A coworker of mine, one Jonathan Loucks, and I were discussing the function of lifesteal / lifelink in the MOBA game League of Legends.
JL: I often think LoL would be better with less lifelink. Like, I hate when the impact of a fight is completely wiped out in a matter of seconds. I lose a fight to the AD in the late game, they're at 25% health, and then a partial creep wave later and they're at 100% again
they should have to go back to heal!
Me: Yeah, I've had that feeling too, lifelink is kinda lame.
JL: It's frustrating to just literally not be able to outrace their lifelink 1v1, even if it's three 1v1s in a row. I think I would make it one special item that's not something you ALWAYS buy, like Tiamat's kind of thing.
Me: It's hard to get it at a "fair" level where it still does something, but doesn't cause the carry to be dominating in 1v1s.
JL: Where sure, if you care enough you can spend the gold to get this item that gives you lifelink, but it would be a sometimes thing, not every game.
Me: The % based lifelink seems unfair. It lets you double-down on AD too much, which makes it hard or impossible to balance for in the late game. An on-hit flat rate life regain mechanic might be better.
JL: That's interesting.
Me: You could build a lot of attack speed, and that is something you already do on many AD carries, but that's okay. I'd be fine with life gain proportional your max Hp, just not based on % of your attack damage.
JL: Yeah, i like that. you could even make it more of a goal-and-reward thing, not so incremental, with like "every 3rd hit gains you a sizable chunk of life back"
Me: Oh, I like what you are saying. There are a lot of "on 3rd hit" stuff in the game already, so I believe Riot has determined 3rd-hit effects are a proven winner.
JL: Another possibility: an active on an item that grants lifelink for X seconds. You can beat the first guy because of it, but then the next guy that fights you, you wont have that. And you can't immediately heal after a fight by using the next creep wave, or at least not every time.
Me: A good one.
JL: Sounds like we're in agreement. I feel like it's a lame part of the core game that should be a bonus item thing instead, but I wonder if it's too core to how AD's work and we just don't understand. Like Force of Will in legacy.
Lifesteal does create a lot of tension and close fights where the guy with it looks basically dead but pulls it out maintaining a sliver of health. Which is goodbad.
Me: Lol at "goodbad." You been reading 1984 recently?
When two melee bruisers fight, it usually feels good / exciting because the lifesteal gives one of them the chance to take 1 more basic attack, but if an ability comes off cooldown at the end of the fight then it's all over - the abilities still dominate the lifesteal. Or so it appears to me when I encounter this.
Maybe for AD carries, the abilities aren't the focus, it's the basic attacks that make them who they are. So as you say, it might be fundamental to the game.
I noticed we used lifelink at the start of this conversation, and then switched to lifesteal at the end. Lifelink is a term for Magic: the Gathering, but lifesteal is the word used in League of Legends. For this conversation they are the same thing.
A couple of days later I still agree with what we said in that conversation. Lifesteal based on % of attack damage dealt very highly favors AD carries, especially in the late game, where they can already dominate anyway. If lifesteal was changed to be an flat amount gained (or a flat amount based on your level so that it scaled a little into late game) on each hit, it might be more "fair" feeling. Basing it on the champion's max HP would certainly not favor AD carries, but might be extremely strong on tanks. I'd love to see it, in an experiment kind of way, but I wouldn't be surprised if Riot had tried that internally and decided it was bad for the game. They do base regeneration items off of % of total HP. I just love the thought of building attack speed on a tank to get benefit from that kind of lifesteal - so perhaps just one item would be enough to create a new build for some champions?