League of Legends is a competitive game. We’ve seen dozens of changes throughout the game’s history, but one thing has remained consistent: you are always battling other champions in an arena. That arena can be the Shuriman desert, the Howling Abyss, or a darkened Rift against the doom bots of doom, but it’s you versus other champions with minimal narrative.
Maybe it’s time to change that. Two other big games, Dota 2 and Overwatch, have both rolled out cooperative campaigns recently, to varying degrees of success. Riot are smart enough to notice the trends, and they certainly have the tools in their arsenal to make a campaign. In fact, it might just solve some of their storytelling woes.
Scoping out the competition
Let’s start by looking at those other recent cooperative campaigns. First of all there was Overwatch: Uprising. Players took control of one of four heroes - Torbjorn, Tracer, Mercy or Reinhardt - and fought through an isolated campaign against the Null Sector omnics on a retooled King’s Row map.
Uprising was clever in that it used a lot of existing assets while introducing tons of new content. It didn’t require a new map: a simple repurposing of King’s Row would do. There were a few new enemy types, but friendly robots Bastion and Orisa served as bosses (with a new skin to make them look appropriately Null Sector, of course). It was relatively small in scope, as well. If Overwatch was a co-op game, Uprising would be the tutorial level. It told a small story of Overwatch saving the day, and it told it well. Throwing in new Overwatch and Blackwatch skins, voice lines, and an all-heroes challenge mode was icing on the cake.
Meanwhile, Act 1 of Dota 2's Siltbreaker Chronicles debuted recently. It provides a hardcore raid-style co-operative challenge, some new fiction, and a bunch of cosmetic rewards. Unlike Overwatch: Uprising, it isn't free: it costs $10 for the International 2017 Battle Pass, which includes the Siltbreaker Chronicles and loads of other new content. All of this feeds into the esports ecosystem and the International 2017 prize pool.
Lore in League
So far, the lore in League of Legends is all in its own realm on the Universe page, where you can peruse short stories and illustrations all about your favorite champions and the world they live in. Very little of this is in game. In fact, much of what is in game is speculative.
Garen and Katarina have interactions with each other, but the lore team can’t confirm whether they’ve actually met. Xayah curses Ahri as a race traitor, but they may not have met, and if they did, maybe they’d warm up to each other. Even seemingly canon out of game interactions, like Ezreal and Lux’s courtship - confirmed through an illustration in the Aatrox teaser - is gone now. Lux mocks Ezreal, joking that she’s never even met him before.
Merging the game and the lore would be tough, but it could solve a lot of these problems. We could escort Xayah and Rakan on a freedom fighting mission, and actually control them in action. Yasuo’s been on the run since his release, and we know that he often gets into scraps. What’s a day in his life like? We’ve heard so much of Noxian might, but we don’t have a lot of depictions of what that’s like that registers in a visceral sense. Some of these stories would fall flat in prose, but a cooperative campaign could make them sing.
Uprising proves that you don’t need to come up with a Hollywood style script or even a TV season length story—players react well to contained little stories that give them lore (and aesthetic goodies don’t hurt either).
Barriers and drawbacks
Of course, it’s not as easy as dragging some champions into the Rift, writing a few lines of dialogue, and calling it a day. Localization is a major problem. For every line of written dialogue, you need to get every voice actor for every language in the studio. It’s probably why Wild Magic, the recent Xayah and Rakan cinematic, doesn’t have any dialogue.
Not only do you need to wrangle a posse of voice actors, but you also need assets. Maps, monsters, and so on can add up to a lot of work.
The real hurdle that’s probably preventing Riot from rolling out a cooperative campaign any time soon? The studio are notorious perfectionists who are very, very careful about what they release. This is the company that had several meetings about whether the revamped, back from the dead Gangplank should have a hat or not. Needless to say, preparing and launching a single player campaign would probably take far more than worrying about a champion’s wardrobe. Even with an Uprising style story, there’d probably be a lot on the line for the company, and they’d want to make sure it was absolutely perfect.
This perfectionism has led to some great content, but it’s probably the biggest reason we won’t see co-op from Riot anytime soon. We can definitely hope that the success of co-op modes in other competitive games breeds inspiration at Riot to do something similar. Not only does it open up new avenues for the studio, it might just solve some of the struggles they’ve been having with lore and storytelling.