30 June 2014 - 18:51

Curse Voice and Riot's communications breakdown

Last week, Riot Games announced a major change that League of Legends fans had long been clamoring for: A timer that would undertake the boring task of monitoring in-game objectives
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Last week, Riot Games announced a major change that League of Legends fans had long been clamoring for: A timer that would undertake the boring task of monitoring in-game objectives.

While fans were happy to see the new feature, they'd actually long had the option thanks to a third-party app called Curse Voice. Riot's change, in fact, was only necessary because the company had banned Curse Voice outright on Feb. 5, claiming it gave players a competitive advantage.

For the Curse Voice developers, this was a particularly bitter pill to swallow, though not unexpected: It's the second time in as many months Riot has implemented changes first made available via a third party product.

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At the start of the year, the impending release of Curse Voice did what few voice chat programs manage: It generated genuine excitement.

League of Legends, the most popular esport in the world, pits teams of five against one another, but doesn't include tools for those players to actually speak to one another outside text-based chat. A core of veteran League of Legends players maintain that Riot has promised in-game voice chat since beta (although any “smoking gun” evidence of this remains elusive). Curse Voice finally catered to that niche. There were other voice chat options out there, but each had their own issues: latency, heavy CPU use, or making you vulnerable to DDOS by your opponents.

Curse Voice seemed to combat these issues and deliver on an alleged promise that Riot hadn't lived up to.

It also included some extra features, the most talked-about being “jungle timers." This was a built-in stopwatch that would inform players when important in-game objectives such as buffs, dragon, and Baron Nashor would respawn. Curse Voice introduced a new era of gameplay, thanks in part to a proliferation of early users after the company distributed beta keys through various community outlets.

Players at lower levels were suddenly engaging in sophisticated counter-jungling and beginning to use objectives on a more sophisticated level than they had in the past. They didn’t have to befuddle themselves by making mental notes of respawn times, all too easily forgotten in the heat of battle. There was a clock ticking for them that they only occasionally had to glance at.

This created something of a disparity between two sets of players: The ones who had access to Curse Voice, and its timers, and those who didn’t. High-level players, who had been keeping a mental note of respawn times for years, argued that this was a skill in itself. Those on the other end argued this was nothing that you couldn’t do at home with a pen and paper or an alarm clock. As the discussion rose on Reddit and eventually found its way onto Riot’s forums, the company decided it needed to act. It banned players from using the program.

It explained the decision at length in a forum post on May 9:

"...while our design team is still exploring whether we’d want to add any kind of built-in timers to League of Legends, we agree with many of you that having it accessible only through a third-party app is a clear competitive advantage between those who download it and those who do not, and isn’t acceptable."

The following day, Curse Voice announced it would remove jungle timers to comply with the policy shift. It also emphasized that the voice calls were opt-in, a direct response to another claim made by Riot: That voice calls were made automatically at the start of games. The front page of the company's website still  includes its statement on the decision, reading in part:  “We've always loved and respected League of Legends and Riot and trust the game designers to make the right choices for the game."

Fast forward to June 24: Riot announced it would implement its own jungle timers, rolling them out in the Public Beta Environment, a sandbox play area for experimental tweaks and upcoming game changes.

"Ultimately, the question we asked was whether bookkeeping of jungle timers… contributed satisfaction of the play experience and we realized it was just too much of a routine task to be of significant value," Riot explained in announcing the timers. The company admitted, however, that "the emergence of third party applications put fuel on the fire, but they only increased our confidence that such a feature was in line with our values."

Despite this sudden U-turn on in-game timers, and the fact that Curse Voice was now only a voice chat program, Riot didn't change its stance on the app. It still prohibited players from using it, even at one point suggesting it might ban those who did.

“In my view Curse Voice is just a much simpler, more secure version of Skype," Curse’s chief technology officer, Michael Comperda, told the Daily Dot. "There’s nobody at Riot saying 'there’s a big problem at Skype.'"

It was Comperda's team that developed Curse Voice from start to finish, and he seemed perplexed about the injunction, especially given that Curse had worked with and consulted with Riot throughout their development process.

Though Riot said it was still working with Curse to resolve what it calls "other concerns" with the program, many have wondered if this was just stalling tactic they worked on their own in-game voice chat.

Such a behavior certainly wouldn't be without precedent. In May, Riot launched a fantasy stats league just a month after a similar project was launched at a site called Mobanation. While several others had tried basic versions of fantasy sports for the LCS, Mobanation was by far the most professional and polished of the bunch. Mobanation's creator said Riot had been "absolutely excellent" in reaching out to him before launching. But he ultimately decided to shut Mobanation down, saying the two sites had too much in common

Riot hasn't taken an official stance against any other voice chat software, Comperda was keen to point out. Not even lolip-op.com, a website that used a Skype locator to deliver player IPs for the purposes of DDOSing, prompted an official response from Riot.

He also strongly disagreed with additional concerns that Riot had revealed in their original blog post: Namely, that Curse Voice interacted with the League of Legends client, or forced players to join chat if they didn’t want to. “All we’re doing is automating the sharing of a link, " Comperda said. "We’re not really interacting with the League client.

 "At this point in time, as far as we’re concerned, it is safe to use Curse Voice. We’re just like Skype but with added protections against you getting DDOS’d.”

Given that Riot have been actively encouraging development of third party applications since the release of their API tool in December 2013, the clash between the two companies seems strange, especially given their past working history. Comperda stopped short of saying he felt aggrieved by the decision, however"Disappointed would probably be the right word," he said, adding that Curse has "always had great relationships with publishers."

When a publisher posts something negatively about anything we do, it hurts. We were working on Curse Voice since around November December last year and I can tell you personally I put in about a thousand hours into this product with my team. This became our life for a period of time. We put everything we had into this because we love it.

Even if Riot were to maintain the ban, Curse Voice still has a future, Comperda said. There are other games out there, although he didn’t name any specifically, that could also use the principle features and others that could be specifically developed for those titles. A blessing from Riot was not necessarily the be-all-end-all of the project.

"This is way, way bigger than a League of Legends play for us. It’s about Curse creating a platform that will stretch even beyond PC," he said, adding a Mac version of the software was in the works. "People love playing games with one another and I think voice communication is far superior in every way to chat for certain kinds of games."

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Only a few days ago Jeffrey “Lyte” Lin, Riot’s lead designer of social systems, who has a Phd in cognitive neuroscience and a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, released a statistics-filled statement outlining the company's objections to voice chat. According to Lin, 79 percent of League of Legends players agree that voice chat improves the playing experience—at least when friends are involved. When strangers are added, that rate drops to 50 percent.

“At the end of the day, voice chat with friends is a great experience, and what League of Legends players actually want," it concluded.

"Many players already use voice chat like Skype and Ventrilo with their friends and that's awesome. But, a system that automatically or easily puts you into voice chat with strangers leads to 126 percent more toxicity and 47 percent more reports even when players can opt-out of the experience or mute each other.”

Despite these statistics, Lin added that Riot hasn't "closed the doors on it being possible in the future.” Indeed, there are also several obvious counter-arguments to Lin's points: that opt-out, mute, and disconnect options are readily available on the vast majority of voice software. Those features fix almost all of the problems outlined by Riot.

Whether we will see another Riot turnaround remains to be seen. Not all are convinced that Riot’s intentions in attempting to block Curse Voice are noble and community centred. An application developer we spoke to, who requested to remain anonymous but has close ties to Curse, told us:

"The discussion boards for the API tool are completely dead and other developers I speak with are telling me that Riot are now just rejecting any new submissions with little to no reasons provided." It was reminiscent, the developer said, of when Valve shut out third-client app Dotabuff from accessing public matches, temporarily killing it. "Regarding Curse Voice," he continued, "there’s a real sense that Riot are trying to 'kill off' any successful third party applications and appropriate the features for themselves."

Riot Games did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Photo by Chris Yunker/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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