Yorick, perhaps League of Legends most awkward character, is almost at the end of an in-depth makeover. He'll emerge from his champion update cocoon after a stint on the Public Beta Environment as the Shepherd of Souls to [hopefully] acclaim and popularity, much as Tai emerged from her fashion makeover at the hands of Cher and Dion in Clueless to become part of the elite high school clique. Lead Game Designer James "Statikk" Bach talked me through the gravedigger's revamp including how he almost became evil royalty (Yorick, not Statikk)!
Pip: Hi James, can you tell the readers who you are and what you do?
James "Statikk" Bach: I'm the lead game designer on the champion update team. This team is basically, we work underneath Andrei ["Meddler" van Roon]. He's like our overseer..
Statikk: Nah - he's a really nice guy! But our team is specifically responsible for doing the big reworks and updates of the characters both visually and in terms of gameplay as well. We revamp a lot of the oldest characters and reimagine them into the coolest version we think they could be. We go back and... refurbish is probably underselling it but we want to renew interest in old characters and make sure they still feel like they belong in League of Legends and have their special place. I, in particular, work on the game design side. We figure out what the character's abilities are and what they can do inside the game, what strengths and weaknesses they have. Are they slow? Are they fast? Do they have a lot of hit points?
Pip: It reminds me of a restoration project with a classic building where you go room to room and by the time you've finished you're ready to go back to the first room again.
Statikk: Right, yeah. I personally think of it as a neverending process. The game is constantly evolving and building its own history. At the same time parts of the game need to catch back up to the new bar we set every time we release new content. We're constantly pushing ourselves to make the game better so you kind of go back in a circle eventually!
Pip: You'll always have a job...
Statikk: Yeah, that's good - job security!
Pip: Something I wanted to talk specifically about is the Yorick rework. When you took the champion, saw that it wasn't healthy and the balancing didn't quite work, how did you go from that to the Shepherd of Souls that you've ended up with now?
Statikk: The biggest thing we do when we start a new update of a character is figure out the three - what we call the pillars of a champion. Those are the game design pillar, the narrative pillar and the art pillar. They're the three disciplines that come together to make a champion what it is.
When we chose Yorick it was very obvious why we should choose him. He's a character who just wasn't that popular for a lot of reasons and players themselves had told us he was a character that needs an update. So we took that into account and said we can make this character a lot cooler than he is right now.
The first thing we did was identify the core elements of the character that we wanted to maintain and that were fundamental to what his identity was. Those boiled down to four things, I think. One was ghouls - an army of undead minions. Two was the fact that he was a humble gravedigger doing this almost mundane task but for some reason he's in a league of epic champions. It's an interesting juxtaposition and gives him a unique place in the game.
We also found from the lore perspective that he's almost a tragic figure. He's almost an antihero on the Shadow Isles. He's not fully a good guy but he's trying to do something good from the land. The last one was the shovel. It's a really iconic weapon and really different from the other characters in the game.
Once we had those core elements down we could move forward and try to understand what the gameplay was. We knew we wanted to make him a summoner. There's a lot of different games that have done a lot of different takes on what a summoner is, like a necromancer and things like that.
We feel like Yorick is unique because he's a summoner who gets into the fight with his minions. He's a front-line summoner - a battle summoner of sorts. This informs a lot about his visuals. We wanted to make him feel very physically intimidating and someone who's a pretty big physical force as well as have that undead magic side to him.
One of the most interesting things which we thought was a potentially cool idea for the character was what if he was the Ruined King. The Ruined King in our lore is the big bad of the Shadow Isles, this guy who was responsible for turning the Shadow Isles into this desecrated land.
Pip: It was a failed resurrection, wasn't it?
Statikk: Yeah, of his wife. One of the biggest problems with Yorick from a narrative perspective was he was so unimportant and non-relevant to what the actual storyline of Runeterra was and we wanted to bring him into the fold, make him a big player. What if he was the Ruined King in disguise, trying to clean up the mess he started?
It was one of the ideas we were working with early that got some initial traction but then we realised partway through that it felt very arbitrary and didn't make that much sense. We were kind of smashing two characters into one character. The Ruined King might be a champion some day, right, but Yorick wasn't the Ruined King and the Ruined King probably isn't a gravedigger. So there were a lot of things that didn't match even though we were kind of excited that it would make Yorick this character that was really important to the Shadow Isles.
Instead we looked to the past of the Shadow Isles when it was the Blessed Isles as inspiration for who he was and made a more logical connection with the idea of him being a gravedigger. Now he's a monk from the Blessed Isles who was in charge of deciding the fate of people on the island when they were in limbo between life or death. He was the one who decided whether they should live or die and that was kind of his burial rite and he was in charge of that and that's why he's got the shovel. It gave a really interesting take.
We also wanted to make sure he was an antihero. If he was the Ruined King he's a bad guy and that doesn't seem true to who Yorick is as a champion. He's trying to do something pretty noble but he does it in questionable ways by raising the undead. We like the idea of him maybe wanting to battle the Ruined King to lift the curse on the land he used to be a part of. That's how we got to the Shepherd of Souls idea.
Pip: With his actual kit you've kept the idea of summoning ghouls or wraiths and so on, but I was wondering if you could talk to me about things like the power budget of skills. How do you as a designer look at the kit and make it work?
Statikk: Yorick is a really challenging project because fundamentally you're not controlling any of the minions you raise and thus the player doesn't necessarily have full awareness of what they're doing or how effective they are. At the same time we want to make them important to why Yorick is winning. Like you said, the power budget, we want to put power there. So we have to make them both smart enough for Yorick to feel like they're doing things but not so frustrating for the enemy to constantly have to deal with them.
We're constantly walking a fine line between "these ghouls are important for Yorick" and also something that enemies can deal with and hopefully enjoy dealing with.
In terms of balance the character is really hard. We wanted to really push the unique identity he has of being a strong pushing champion who can destroy enemy structures effectively by summoning tons of minions and that can be pretty frustrating to play against because he doesn't necessarily even have to be there to be winning the game. That's something we've had to tread carefully on. That's what I would say are the main challenges of the character.
Other than that we just wanted to find really thematic abilities that made sense for the character who wants to get into close-range combat. He has a lot of abilities that slow you or trap you within the wall so he can get up to you and smash you with his shovel - I'll call it a shovel but hopefully it's more than a shovel now!
Pip: I was reading about the Buddhist monk shovel-blade you mentioned on the champion page [it's a staff with a shovel end and a crescent blade end which they could use for bury corpses along the road and defending themselves against bandits or detering animals].
Statikk: That was one of the goals - even though the shovel was part of the character we thought we could at least make the shovel even cooler. Hopefully this new shovel gives you a weapon that feels like it's not just a tool for digging someone's grave but for a combat weapon as well as a ritual staff that he can use during burial rites and whatever else he performed on the Blessed Isles.
Pip: Something I saw come up in the discussion on the rework was this tension over whether you've actually deleted the original hero from the game and added a new one versus a rework. I assume that's something you wrestle with so how do you deal with that?
Statikk: We care a lot about the current players of the character when we do significant changes like the ones we did to Yorick. We understand there's a lot of appreciation and attachment to what characters do even if they are imperfect in a lot of other ways. we're really sensitive to that. At the same time we know that if we ever want these characters to be more than they are right now we have to make some pretty drastic changes. It never feels good to take away something players love but when we know we're going to be able to deliver on something that's even more than that we have to weight that cost/benefit.
The work to identify the core of a champion is hopefully really filtering down what are the basic fundamental things we need to keep and then allowing us to still be creative and think outside the box on what is the new version of this character that's going to really make as many players excited as possible.
But with every rework we definitely want to make sure the players who played them before are still excited to play them. We want to keep things like tons of ghouls and that he still feels like a character who goes in to melee. There are some core elements we keep but there are some things we can't for a lot of reasons - maybe it's unhealthy gameplay or not as fun for most of our players. We have to weigh that benefit/cost there.
Pip: Thank you for your time.