As players, we don’t often get a look into the development of our favorite League of Legends champions. Reworks and visual updates have turned some of our favorite champions, who brought us into the game, to entirely different and updated creations.
iDigitalTimes spoke with Greg Street, the design director at Riot games. Street has been in the video game industry for 18 years, working long stints at Blizzard and Ensemble Studios. He manages the design department and is in charge of making the right decisions to make the players happy.
When did Champion Updates/Visual Reworks become so important to Riot?
League has grown quickly and for awhile it was all the team could do to keep it up and running, (which they certainly weren’t always successful with). During this growth period, we accrued a lot of development debt. We talk a lot about the tech debt which, to be fair, our engineers have done an amazing job of paying down to the point where we run into “spaghetti code” far less often than we used to. However, over the past two years or so, we also decided it was time to pay down some of the design and art debt as well. We had champions whose art quality just didn’t match the rest of the game to the point it became distracting. We had champions who were uninteresting to play or were really just balls of stats. “Ball of stat” champions are particularly problematic because they are very easy to master; there is no nuance to learning how to handle different situations with them. We are committed to keeping League updated – it’s a living game, not a product we release and then move onto the next game. Part of that commitment means fixing stuff that just hasn’t aged well.
What was your favorite champion to work on?
It was a really exciting time to be working here when Bard was in production. He is such a different champion in terms of how he plays, and his backstory is so unusual that we felt like we were able to grow the world of League by including him. Kindred was another fun time. We just knew players were going to love them. They look like nothing else in League, yet still feel like they totally belong.
What was the hardest champion to reinvent, i.e. Poppy, Karthus, Twitch?
This is subjective, but I’d call out both Poppy and Sion. Both of them had good thematics – players understood what a giant undead monster like Sion was all about – but their gameplay was in some cases too simplistic and in others way too complicated (like Poppy’s Diplomatic Immunity). Coming up with good abilities and gameplay for them that supported the characters can be harder than just redefining the character. I’ll point to Taric, an upcoming update, as someone who didn’t have strong thematic resonance other than “gem knight.” In Taric’s case, we had to explain his story and what he was all about in addition to redefining his gameplay. Blank slates like that can actually be a little easier because there are fewer constraints. We haven’t released the Yorick update yet, but he has been a real challenge. Does raising an army of undead mean that the Yorick player has little control over what that army does? Does it mean the other team is playing a PvE zombie-killing game? Is “Gravedigger” an iconic fantasy players are dying (heh) to play?
What has been the largest update/rework to undertake?
Probably Poppy. We updated all of her skins and her skin splash art pages as well as her base model and abilities.
Does professional play go into account when working on a champion?
We consider it for sure. It’s fun when we’re working on a champion that we suspect will see professional play, and most of our recent champions have shown up in the pro scene. It’s aspirational for players to see the amazing things pros can do with a champion. We also know that some new or updated champions may be too niche to see wide professional play, and we’re okay with that. Pros look for very specific things.
In terms of game balance, we focus most of our attention on the Platinum / Diamond level, since at that tier, small balance adjustments can definitely be felt, yet our changes are still affecting a fair number of players. The goals of esports are slightly different because we’re concerned about making it a great viewing experience. Champion diversity has a role in a great viewing experience, but so does seeing hard-to-play champions executed with unbelievable skill.
Can you tell me the weirdest thing that’s been pitched for a champion change, like a skill or a lore change?
We’ve tried so many crazy things that it would be hard to narrow it down, and some of the ideas are things we’d like to revisit someday so I don’t want to give them away. 🙂
As just one example, we tried a lot crazy things with Aurelion Sol, our most recently released champion. At one point you steered him around like a Tron light cycle and tried to block or encircle other champions. At one point I think he could teleport to anywhere on the map by flying above the “treeline.”
How are the mage updates going, and why did it balloon from just the “original 6” into other mages?
The mage update is part of a broader initiative we refer to as the roster update. For a long time, we considered the League classes only through the lens of classic RPG archetypes: mages cast spells, fighters fought with melee weapons, and so on. We now try to make sure that a champion’s class meaningfully affects their gameplay too. Our first attempt, on juggernauts, was arguably our least successful one, in part because we only were able to touch 4-5 champions at once. It’s lame as a player if you hear that Riot is going to be working on the types of champions you love to play, only to hear that your favorite was left out this time around and knowing that it could literally be years before we get back to them again. With the Marksman update, we tried to improve a lot of champions, even if only a handful got really extensive updates. We’re taking a similar tactic here.
Specifically what direction do you plan to take with Annie? She’s my main so I get worried.
Annie shouldn’t feel like a radical overhaul. Thematically, she’s in great shape. Everyone gets her personality and Tibbers is one of the most recognizable and iconic elements in League. In terms of gameplay, we like the burst component of bringing out Tibbers, usually in conjunction with Flash. We like that Annie is easy to learn, but pretty freaking hard to master. We like the basic ideas of most of her spells, but we think some of the mechanics can be improved. We’d like to improve Tibbers’ AI, since the bear can do downright dumb things. We’d like for the experience of playing against Annie to be less about trying to track whether or not she has enough stacks to stun.
(Source: Steve Asarch @ iDigitalTimes)