League of Legends: Why Riot should be catering to noobs

While player toxicity is a problem, F2P expert Ethan Levy writes that the first-time user experience is potentially a drag on the bottom line

I'm 28 minutes into my fourth ever match of League of Legends when it happens. Another player lets me know that I "is noob" and "suck ballz." Post game, the player antagonizes the chat room saying we are "so fricken bad" and the "worst team ever". That's when TwoBigButts comes to our defense, letting the abusive player know they were not so great either and that they should go back to Heroes of Newerth because "we don't need more toxic players."

And I was terrible that round. I had 1 kill, 11 deaths and 8 assists in a 40-minute match ending in a miserable defeat. I was roughly five hours into learning League of Legends as a complete neophyte to MOBAs and I experienced the oft mentioned toxicity firsthand.

I played six more matches and experienced one more act of toxicity. Despite 0 kills, 9 deaths and 13 assists in my ninth game I was not the target of the abusive behavior. One player on my team told another "go kill yourself." Other than playing against a player named TittyQueef, the toxicity experienced in my first time user experience (FTUE) was much lighter than I was expecting when I started this project.

Immaturity and multiplayer gaming go hand in hand

"Someone will call you a c**t," remarks my friend after I tell him my plan to jump feet first into League's PvP with the Summoner name BeckyLovesRaichu. I was talking to a fellow San Francisco developer who happened to be working on a MOBA game. To familiarize himself with the world of League he had just finished playing 20 hours of co-op PvE before jumping into a single PvP match. Based on his experience, his hypothesis was that with an obviously female handle and predictably poor play, I would not only be the target of toxicity but that it would take a misogynistic spin. That was my hypothesis too when I choose the name. I wanted to see if being obviously female would make a notoriously toxic game even worse.

"Although I did experience abuse from immature players and a general air of misogyny, it was nothing compared to the beating I took from the user experience itself"

I joined LoL with the intention of writing about toxicity and its probable impact on the bottom line. Riot knows it has a toxicity problem and is working hard to reform members of its player base. I wanted to see firsthand what it is like to join the community. Although I did experience abuse from immature players and a general air of misogyny, it was nothing compared to the beating I took from the user experience itself.

Joining a mature game and community

LoL is undoubtedly one of the most popular games in the world. Just this week it boasted daily active user numbers of 27 million and a recent analyst report estimated the game brought in $624 million in revenue in 2013. It has been live for over 4 years and I have no doubt the game will still be popular 10 years from now. However, when running a juggernaut of a game on the level of LoL or WoW, one must anticipate and fix problems not just months but years before they fully manifest. After my experience joining LoL, I believe the maturity of the game and its overwhelming FTUE pose as big if not a bigger threat to long term health than toxic player behavior.

As a new player and a hardcore gamer, my general feeling in my first 10 hours of LoL was confusion. With a backlog of unplayed games as large as mine, it is rare for me to give a game more than an hour of time if I am overwhelmed or not having fun, no matter its reputation. Had I not been playing for the purposes of research, I would have moved on to another game either at or before the match where I was informed of my predilection for placing male anatomy in my mouth.

This confusion came from three main vectors. The first is the jargon inherent in joining a mature community. Where I was expecting other players to type furiously away at how horrible I was I mostly experienced silence. When players did talk it was simply to declare top, mid, bot or jung or to gg before exiting to find another match. I figured out soon enough what these terms meant but have no idea the strategy implied by each of these choices. Additionally, players on my team frequently began votes of surrender early into matches that felt wide open to me. I did not know why they wanted to give up so quickly.

The second vector was being shown but not taught the game's deeper systems. 10 hours in and I have little to no idea how to make decisions about what items to buy. Runes and mastery are a mystery to me. For the first half of my play sessions I chose Heimerdinger; as a turret-based support character I was able to play adequately and rack up my fair share of kills and assists. When the champions rolled over and I had 90 seconds to make a decision with very little information, I picked Trundle and was trounced for the remainder of my matches. I was overwhelmed by game systems I did not understand and time pressure to make choices.

The third vector is inside the game itself. When I was playing poorly, it was not clear to me why I was playing poorly. I had no idea what other players were doing to level so fast, or why I was slaughtered so quickly while my opponents seemed to take no damage. I knew that I was bad at LoL, but I had no idea what I was supposed to do to play more effectively. When I debriefed with friends who are years into playing, they let me know that item choices are incredibly important and that Trundle is a particularly hard character to play. If I wanted to get better I needed to read strategy guides and watch gameplay videos. I needed to learn to read my opponents' item choices and know how to counter them with my own choices. I needed to research the right runes and masteries for my champion and play style. All of this sounded like a lot of work in the name of having fun.

For players who love LoL, this complexity is what makes it magical. For players new to the game and genre, this learning curve is so steep as to be nearly insurmountable.

The cost of maturity and immaturity

LoL is a monster of a game, and has many years of organic and paid growth ahead of it. The issues highlighted are likely eclipsed by the positive benefits of a game where many new players join alongside experienced friends who show them the ropes. When a game is pulling in an estimated $624 million a year, it is easy to overlook the jagged edges confronting those players who churn out of the game within the first few days. However, this challenging FTUE is the sort of problem that rears its head years down the line in quarterly earnings statements. It is inevitable that some day, parent company Tencent will start reporting a declining player base. The market does not care about the billions of dollars made in the past. It is a shortsighted beast that only asks "what have you done for me lately?"

I spoke with a 15 years experienced marketing executive with a history in the F2P MMO space. This executive estimated that Riot is spending between $5 and $8 for each new player acquired through marketing. Compared to estimated average revenue per player of $10 - $15, this is a healthy arbitrage.

"A more accessible game that better retains new players combined with a massive marketing spend could allow a competitor to gain an appreciable market share in the crowded MOBA space"

But the deposits of players willing to install LoL is a finite resource. Over time this acquisition cost will only grow as the pool of players receptive to LoL advertising shrinks. Improving the FTUE for retention will boost revenue both by creating a larger veteran play base and by making advertising dollars more efficient.

Both the British and US governments run "nudge units" inspired by the ideas of behavioral economist Richard Thaler and co-author Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge. The purpose of these behavioral insight teams are to run tests and experiments with the purpose of increasing tax revenues and social welfare. These projects are hugely successful; in a recent episode of the Freakanomics Radio podcast, Thaler revealed that "running one of these experiments paid all the expenses of the [UK] team of the first three years."

A game that operates on the massive scale of League of Legends would benefit from a department tasked with improving the FTUE using the same methodology as the US and British governments to increase new player retention (if it does not already exist within the company). Clearly from the announcement that recent and impending patches seek to make the game easier for new players, Riot is hard at work to improve the game for noobs like me. Similar to the nudge units, one or two successful experiments can handily justify a substantial investment by raising retention rates.

The steep learning curve of LoL creates an opportunity for competitors (albeit handsomely bankrolled ones) not to focus on converting Riot's existing and rabid fan base, but instead to buy up the market for new players. A more accessible game that better retains new players combined with a massive marketing spend could allow a competitor to gain an appreciable market share in the crowded MOBA space. So long as noobs like me face the dual pressures of game maturity and player immaturity, there is still room for competitors to make headway. So long as acquired players face a daunting FTUE, there is the opportunity for Riot to make improvements to League that are equally positive for players and balance sheets.

Ethan Levy works as a monetization design consultant as FamousAspect specializing in free-to-play games. He is an 11 year veteran game designer and producer and has contributed to over 40 shipped games across every platform, for every audience. For more information, you can access articles, tools and templates on the FamousAspect website or follow @FamousAspect on Twitter.

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Latest comments (26)

David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
As a new player and a hardcore gamer, my general feeling in my first 10 hours of LoL was confusion.
This now seems to be the near universal experience with MMORPG's and hardcore multiplayer games. Because the people who create them want all of the revenue that comes along with reaching large and diverse mainstream audiences, but none of the responsibilities. So beyond usually short and vague explanations of the most basis concepts, they don't think they have the responsibility to teach players anything. Fully and clearly explaining every aspect of a game is now beneath them.
Developer: Please buy (or subscribe) to our incredibly complex and challenging game which we've painstakingly designed to deliver meaningful, competitive play experiences to a large and diverse mainstream audience....
Consumer: Sounds great, here's my money. How do I play?
Developer: Pff, why the hell are you asking us? "Real" games are about the fun of learning through failure. So we're not not going to ruin our game by teaching anyone how to play it. If you wanted somebody to hold your hand, you should have bought a causal game. Now f**k off! But before you go... would you like to buy our new expansion pack?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Serrano on 30th January 2014 7:57pm

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I just mute all players while playing LOL and problem solved. There is no need of a chat lobby in multiplayer games when you play alone. I love the fact that heartstone has no chat, it is perfect, all MP games should be like that no chat to avoid the toxic players.

Also I have no idea why people think they will be able to organize a team of 5+ unknowns just because you have a chat while playing! It is impossible, a waste of time and the chat is only a medium to rage or pick on bad players!
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Emily Rose Artist 8 years ago
Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm will likely capture a lot of the players looking for a simpler game. Also Strife is aiming to strip away the excess complexity and toxicity. I think Riot should just concentrate on making their own audience happy at this point..

@Rios , I disagree, in a team game you do need the chat channel.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Emily Rose on 30th January 2014 10:05pm

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Show all comments (26)
Ben Gonshaw Game Design Consultant, AKQA8 years ago
A great onboarding experience is critical if you want to maintain a userbase through attracting new members.
Allowing a 'safe' environment that teaches you how to play. helps the player to internalise the nuances of the mechanics and get up to speed with the jargon is a basic necessity for any long running / entrenched title.

It's not rocket surgery, but you can understand why a one-time mod that went massive doesn't have a great FTUE - it simply never needed one given the people who were playing it. With the scale it's reached now, there's probably a perception that the numbers prove one isn't necessary - if the thought arises at all. After all to the devs and the business looking at the player numbers, it hardly feels like anything is broken...

A great call to constantly review and improve the user experience.
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John Bye Lead Designer, Freejam8 years ago
Have to say my own experience with LoL was much the same - overwhelming complexity, vertical learning curve, little or no guidance, bafflingly vast character list, punishing gameplay full of positive feedback loops that keep kicking you while you're down, constant abuse, and team mates seemingly determined to throw in the towel at the drop of a hat.

It constantly amazes me how these games get so many millions of players...
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Mohammed Alsadoon Staff Writer, Gaming Bus8 years ago

I disagree. I have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in many multiplayer games simply from being fed information from dead team mates via the chat system.


I think DotA2 is a much more streamlined game in this regard but make no mistake about it: Playing MOBAs without guidance from a veteran player or extensive research via guides or videos is impossible.

And as I grow older and have less time to dedicate to games, I can't afford to spend 10 hours simply on learning the game outside of its own tutorials.

This doesn't apply to just MOBAs but also other hardcore titles like Fighting Games: After the revival of the community by Street Fighter IV, it's going to crash again if it remains so noob unfriendly. It literally takes hundreds of hours to get good at such games and the developers don't even drop in a glossary of terms.

At least this is changing with Killer Instict, which has one of the best tutorials I've ever seen in a fighting game.
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Stephen Richards Game Deisgner 8 years ago
I can sympathise with a lot of what is in this article, having also started playing lol fairly recently. I have a theory why these problems exist.

Take a look at this list.

If you filter by date added, you'll see that Lol launched with 17 champions. It now has 117, and I'm sure a lot more game modes and other complexities it didn't have at launch. This is an entire world away in terms of its learning curve. Adding new champions is a great form of monetisation and providing retention to players who joined early, but it also means the barrier to entry (or playing at a competitive level) has been constantly growing for four years. Riot has done some work to account for this (there wasn't even a tutorial to begin with) but obviously they have a lot more to do.

As for the time investment, I don't want to tell you you're getting old, but lol is mostly played by 14-25 year olds who have the time (inclination?) to invest in a game like this. Not only are many of them rude/immature etc (a vocal minority I'm sure) but the way lol is designed actively encourages heated emotions because of its reliance on teamwork, and you only need one player who doesn't know what they're doing, or takes a five minute break in the middle, to spoil the game for the other nine players. (It's amazing though, to see that people even get upset when playing against easy AI.)
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David Briggs Producer, FreshGames8 years ago
I put in my requisite ~2,500 LoL hours before calling it quits about a year ago, and have a few thoughts to add to this discussion.

I think it may be a mistake to underestimate the draw that e-sports and professional competitors will have on bringing new players into League in the years to come, despite a punishing learning curve and burgeoning complexity due to constant rebalancing as new heroes, items, game modes, and maps are introduced. As e-sports continue to grow and gain more and more traction in popular culture, I believe it will become a major recruiting tool for bringing new players into the game, and keeping them there. With that being said, the main thing that makes this game 'sticky' is the social factor - having friends that play and are willing to help you navigate the bewildering landscape until you're able to stand on your own.

Similar to my middle school basketball career, I didn't start playing LoL because it looked fun - I played because it was what my social group did. To be honest, I don't think I was consistently having fun in LoL until well over the 100 hour mark, and didn't feel like I had a solid grasp on tactics and advanced gameplay 'til closer to the 1,000 hour mark. The thing that kept me coming back was a combination of wanting to spend time with a group of friends and the basic human instinct to improve at something that you totally failed at earlier on.

To sum up, I think that games like LoL, DotA2, Star Craft, Street Fighter etc. transcend simple gaming and have parallels closer to more traditional sports. Counterintuitively it is the very fact that they are hard and inaccessible that makes them so appealing to gamers, bot now and in the future. Just like middle school basketball, it was the fact that it was difficult to master (and that I could reap tangible social rewards from continued involvement) that made me want to play it all the more.
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Adrian Vergara CEO, Producer + Creative Director, Reach Game Studios Pty. Ltd.8 years ago
@David: That's an incredibly short-sighted comment. Your example reinforces this. It's in the developer's interests to inform beginners and non-informed players on how to play -- as without that they won't be getting money out of those players. It doesn't work the other way round, generally. These games (LOL, Dota, Newerth, etc., even moving into other MMO sub-genres) require an investment of time by the player. If the player doesn't understand the game, or worse, has a bad experience playing that game (FTUE), that investment will cease, and with it any monetary investment that might follow.

Edit: apologies for the deleted comment above, getting my head around this comment system. It was a copy of what I said here.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adrian Vergara on 1st February 2014 1:18pm

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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises8 years ago
LoL's problem is it's only fun if you're winning, it has no other sources of fun, no secondary goals for you to do if your team is losing badly. And they have a million different things to make you lose.

- Steep learning curve, means guaranteed losses until you go read some guides.
- 4v5s, any time someone on your team quits or loses their connection, you lose 90% of the time, and this happens at least 1 in 5 games.
- Way too complex, even after you've mastered a few characters, you'll always run into an opponent whose character's abilities counter you perfectly, and you have to just to take it for 30 minutes before you can go read a guide to understand what just happened.

The only other game that I can think of that's just as punishing is Call of Duty. You just die constantly in those games until you learn the maps. But you can still have a lot of fun if you or your team are losing, you can hide somewhere with a shotgun, you can camp and snipe, you can run around with a knife. LoL has no such options if you're losing, you either stay in your lane as the enemy team just snowballs into an even stronger team, or you roam around the map with your team to get wiped out over and over again.

btw, everyone report Ethan Levy for "unskilled".
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd8 years ago
I played LoL at launch (before launch actually, at E3). I was a semi-experienced DoTA player (probably 200 hours) and knew my way around the basics of LoL strategy. I enjoyed it quite a bit, for about a week. The toxicity ate me up. I'm an adult. I don't deal with insulting, petty children. I quit LoL very quickly. When I tried it again a year later, I lasted even less time (3 or 4 days) before I quit. Again, I don't deal with insulting children. 18 months later I give it one final try, I last 3 matches, and I'm done. I'll never touch LoL or probably any other MOBA again.

I play games to have fun. Being free isn't particularly a draw for me. I can afford to pay for my games, and consider paying for a premium experience a worthy investment. I have no desire, none, to pay for anything in LoL. I have no desire to play it, or deal with its fans. I have no interest in its entire genre at this point, despite being a pretty big player of its genesis in my younger years.

I firmly believe that these communities will be self-destructive. They will eat themselves from the inside out. As the veterans like David stop playing and move on and as the genre fails to attract new recruits, the toxicity will be a drain on them for years. I honestly think this craze is at or very near its peak (maybe 1 more year of minor growth), and from here on out saturation has been hit, and the massive barriers mentioned in this article and the horrible attitude of the community will cause a slow, persistent drain.
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Samuel Verner Game Designer 8 years ago
n00bs can play other games. like farmevile. lol is for coregamers and it does its job very well. dumbing the game down would hurt the revenue badly.
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Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media8 years ago
@Samuel - Sure, that's what hardcore players want for sure, but Riot must know that there are just that many. Without new players that start as noobs and later become pros, the population will eventually decline in favor of the next big thing. I think it's always wise to try and broaden your audience for player acquisition. If done well, you'll get more players than you will lose.
Besides, player toxicity is something to eradicate, both in hardcore and casual games. Tough job though.
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these F2P experts can go stuff it. noobs can enjoy more noobs levels or other games. leave LOL alone thank you!
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Samuel Verner Game Designer 8 years ago
@rafa dumbing down a game is decreasing the playernumbers. the casual players will have a shorter lifetime and the revenue will sink. at some pont the game won't growth much more, but with these numbers that might be no problem at all. even if they sink a bit in the next years. but losing a 1/3 of the players because of unwanted changes would be a huge problem for them ;-)
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Fazi Zsolt Game & Level Designer @Atypical Games 8 years ago
I always have a good laugh reading about f2p experts/counselors explaining to others why a game should be watered down, to tend to those that like playing only 2 button games. LoL is a hardcore player base aiming game, not candy crush :))

Next time, maybe we will read about how LOL will benefit from introducing an energy system, lives and maybe a board game style map.
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Ben Gonshaw Game Design Consultant, AKQA8 years ago
There's a big difference between dumbing down the whole game and creating an environment where new players can learn the ropes and gradually pick up on the nuances in a place with similarly skilled players. Allow features to be unlocked as you master them, build some challenges that test the players' grasp of certain mechanics and use the results as gates to get onto certain servers - or to play against certain characters. There are a 1000 ways to make the experience more accessible. Creating a learning curve that's fun and enticing but isn't patronising is a pre-requisite for every game.

I'm sure they're happy with the userbase that they currently have.
If they were to look at the number of first time players who drop off because veteran players hate noobs and the complexity is initially off-putting, it would reveal how big their community could have been if only they'd put a little more love into crafting the experience that players have when they boot the game for the very first time.
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The solution is obvious

Tiered swimming pools: Wadling pool, Pool with water slides, Streamed livecast of pools, leisurely swimming pools, bloodbath pools....with sharks blod gore N all
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Samuel Verner Game Designer 8 years ago
@ben you are right about this, but the problem is that most - nearly all nowadays - companies missunderstand "more accessable" for "needs to be simpler". i rarely met someone who really knows anymore how to create a proper learning curve and the importance of creating an easy to learn but complex game experience. at least not among the people who finally make the desicions.

@chee lol already has somthing like that. different kind of rankings and a matchmaking matches you against players with similar skill.
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David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
@Adrian Vergara

The comment was hardly short sighted as it was based on the several thousand hours of AAA and MMO play time I've logged in recent years. It was also based on the condescending comments I read on a weekly basis from core / hardcore developers who view tutorials as "hand holding for "casual" players".

Yes, teaching consumers how to play a game is clearly in the best interests of AAA and MMO developers. However, the fact that it is... does not by default mean they do it. Because in my experience, most do not. At least not in the comprehensive or cohesive ways which common sense should dictate are needed when it comes to complex or complicated AAA and MMO games.

It's also not nearly as simple as asking the people who buy or subscribe to the games to invest time into learning how to play through practice. Because there's absolutely no point to practice unless somebody has taught you something which can be practiced. And this:

and this... not constitute teaching consumers what to practice in a massively complex game. It constitutes an irresponsible teacher handing a student a calculus textbook and telling him or her to read it and "figure it out".

The irony in this is, the medium which aggressively markets itself to the mainstream as an "interactive next gen learning and teaching tool" in reality almost exclusively relies on external, non-interactive forms of print to teach consumers how to play. It would actually be funny if it wasn't so rage inducing,

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Serrano on 3rd February 2014 8:58pm

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Gareth Eckley Commercial Analyst 8 years ago
Just as an observation, I'd point out that players immediately found a way to use the 6 emotes available in a Hearthstone game to insult other players. I challenge you not to get slightly annoyed after you misplay a card and get spammed with. "Well played" and "Thanks" emotes. ;)
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
Um... offline practice play? Offline co-op/online newbie areas that show you bit by bit and aren't accessible by annoying core players and troublemakers looking to shit on people who want to learn, thus chasing them away? So many solutions to explore...
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Nick Wofford Hobbyist 8 years ago
Personally I don't think LoL suffers from its old problems anymore. You can play against bots for practice, there are thousands of guides online, and the community is only terrible in ranked play.

My brother recently started playing. After about a dozen bot matches, he'd found a couple champions that he was good at, and he stuck with them in PvP. He's now about as good as I am (I'll never admit he's better; NEVER). The game is naturally difficult because it's PvP; there's no way to account for how the players themselves will use game theory to do their best. Just compare how the bots act and how players act (e.g. bots will never tower-dive, but players will).
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd8 years ago
@ Gareth I have played a good 50 hours of Hearthstone online and have never seen that once. People use the emotes moderately, and usually politely.
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Gareth Eckley Commercial Analyst 8 years ago
@Nicholas - the particular phenomenon was mentioned by Artosis in his Turn2 podcast. It was more common in closed beta than now, but it still occurs.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany8 years ago
The community is what keeps me away from Dota2 and LoL, and with me a lot of people because I simply have no time to deal with trash-talking scum that forgot the concept of "Playing to have fun". I tolerate that in games whose online I already know I like, but I just don't have the energy to try something new and being forced to deal with that kind of stupidity.
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