Riot exclusive: How TFT Set 5 is a launchpad for LoL autobattler's bright future - Dexerto
League of Legends

Riot exclusive: How TFT Set 5 is a launchpad for LoL autobattler’s bright future

Published: 29/Apr/2021 9:17

by Andrew Amos

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TFT Set 5 is not just a new expansion for League of Legends’ autobattler. Reckoning is the recognition of Riot’s ability to adapt and ultimately conquer the genre. Dexerto sat down with the developers of TFT to talk about how they’re using this as a launchpad to keep the game strong for the years to come.

It was January 2019 when Dota Auto Chess took the world by storm, and Riot took notice. 18 weeks was all it took for Riot to come up with Teamfight Tactics, their take on the new “autobattler” genre rising up.

It was an instant hit built on “duct tape and popsicle sticks,” as recalled by Jordan ‘Wrekz’ Anton.

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12 developers worked tirelessly in isolation to transform Summoners’ Rift into the Convergence, and League of Legends into… automatic League of Legends.

The team has grown since then, and so has the game. Through Rise of the Elements, Galaxies, Fates, and now Reckoning, TFT keeps forging a new identity, constantly pushing the boundaries of what an autobattler could be.

Riot wanted to make “a game for years to come.” We sat down with the developers behind TFT to talk about how they’re doing just that, and what’s next in Reckoning and beyond.

Riot Games
Reckoning is only the beginning for TFT’s bright future.

From paper to Reckoning: How a TFT Set comes together

Reckoning may have only come together for players weeks ago, but the wheels were in motion just after everyone was learning about Fates in September 2020.

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Seven months ago, the TFT devs embarked on a journey to bring that battle of “Good vs Evil” to players, and continuing building on the success of Galaxies and Fates.

Themes were pitched internally before being sent out to players in surveys. Then, it was all hands on deck creating the new set while still having to service the live player base.

“Based on the data provided by research we gather all discipline leads (Design, Art, Engineering, Marketing, Production, etc.) and select the theme that is the most exciting for both players and our team,” senior developer Xavier Fabre said.

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“We gather plenty of visual references, define the mood we want to go for, the colors we will use and what the pillars of this particular set are. In parallel, the game design team starts to define what the roster will look like, the skins from League we want to use and what the traits could be.”

“Reckoning was selected from a group of ideas that team members pitched. We worked with our data analysts and strategic advisory teams to identify which ones would resonate most with players. From there, we finalized on a theme and went ahead with designing the set,” developer Christine Lai added.

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Viego in League of Legends
Riot Games
TFT developers coordinated with the League team to time Reckoning’s release with Viego and his thematic.

Riot pumps out working prototypes within weeks, for internal playtesting within the TFT team, and then with the wider Riot community. At the pointy end about a month out, things start getting locked in place before a final polish to then ship to PBE.

“The amazing part about a set design is that different pods on the team participate in the development of the cycle at different stages,” Lai said.

It’s not just the TFT team that gets involved either. Collaborations with the League of Legends team happen all the time ⁠— most recently with Festival of Beasts and the Shan Hai Scrolls skins, and Reckoning with Viego.

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“We have visibility at all times on what the Champions team is cooking up and we tap into their new ideas as often as we can when it aligns well with our theme,” Fabre said.

“The development cycle of champions and even champion updates are slightly different from skins as well, but we always try to think about what are the different possibilities that are available when brainstorming for a new set,” Lai added.

That’s a very watered down journey of how TFT turns from a concept you’d see on Mortdog’s Twitch into what pros play at the World Championship.

For Reckoning itself, the team went through multiple iterations of designs before settling on Shadow Items, and a loose fight between Good and Evil (or Pengu vs Evil Pengu).

“We tried a few things: Relics, which were ‘enchanted’ versions of the standard items, a more explicit Good and Evil division of the Champions, and a Good vs. Evil alignment meter for the player,” design lead Matthew ‘Wittrock’ Wittrock said.

TFT Set 5 reckoning pengu keyart
Riot Games
Even Pengu got transformed from Good to Evil in TFT Set 5.

Solving the autobattler puzzle while writing the manual

While Riot were once devout followers of Auto Chess, they’re now writing the manual on how autobattlers should be played with their new format of releases.

They’ve seemingly found the perfect formula of biannual releases, with a mid-set halfway through. However, this is something Riot is willing to change.

“We are constantly working to get the cadence right between what our team is capable of and what is best for players. We’ve found something good with the structure of sets and midsets, but the exact length of different stages within a set may shift over time,” product lead TJ ‘GreenTeej’ Bourus said.

They’ve also been forced to work through some pretty big problems. Randomness was a big struggle of the first four sets, and Reckoning is Riot’s first stab at fixing that.

Between the Armory and Shadow Items, Riot has given players a lot more agency to make their own decisions, while keeping that good feeling when you high roll.

“Player agency is critical for any competitive game; giving each player the opportunity to express their knowledge and skill to gain an edge over their opponents,” Wittrock said.

TFT Fates header art
Riot Games
While Fates took a small step towards player agency with Chosens, Shadow Items are a massive leap.

“Shadow Items add many more item combinations to the game, so we felt it was important for players to have more control over their specific item components to shape their builds.”

“We’ll have to see how Shadow Items play out over the next few months before talking too much about the future, but it will always be important to us that TFT is a game of significant skill expression.”

It’s these small improvements, patch on patch, set on set, that keeps 10 million players returning daily to the autobattler. That milestone was the tipping point that said “TFT is here to stay,” and now Riot are going to take that creative freedom and run with it.

“We really started to understand what makes a set exciting to come back and play and who TFT players (and future players) were, and that success gave us confidence we found something unique that strategy gamers around the world would enjoy,” GreenTeej said.

“It still scares us with each release because getting it right is really hard, as we start from scratch every set, but maintain our principles we learned along the way, and that seems to be working.

“We think we will continue to get better with each release but may stumble into unknowns as we try new things, as new things are what keep TFT awesome!”

TFT Galaxies header art
Riot Games
Galaxies, Mobile, and Fates: Three successful launches that settled TFT’s future as a premier title.

Humble beginnings and grateful endings

With Reckoning now out the door, Riot have a bit of time to do some reflection, take a breath, before sprinting forward with whatever they have planned for TFT Set 6.

The face of TFT, Stephen ‘Mortdog’ Mortimer, told players back in January that the team could knock out designs all the way up to Set 12 in the distant future. When I asked his underlings about that, they had a little laugh.

“Yes, we can definitely ship Set 99 tomorrow,” Lai joked.

“I wouldn’t necessarily believe everything Mort says… He tells me it’s Friday every day of the week since we started to work remotely,” Fabre added.

Lai assured me that they “have a couple of ideas floating around, but we also open it up to folks on the team to pitch ideas.”

For now though, Riot are going to watch on and let their beloved community soak in the new set, like they did seven months ago when Reckoning was first envisioned, and two years ago when TFT was nothing more than a concept on a whiteboard.

“Surreal is one word, grateful is another. We love this game and the team works really hard to make it the best we can. I think the whole team is grateful that there is a large group of players out there that love it as much as we do,” GreenTeej said.

TFT Set 1
Riot Games
From this humble beginning, Riot has built an empire in the autobattler genre with TFT.

I drew on old interviews throughout this story, but there was one quote that stood out to me about the core principle of TFT.

“We wanted it to feel like you’re observing a Bronze teamfight,” Wittrock said back in 2020. “It’s a bunch of people casting their spells in a way that kind of makes sense, but it’s not like watching Diamond players. It feels like a League team fight, just… a little wrong.”

That essence of TFT has been perfectly captured in Reckoning ⁠— more than any other set. It’s a chaotic mess, but it’s controlled, and most of all, exhilarating.

Teamfight Tactics has grown from the little cousin of Auto Chess to a big fish in the gaming pond, much like League of Legends is to MOBAs.

Wittrock and the rest of the team wanted to build “a game for years to come.” Two years on, you can comfortably say they’ve done just that.