What esports fans need to see from Riot Games to learn to love and trust game devs again

21:00, 17 May 2020

It seems lately that despite the concerns the competitive community has had with VALORANT, every update Riot Games post on their dev blog and every patch they release has been received by overwhelmingly positive feedback. This pattern of promise, potential, and some letdowns along the way is very familiar - even down to the mantra of “No I swear, this time the developers really care! She’s not like other girls!” For example, in just the last few days, VALORANT’s latest big patch on May 12 was almost universally lauded on reddit and twitter among pros and casuals alike, for addressing every single piece of feedback the community had given them, methodically and with care.
 

And yet, the very next day, there is a pressing matter regarding queues to be addressed:

The missing pieces in VALORANT’s beta

The three most significant complaints with VALORANT as of late are as follows: 

  • The severe peeker’s advantage that persists despite Riot’s promises to minimise this better than any other developer

  • The philosophy conflict of Riot insisting to the community’s disagreement that high level 5 stacks should be allowed to queue into the same games as solo queue players

  • FPS drops related to certain maps and abilities that seem to only get worse with every patch, with a promise of a fix pushed back with every dev update.

But it’s a beta, surely this isn't cause for concern just yet, right? They have time and resources to fix these issues and they seem to be listening to the community, and everything else seems to be going so swimmingly...
 

The ghosts of release cycles past

To see where VALORANT could end up, we need only look to games from Christmas Past - we’ve seen this pattern before, we’ve seen these shadows of things that have been. When Apex Legends had just dropped with no beta or pre-release, and all it was was just a huge content day filled with streamers and raw gameplay, everyone applauded their game design and approach to marketing. Even after release, the general impression among gamers who had been burned by dev updates from games before was that this time, they would be treated right. For example, the same hyper-competitive Mendo here shares his positive outlook on the dev’s approach to support for high-refresh rate gamers.

Yet we know now that the wave of FPS and BR players that became disillusioned with Fortnite to move to Apex Legends, and disillusioned with Apex to now dabble in Call of Duty: Warzone are stuck in a cycle of being disappointed and waiting until the next fresh thing arrives.

Similarly, when Overwatch was in its closed beta, many esports personalities and disgruntled ex-pros from previous games were quick to praise how unique, cool and different to the games that burned them before Overwatch was, to the point that the late video game pundit TotalBiscuit was prompted to tweet that he was not, in fact, paid to like the game.

And Clockwork, a top Team Fortress 2 player who went on to play for a few pro Overwatch teams including the Houston Outlaws, had nothing but clear skies ahead in his vision for the game.

Since these honeymoon days, the esports communities for these games and so many others have soured, and disappointment with every other update feeds into a loss of faith that the next one will make a meaningful difference to the overall gameplay experience. Rainbow Six Siege comes to mind, despite having its “honeymoon phase” more than a year after its release, as does Fortnite, for which everyone lost faith in the competitive integrity and esports experience, as opposed to the core gameplay itself.

How Riot can break the cycle and keep the good faith of players

The early signs of issues in VALORANT’s beta are indicative of a few patterns - first, that Riot makes large promises that seem too good to be true, until they are. We have seen this with their own admission in the latest few blog updates that the peeker’s advantage problem, as well as fps drops, are issues that they can fundamentally never “fix”, only mitigate to the best of their ability. This is a far cry from the bold promises of unprecedented solutions to these fundamental issues of competitive shooter gameplay that made the community think that Riot truly were head and shoulders above the competition, and may even craft solutions that could revolutionise the genre as a whole. 

We know now that at the end of the day, they are dealing with the same numbers that everyone else is, and possess no magic potion or wand to wave and make the bad lag go away. Is it successful marketing and PR to convince an entire audience that you are capable of wonders to get everyone hype for your game, only to have to roll back your promises week by week? Perhaps in the future Riot should focus on managing community expectations, because the most truly successful public communication they have had are those updates that actually do tick every box they physically can, like the one mentioned before.

This is the thing that Riot are genuinely doing very very well, just like the devs who received the positive press from the honeymoon phases of games past. The one and only sore thumb that currently sticks out is their philosophy towards stacks of 5 players queuing into solo queue players in the competitive mode. In the short time since the closed beta of VALORANT, this is the first time we have seen Riot put their foot down and simply disagree with the community regarding a fundamental design feature of the game. Many community figures, as shown in the tweet above, believe that solo queue and/or duo queue are necessary features for a true competitive mode, as playing a team-based game with a group of four strangers is an inherently different game and the skill required to do so is distinct from the skill required to play the game with and against a group of people who have practised with one another. 

In their latest update, Riot touched on these concerns, just like many of the other community concerns, but in this case stated: “If players have a group of teammates they perform well with, we don't want to discourage them and set a precedent that the real test of skill is in solo play”. The greatest detractors of this philosophy responded to it by pointing out that the existence of solo queue also implies the existence of a team queue. Professional scouts and the like would not necessarily only look at a player’s solo queue rank when assessing their aptitude when teamplay is so important to the game. Now the onus is on Riot to respond -- and regardless of if they step back and agree with the criticism or stand their ground and double down on their position, they will be setting a precedent with their actions that will shape their image in the eyes of the player base.

Images via Riot Games

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