Riot Games' Marc Merrill interview: “Whatever a game genre’s impossible dreams are, that’s what we’ll do”
Riot Games itself has become a bit of a meme to its audience over the years. Its fans, who have only entered Riot’s ecosystem for a single game, League of Legends, often joke about the studio’s name having the word “Games” in it while it’s only ever produced the one game.
Sure, there have been board games, hackathon projects, and other small ventures, but the fans have always wanted more blockbuster, genre-defining video games, because that’s the precedent and standard that League set when it launched 10 years ago. And each time a mini-game or some other small project came out, the players would joke about Riot finally “putting the ‘S’ in ‘Riot Games.’”
With the studio’s bombardment of reveals last month at the company’s 10th anniversary celebration for its debut game, League, we spoke with co-founder Marc Merrill about what these new titles mean for him, his company, and what went into their production.
“We’ve been working on these new titles for a long time, and what I’m most excited about is their potential.” Merrill told GameCrate. “Each of these games needs to exist. Using League as a data point in the MOBA genre, if you liked the approach we took for it, we’re going to do that for the fighting game community, the card game community, and the competitive shooter community. Whatever one genre’s impossible dreams are, that’s what we’ll do.”
Not for everyone
League is certainly solid ground to stand on, too, and it raised expectations for Riot moving forward. It took popular aspects of the budding MOBA community, including mechanics and features from Dota and various other Warcraft III custom game modes, trimmed out the things players disliked, added its own stroke of creativity, and League was the result.
It captured everything the MOBA community wanted in a game, and it flourished so rapidly that, despite the MOBA community being relatively small compared to things like RTS and FPS games at the time, it went onto become the most popular PC game in the world. At its peak, League had 100 million players worldwide, and just last month, it took up almost 50 percent of all PC bangs in South Korea, vastly more popular than any other game. When looking at future titles, though, Riot wants to make it clear that popularity isn’t what it’s chasing. The goal is simply to offer a service to each genre’s community similar to what League had done—take the best the competition has to offer and combine it with everything they wish they had.
“League was a once-in-a-decade type of success,” Merrill said. “While we would be thrilled if any of the games had the same type of impact as League, the most important thing for all of our products is that they deeply resonate with the niche audience that they are designed to deeply serve.”
One of Merrill’s concerns is that any of these new titles become just any other game. A goal, therefore, is preventing that from happening. With Steam’s robust library of titles now being competed with by other virtual game emporiums, like the Epic Games Store or the Microsoft Store, there are more games on the market than ever before. And they're sold in more places online than ever before. It’s both an exciting and scary time to introduce a new game into the ether.
There are more eyes on games now, sure, but there’s also a much larger chance that any new game will be swallowed by the bottomless pit of downloadable games. For example, The Outer Worlds, Obsidian’s newest Fallout and Space Opera lovechild, received incredibly high praise from various publications. With its high accessibility using the Microsoft Store’s Game Pass system, many players were able to pick it up and try it out without much of a commitment.
Outer Wilds is another very impressive game. It has raving critic reviews, it’s set in space, and it came out this year, too, not to mention its incredibly similar name. Half the people I’ve spoken to about Outer Worlds weren’t even aware of Outer Wilds’ existence, despite its stellar gameplay and oddly similar characteristics. In the game of popularity, though, Outer Worlds won the day. Outer Wilds likely didn’t see the same success upon its release in spring, despite its 95 percent positive player reviews and almost exclusively eight or nine out of 10 critic reviews. Even though Riot doesn’t necessarily care if millions upon millions of gamers play each of its new games, it wants those within each niche community to pick them up and never stop playing. They are designed to uniquely serve those people, after all, and if they just become another game on the shelf, they’re not doing their jobs.
“There’s lots of games people have on their Xbox account, PlayStation account, on their phone, or in their Steam library that they never play,” Merrill said. “We only ever want to create games that are so compelling for what they’re trying to be that it’s actually worth your time. We’re not trying to build something for everybody.”
Rumors and development
And by that logic, Riot isn’t making these new games for, say, the MOBA community. In other words, there’s no intention to compete with itself, pulling resources and community attention away from its first and flagship title, League.
“We expect these games to broaden and augment the League community,” Merrill continued. “Witness already the global diversity of our community; being able to bring in players of new genres and introduce them to our world is very exciting.”
While six new games and an animated series are certainly a robust catalog of new stuff, there’s no doubt that players have been ruminating on other possibilities as the years have gone on. Rumors of fighting games, for instance, have been spiraling out of the Riot ecosystem since the company acquired Radiant Entertainment in 2016. Who knows if the upcoming fighting game, codenamed Project L, is the same game that those rumors stemmed from? Not to mention the most popular Riot Games rumor of all time, prodded time and time again from posts and the occasional tweet from this article’s subject, Marc Merrill—the long-awaited and long-fantasized Riot Games MMO.
Despite the popularity of this rumor over the years, though, an MMO wasn’t on the docket for Riot’s big six-game reveal/teaser last month. And, according to Merrill, it never was, at least not seriously. If the game wasn’t revealed at the event, it was never close to coming to fruition, and that includes an MMO. But that doesn’t mean other games weren’t ever worked on.
“We enjoy a pretty robust pitch and greenlight process, and we had a pretty solid idea of our slate for a reasonable amount of time,” Merrill said. “That being said, we have canceled a number of titles internally over the years where we just couldn’t get things quite right.”
It would make sense if an MMO ever fell under that category. After all, it’s hard not to imagine Riot wouldn’t have at least considered it. The world of Runeterra, Riot’s IP, is robust and lends itself to expansion and deeper dives that an MMO could uniquely explore. But no studio, not even some of the industry’s giants, have been able to find real success in an MMORPG for over 10 years. Or at least, they haven’t found the same success. The Elder Scrolls Online’s most recent crowning achievement, for example, was hitting a number of total players just over what World of Warcraft could reach in a month in 2008. And by today’s MMO metrics, that’s success.
Therefore, if Riot wasn’t able to effectively figure out how to revolutionize and revitalize the MMO genre, it just wouldn’t work. At least, not in the way Riot wants its new games to work. Merrill has played a strong role in figuring that out, too, as he’s been hands-on with many of these new titles from day one.
“ and I have been heavily involved in most major steps, in particular with putting the teams together, helping to establish the vision, and overseeing the development progress of all our titles,” Merrill said. “My big project in recent months has been as the vision holder (aka Team Captain) for the League 10 year anniversary & associated announcement. It’s really important to me to help all of our games be positioned in the right way so players know what to expect from Riot. Seeing the positive response to what Rioters have all been working so hard for many years was deeply gratifying.”
“Positive response” is a rather light way to put it, too. Both fans and non-fans of League have jumped on board as Riot and its new titles have stuck to trending on Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit for almost the entire month since the event actually took place. Already, things like “Is this game the Overwatch killer?” and other dramatic, fairly over-indulging questions are being asked on the regular as personalities and players have been giving into the hype.
And the hype has been grown with good reason. In the wake of recent Hong Kong-related drama with Blizzard and the ever-ongoing battle of predatory microtransactions by Ubisoft and EA, the gaming community at large has been waiting for another developer to rise up and take the mantle as the next “trusted” dev with an impressive catalog of games. While Riot certainly has its fair share of shortcomings, these new games, as well as the direction the devs have taken with them, might just be exactly what those people are looking for.
Until Riot adds loot boxes to one of them, that is, then all bets are off.