Riot Games Controversies ‘No More Difficult’ Than Elsewhere, Says Executive Producer
Riot Games' Leanne Loombe, executive producer and the head of Riot Labs at the studio's Los Angeles headquarters, recently visited Brighton's Develop Conference to give a talk on how to pitch new ideas within the modern gaming industry. I caught up with her the day before her slot on the conference's bill, to discuss a couple of topics.
We began with Teamfight Tactics, the new League of Legends turn-based mode that ticks the auto-battler box in the studio's current portfolio. Already hugely popular having launched worldwide at the end of June, Teamfight Tactics takes the League universe in a new gameplay direction, and its makers couldn't be happier.
"It's done very well, and we're all really excited about it," Loombe tells me, albeit with the caveat that Teamfight isn't exactly her area of expertise within Riot right now - she's more focused on the main League of Legends, and its player base of an estimated 115 million people. Yep, you read that correctly: this game has an audience, in 2019, of around 115 million players.
"League is ten years old now," she continues, "and we're focused on keeping players engaged, and giving them awesome experiences. Teamfight Tactics is one of those times where we're providing something that's brand new, and that shakes the game up. And of course, we've a huge fanbase for League, but there's never a guarantee that what you do next will work. We just want to put something out that players will enjoy - that's the ultimate goal, isn't it? But I don't think you can ever predict how big something's going to be - you just focus on making it the best it can be, and see where it goes."
While that sounds like so much smooth sailing for Riot, headlines of the past 12 months haven't been so kind to the studio. Reports of gender discrimination within the company, spun out from an in-depth Kotaku exposé of sexism within the Riot ranks, caused an industry-wide stir in late 2018, leading to a walk-out, and the studio is currently under investigation by the State of California, which has reason to believe that female staffers were not paid the same rate as male colleagues.
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That investigation may be why Loombe can't tell me much about this side of what's going on at Riot, but of course, there's also the very real possibility that she doesn't want to add further fuel to a fire that's already done significant damage to the studio's reputation. Nevertheless, she opens up a little about the situation.
"Every day at Riot, we're working on things that improve the company," she tells me. "But then, as do all companies - in the games industry, or any other entertainment industry, you have to make sure that everyone who works there is happy. I love Riot, and I get on, and I do my job, and do the best for the players, basically.
"I wouldn't say that this period at Riot has been any more difficult to work through than what I've experienced in the games industry as a whole. (Loombe previously worked for EA and Stainless Games.) There's always something happening, no matter what company you're working at. Whether it hits the news or not is a different matter. It's one of those things - as companies grow, you face different challenges, and that's part of being a company that's been around for so long."
Teamfight Tactics leapt to the top of the most-watched games on Twitch when it launched, which shows that Riot remains a leader in the field of free-to-play competitive games (indeed, Loombe speaks enthusiastically about esports making it to the Olympics, one day). But until it puts the drama, the headaches, and the negative headlines of the last 12 months behind it, it won't get a free pass from the gaming press.
If Riot's turbulent and highly public change represents the speartip of something more, of change for the better across the industry, then it'll have been worth it. And if not? Player numbers are one thing. Revenue another. But fairness, equality and a healthy working environment: these things matter the most, and Riot will be judged far more harshly on that side of its business than the quality of any of its future games.
Featured Image Credit: Riot Games