Can Riot get to the root of League of Legends' plants problem?

League of Legends is a growing, organic game—which makes the ‘plants’ problem a bit of an ironic one. The game is constantly patched and updated, and usually this is considered to be a good thing. Sion went from a badly-aged green zombie with a clunky kit to a well-designed and thematically cool juggernaut of war who found a place in the competitive meta. Old champions get brushed up to be more polished and look sharp, new voice lines are recorded, and even the map itself has been overhauled, given a fresh coat of paint, and cleaned up to look like a game that can stand out in 2016.

These changes are more than just aesthetic: new mechanical changes are added regularly. Most recent was the tower changes that made the top/bottom lane swap impractical. Another was the dragon change that turned the map objective into a RNG-controlled boss that could emerge as one of four elemental variants. These changes are sprinkled throughout the season, with two main clusters of big evolutions: the mid-season and the pre-season. Now that Worlds is wrapping up, we’re heading into the pre-season, and that means that there big changes to come. Among them is the jungle plants system, but what should be a natural-feeling change is causing quite a furore. The 'plants debate' exposes some of the problems between Riot and the community, and it can easily branch out into other discussions.

What are plants, anyway? 

Plants were originally introduced in the Road to Preseason update, and then expanded on in a post the next day. The TL:DR is that plants are a random spawn of small, single-use powerups that bring dynamic effects to the board. One plant provides vision, another gives a short jump, and one explodes into health packs. The idea is that plants can shake the jungle up and make things a little more interesting, while forcing players to think on their feet around a dynamic map.

The original feedback from fans was uncertain, with a few phrases that popped up again and again: “this feels like a gimmick.” “This feels forced.” “This feels random.”

There was more focused feedback beneath the kneejerk reaction: each clip showed a player who played badly and should have been punished escaping their fate thanks to a plant. A Jayce is chased down by a Graves in the jungle - he likely hasn’t warded and dove too deep and greedily to chase a kill. Thanks to a plant, he escapes. A Gnar in top lane has hung around too long, and Karthus is ulting. Luckily, a Honeyfruit lets him heal through the damage and deny Karthus that gold. The vision plant allows a Lee Sin who hasn’t warded the dragon objective to see that Nunu is attempting to steal it and pick up a kill. These players, without plants, would have failed. Plants allow them to succeed according to a random bonus.

Another issue? Plants favour ranged characters, shoving melee characters out by being able to use their range to snipe the plant objectives from afar. Melee characters are often buried under an avalanche of small advantages granted to their ranged competitors, and this is just another one.

A matter of trust

Okay, so, Riot have introduced all kinds of systems, and the preseason is a time for experimentation. So, what’s the issue? The problem is that players often do not trust Riot to walk an idea back. There’s a perception that Riot will sit on an idea and stubbornly let it wither, staring the community down and daring them to go play Overwatch instead. This perception isn’t necessarily true, but in a way, it doesn’t matter. As popular TV talk show therapists like to say, perception is reality, and Riot has to deal with the fact that their fans see them as tyrants who are willing to die on the smallest of hills.

Sure, the controversial dynamic queue system got rolled back in favour of the more competitive solo queue... but it took a year of protests, memes, jokes, and listless sobbing. Even something so small as Twitch’s ult name sat for a long time as the inferior Rat-a-Tat-Tat, as fans bemoaned the loss of the superior Spray and Pray. Obviously, Riot will and has compromised before (just look at Fiora’s face if you’re in doubt), but the perception is that they will dig their heels in. As such, the fanbase quivers in fear that Season 7 will be dominated by plants until Season 8 rolls around and they’re finally uprooted. That’s why there’s such an outcry over such a temporary measure - there’s the fear that at any time it’ll become permanent, with a minimum of communication.

Worlds 2016

Did you miss the amazing semifinal between ROX and SKT last weekend? Here's Cassandra's writeup.

What’s the solution? 

Riot once tested some insane items in a custom game mode called Black Market Brawlers. One of them let you assume the form of another champion, so a support roaming into your lane would suddenly turn into a fed LeBlanc, hungering for a double kill. People still bring Black Market Brawler’s items up today wistfully. Would they do that if these items had been dropped during the preseason?

Why do I bring this up? Riot has been adamant that plants have tested very well internally, making the game a blast and adding new depths of strategy. They admit that they may be wrong, but they suggest that the players are determined to hate plants, and so they won’t give them a fair shake. Maybe a custom game mode would help players get their heads around these new concepts, like blending cauliflower into brownies to get a good mix of fun and new nutritional concepts into the game.

Riot is aware that they need to build trust with the community, and say that they intend to do that by making good stuff. They clearly have some faith in plants, as they’re still testing the system. The question is less whether plants are a good mechanic, and more whether players are willing to trust Riot with experimental changes. The fate of plants could sway the playerbase one way or another; I’ll be watching the patch notes on plants with growing interest.