EP 35: Co-founder of Riot Games Marc Merrill on building League of Legends and Arcane.


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“A quick funny story is my parents didn’t want me to have a Nintendo.”

League of Legends is not just a game but truly a *phenomenon* – creating an entire category of gaming, events, perhaps esports itself and now a hit TV show on Netflix. We had the pleasure of getting to know Marc Merrill over the last year and when we got him to come on our show, we knew this would be a special chat. Marc is president and co-founder of Riot Games, the creator of League of Legends and especially around hit TV series Arcane (if you haven’t seen it, highly recommend it whether you’re a gamer or not). This was a blast from start to finish.

In this episode, we cover: how Marc built Riot Games and League of Legends with his roommate Brandon Beck, the story behind League of Legends and esports (a LOT here), the unconventional making of Arcane, effect of AI on the future of gaming, his return to Riot Games, most underappreciated LoL champion, and more!

In this episode, we cover:

  1. How to build a great game

  2. Game development process: what works and doesn’t work?

  3. Two necessary qualities to be a great game developer

  4. What got Marc into gaming?

  5. Choosing career paths: why be a game developer?

  6. Existential crisis vs. taking risks

  7. Building Riot Games and League of Legends (LoL)

  8. Challenges in building Riot Games and LoL

  9. The unconventional making of Arcane

  10. Collaboration with Fortiche

  11.  Why create Arcane in-house?

  12. How do you create a compelling story?

  13. Permissionless creativity

  14. The #1 future trend to look out for

  15. What will GPT look like 5 years from now?

  16. Return to Riot Games

  17. Marc’s favorite games to play

  18. #1 advice for founders

  19. Who is Marc’s favorite underappreciated LoL champion?

Notable Quotes: 

  1. “Creating a great game is similar to creating a great company and the most important step is knowing who the audience is that you’re going to be trying to serve.”

  2. “It really helps to understand and look at the world also from starting with that audience perspective and understanding player motivations – ‘why do people play these games?’, ‘Why do people get frustrated in these games?’” – on building a great game.

  3. “It’s much harder to train people to love a particular game and understand the ultra-subtle nuances for why a particular audience would or would not appreciate some particular feature compared to teaching people craft.”

  4. “It’s a death sentence to try to run a functionally managed organization.”

  5. “In our experience, functionally managed organizations tend to struggle greatly because of the interdependencies.”

  6. “Game developers are both left brain and right brain in terms of being incredibly technical, but also incredibly creative.”

  7. “Before the launch of League of Legends in 2009, we were spending a fixed amount of other people’s money, and at one point we had the highest burn rate of any company in our VC’s portfolio.”

  8. “We still feel resource-constrained to this day, with thousands of people around the world now because you’re always going to be resource constrained if there’s opportunity. In a lot of ways it’s a good thing.”

  9. “A quick funny story is my parents didn’t want me to have a Nintendo.”

  10. Blizzard is probably my favorite developer growing up.”

  11. “I was hoping to get hired by this wealth management team as a junior analyst, but they went on a hiring freeze.”

  12. “I am like Newtonian physics where when I’m at rest I will stay at rest or when I’m in motion, I will stay in motion.”

  13. “If I have 100 things to do I’ll do them all, and I’ll do them well, and I get really stimulated and engaged. Otherwise, I’ll start to procrastinate and play a bunch of games. I need to put myself in a very challenging dynamic stimulating environment to really ride my potential.”

  14. “We dreamt of building a company that would put players at the center of decision-making rather than how a lot of content was created at the time, which was made for a shiny disk to be sold at retail. League of Legends was going to be the proof point to this broader company.”

  15. “Both Brandon and I are married now — it’s a real difficult challenge for me to dedicate myself the way that I did, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, and also because I want to spend a ton of time with my kids.”

  16. “The actual act of trying to save money would actually try to probably end up destroying the project, and at one point, the creator of Arcane, Christian, resigned because of some of that tension where there was a misalignment between some of the leaders.”

  17. “Just because somebody hasn’t done something doesn’t mean it can’t work or be great”

  18. “We had a writer’s room with some great people in it, but it wasn’t working and then we had to reboot it. We had to iterate. That’s why it took us six years to actually launch the first season of Arcane.”

  19. “Why I came back is, one, I never fully left. When Brandon and I stepped down as co-CEOs, we both became co-chairmen and we were exhausted from burning at both ends for 13 years straight.”

  20. “I think the number one thing to me that would be important for a founder is to fall in love with a problem or an opportunity rather than thinking something is going to be a great way to make a buck.” – on advice for founders

References:

  1. Riot Games, game developer and esports tournaments organizer

  2. League of Legends, multiplayer online battle arena video game

  3. Arcane (TV series)

  4. Intersection of technology and art, talk by Steve Jobs

  5. Left vs. right-brained

  6. Super Mario, Contra, Quake III, Half Life, Counter Strike, Ghosts n’ Goblins

  7. HeroQuest, Police Quest, Space Quest 

  8. Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft

  9. Draw for Riot Points

  10. Jinx, character from LoL and Arcane

  11. Bridging the Rift, documentary series on the making of Arcane

  12. Will Wright, game developer

  13. How Pixar fosters collective creativity, Ed Catmull

  14. Hextech, LoL

  15. ChatGPT

  16. MidJourney

  17. Stable Diffusion 

  18. Elden Ring

  19. Dark and Darker

  20. Warhammer 40K

  21. Teemo, LoL

TRANSCRIPT

1. How to build a great game:

Sriram: All right. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very, very special episode for you here today, somebody who’s built something that almost needs no introduction. We have Marc Merrill on this show. I want to make sure I get his accomplishments and his work right, so I’m going to do a bit of reading out.

Marc is the co-founder, co-chairman, president of games, for Riot Games. If you have not been on the internet for the last 15 years, Riot has really changed the world of gaming, it created e-sports, and really also entertainment through League of Legends, and then multiple other games since then.

Marc co-founded Riot, and since then– and not just in the world of gaming, but just, broadly, entrepreneurship, and then more recently in the world of entertainment through being an executive producer and being one of the creative forces behind Arcane; amazing show. Marc is just one of the most interesting people that I’ve met. Trust me. He’s not just a founder. He’s ridiculously interesting and fascinating. This is going to be a delight. Marc, welcome to the show.

Marc Merrill: Thanks for having me. Yes, a lot to live up to, now, after that kind introduction. Thank you. [chuckles]

Sriram: Yes, no pressure. Well, we’re going to start you off easy. Teach us how to build a great game.

Aarthi: [laughs]

Marc: Oh, just that softball, huh? Yes. Well, games are difficult things to make. We could approach that topic from a lot of perspectives. I think there’s actually a fair amount of similarity to creating a great game as to creating a great company because from our perspective, I think the most important step is first knowing who the audience is that you’re going to be trying to serve.

I think there’s a lot of different ways to approach that, but in our experience, a lot of times, there’s this intuitive bottoms-up, just deep understanding that a creator, or group of creators, has around some need or some frustration around other types of games that they’ve played that they wish could be better in some meaningful ways.

I can approach it from a lot of different perspectives, but I would say that the most important thing is to really understand who the audience is. From there, game development is really truly a team sport, for a lack of a better term. It takes an awful lot of incredible people to come together that have diverse expertise, that share the same dream about what the needs are for  for this audience. One of the frameworks we’ve utilized internally as well, once we have an idea of a particular audience that is underserved in some way, we then try to think about– In the other games that have existed that are largely setting the expectations for players, at a given point in time, it’s what are we going to do to not only meet those player expectations but of course really exceed them.

A lot of times, people may think we want to create a first-person shooter, and maybe we could set it in some theme like the civil war or you skin the game in a particular way, but the gameplay may not be meaningfully differentiated from other things that exist. That can be a fine approach for many game devs, but typically those types of things aren’t sufficiently differentiated to really break out or add something incredibly meaningful to a given genre. A lot of times, though, in genres that have really high player expectations because there have been lots of games that have been created, the table stakes are incredibly high just to create something that will basically meet player expectations.

Then from there, it’s like what again are the meaningful differentiators in terms of why this game needs to exist? Something that is fun really isn’t sufficient, essentially. Because there can be lots of games that are fun, but novelty in terms of experience and how you’re going to be adding value to a genre it matters a great deal. Then from there, it’s really all about assembling a passionate team of incredible individuals that have the right skillsets to come together to again, share that vision, and then fail forward, for lack of a better term, until you start finding the fun and validating as to whether or not that initial vision and thesis about where the opportunity is correct and then building and scaling from there.

It really, really helps to understand and look at the world also from starting with that audience perspective and understanding player motivations. Like, why do people play these games? Why do people get frustrated in these games? Of course, adding on the creative thought and wouldn’t it be cool if, and just preview together with a team of talented individuals.

2. Game development process: what works and doesn’t work?

Sriram: One of the really interesting thing about game development, to me, and I think movie making and contentation is similar, is it’s so interdisciplinary. You have storytelling, you have graphical artists, and the art side. There’s obviously pushing the technical boundaries of what is possible on computers and networks. Then there’s a whole element of the gameplay mechanics and, of course, in your world, so much of it is competitive and there’s that dynamic also. There seems to be very different skillsets, very different human beings who write code or create artifiacts in a Myer or a blender or whatever. What have you learned about getting very disparate skillsets and personalities to work together? I think that’s one of the things that you guys have done really well. You really created the category in so many ways in say, compared to eSports and so on. What have you learned?

Marc: Thanks. I’ve learned a lot and part of the reason I think we’ve learned a lot is because we’ve made a ton of mistakes. A couple of things, but to your point is that games are incredibly cross-disciplinary. I think that there’s some really important things around ensuring that the strategy of the organization and the game is incredibly crisp.

Sometimes it takes some time for that, again, specific vision to really crystallize and then you need to define the structure of how you’re gonna work and the systems that are gonna come together and the people that are going to be involved and all of that needs to work together and be synergistic and pointing at the same problem. In our experience, there’s a couple things that have been really helpful. One is also we’ve always valued attitude and aptitude and genre expertise and deep passion and understanding for the space over experience.

The reason that we think that that’s been helpful is because we think it’s much harder to train people to love a particular game and understand the ultra-subtle nuances for why a particular audience would or would not appreciate some particular feature or piece of content compared to teaching people craft or teaching people. We’re augmenting those types of people who are focused on solving the what with competency. Part of how we built our organization and evolved it over time is given the complexity, it’s a death sentence to try to run a functionally managed organization.

We think matrix is incredibly important because it just reflects the reality of the complexity of the problems we’re trying to solve. Then you need to have again the right artists and right designer and engineer or and engineers, and product people and QA folk all working together for very clear deliverables. In our experience, functionally managed organizations tend to struggle greatly because of the interdependencies.

A lot of the agile philosophies from the development standpoint we think are incredibly important to utilize in game development because so much of the work is discovery where there are unknown unknowns. It’s important to spike and or test particular concepts to then learn is this direction the right direction in terms of how, whether the feature will work or how to implement a particular feature or not. The rate of iteration is also something that is incredibly important. We think that that’s, of course, true not just for games, but for creative global in general, and companies in general. Oftentimes, in game development, of course, you don’t have the luxury, unless a game is shifted and then live and you try to iterate in a game that’s live to iterate in a live audience.

Having a team that, again, is incredibly aligned around what the opportunity is, and what the vision is, and can quickly validate as to whether or not you’re making progress towards something that’s going to work or not, is another measure of team effectiveness. There’s a lot of abstract concepts in there. Hopefully that makes sense, but for us, it’s really about people and teams and aligning on goals and in the way that that scales is, of course, really difficult also, because I think a lot of teams when they’re smaller intuitively operate that way.

Then when you start to get into 50-person teams, 100-person teams, 300, near 500-person teams or different parts of the organization, getting them all to continue to play nicely and be super aligned about the problems to solve with players and or shipping internationally in different languages. All these things is another really complex topic we can get into to the extent that that’s interesting.

3. 2 aspects of game development

Sriram: Yes, one thing which I think is really interesting is you might have seen the famous Steve Jobs slide, which is Apple’s at the intersection of technology and art. I think games are very similar, because there is definitely a huge engineering quantitative element to it, which built with hard facts, engineering, but there’s been this so much taste. The feel of a gun, the feel of the game, and so much of it is in the realm of taste and aesthetic and feel. How do you marry the constraints? Because in one, when you look at that slide from Steve Jobs, I’m, great, one of this is easy to measure.

I can measure technology, I know how to make a packet go faster. I know how to measure the metrics. Then there is the feel, the feel of how hard should something be when it’s not too easy to merit? How do you marry these two things, which sometimes even very different dimensions and hard to reconcile?

Marc: That’s a great question and you’re really cutting to the heart of one of the things that makes game development difficult. It’s also one of the things that makes game developers such cool and interesting people, because, to your point, they’re both left brain and right brain in terms of incredibly technical, but also incredibly creative. Again, for exactly what you’re saying around taste, that’s why we think it’s so important for people to share the same dream, and have the same vision, and often like the same things and the same type of experience.

Because when different individuals when their taste is off, even if their craft expertise, again, from an art, or engineering, or design perspective is off the charts, the weighting of when something is good enough, or how to prioritize or adjust a particular sound effect, or visual effect, or animation speed, or the frame rate of a particular, again, animation or whatnot, is just there is a lot of art that is involved in that which relates to intuitive judgment.

That’s also where integration can be incredibly helpful, and that’s also where the team dynamic is so important, also. While it’s helpful and actually critical to have a strong vision, in our experience, games are really made great by the thousands and thousands of micro-decisions that are happening on a daily basis. That can only be possible when all the developers, again, are aligned and deeply understand what they’re making, and what good looks like. The definition of good is just as important to define as the definition of done.

There’s different dimensions you can evaluate that through. You can look at it through a feature lens. You can look at it through a craft lens. You can look at it through how does it, of course, show up on screen for players and manifest or fuel perspective. Is this texture good or done? Is this section of the map? When are you done? You can honestly polish a bush, or rocks, or any type of part of a level, infinitely.

The accounting tastes and identifying when is something good enough. Then building frameworks to help convey that information to help inform other people’s development from a production standpoint is one of the reasons that data production is also such an important developing craft to align and help manage the work of so many talented and expensive individuals where opportunity costs is often one of the most expensive aspects of game development. We can create anything, and what you got to focus on is really important.

One of the things I think is a trap, oftentimes, for a lot of developers is feeling like they’re making a ton of progress, and they are, but they’re just making progress, of course, in something that doesn’t really matter, or in the wrong direction, or there’s major diminishing returns. How to know when you’re hitting that point does come down off into judgment that needs to be a detailed understanding of that particular thing you’re making, but also how that feature or system or piece of content is connected to all the others, and having a really holistic view.

Again, I wish I knew a really effective way to help develop that skill set because, in our experience, it takes time. Again, absent a deep understanding of a vision and what would be great for players, you can never close that gap. I think one of the things that’s really been helpful for Riot over the many years is not just having data to help inform decisions, but knowing when to utilize that data or various technical frameworks to validate our approach, but having the courage among the team to take big, bold risks and leverage through the art perspective based on that intuitive, non-linear belief about wouldn’t it be cool if for that audience that we’re trying to make something great for.

Aarthi: I think it’s very interesting on successful themes and what they do well. To me, there’s a lot of parallels to starting founding companies like startups. Because, again, very similarly, if you are a founder, you have all these things that you want to go do, your early, your resource constraint, lots of different problem spaces for you to go tackle on, and it’s really easy to pick a space that you’re comfortable in, or you think needs that level of detail and polish and go really deep there but that might not be the thing that customers want or is going to bring in revenue or whatever.

Pick a dimension that’s going to be successful for you. And you have to consistently triage and ruthlessly prioritize what’s important and keep at it, but also not lose track of why you’re doing this to begin with. You’re doing this in service of something else. You’re doing this for helping somebody else. That longer form storytelling and having that vision in your head, and you can’t lose sight of that. To me, there are a lot of parallels between game design, development, building something and founding a startup, I think.

Marc: Yes. I completely agree with you. I think that’s very well said. I think that there are some processes or systems you can also build to help try to foster that thinking. Early on one of the of meetings that was pretty frustrating for our team that I think in hindsight ended up being pretty important was, before the launch of League of Legends and we launched it in 2009, but we were spending a fixed amount of other people’s money, and at one point we had the highest burn rate of any company in our VC’s portfolio. This is our first time building a company, building a game. We had no idea what we were doing, we’re the mighty ducks, in game development, built on a lot of desire and heart, but not a lot of skill and capability.

As we started to really level up the team with some great experts that had a lot of experience and whatnot relative to many of the companies that they had come from, our capabilities or tools or systems or whatnot, we’re just really much less mature, which would be frustrating. That would then create a desire among entrepreneurs to complain and or advocate for different features or tool improvements or different things to help make their respective lives easier. Of course, artists would be advocating for better tools for lighting or animation or whatever it is. Designers from a content creation perspective or abilities. Engineers would want a million different things.

We actually think that that desire for people to identify things that they wanted was incredibly important, but that would then need to be compared to how all of the resources were currently allocated. We would have this meeting every two weeks where we would hear from everybody what would you want to advocate for from your perspective? Then we’d compare, here’s how all the team resources are allocated and we hear anything that everybody’s saying that is more important that we’re currently working on.

Generally, the answer would be no, and so then the perspective would be like, okay, great, so when we walk out the door, then let’s be a team and be quite aligned that this is what we’re doing. Again, we found early on, our team was quite frustrated given the lack of capabilities and all these, but driving alignment around what we’re doing and why and being able to evangelize was also really, really important.

Then just figuring out how to get creative with all these constraints to still accomplish what we needed to get on screen while simultaneously in the long run, working on longer-term or optimal solutions. To your point about doing resource-constrained, we still feel resource-constrained to this day, with thousands of people around the world now because, and one of the things that’s really important, of course, is to balance and throttle the work in progress and the scope and ambition and you’re always going to be resource constrained if there’s opportunity. In a lot of ways it’s a good thing.

Aarthi: That’s a good thing.

Marc: We have a throughput problem generally, not an opportunity problem which is I think a place you’d want to be.

Aarthi: Yes, I agree.

4. Becoming Marc Merrill

Sriram: I want to go down memory lane and get the Marc Merrill origin story because I think there are multiple pieces to it, but maybe the first piece that I really want to get to is as somebody who’s been behind one of the most successful games of all time, it’s very interesting to hear what were your formative gaming influence. When I think about me, a lot of other people in my age group, I grew up on Super Mario, then Contra, then graduated to Quake III and Half Life  and Counter-Strike and the evolution for anybody born in the 80s, I suspect. What were your formative gaming experiences, influences?

Marc: Well, I’ve loved games my whole life. A quick funny story is my parents didn’t want me to have an Nintendo when it was at the older age. I ended up winning one in a school raffle when I was in a first grader. With only a handful of tickets, it was the grand prize. Then my parents didn’t have the heart to take it away from me. It had started actually with an Atari that we happened to have at home, but then got Nintendo and loved it. Tech Mobile or Contra, Ghosts n’ Goblins and [unintelligible 00:21:46] and so many different games we could talk about back then. Then moved on to Genesis.

Right around the end of the Nintendo era and beginning of the Genesis from a console standpoint, we got our first PC at home. That to me was transformational, where I fell in love with the PC, messing around with nf.dos 3.0 and adjusting batch files to try to get games to work, changing conventional memory, boot disks and all that stuff. The first games that really started to love on PC were Heroes Quest. You want to be a hero from Sierra. They also made Police Quest and Space Quest and a bunch of great games like that. Those adventure games were great. I then loved as the modem started to come out on BBS had started to emerge, I started playing some essentially like text-based muds on some BBSs.

That was phenomenal. This is always interested in online games. I played Dungeons and Dragons. Growing up, my older brother Rick came home one day with his friend Allen and brought some D&D books and we dove in and thought that was amazing. Ended up playing some Warhammer 40,000 also, which is a Tabletop War Game. Loves Tabletops, loved console games, loved online games. It was really online games and then ultimately MMOs that really captured my heart. I played a ton of Blizzard is probably my favorite developer growing up I loved Warcraft II and StarCraft. Then of course, Warcraft III, played the heck out of World Warcraft.

From an MMO perspective, I also loved EverQuest and Ultima Online just incredible experiences there. To your point, also loved competitive games and played Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six in the early days and on Cali in different leagues and things like that. Brandon and I, the first business plan that we started working on when we were at USC together at the University of Southern California was to start an eSports company where we wanted to build third party events for certain games that we loved to help bolster competition. We ended up not doing anything with that business plan, but it’s been of course pretty exciting to be able to contribute to the Eastport scene with League of Legends and what we’ve done there in valor.

For me, I think going deep in few games rather than playing every game that comes out was really the way that my gaming taste evolved and largely around PC even though I’ve also, of course, played a lot of console games and most other things as well.

5. What led Marc to become a game developer?

Sriram: It’s interesting because I think given that your early access to the internet in some ways I think League really imminent like competitive online eSports. I suspect there is a connective tissue there between your online experiences with the early mods. For example, in other worlds where you didn’t have internet access and you’re playing only on your PC locally, it may not have led to the world where you understand social dynamics, you understand community, and all the things that happen later.

Which brings us to something else that I want to ask you about. It seems like there is a formative movement where you finish school and at the time there is really not a lot of career options in working in gaming, I would suspect, at least not the way it exists today. You had a fork in the road. I would love for you if you can maybe paint the picture of where you were in your life, what was going on in your head, and what made you choose because a lot of our audience are in that age group thinking about their life path, their career path, and I think that’s such an interesting story.

Marc: Well, thanks. I feel like I got incredibly lucky in a lot of ways. I went to SC and I studied political science in psychology and I had no idea what I wanted to study. I always figured I’d go get my MBA or maybe I’d go to law school. I just had so many different interests that was unsigned for two years. I started getting internships and working a couple of different jobs. I worked at Merrill Lynch in my senior year of college in the wealth management team. This is right when the internet bubble started bursting towards 2001.

I was hoping to get hired by this wealth management team as like a junior analyst, but they went on a hiring freeze. I was working there for 30 hours a week my senior year while taking more than a full load, getting in the office, or waking up at 4:00 in the morning. Sometimes my roommates would still be up.

Sriram: Wait, did you like it at all? Was it any fun at all or were you like, “I don’t want to do this. What am I doing with my life?”

Marc: The thing that I liked about it was I thought the people were smart and driven and I wanted to be around other people that had drive, that I really felt like could make me better and I could learn from. One of the things I learned in college is I am like Newtonian physics where when I’m at rest I will stay at rest or when I’m in motion, I will stay in motion.

If I have 100 things to do I’ll do them all, and I’ll do them well, and I get really stimulated and engaged, whereas if I otherwise I’ll start to procrastinate, I’ll play a bunch of games, things like that. I needed to put myself into a very challenging dynamic stimulating environment to really help ride for my potential. After not being able to be hired at Merrill Lynch, I then tried to figure out what to do and so wanted to work in finance as my first part of my career just to sort of check the box on this quant skillset. Ended up working as a commercial lending analyst at US Bank.

That was really not for me. I really didn’t like the job because it was incredibly one-dimensional. I could go through all sorts of stories about that, but also the people and environment there were not nearly as engaged, say, compared to the team that I was with at Merrill Lynch. That led to a bit of existential crisis for me. I’m like, “Wow, what am I going to do with my life? I don’t know. I feel like maybe I should go join the military.”

I really was reflecting deeply about how to go get into an environment that would really challenge myself. Ended up working at a company and trying to shift gears to then go– I joined the corporate marketing department for a company called Advanced Our Communications, which operated trade shows and published Business Today magazines and lucked out where I ended up being able to work relatively closely with their CEO, this guy named Joe Loja, who liked me also because I could write decently well and write his memos or board decks or things like that.

Then also, given some of my banking experience, could help manage the numbers and put together metric sheets and things like that. Learned a lot from him about how to run a company. Stayed there for about two and a half years and then while doing that, that’s when Brandon and I were living together in our apartment in West Hollywood and started working on the business plan for Riot. That was totally driven by just passion as players where we were playing a lot of a mod of Warcraft III at the time called Dota. Of course, which we absolutely loved.

From our perspective, it helped to demonstrate what we thought was going to be the future of the game business in that here was this mod that was growing virally that community members were updating that was still shoehorned inside a map editor of Warcraft III, but the community loved it and were incredibly engaged and evangelizing the game. It would evolve and grow with always different moders that were contributing to it over time.

We thought that games as a service was really going to become the way that the game would evolve or that the industry would evolve or that the industry would evolve. We were playing other MMOs at the time and a lot of times we’d hop on the forums and write a big message word post where we’d try to give feedback to developers and they’d say, “Working as intended.” Or wouldn’t respond at all. We dreamt of building a company that would put players at the center of decision-making rather than how a lot of content was created at the time, which was made for a shiny disk to be sold at retail. League of Legends was going to be the proof point to this broader company. Their thesis around high-quality, incredible games as a service to a hardcore audience. Also, of course, where our business model as a free-to-play game was going to be selling digital goods.

That was a very difficult thing to raise money for because in 2006 that was pre-cloud computing, pre-iPhone, and so it was a very different world at that time. It worked out.

6. Existential Crisis vs. taking risks

Sriram: There is something intellectual business side, which I want to get to, but I think the emotional life side is so fascinating because I know so many people who are on the default career life path. There are some really smart people. For example, there is an alternate dimension, where Marc Merrill flys up the finance bug manager chart mixed partner, is extremely well compensated by age you’re 40. You’re not changing the world of gaming.

A lot of people, they can do the next thing, do the next thing, become a doctor, become a lawyer, become, et cetera, et cetera. You’re just doing the default thing. Then one day, you’re age 35, age 40, and not that it’s too late, but you have the sudden crisis of okay, “wow, well, I should have done something then.” Sometimes it’s much structurally hard to take a risk than than when you’re 22. You’re living with another guy as a roommate and then we have a family and kids and whatnot. Do you see that? I think that’s such an interesting decision to make because you have a good role, and you give that up to make a plunge.

Marc: For sure. What’s interesting is I felt incredibly excited about the opportunity to take a risk, exactly to your point. Around one– I think the naivete in terms of how hard it would be, and how unqualified Brandon and I were actually to pull off what we’re trying to do was helpful. Because we joke, but I think it’s true. If we knew what we knew now, in terms of all the different things that would have had to come together, to be able to pull off what occurred, probably we wouldn’t have done. I think that naive optimism was incredibly helpful, as well as the time in our lives when we didn’t have families and all of the associated responsibilities of needing to support lifestyle and things like that.

Both Brandon and I are married now for many, many years. He’s got four kids, I have two kids that are nine and– It’s a real difficult challenge to dedicate yourself now, at least for me to dedicate myself the way that I did, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, and also because I want to spend a ton of time with my kids. I think it’s absolutely critical because we’re not going to get this time back. I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful that I’m in a situation or opportunity where I can still do what I love to do on the game side, but still lean in on the family side and my wife’s an entrepreneur as well, Ashley, but building companies while raising kids is an incredibly challenging thing.

To your point around the emotional management piece, I do think that as I reflect on the journey, managing my own psychology was the hardest part of the entire experience because there’s so many moments where we felt like we were going to fail, so many moments where we almost did fail, so many moments I felt like I was going to let down the entire team, company, or players, but those experiences over time, I think, have helped me calibrate and have a healthier way to engage and operate in a long-term perspective. It’s really been a journey.

7. Building Riot and League of Legends

Sriram: The story of the initial several years of League and Riot has been told in multiple forms. I was trying to figure out how to best tackle it here. I think one sort of interesting access is Riot being such a player-focused company and in a lot of companies I think that sentence can sound like a platitude. It’s a thing that you hear on employee orientation that nobody really cares about, but as you dig into this and talk to people, I’m so impressed by things little and big that you folks do to really embody, for example, the fact that somebody can call up customer support, and I believe they’ve shot a few RP and they paint in MS Paint. It is a tiny little goofy things to some really big things. I’m curious about the initial years of Riot and League but really tied to the idea of playing so player-focused as maybe the unifying religion or theme that binds the company together.

Marc: It really is. We always viewed Riot as a mission-driven company to your earlier point where it’s not about us, it’s about our players and we aspire to serve them. That orientation and having it actually manifest in terms of how we’re making decisions, what we’re willing to prioritize, what we’re willing to do or not do as a company was I think one of the most important elements to attracting great talent that wanted to really support that mission and pour their heart and souls into building League. League has had so many different teams as an example, over time, and Riot’s now about 4,000 people around the world.

I do think that that mission and orientation and cultural aspect of people that are willing to go above and beyond and recognize that the difference between a great decision in our business and a terrible decision is how that decision manifests for our players is the thing which has led to all of our innovation, whether it’s business model or why we ended up publishing ourselves, or how we expanded internationally, or why we built eSports where we did, or why we’ve invested in music.

Then something we did– TV with Arcane, everything has been driven from that perspective of how do we make it better to be a player? It’s amazing when you have a like-minded group of people who are challenging each other to try to go do incredible things for a different audience. I think that’s the most important thing we got right at the company. All the success of Riot has been driven by the incredible people who do great work every day in and day out.

8. What’s the biggest challenge / decision you’ve made?

Sriram: I want to ask you something which is, do you have an example of a story or a decision where other companies would have gone in different direction, but being player-focused meant that you may have difficult decision or handled a difficult situation. Do you have an example of that?

Marc: Yes. Lots. In one of the biggest things that is a challenge around being better focused is actually the way that we make decisions, I think an ideal situation is oftentimes counter to the short-term best interests of the company from a P and L perspective. We look at revenue as a trailing indicator where if we’re doing the right thing upstream where players are engaged and they’re playing and they’re loving the game and they’re feeling we’re adding a great amount of value, then we’re aligning our perspective with that of our players where it’s if they’re not buying our skins or not playing our game, it’s like what else can we do to do a better job? They make something else that they may want to appreciate and that means that operating a scale of business from a traditional general management perspective actually clashes with those goals.

There are many situations where there may be some type of sponsor that is willing to pay a lot more money to do it, say a brand sponsorship deal on the eSport side or whatnot, or that that brand may not resonate sufficiently with our players or the nature of the deal in some way would feel a little bit more like it’s extracting value rather than adding value or whatnot. It’s like all of our biggest mistakes as an organization have come from those types of situations where we’re actually not putting players at the center of our decisions for whatever reason.

It’s not because there are evil people that are twisting their mustache, it’s really well-intentioned smart people that– or different systems or incentives that we have maybe unintentionally designed in the organization, let’s say, like a B2B revenue target. Either that or causing great people to work on that goal but in a way that they’re not fully connecting the dots down the chain in terms of how that’s going to then manifest your players. That is something we really struggle with. At scale, I think a lot of our biggest mistakes have come from that type of execution. We’re constantly working on doing a better job of clarifying how to actually add better players, what that looks like, and we had to do a lot of training and education and reverse mentorship where people who are much closer to what’s happening on the ground in a given game can work with and educate other parts of the organization around where things are at with players.

Just managing that balance is really, really difficult, which has been an impediment on our growth as well, but I think, to a certain extent, a healthy way because it’s the amount of talent that exists that can manage a really complex global organization but simultaneously understands how a decision is going to manifest for our players and what will be great or not is just a really narrow pool. Anyway, that’s a tension that exists constantly.

One example actually as it relates to Arcane, and this is an interesting situation, but Arcane was given a particular budget to go build an automation pipeline and to go build several seasons. One of the things that happened over time, and this is going to make a very long story short, but was we were behind schedule and over the budget for season one based on the rough back-of-the-envelope math in terms of what it should take to build the season. Naturally, there became a desire to catch up and to spend less.

The challenge was that one of the ways or techniques to do that would be, well, let’s go outsource. Let’s go find another studio in Hyderabad or [unintelligible 00:41:18] or a great studio in China, whatnot. Let’s train them on the automation pipeline and try to build more assets more or less. The challenge is the unique style in animation pipeline and taste and creative dynamic that was able to make Arcane was so unique and it’s so beautiful and has so much chemistry and so much artistry that it would have been impossible to go train or arguably impossible. Another studio, especially in a reasonable amount of time and to level up their talent to get enough alignment.

The actual act of trying to save money would actually try to probably end up destroying the project, and at one point, the creator of Arcane, Christian, resigned because of some of that tension where there was a misalignment between some of the leaders around– that were manning [unintelligible 00:42:19] at the time, and there was just a lot of tension there because Christian was so oriented towards, “I have to create this amazing thing. I think it’s great,” and didn’t feel it was being valued or appropriately understood.

We’re able to go help resolve that situation as a company, but it just illustrates the danger and challenge of a traditional management system on something that is so creative and requires so much faith and ties to that vision because we were taking a massive risk. Even Netflix called Arcane when they first saw it, and they were a great partner and did awesome things, but a feathered fish where they’re like, “It’s adult animation, but in this hardcore style that doesn’t exist. There’s anime and there’s Pixar, but nobody watches this. Where’s the market?”

Again, just because somebody hasn’t done something doesn’t mean it can’t work or be great, but having the courage without the data points to go persevere through something that is also very expensive relative to what else has been done can be terrifying. It’s very important for leaders organizationally to try to foster a psychologically safe environment where you can allow for experimentation and failure and things like that, and that’s just really hard to do at scale.

9. The unconventional making of Arcane

Sriram: Now, I’m so happy you brought up Arcane because, in my notes, I was like, “I want to spend so much time talking about this.” Now I’m going to do a little speech here. I think it’s safe to say that the history of video game IP turned into scripted content is not good, right? It’s a hundred years from now when there’s a retrospective on the golden age of cinema, the Doom movie is not going to be in there. Sorry, folks who worked on the Doom movie.

When Arcane came out, there were so many things that was going against it on paper. Number one, video game IP turned into scripted content. You’re working with this slightly out-of-the-wave Parisian studio footage, which I really want you to talk about, which I think you’re referring to, and you’re also doing it purely in-house, and by a set of people who have really no background in creating scripted content. There’s so many– I remember Arti and I watching this, and to be honest, I play League, but I’m not a huge player, so I was not coming in with a lot of fandom, and we went like– and holy shit, we were blown away, first episode– we were actually bridging this last night to prepare for– we were like, “This is so good. This animation style, the emotional style is just–“

Aarthi: I think the storytelling, the visuals of it, incredibly powerful, very consistent from episode to episode, you feel for the characters, you know exactly what they’re feeling and going through. This is a well-told story that is also really masterfully created from a graphical standpoint, from a visual effects standpoint. It’s such a textbook way of taking an existing IP and doing a fantastic job all around.

Even people who have no idea what League is, they would come in, and I’m guessing that’s a lot of people who are watching Arcane for the first time, they’re like, “I don’t know what this League thing is, but I just want to watch the show.” They come in and they look at it and say, “Wow, I’m so invested in the story.” I was looking at the hashtags on Twitter and stuff. A lot of these people don’t know League. They’re just going with it, and there’s just huge fandom around it.

Sriram: Yes, and even if you know League, MOBA is really hard to do storytelling in. It’s not like, for example, Last of Us seems to be having a great show, there’s so much storytelling. The reason is just to say we are huge fans. I love it. Folks who are watching this, if you haven’t seen it, watch Arcane, then there’s amazing content on YouTube over the making of Arcane. I highly recommend it, but I would love for you to maybe unpack some of the origin story behind some of these decisions because in, again, an alternate universe, you could have gone to a traditional Hollywood movie maker or creator, not done it in-house. You could’ve gone to a traditional studio, and you took so many unconventional decisions, and I’d love– maybe tell us the story behind that.

Marc: Sure. Well, one, thanks for the praise. We’re incredibly proud of that, incredibly proud of the team that is behind it, and also incredibly proud of all of the writers who have worked hard on it really behind the scenes on doing all the world-building because, to your point, League is a multiplayer online battle arena game. You have these champions that are pretty small on screen that you play for a given game session, but when we were always creating these characters, all of us were dreaming that they were real, and they were from real places.

Even if we hadn’t yet done the creative development to really define what is Demacia, which is a section of our world aside from where originally this being a point on a map. As League became more successful, and we started generating revenue and profit eventually, it gave us the excuse or justification to go to continue to invest, not only in League of Legends, and of course, in eSports, and other things like [unintelligible 00:47:33] other games, but then also to really build out the world to build a foundation for great storytelling.

League, the MOBA, to your point, is not a great vehicle for storytelling. It’s like a game– Storytelling is really the setting for League of Legends. It’s about context and who these characters are, but as you play these characters for hundreds of hours or thousands of hours, you start to get to know the personalities, the art’s really cool, players want to know more about them.

The origin was a lot of the individuals that are involved in the creation of a lot of these characters early on were always talking about what would it be like to build a League movie. It was really Brandon, my partner, and Christian Linke, and then Alex Yee, who really helped kick off Arcane and make it a thing. Christian showed up one day, who was also working with Fortiche originally when they were much, much smaller.

10. Who is Fortiche and why are they important?

Sriram: Do you want to maybe talk about who Fortiche is and what they do?

Marc: Sure. Fortiche is an animation studio located in Paris. We started working with them back in 2013, where we took a really crazy step also of launching a character in League of Legends with a soundtrack, and then a music video. That’s where we launched Jinx, actually, with the Get Jinxed song with a music video that really was designed to illustrate her personality.

Anyway, we did lots of collaborations with Fortiche over the years. Christian, in particular, who was the front lines of driving a lot of collaboration, really felt that they had genius-level creative talent and wanted to help find ways to unlock it from an art and animation and aesthetic perspective. Doing some cool trailers, which we were doing in 2012, 2013, 2014, some music videos, some high-end CGs and fight scenes, going from there to then a full-featured TV series with dialogue and great character development was a massive leap, so we were all incredibly intimidated by it.

The cool thing is when you have incredibly talented people that believe in the mission and want to do great things for players and love these characters, love the IP, the constraints drive a lot of innovation. Originally, Christian showed up with some animation tests and was like, “Hey, look at this cool animation style. Let’s get some budget and let’s figure this out.”

Anyway, it just evolved over the years where we had to help grow Fortiche from the handful of animators they are to now over 300 animators. There’s just a lot of stories we get into. There’s actually a documentary series that released that talks about it, it’s called Bridging the Rift. It’s the behind-the-scenes episode around the making of Arcane. Arcane almost didn’t happen multiple times as well because, at one point, Brandon made the tough call as well when the show wasn’t good enough, but we had hundreds of animators working on it, to hit pause and redo a bunch of the scripts.

We had to figure out what were we going to do to pivot the several hundred animators to– so we don’t lose them, to put them on some interesting projects. That actually led to the creation of one of our notable bands, which is K/DA, which is a K-pop band. We released a soundtrack and a song, or a song rather called POP/STARS, which ended up becoming the world’s most-downloaded song in 2018. The music video ended up having hundreds of millions of views just on YouTube and billions of views around the world. Just the talent in team and passion in and around Arcane and our music facilities, we’re just incredibly fortunate to have incredible people there.

11. Why make movies yourself?

Sriram: Why were you doing this in-house? Because a lot of other companies would’ve been like, “Well, we don’t have the internal capability to do scripted content. We don’t do story– we don’t make movies, we make amazing games. Great. We don’t make movies. Let’s hand this off. Let’s call up somebody in Hollywood, who’s done this before. Let’s hand it off to the– we can collaborate.” Now, you made this unconventional choice to go do it yourself in-house. Why?

Marc: Yes, we’re located in LA too, so I obviously know a lot of people at the various studios, and studios would come by and hit us up from time to time, but what was interesting was the studios essentially would be like, “Hey, we’d love to make a League movie or do something to collaborate.” I’m like, “Okay, well, why,” and they’d say, “Well, because it’s big.” It quickly became apparent that the goals oftentimes, especially, getting back 10-plus years ago, it was, again, to sell tickets. Our goal was, “Well, we want to make something great,” and to really help enhance and invest in the IP.

We just had recognized that there was goal misalignment. Then, what to do about that when we still wanted to try to bring a show to bear or do great storytelling in the universe, it essentially meant that we would have to find the right partner or build capabilities in-house. Generally speaking, that’s actually the same dynamic that led to why I’ve ended up doing a lot of eSports in-house or doing music analysis. We realized we’d love to partner whenever we can find partners that can truly align with us and really, really care. We’ve had some great successful collaborations, including a band like Imagine Dragons who play League.

Sriram: And the title song for Arcane among other things.

Aarthi: Yes.

Marc: Right. We originally collaborated with them in 2014 to make the song Warriors, and they performed at our world championships in Korea. Then that relationship continued to build over time, which led to the Enemy track which is the opening track for Arcane. That’s an example of great chemistry, great alignment. That’s just rare, and we figured out over time Riot’s pretty hard to partner with. We’re hard to partner with because our goals, again, are just often different than any of the companies.

That meant that we had to have necessity be the mother of invention, which is how do we do it ourselves. Then Christian and Alex, as an example, who were the two showrunners of Arcane, they had never written a page of TV before in their life, but they’re incredible creators, incredible storytellers, loved our characters, and figured it out and augmented. We had a writer’s room with some great people in it, but it wasn’t working and then we had to reboot it. We had to iterate. That’s why it took us six years to actually launch the first season.


12. How do you create a compelling story?

Sriram: I want to get into that. I want to maybe just actually go deep into just what he just said, which is, Will Wright of legendary [unintelligible 00:54:35] of SimCity, et cetera, has a amazing masterclass. One of the things that I’ll remember is he said the emotional palette of movies is very different emotional palette for a video game. In a video game, for example, you have emotions like teamwork, winning something, which you never get in a movie. Sometimes movies are very good at delivering things like suspense or tragedy or romance or turning someone on, which is sometimes harder in a way, but maybe not, we have great storytelling, but they’re different. What do you now know about creating a compelling story and how it is crafted that you didn’t know when you started this?

Marc: The way Christian would describe it was– again, to a certain extent, you would argue that the inexperience was helpful because when they originally sat down and started to write a script for a pilot and then outline for the season, they were doing it in a way that was very unconventional and not the best practice for how many writers were trained. The brainstorming and discussions around what would be important from a storytelling standpoint was initially, again, unconstrained, uninformed from best practice, but as we tried to make progress, the lack of the frame of reference for the right type of framework and pacing and what story elements need to be true and what pieces of an episode really were showing.

We needed to augment them with expertise. Essentially it’s like we had to find the right formula in terms of capabilities for both the craft and the expertise but also chemistry with the passion and deep understanding and love of the characters and the ideas of what could bring these characters to life. Again, there was no guarantee that it would work, and I think, in many cases, it wouldn’t, but the reason, to quote Catmull, the president of Pixar, you can give a great idea to a mediocre team and they’ll make it mediocre. You can give a mediocre idea to a great team and they’ll make it great.

I think part of the magic of what happened was we just ended up having the right people who were unwilling to not make something great and the company that was willing to invest and support and be patient and allow for the iteration, again, even though there’s a lot more detail to that story.

One of the things that was fascinating though is the amount of internal resistance, your point too, where a lot of people were going, “We’re a game company. What the hell are we doing? Why do we want to go Hollywood?” type thing. To a certain extent, that’s a very valid question, but from the other end, everybody got it after Arcane came out and worked, and then they saw our players’ reaction and love for it because it really helped, of course, elevate the IP in a lot of ways, in a way that we couldn’t achieve with the traditional mediums we had on the game side.

Sriram: It’s amazing.

Marc: It was a big leap.

Sriram: Just before we move on, I think one of the things I love about Arcane, we were watching it last night and I was able to watch it a second time, and it is so ambitious in so many different dimensions. For example, there are two– this is not really spoilers if folks haven’t watched it, and if you’ve probably [unintelligible 00:57:55] so long, you’ve probably watched it, which is, there are two time jumps in one season. There are so many different characters to track and so many different things. There’s the rich folks, the poor folks. There is this Hextech, this advanced piece of technology happening. There is family strife, there are so many different things going on.

There’s obviously the graphical elements being really pushed, I mean, just gorgeous. We were watching a fight sequence in episode 6 and the way it is shot, the pacing, it’s like nothing you have ever seen before. I was like, it is so ambitious in what it is trying to do. There are so many elements, and I can totally imagine the easier, simpler version of it. It’s like, “Let’s take our most popular champion, having to set out–” I just want to say this conversation with you and everyone on the team because the sheer ambition, risk-taking, and just– you folks nailed the landing on that one.

Marc: Oh, thank you. I will say, all credit in the world to Fortiche, and to Christian and Alex and Melinda, and the whole squad. There’s been a lot of people that have poured blood, sweat, and tears into that, both from the Arcane perspective as well as from the League of Legends world-building perspective. It takes a village, but what’s interesting is Riot is really a work in progress. In some ways, I feel like we take two steps forward, one step back over and over and over, but at every new threshold, we achieve new things, but then we sometimes forget or need to relearn some of the fundamentals. The thing that keeps the company strong over time is that mission-

Sriram: I love it.

Marc: -and the general commitment that everybody has to learning and getting better. When you are able to go long-term and you have incredibly talented people who are unwilling to let something not be great, crazy things can happen.

13. Permissionless Creativity

Aarthi: Also, I think the other thing that stood out to me, and I feel you’re underplaying this a little bit, you attribute your team for success and I think all that’s true, part of it I think for me is you mentioned psychological safety, but in the context of that, I think there’s something magical about you and your team and the company being– just refusing to take the status quo as it is.

You call it naivety. Through the course of the last hour, you’ve had different words for the same thing, but I think at the end of it, you’re okay, you are almost– you don’t seek permission to go do rebellious things, mostly because there’s no pattern to go match against, so that gives you freedom to go operate, and you refuse to take the norm of like, “Oh, you know what? We’re making a show, what is the way to do it? Conventional wisdom says go to the people who’ve done shows before and work with them and seek their expertise.”

A lot of this very quickly goes down this path of this extreme focus-grouped, best practices thing. You give this freedom to yourself, to the team, to say, “Ignore that for a second. We think we know what we’re doing here. We may be wrong, but we should at least go try this,” and have this rebellious spirit and attitude. I think you underplay that a little bit, and I think there is something about having that very scrappy mentality of being able to do that.

Marc: Well, thanks. I do think– one of the values that we talk about at Riot is “Stay hungry, stay humble”. I think that when you truly have a mission that people really believe in, you can really never achieve that mission. The goalpost always moves. I think it’s also a really incredible experience. I feel incredibly lucky, and I think many people that have had this experience feel this lucky to work with and around really talented people who always want to get better and always want to improve, and are never satisfied with anything that they do.

That can be both an incredible blessing but also an incredible curse because there’s always something more you can do. We could have done a better job for players. We could have fixed this other thing or whatever it is, and we see all the warts, and so do our creators. It’s that drive that is genuine to try to do something great that they will love, that they hope other people will love too.

That ties to that point of reference [unintelligible 01:02:22]. It’s like when you really share that same dream and people are committed and all in, finding a way, from top to bottom and not just in the organization but also shareholders, without the capital structure and a successful organization to be able to fund some of these longer-term risky [unintelligible 01:02:39] and the patience to get some things wrong, it would never enable the type of innovation for the things we actually get right because there’s a lot of stuff we get wrong.

Sometimes we ship stuff that is not great, and we got to acknowledge it and wind it back or fix it. Other times we can’t get something– it’s not coming together, and we just cancel it, or it never sees the light of day, but I think it’s really important that we, therefore, don’t stop swinging the bat. We think it’s incredibly important to have the courage to be bad at the right thing, so then you can become good at the right thing over time as you’re learning, iterating, and improving.

Aarthi: That’s great.

14. The #1 future trend to look out for

Sriram: I want to look to the future a little bit. Looking out next five to seven years, what are trends in gaming or competition or just the internet, which get you really excited that you think you and maybe people watching this will be paying a lot of attention to?

Marc: I haven’t been so excited because of a technical trend in a long time as I am for AI. The fact that ChatGPT and Midjourney and Stable Diffusion exist and are doing what they’re doing, I had the luxury of meeting Sam Altman a couple of times and talking to him about some things, that I thought that the time horizon that he was talking about was way farther away than actually it turns out to be. To me, the potential of AI is just blowing my mind. There’s many people at the company that are just incredibly excited to dream and think about the types of gameplay experiences or other applications that could leverage where this revolutionary technology is.

15. What will GPT look like 5 years from now?

Sriram: Give me an example, something very specific. Five years from now, GPT-5 or something of that like, what can I log in, play, what will I see?

Marc: Well, I think it depends on the type of game experience, but I do dream of a virtual world where– let’s just call it where I can walk into the Last Drop, the bar in [unintelligible 01:04:47] everybody’s from and have a full-on conversation with the barkeep and it’s totally AI-driven; synthesized chat or text to voice with emotion in the culture and infused at the history of that particular region. There’s so many possibilities that are going to be opening up over time that are going to be very difficult to pull off, but again, that if we can get right, it will be incredibly compelling.

Sriram: I’ve been playing over the holidays a lot of Elden Ring. Arti [unintelligible 01:05:22] me into a lot of Elden Ring or any one of these things, and you can poke one of the NPC characters a few times and they run out of dialogue, and that’s that. ChatGPT became a thing over the same time horizon. I was like, “Well, ChatGPT can totally replace this.” You can just chat with the barkeep all night and they can have a conversation with you, and it’s not the five, six ones that are scripted and then they run out of lines.

Marc: Well, I think the question is how do you have a situation where that doesn’t happen? I think that as time goes on to infinity, that’ll absolutely be the case. For those that have read Ender’s Game, the infinitely evolving, tied into his brand, game that adjusts dynamically to deliver incredible experiences, that will likely exist at some point. How that manifests or what platform it’s on, who knows, it’s probably decades away, but it’s fun to think about AI, the scope increases that can exist also from improved workflows and capabilities.

A lot of engineers are thrilled that there’s things like Copilot that can help them write code more efficiently and effectively and reduce mistakes. A lot of artists, of course, are appropriately threatened and feeling scared for a lot of the AI generative capabilities. I think that a lot are also really embracing or realizing that there can be an unlocking of a lot of creative potential as well and some new skills can be developed on that, but there’s just a lot of the capability to do more for players.

I think we’re going to need to figure it out as an organization, we’re going to need to figure out as artists, and engineers, and designers, and producers, and as an industry, but I think it’s an exciting time. It’ll take a while for these things to really manifest in significantly meaningful ways for games, but I think in the next 5 and definitely 7 to 10 years, there will be a generational leap that is going to be significant.

16. Marc’s return to Riot games

Sriram: You’ve recently– well, not recently, you returned to Riot. I think it’s also interesting in terms of timelines because League is now over a decade old. If you’re going to go back to the history of games, games are considered these heat-driven mechanics. You play for a little bit of time and they go on, but League, and there’ll never be a League 2, there’ll be League 10 years from now, it’s going to be 10 years already. I’m curious, A, why did you come back? What motivated you? B, what is League at 20 years, and the League of 2030 going to look like?

Marc: It’s a good question and we’re talking about that a lot internally. We’ve got some cool stuff that we’re going to start to tease the players actually over the next couple of months around what a big next inflection point could be. Why I came back is, one, I never fully left. When Brandon and I stepped down as co-CEOs, we both became co-chairmen and we were exhausted from burning at both ends for 13 years straight.

We kept getting involved operationally, first, with some projects, and then on the entertainment side to help make sure we could get Arcane out the door and do it justice. Then I’m back over on the game side now, but the catalyst for all those engagements is essentially, I wasn’t willing to have certain things that I cared a lot about not happen, and there were some big things that were at risk that I cared a lot about such as launching or announcing a lot of our games that we worked on for a long period of time and getting those right, Arcane, and then there’s some stuff on the game side.

It’s interesting because I think that we’re really trying to institutionalize what makes Riot special, which means that, of course, succession planning and developing leaders is incredibly important. We’ve got a great executive team and CEO and Nicolo, who built International for us and ran it for a long time. We’ve got an amazing team, but there are certain perspectives and/or capabilities that are really important to the creation of great things that sometimes are at risk, and at risk just because of the nature of how much is going on and all the incredible capabilities we have now.

It’s been exciting and gratifying and challenging, and I was afraid for it for a while, but to be asked to dive back in and help in different ways, and then I was excited to find out again, I really love being back in the trenches. It’s a labor of love and I think I have a healthier engagement with the company now than I did for the first 12 or 13 years where I’m re-engaging, a little more mature, a little more balanced in life, a little more effective in managing my time, a little more strategic high level, and trusting a lot of our great leaders and people in ways that sometimes I had to grab the wheel a little bit more or did grab the wheel a little bit more earlier on. Just trying to find the right balance, but I’m not willing to let it go yet.

17. Marc Merrill’s gaming list 

Sriram: A couple of some fun stuff, what are some non-Riot-made games that has impressed you, or you’ve been playing a bunch in recent times?

Marc: Well, Dark and Darker is a pretty cool fun game that’s getting some buzz right now. It’s from a small Korean studio that’s a fun RPG team-based extraction game, like a PUBG, Tarkov. One of the cool things about the game business is it’s constantly being disrupted or there’s new platforms or business models or new cool gameplay innovations or new technology. It’s just a really dynamic industry, so there’s just always opportunity, but that’s one that I think is pretty cool. I mentioned earlier that I’m a big fan of Warhammer 40K.

Sriram: There’s a movie coming out with Henry Cavill, who is probably one of the hugest fans of Warhammer 40K in the celebrity world.

Marc: Absolutely. I know the people at Games Workshop that helped put that deal together and whatnot, and I’m so thrilled as a fan. I’m so excited for Henry and for Amazon. I also think that especially with The Last of Us doing well and the approach that Hollywood is also taking now with games I think is very different than it was 7 to 10 years ago, where I think there’s much more desire to really try to invest in these properties and make them great as well, which I think really bodes well for the future. That’s something that’s really exciting. WoW just had a great new expansion, Dragonflight, which brought in a lot of hype again. We got a lot of friends at Blizzard, always want them to win, are big fans.

Sriram: Did you get a chance to play Elden Ring at all? Which has been– if you look at 2022, it always comes as one of the top games. Elden Ring, did you get a chance to play it at all?

Marc: Sorry, which game was that?

Sriram: Elden Ring.

Marc: Oh, Elden Ring. No. I bought it, but I haven’t played it. A lot of Rioters have told me all about it. Of course, watched and stream it, but I haven’t gotten a chance to play it yet. That game looks right up my alley. One of the cool things that I think Elden Ring and a lot of the open-world games are open to demonstrate also is the question of what is an MMO, is also continuing to evolve because there’s so many games that are demonstrating different aspects of multiplayer, or large numbers of players online, but not necessarily in the way of a traditional MUD-style game like that EverQuest or Wow. That’s also really, really cool.

Sriram: One of the things I love about Elden Ring, and I’m not a game creator at all by any chance, is that it is so unapologetic. It’s hard. There are no signs.

Marc: Totally.

Sriram: It’s brutal. There is no difficulty level. It’s just hard and you have to figure this out. I can totally imagine maybe a more western style mechanic to be like, “Well, we got to make it easier,” blah, blah, blah. They just totally went for it and I think there is something pure about that, “Hey, this is like learning to play the violin,” or, “It’s going to be hard,” but that is part of the appeal. Once you get into it, it really resonated with me.

Marc: Yes. I think we had a lot of the same philosophy at League. To your point, that’s a good example of why games are hard. The best games have a perspective. I think they’re not, again, trying to sort of chase some commercial trend, but recognized something that a visionary or a creator thinks would be incredible and can rally a whole team of amazing creators to go realize. I think Elden Ring, of course, deserves all the great accolades that they’ve gotten for doing exactly that.

18. #1 advice for founders

Aarthi: That’s awesome. I see [unintelligible 01:14:58] every night pointing at the screen, cursing, yelling. This is him trying to play Elden Ring and make some progress every day. [chuckles]

Marc, I think I touched on the similarities with founders and starting companies, that kind of thing. A lot of our show listeners are either founders or people who want to be founders, and it’s a fairly– we have audiences from basically across the world, so different markets, different countries. I guess knowing what you know, you’re very deep into the founder, entrepreneurial journey, you’ve learned a lot through this process, and you’re trying to constantly push the boundaries here. What advice do you have for founders or people who want to be founders?

Marc: Yes, great question. I think the number one thing to me that would be important for a founder is fall in love with a problem essentially and/or an opportunity rather than thinking something is going to be a great way to make a buck. I think that great entrepreneurs are really driven and motivated by trying to improve something that they feel very dissatisfied by and/or could see intimately and feel how that thing could be better.

That orientation, in my experience, tends to lead to that relentless problem-solving and resourcefulness to figure out how to leverage all the critical thinking capabilities, whatever, to solve whatever problem. I think that orientation also helps inspire other great people who also want to solve that problem in some meaningful way to come join you on the journey. When that’s authentic and real and you’re committed, there’s a lot of gravitational pull that can be created that can help attract capital, the human and financial to go make that a reality.

Aarthi: Okay. That’s great.

Sriram: I love it. I think there’s probably not a better note I can think of.

Aarthi: Yes. This was such a blast.

19. Who’s the most underappreciated champion in League?

Sriram: Yes. I’m going to have one last final fun thing. Who in your mind is the most underappreciated champion in League?

[laughter]

Marc: That’s a good question.

Sriram: This is not Marc Merrill, this is [unintelligible 01:17:37] answering, we can change the captions or something.

Marc: Yes. I would say, what’s so interesting is I know the data, so I know a lot of people are fans of– somebody loves all of our characters. Every character isn’t for everybody, but somebody loves the characters. One character or one champion that sort of straddles that line between a champion you love or you hate and it’s just binary, there’s no intermediate, and it is Teemo. I think Teemo adds a lot of dimensionality to League because it was one of the early Yordles that we created, and it really helped define the Scout’s code which ended up being part of a sort of cultural experience being in [unintelligible 01:18:29] city and it’s just super annoying to play against, but also really fun to play as, so Teemo was a great champion.

Sriram: I love it. I think this is going to go viral, that last 30 seconds right there. “Riot founder says–” Marc, I just want to say I’ve gotten to know you a little bit online and I always love our conversations and just your journey. Not just really reinventing the category of eSports, but then moving into different worlds with content and entertainment. I’m so excited to see Arcane season two and everything that comes out of that. It’s such a pleasure. This was amazing.

Aarthi: I think we love the breadth of ambition that you have and the drive to just go create and then to follow through that with incredible execution, it’s just such a delight to just watch you and Riot at work and pull this all together and just see the whole journey. This is such an inspiration for us, it’s kind of a bucket list interview. Thanks so much for just making the time and making this happen.

Marc: Cool. Thank you to you both. It’s been really fun being here and loved it. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Sriram: Awesome. Thanks, Marc.

Aarthi: Awesome.

Marc: Bye guys.