also sort of true. Riot Games launched “League of Legends” in 2009 and in the nearly 10 years since hasn’t done much more than listen to players and expand that single game. Sure, Riot released a board game and a slew of mini-games, but Merrill dismissed those, saying they don’t really represent Riot Game’s second title.

That aspirational “S” sounds like it could be changing. Last year, Merrill and fellow co-founder Brandon Beck announced that they were stepping away from their management roles to get more involved active game development. While Merrill said the move isn’t tied to the push for more big games from Riot Games, it certainly is going to impact whatever it is the company publishes next. The two now spend their time as sort of Riot Games’ free agents, roaming across the different product teams and popping in to help when it makes sense.

“Our teams know when they need us, and they ask us to come in to help them with different challenges, to get our perspective or feedback,” he said. “That’s often times how we’re utilized. When something is new, we’re not looking to add a lot more.”

The move was more of an extension of how the company has been evolving, Merrill added.

“Having an incredible leadership team that could take over the day-to-day operations means that we can be closer to our product, closer to what we love to do, which is drive things that would excite players,” he said. “Now we have the luxury to focus our time. That’s huge for us personally. We love to do it. It’s a labor of love .”

From Merrill’s perspective the nine years spent building out “League of Legends,” its expansive character roster and rich history was simply step one of Riot Games’ metamorphosis . Now the developer is entering step two. This latest step can trace its roots more than five years back when the company began expanding its research and development teams to start testing out new game concepts. Today those teams count in the hundreds. (Merrill declined to say specifically how many of its 2,500 employees are researching potential new titles.)

“We are exploring a lot of different things and have been for years,” he said. “We don’t talk about that historically.”

What Merrill would say about those teams is that they’re not restricted by much.

“There is no imperative that we just do things in the ‘League of Legends’ universe,” he said. “We need to develop games that will resonate with a particular audience and focus on the gameplay first, then the IP needs to support that game.”

Merrill added that whatever the next game is it will likely be, like “League of Legends,” hyper-focused on a particular niche, a particular player, and a particular playstyle.

“Like with ‘League of Legends’ we’re not going to try and please everyone or do things even oriented to a mass market,” he said. “We think of ‘League of Legends’ as a niche market that’s really focused.”

Merrill said that a big part of how the company lands on what to create is by considering and valuing a player’s time.

“There are lots of games people buy and play on the app store, steam library, on consoles,” he said. “That creates a lot of interesting questions and challenges, but we focus on what would be worth someone’s time. That’s the only type of game we want to create: games with longevity — that’s worth your time.”

He added that Riot is “looking at anything you would imagine a pretty hardcore gamer would say, ‘I wish Riot would make an X game.’ We’ve either looked at it or are actively working on it. Who knows if it will see the light of day.

“We are entirely designed by the audience we try to serve, we will do anything on any platform, any media, to hyper-serve that niche audience well, because more than a game, for us it is about audience focus.”

The goal for Riot Games moving forward is to release a handful of big games every decade, he said. Imagine Riot Games as a developer plotted out as a single circle: “League of Legends.” Over time, as Riot adds new games, those new circles — one each for a game — will form a Venn diagram of overlapping interests, Merrill said. The commonality, beyond being games created by Riot, is that each of those titles will have a player base that has a close relationship with its developer. That relationship and Riot’s ability to co-create and expand its games by listening to players, not just being the creators of “League of Legends” is what Merrill hopes will define Riot Games in five years.

“League of Legends”
While Riot Games is certainly signally new big creations coming, that doesn’t mean the massive company has lost interest in “League of Legends.” Far from it.

“Part of why we are the largest game company in history to only have one game is because of our focus,” Merrill said. “We have an obligation to our fans. If we were to divert our talent to other teams, we wouldn’t live up to that obligation. That’s why we grew the company.”

Those many hires over the past nine years were for a mix of reasons including building up the company’s development capabilities so Riot could incubate innovative new ideas without taking away from continuing development on “League of Legends.”

That devotion to players is a defining point of the company’s philosophy.

“It is drilled into [our employees] that player focus is the thing we aspire to be our north star,” Merrill said. “That’s why we hire gamers and only gamers because the difference between a great decision and a terrible one is how it relates to players.”

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