Dev Blog: Champion Updates

By Fruity Sebbles

Hey guys, Seb “Fruity Sebbles” Rhee here – Product Manager on the Champion Update team but really just one of a number of Rioters dedicated to showing love to League’s oldest but still beloved champions. 2014 has been a busy year for the team (though we’re not quite done yet!), and in the wake of our most ambitious project yet, the Sion update, I’d like to chat with you about what we’ve learned this past year as well as where we’re heading with future updates.


What We’ve Learned

We started off 2014 with a key adjustment to the team’s approach to champion updates.  Previously, we’d often pursued the gameplay, story, and art segments of updates in isolation from each other, which sometimes limited our adaptability (VUs were exclusively cosmetic, while GUs were exclusively focused on gameplay). Heimerdinger is an example of this older approach - development of the gameplay and art elements of his update were so disconnected that their releases were more than four months apart.

We decided we needed to do a better job of treating champions as cohesive packages. By updating characters like Heimerdinger in piecemeal fashion we were certainly delivering new high-quality assets into the game, but we could have potentially even better served Heimer players by delivering a single, unified update. Ultimately we want champions to be distinct, cohesive, and well-executed realizations of their various elements - which requires that art, story, and gameplay all feed into and support each other. With this new philosophy in mind, we did some experimentation in the course of this year’s projects, focused on finding new ways to both maintain a high release cadence and deliver the best possible updates.

The first step was better integration of gameplay as a fully-fledged part of the team’s repertoire. Earlier gameplay updates were often limited to addressing how champions negatively affected the game, such as with pre-update Xerath, Kassadin, and Rengar. Since then, our approach has evolved from fixing gameplay problems generated by champions to taking a broad look at their overall thematic in order to guide us in implementing the best version of that character’s gameplay. Nidalee, Sona, and Soraka are examples of updates seeking to better fulfill the gameplay promises suggested by champion identities - Nidalee’s shapeshifting is now a core part of her gameplay loop, and Soraka is dishing out heals every two seconds! And we’ve found that tackling gameplay updates in this fashion still lets us solve the deep-rooted gameplay issues of previous implementations, while maintaining the feel of the original character.

Another key development was realizing the potential for greater variety in visual updates. Back near the end of 2013, we took some texture-only passes at Rammus and Anivia while investigating new ways to quickly deliver updates to players. As non-humans with rather…polygonal looks, they were obvious candidates for some safe experimentation. To our surprise these minor updates received really high levels of positive feedback, and in 2014 we decided to try out further low-scope art updates. After Skarner’s new visuals received a similar response, we decided to next take a crack at a non-creature texture in the form of Sona, even experimenting a bit further by packaging a quick model update along with her new textures. Once again, players reported satisfaction comparable to that of previous full-scope VUs - yet more evidence of the potential for low-scope but more frequent art updates to become an important part of the update pipeline.


Finally, Sion represented a whole new level of comprehensive update. In a lot of ways Sion is the culmination of all of the changes we’ve made to the team and its approaches. Instead of over-focusing on the issues with his previous implementation, we took a hard look at what Sion should be and worked toward that goal from the ground up, across all aspects of the champion. Sion is the biggest project we’ve taken on as a team, and we hope it sets a new standard in terms of what to expect from the largest-scale updates.

Taken together, these various projects confirmed the potential for pursuing updates of varying scope. In addition to mammoth projects like Sion, we were able to fill the gaps with more focused updates and constantly deliver value. Viktor is a great example of the latter - he received efficient, relatively low-scope art and gameplay updates specifically targeted at bringing him up to current standards.

Of course, this means we don’t always get to finish the lower-scope updates with a shout of ‘IT’S PERFECT!’ and tears of joy. The animators may hate some of the old animations, or the sound designers may desperately want to incorporate expanded VO or new tech. But delivering high-quality, incremental updates on a regular basis can help make sure we’re able to take a look at more players’ favorite outdated champions and move consistently through our backlog. This approach will be especially important as we look to finish off 2014 in strong fashion and move right on in to 2015.


The Plan Moving Forward

The challenge remains vast – dozens of champions could use some level of love right now, and others might have taken their place once we’re done with them. So, how best to meet the task? Essentially, our latest thinking boils down to two overarching principles:

  1. The scope of updates will vary immensely, from Sion-level projects to minor texture and gameplay polish efforts, all based on each champion’s specific needs and place in the overall roster.
  2. Following from the first, we’ll simultaneously pursue multiple updates of varying scope. Several pipelines will exist so that no champion is left behind because its unique needs don’t fit the current mold.

These principles are actually already in play - Sion, Viktor and Soraka emerged nearly simultaneously and with varying degrees of change. Moving into 2015, we plan to do updates in the Renekton to Sona range much more often than in the past, but in addition to Sion-level updates (not in lieu of them).

In line with this thinking, we’re moving away from our past attempts to strictly define update categories (older terms like relaunch and rework as well as the newer TU, MTU, VU, GU, etc). Visually-focused updates will often include gameplay tweaks or quality-of-life changes, while gameplay-driven updates will frequently include opportunistic or even necessary visual adjustments like new ability effects. Updates don’t all need to fit a predetermined template, and each will be different in scope based on the champion’s needs - our goal is simply to get every champion up to the quality bar that players can expect of a modern League champion.

But how will this play out in practice? Let’s take a look at these concepts through the lens of several current projects that demonstrate the breadth of scope we’re pursuing with updates.


Maokai


Maokai is the next update in the Singed / Renekton vein, as he’s mostly in good shape and just needs some targeted work to bring him up to date. His gameplay’s looking good after a kit rebalance earlier this season, so we’re focusing on some low-scope visual buffs aimed at making him even more exciting to play. He’ll sport a whole new model and texture across his base and skins, and we’re also taking a pass at his visual effects. Look for him to hit PBE soon!


Tristana

Tristana’s a consistently popular champion and might not seem an obvious update candidate, but she’s got a couple areas where a bit of work could bring her right up-to-date with current standards. As one of the game’s "intro" characters (you can unlock her for free on our Facebook page), we think it’s about time Tristana received a buff to her visuals, especially given that Yordle style has evolved a bit over the years. While we’re at it, we’re taking a light pass at her gameplay focused on adding a bit of new spice to her E, increasing her ability interactions, and fleshing out her strategic niche among the roster of marksmen (errr….markswomen...marksladyyordles). She’s a moderately-sized project with significant investment and time commitments, but still focused on the specific areas in need of an update rather than more sweeping changes.


Poppy


Everyone’s favorite hammer girl has been on our scopes for a while, as she’s one of those older champions in need of across-the-board work to bring her up to current standards. To be clear, we LOVE her core identity - who doesn’t want to play the fearless Yordle striking hammer-induced terror into enemies across the map? In fact, the gap between her awesome premise and lackluster execution is exactly why we’re working on her.

Artistically, Poppy will still look like a heavily armed and armored ball of golden death. We’re looking to preserve her thematic and color scheme while bringing her art up-to-date both technically and stylistically. Similarly, there’s a lot to love in her story, we just plan to bring it up-to-date and cement her more firmly in the world and among her fellow Yordles. On the gameplay front the challenge is a bit bigger, as Poppy’s kit is pretty archaic at this point. Nevertheless, we’re looking to keep her current fearless style of gameplay and core dash-and-smash mechanics - we still want her to have that same diver mentality.

Poppy is definitely a hefty undertaking - not quite a Sion-level project but pretty close to it. She’s still a ways out and is going to take a lot of work, but will hopefully offer an awesome experience for players once we’re done with the job.


As I’ve mentioned, these and other updates will vary tremendously in scope as we tailor them to each champion’s unique needs and opportunities. Keep in mind that this is nowhere near an exhaustive list of our current projects, and if your favorite older champion isn’t included, fear not! He/she/it is somewhere on our radar, and we hope for an even better cadence in 2015 as we continue to incorporate our latest learnings.

We’re incredibly excited about the future of Champion Updates, and we hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration. Be sure to let us know what you think in the comments below!


3 years ago

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