“We wanted something spicier”: how a successful job interview completely changed Riot’s Project L

Project L – like many games that go through a big R&D period – has endured some staggering changes. It didn’t even begin as League of Legends project, in fact. Its life outside of Riot Games began as robot rumbler, Rising Thunder, whose developer (Radiant Games) would be aquired by Riot Games in 2016.

Since then, we’ve only seen brief bursts of activity from the devs and miscellaneous information come through in dribs and drabs. At one point it was a 1v1 fighter (a la Rising Thunder), now Project L is a 2v2 blend of Marvel vs Capcom, Blazblue: Cross Tag Battle, and myriad other tag-focused titles.

How did this leap from a solo showdown to a tag tussle happen? According to lead champion designer at Riot Games, Alex Jaffe, one bearded bloke is responsible for pushing the project over the edge.

That man is Daniel “Clockw0rk” Maniago. According to multiple devs (including Jaffe) at Evo 2023, Maniago repeatedly asked why the team wasn’t making a 2v2 fighter. During his job interview.

“Yeah, I think he did say that,” Jaffe confirms with a laugh. “I actually give him full credit for this […] So, as we were talking about how to make the game spicier, we actually hired Clockw0rk right about at that time. And he was like ‘I have a dream’, basically. He thought the game should be a 2v2 fighter, two people versus two people – that it was a totally novel idea and a new take on tag fighters, and amazing for the League IP.”

So, who is this mysterious man who dreams of tag fighters? Mr. Cl0ckwork is a figure those familiar with the Marvel vs Capcom competitive scene will know intimately as a former US pro player with top-place finishes across Marvel vs Capcom 2 (you’ve gotta watch this), 3, and Infinite. He would later go on to become the lead combat designer on the shockingly good 3v3 fighter Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid, handing in his ‘Mahvel’ badge for the business casual attire of a game developer. He also helped write a physical written guide for Marvel vs Capcom 3.

Cl0ckwork (front) has been playing these games at a high level for years. | Image credit: VG247 / Evo

The man has pedigree, then. But while Jaffe does credit Cl0ckwork for the final decision to move to a tag system, he also notes that the idea was considered before the interview. “I will say that we were working on a 1v1 fighter for a long time, and when we were working on that 1v1 game, we all knew League has this team dynamic that’s very important. We knew we were leaving some value on the table in terms of the beauty of adapting that into a fighting game. But I think it was a little scary for us – a little intimidating to make a game that’s so wild and over-the-top.

“Even when we talked about a tag fighter we were like ‘what if we had two people on a team… Too wild! We could never do it’. But then at a certain point I think we figured out we need to laser focus even more so on the FGC while continuing to support other players, and make a game other players will love. We need to make something spicier, something hotter that the FGC will love. Not something that was pretty fun – it can’t be something pretty fun, right? It has to be a game people will do anything to play.”

It should not be too surprising that the temptation to turn the game into a tag fighter remained amongst the team as development continued. The brothers at the top, Tom and Tony Cannon, founded Evo – an event with a long-lasting romance with the Marvel vs Capcom series. They’ve also hired several staff with a past with tag fighters, such as game director and Tekken Tag Tournament legend Shaun “Unconkable” Rivera and (as I learned at Evo) the Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 combo wizard Marlin Pie himself.

So with Cl0ckwork bursting the dam and letting the tag water flow, the team went onto embrace the duo play idea as well. According to Jaffe, it was an idea that opened a lot of doors in terms of fun, cooperative play: “We all thoguht that sounded amazing because it’s a new way to engage with fighting games. If you have a friend you can play together. Everytime I want to play with you in almost any other fighter its competitive. I have to beat you. That can still be a really loving, freindly experience. But there’s something different about playing on the same side when you just want to relax and enjoy time with your friends.”

four player Project L in duo play announcement video
Anyone with a friend who doesn’t play fighters understands the appeal. | Image credit: Riot Games

I mentioned Street Fighter x Tekken as a game that had included the option to have two players per team fight at once, and quizzed Jaffe on just how original the idea was for the genre. He brought up additional examples (Dragonball Fighterz and the Mortal Kombat series), but believes none of these games were built from the ground up with the duo play experience at their core.

“I feel relatively certain that none of them have designed their entire game so that both solos and duos play really well. It’s something I’m really proud of – if you look at the core design of the game we have a bunch of innovations that are different from other tag and fighting games. Almost all of those you can track back to that core design question: how do we make sure duos are a great experience, and solos are a great experience, despite all the challnges that come with that.”

The fruit of Cl0ckworks dream, and the Project L team’s decision to follow through on it, ripened at last at Evo’s Project L booth. You could see it on the faces of the four-player groups on each setup. Time will tell whether the tag approach will appeal to players in the long term post-release, and God only knows whether a 1v1 fighter would have produced the same result (or better). But at a time when fighting games are having something of a renaissance, maybe Cl0ckwork’s approach will get the gears turning on a fresh and exciting game, loaded with new blood that can challenge the ageing giants of the genre.

If you’re looking for more Project L interviews – we published one earlier this week on the process of adapting characters from league to Project L [add]. We also wrote up our own preview of Project L from Evo 2023 here.

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