What's it like watching professional League of Legends when you've got the power to rework the champions? Colt 'Ezreal' Hallam has been at Riot Games for the best part of a decade and has worked on dozens of the game's characters including Ahri, Blitzkrank and Kog'Maw. Colt is now Lead Roster Designer. That means he spends a lot of his time working with his team of designers to breathe new life into characters who need a bit of love. As he notes, "We're the ones responsible for giving Mordekaiser a pet dragon!"
[Fun fact: Morde is considered rather powerful and has actually spent most of Worlds watching from the sidelines as he, along with another character, Gangplank, have been banned in nearly every game.]
Colt has been keeping an eye on Worlds so I got in touch to talk champions. Read on to find out how the reworking process, uh, works, how much you can really learn by watching an event like the World Championships, and how you respond as a designer when faced with the Morde and Gangplank situation:
Pip: Firstly, how do you decide that a champion needs reworking or tweaking?
Colt: Champion Update focuses on large individual reworks. They choose champions the most in need of updating, because they are old and dysfunctional or poorly delivering on their core fantasy. Sion is a great example of a champion who had poor gameplay on top of outdated aesthetics. Whereas roster work focuses on experiential diversity, ensuring that every champion feels different to play as, to play with, and play against. So if a character or class doesn’t have a defining reason to be picked, we work to give them one. We recently identified Juggernauts as a class who struggled to be picked due to not having a defining purpose, which we later identified as situational power. Within the class, we wanted to ensure that each individual character brought something unique. be it Skarner gaining incredible power around Crystal Spires, or Garen taking down the most powerful opposing champion utilizing his Villainy passive.
Pip: Once that has been decided, what information guides the process - is it player information you gather in-game? Chats with players? Forum chatter? Discussions with professional players?
Colt: We draw from a number of varied sources. Players let us know which champions feel the most pain, or which champions are low hanging fruit. Internal designers get excited about potential improvements to their champions. Design principles let us know which classes are in the most need of support. Data identifies which champions are underplayed, or draw too many bans. Ultimately, it is some combination of the above.
Pip: What are the difficulties trying to balance a champion so they're accessible to newcomers but not incredibly overpowered for a pro?
Colt: Where we can, we want to design abilities whose effectiveness means more in high skill games. So when you learn how to fully actualize them, they are much more meaningful. Abilities and characters that rely heavily on team coordination are a great example of this principle. Tahm Kench’s Abyssal Voyage, where he grabs an ally and teleports to a potentially dangerous position, is a perfect example of abilities which rely heavily on solid team coordination.
Ideally we find ways where the counterplay of an ability increases with player skill. Skill shots are the best example of this. As you get better at aiming skill shots, your opponents get better at dodging them. Abilities that are purely mechanical and reward the player for investing time into are the ones we like to support, but they can also be really tough to balance. We find ourselves constantly asking where to draw the line in terms of "expected" mechanical skill for a champion.
Pip: When a massive competition like Worlds comes along, what's it like to watch it as a designer? Can you switch off and be a fan or are you constantly taking notes and thinking about potential changes?
Colt: It is super exciting! You get to see if your designs actually work in top tier play. On top of that, pro players tend to push the limits of our game, doing things that we never even imagined possible. On the flip side, forming opinions on champion strengths or weaknesses based only on pro play can be dangerous. These guys are the 0.001% in terms of mechanical and strategic execution.
Pip: You say pro players sometimes surprise you with how they use champions - are there any examples from this Worlds where you've just gone "Huh! I never thought of that!" or "I didn't know that was even possible"?
Colt: Pro players aren’t the first to surprise the heck out of me. My very first ‘I didn’t know you could do that’ was back in Beta, where an Ashe player fired her Enchanted Crystal Arrow down mid lane, then teleported to the mid turret. She arrived just as the arrow flew over her shoulder, nailing her opponent for the full 3 second stun, who she then promptly finished off!
As for Worlds, I personally loved seeing Kennen in three different roles (Top, Support, and Marksman) this year. I haven’t seen that sort of role diversity within a single champion in years! Oh, and the Irelia vs Olaf mid game blew my mind, that counterpick was the stuff of legends. Repeating my above point about reliability though, I think 'surprise' picks can be really tough to pull out on the big stage. There's a lot of pressure, and equally matched teams usually fall back on old staples. This makes it even more impressive to see them take such large risks on the Worlds stage.
Pip: Are there any champions or abilities or even bits of the map which you've marked for change or improvement based on what you've seen at Worlds so far?
Colt: Well, pro play doesn’t necessarily drive all of our balance decisions. Many of the characters we would have marked for balance from Worlds have already been acted on. For example, we’ve already hit Darius with the nerf bat.
Pip: When you see champions like Mordekaiser and Gangplank being almost permabanned in a competition how do you respond to that as a designer? Does it make you think there's a problem there to be fixed?
Colt: It is possible that they have some fundamental issues, but oftentimes raw strength trumps this. In these cases, I believe the champions just need a nerf. Additionally, you have to be careful to spot why a champion is in permaban status on the competitive stage. In some cases it's their raw power, in others it's real troublesome gameplay, and in even more it's how 'safe' a champion is when everything's on the line.
Pip: How do you (or Riot) approach that? Do you gravitate towards nerfing those specific character, or buffing others, or just reworking their skills a bit?
Colt: All of the above depending. Most characters can be brought in line using simple buffs and nerfs. Occasionally we need to take more drastic actions, but I find these to be outliers. That being said, last year’s Worlds helped point out that Zilean had too much guaranteed damage with his single target Time Bomb ability. Changing it to a skill shot was one of the few ways of solving this problem outside of heavily nerfing the ability. On top of that, the increased counter-play allowed us to put more power in the ability in the form of a stun.
Pip: When there is a bug issue as with Gragas (and also Lux and Ziggs) is that something that can require the design team to help deal with or is it purely about finding problem code and resolving it?
Colt: Very much depends on the bug. We've encountered and addressed both code/design bugs over the years, but we'll be the first to admit that sometimes it can be a challenge. Shen is probably our most famous case where we spent months tracking down a bug that was incredibly difficult to reproduce. In many cases, however, even if we threw entire teams at bugs, the challenge is understanding what perfect string of events replicates an issue.
Pip: Ages ago in a Q&A you mentioned you liked the idea of a character who could burn down brush - did that ever get any further?
Colt: I am still in love with this ability. We have tested it out on a few, already released, champions. The ability felt pretty awesome, it set a patch of brush on fire, which would then spread to the rest of the brush and potentially to nearby champions. We still like the idea, but haven’t found the perfect champion to place it on as of yet.
Pip: Do pro players ever get in touch with suggestions about particular champions or potential champions they would like to see in the game?
Colt: When we see pros at summits or have casual conversations with them, we'll 'talk shop'. In CertainlyT's dev blog about Yasuo, for example, HotshotGG was the one who suggested he put Wind Wall on a melee assassin champion, and that was a great inspiration. As a different side of it though, pros will sometimes suggest balance changes that mesh with their playstyle but might not be great for the overall health of the game.
Pip: Finally, how do you feel about the current Worlds pick and ban setup? As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about champion strengths, weaknesses and interactions do you think it would be more interesting to have a higher number of bans or to alternate pick and bans a little so teams can respond to compositions as they unfold? Or would you prefer something like blind pick?
Colt: I personally believe we could improve the current pick and ban system. At the end of the day, we all want a system which allows teams to craft distinctive and interesting team comps. Finding ways to leverage these elements is something that we are interested in exploring. I lean towards an alternating pick and ban system which incorporates more bans to help diversify the champions we see in pro play. That being said, we currently have no immediate plans for a change.
Pip: Thanks for your time, Colt.