Friday, January 3, 2020

Teamfight Tactics: The Circle of (Videogame) Life

Teamfight Tactics is a ripoff of a mod of a game of a mod that is a mode within a spiritual successor to the same mod as the second mod in this sentence.

Let's unpack that.

To understand that sentence, let me diagram it out a bit and label things. Teamfight Tactics is a ripoff of:

Teamfight Tactics--and the whole "auto battler" genre as it has now been deemed by the collective will of the internet--is one of those million-monkeys scenarios, if the million monkeys jamming on typewriters were not monkeys, but were instead videogame tropes banging into each other in the minds of game developers and players. All the ideas were out there, floating in the collective consciousness of gamerdom, and someone finally put them together in just this way, and all of a sudden everyone's jumping on board.

Simply put, Teamfight Tactics--and any auto battler--consists of building a team of characters that can beat other players' (usually 7 other players') teams in fights that you don't directly control. You are not the general in this war, just the general manager. You put the troops on the ground and they decide what to do for themselves. Is this fun? Yes, absolutely, especially if you've ever played any of the source games of the genre--most prominently League of Legends and Dota 2.

If you have played those games--or any MOBA, really--then another way to look at the auto battler genre is taking just the hero drafting phase of those games and turning it into a whole game in and of itself. It's like when Nintendo decided that the Captain Toad mini game from Super Mario 3D World should be a whole game, or even more appropriately, when someone took building a character from Dungeons and Dragons and turned that into a whole game. A huge part of playing MOBAs is team-building--deciding which exact combination of characters will create the synergies needed to outfight the opponent. But even if you have the greatest team-building theory in the world, you then have to have super-human reflexes and finger speed and accuracy to turn that theory into top-tier MOBA play. Auto battlers elegantly remove that second requirement so that every backseat team builder who's every played a MOBA can now prove that they really do have the best theory in the business, no dexterity required. It's brilliant, and certainly clicked with me more than any MOBA ever has for precisely those reasons.

I played Teamfight Tactics more than any other game on my computer this year. (That probably puts it fifth or sixth overall, but still, I put a lot of time into it.) There's a lot I find fascinating about Teamfight Tactics. I love the goofy aesthetic of the whole thing. I love the dumb "little legends" that are basically the only way to spend money on the game, but seem to be making Riot plenty of money anyway. I love that it's not just a good game, but an interesting videogame idea stew. I also love that it's basically just a board game pretending to be a videogame.

Let me explain that last one. I told you how much I love Wingspan already, but I didn't explain much of how it actually works. Wingspan is an engine-building game, which is a cousin to the deck-building game. In Wingspan, there are four basic actions available--play a bird, gain food, lay eggs, or draw cards. Every turn, you can only do one of those four things. That's it, really. What makes that so much more interesting than it sounds, however, is that every bird played alters one of the those actions in some way, so that over time you're not just laying eggs anymore, you're laying eggs, then triggering 3 or 4 unique bird powers at the same time. This is the "engine" referred to in "engine-building." Suddenly, you're not just doing one thing, you're turning on a whole machine that you've built.

In Teamfight Tactics, you're building a fighting team round by round, being careful about the synergies between the characters, their placement on the board, and which abilities they have and how often they might activate. When the fighting starts, though, you just have to sit back and watch. You turn on the engine and let it run.

To be fair, I don't think anyone else is talking about Teamfight Tactics as an engine-building game. I have heard people compare it to deck-building games, but in my mind, it's much more of an engine than a deck. In a deck-building game, you are gathering resources into a pool (your "deck") and then getting a random grouping of the total pool to work with each turn (your "hand"). In engine-building games, you are building one or more "engines" over time and deciding how to configure it/them to run when they turn on. Teamfight Tactics is clearly the latter to me. This is a videogame, and turning it into a board game would be impossible for several reasons, but its a videogame that walks like a board game and talks like a board game, just with enough numbers flying around at high enough speeds that it needs to be on a computer.

"Little Legends" are the only way to spend money on TFT right now. They act as your character in the game that you can move around to collect items that drop on the board and do cute little emotes.

One of the other reasons I love Teamfight Tactics so much is that it almost seems impossible for this kind of game to exist in today's environment, and yet it does. By it's very design, you can't introduce any microstransactions that affect gameplay. If you did, the entire core of the game would immediately crumble. Since the pool of available characters in any given game is shared by the entire group of players, allowing any one player to purchase additional characters would immediately compromise the integrity of the game, and no one would want to play. (You could just charge for the game itself, but so far no one in the genre has released a premium game--they're all free-to-play.) It also removes all dexterity entirely from gameplay. In today's Dark Souls-, Bloodbourne-, and Sekiro-obsessed gamer culture, having a game specifically scale back dexterity almost feels like blasphemy, but hey, it turns out I'm not the only one who was into this idea, because this was one of the biggest genres of 2019. (It's probably also the reason that all of the biggest streamers in this game came more from Hearthstone or other card games rather than the hard-core League of Legends or Dota 2 group.)

Last year, I wrote a lot about how God of War and Celeste taught me to push through and train my fingers and my mind to conform to the exacting demands of dexterity-heavy games. I stand by what I said, but this year being what it was, I had a lot less patience for that, and sometimes I just wanted to play a game that was more about thinking and less about pushing buttons in the exact right sequence at the exact right time. In that sense, Teamfight Tactics came at the absolute perfect time for me. In a year where I quickly burned out on Apex Legends, Rainbow Six Siege, and even Overwatch because I just didn't have it in me to force myself to get better at snap reflexes and pixel-perfect controls, Teamfight Tactics was an immensely welcome change of pace.

And it showed. While I won literally less than 5 games ever of Apex Legends, and struggled day in and day out with Rainbow Six and Overwatch, I racked up quite a few victories in TFT. I have a folder full of screenshots like this:

I haven't played Teamfight Tactics consistently all year, but instead I keep coming back to it after several updates are released and it feels new again. Each time, I have a ton of fun experimenting with different compositions, placing my bets, and watching what pays off and what doesn't. It's a little disorienting at first every time, but that's part of the fun to me. It's about experimenting and playing with different "engines" to see what surprising results pop out on screen. (I guess one way to put it is I play this game like it's Doodle God.)

While I worry that this genre has some stuff to figure out with its monetization or it might not live very long, I think the gameplay of it is so compelling and it serves such a specific and hungry audience of players that auto battlers in some form will now exist for years and years to come. It's a rare and special thing to see a whole new genre like this emerge in gaming, and I can't wait to see where it goes. 

I also can't wait to see what twists are put on it over time until there's a new mod of a mode of a game of a mod of a spinoff that becomes another whole new interesting genre to explore. I can guarantee that will happen at some point. That's just the magic of videogames.

1 comment:

  1. Love it! Glad TFT made the list. It might be my most played game of the year. Not necessarily my favorite but i think my most played for sure.