Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

Ever since Dominion shut down, I’ve been crying myself to sleep. But I’ve also been thinking deeply about the circumstances behind it. Obviously, Dominion has been a dead game mode for a long time, and it only makes sense for Riot to cut their losses. There are plenty of reasons why Dominion died: queue bugs, unbalanced champions, lack of marketing. Still, there are other games that have done Dominion’s job and succeeded. While I was grieving, I took a look at these and tried to figure out what went wrong with Dominion in terms of game design.

What Is Dominion?

League of Legends only really has one mode: Summoner’s Rift (ARAM and Twisted Treeline are just different versions of it). This is the classic MOBA mode where you have towers and a nexus and three lanes and jungles and five people per team. Standard stuff.

Years ago, they tried something different with Dominion. Instead of damaging the enemy’s nexus directly, you damage it by capturing points around the map. Whichever team holds more points will decrease the health of the other team’s nexus. Capture-and-hold games aren’t uncommon, but the way League did it went against some of its fundamental design principles.

One of the terms I find helpful in this analysis is “tempo.” This was always a concept in Magic: The Gathering, but it only really entered the video game space when high-level players started using the term in Hearthstone. Basically, it represents your long-term advantage. It’s your pace, your flow, your rhythm. A strong tempo will sweep up your opponents and grow larger over time.

The opposite term is “value,” which represents short-term advantage. When you want value, you want something to happen immediately, even if it comes at some other cost to you. Often, you’ll need to make a decision between value or tempo. Hardcore Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering players will argue about these loose definitions of “tempo” and “value,” but we don’t need specifics to apply these ideas to League of Legends.

Imagine that you’re on Summoner’s Rift and you’ve just finished an early game teamfight. Two enemies are low on health and running away, but it will take time to track them down. Do you pursue them and get the kills, or do you ignore them and push down a tower instead? Kills are value because you get a chunk of gold. Towers are tempo because they deny the enemy’s safe zones.

Summoner’s Rift is filled with these tempo vs. value decisions. Dragon? Baron? Steal the enemy’s jungle buffs? Pink wards? Recall? Farm? Many of these will even change over time: kills gradually turn into tempo advantages as death timers get longer and gold becomes less valuable.

But I would argue that Dominion has very little of this depth. Almost anything you can do in Dominion represents value rather than tempo.

Towers in Dominion are the strongest example of this. In Summoner’s Rift, when you destroy an enemy tower, it stays dead and that’s that (barring Azir). But in Dominion, you don’t destroy towers, you capture them. Enemies can capture your towers back later. It’s a constant back and forth over the same thing.

Capturing a tower in Dominion does indeed represent a significant advantage. There are plenty of ways that you can leverage this, because you have a brief window of time while your enemy retakes the tower. You can defend the tower, or you can sneak around and capture another one while they’re busy, or you can roam and gank, or you can push minion waves, or you can take the storm shield.

All of these are value advantages. There is no permanence. Nothing you do will ever have a lasting effect on the game. Towers will be recaptured. Killed enemies will revive themselves. Minion waves will disappear once they’ve filled their duty. No stacking dragon buff. No push into the enemy’s base. Everything is instant gratification.

And yet, despite all of this, the win condition is determined by tempo: who holds towers the longest. There’s a disconnect because there’s nothing you can truly do to actually gain tempo. You want tempo, but you can only get value. In a game with so many subtle tempo/value decisions, Dominion just didn’t fulfill the same expectations. It’s a difference that most players never consciously realized, but it was enough to drive Dominion’s player base into a downward spiral.

One of the worst things that can happen in Dominion is when you don’t realize when the game is over. You look up and you just suddenly realize that one team was holding more towers and the other team’s nexus is now at zero. This doesn’t happen when you’re more experienced, but new players can find it really jarring. In Summoner’s Rift, victory is something that you have to be really involved in: you have to coordinate a value push into the enemy base, even if you throw away your tempo to do so. That leads to epic base rushes, and those feel good. But in Dominion, you can win or lose without even noticing it, and that’s because its win condition is tied to tempo.

Other Capture-and-Hold Games

Of course, this isn’t to say that capture-and-hold doesn’t work at all. Plenty of games make it work. Pretty much every modern shooter has some variant of this (strongholds in Halo 5, hardpoints in Titanfall, domination in Black Ops 3). So why didn’t League’s implementation work?

I like looking at the “Towers of Doom” map in Heroes of the Storm, which is basically a working version of Dominion in an actual MOBA. The interesting thing about their solution is that they actually solve the problem by tying the win condition to value rather than tempo.

Towers of Doom works very similarly to Dominion. Each team starts with three towers and you can take your enemy’s towers. There still isn’t any permanence to any objectives because they can all be recaptured. However, the important thing is that holding more towers is not necessarily your win condition. Instead, shrines will periodically appear on the map, and if you capture one, then each of your towers does a single point of damage to the enemy core.

This shifts focus away from tempo (holding more towers) and moves it to value (capturing shrines). Yes, tempo can help make your value more… well, valuable. But it is ultimately not the win condition. Every time you fight over a shrine, it feels like a big moment. Your victory is determined by how many short term goals you can secure, rather than the amount of time that you can secure a long term goal.

Halo 5: Guardians does something similar with its Warzone mode. There are three bases and you want to capture them. But in order to win, you need to rack up victory points, and those come from kills. Bases help you get kills through tactical positioning, but they don’t give you victory points. Warzone even throws in AI bosses that you can kill for large amounts of victory points, so both teams want to secure the location and take down the boss. This behavior is very similar to shrine fights in Towers of Doom.

I’m sure that there is some capture-and-hold game that focuses on tempo rather than value. The Towers of Doom and Warzone approaches aren’t necessarily the only correct ones. If we were to apply this line of thinking to Dominion, maybe there could be some kind of stacking permanent buff that you can capture. Or maybe each time you capture a tower, it gets progressively more difficult to be recaptured. Who knows? Just some kind of long-term, possibly permanent advantage where you have to sacrifice a short term goal.

With all this said, I have to be honest, I still loved Dominion. It was fast and it was fun. I really liked the value-focused gameplay (and in my other League of Legends writings I’m often criticized for wanting the game to be more action-based and less tactics-based, which is a valid criticism). Game design was far from being Dominion’s only flaw, or even its largest flaw, but it was still a flaw nonetheless.