Riot Games have had a bumper year, with millions of people signing up to play their MOBA, League Of Legends. Part of the reason for this success, they believe, is that the team adds a new playable character to the game every two weeks. It's a relentless stream of magic-flinging dudes that requires some steely focus by their designers, designers who I got to chat to earlier on the week. Fresh from the creation of Viktor (handsome fellow pictured above), the next champion scheduled to step up to the roster, were associate producer Paul Belleza and champion designer Joe Ziegler. Check out what they had to say, below.
RPS: So you guys have had a spectacular year. What has 2011 meant for Riot as a company?
Belleza: We feel very fortunate that the game has grown the way it has. We're happily surprised and consequently keen to push the bar for quality up. As the audience grows the demand for new content goes up, so our bar has been set internally to deliver new content for our fans every two weeks, so that was always a crazy pipeline to go with, but it's a great place to be. We're humbled by our success, but we now just want to keep adding more.
RPS: What does that content consist in every two weeks?
Belleza: At the very least we always release new champions and new skins for champions, every two weeks, as well as ongoing balance changes. We balance characters and items and the wider metagame, and we also go back to older characters as the game updates, and rework them. We work to keep the game fresh and repackage all the time to make the game fun in the context of the game now.
RPS: When you guys look at what you are doing versus the other guys in the genre, what do you see LoL's big assets being?
Belleza: I think quality and that level of feedback with our players. We want to make sure we are the most player-focused game company in the world. Doing that means having an ear to our players at all times, and responding to issues - not just responding to issues as they come up, like "oh there's a bug", but like "there's a fun problem here, changes we made aren't having the intended effect." An example of that happening recently in the game is where we have the jungle where you can go and defeat minions and other heroes, and we did some changes about how XP and so on was earned. Some players liked that and others didn't, so we looked at that closely and changed how it worked it within a week. That went over very well with the fans, because we were listening and we were ready to make rapid changes to make the game as fun as possible.
Ziegler: I think in general, though, what sets us apart from the other games in this emerging genre is that we release a new champion every two weeks, that stream of content, a quality stream of content. Viktor, our new champion, is really a great example of that.
RPS: Do you think that releasing content like that is sustainable long term? Can you just keep on creating new champions? Are you in danger of running out of possible variations?
Belleza: As long as we release quality champions and address the old ones as needed, it is sustainable. We will keep our ears to the ground and feel out our player base to see what the response is, and address it as a appropriate. We strongly believe that maintaining a steam of content like this is going to continue to drive engagement for our players.
Ziegler: I agree with Paul on that! Coming from the design side I would say that we haven't explored all the design spaces that could potentially flesh out our portfolio of characters for the game. In general though we have the talent on our team that means we are functionally able to continue to produce these characters every two weeks and to meet quality bars and continue to develop our game and evolve it.
RPS: So tell us about the current champion you are working on.
Ziegler: Viktor is an interesting experiment both in the visual space and the design space that we've thrown him into. We have a fantasy visual trope called "HexTech" in our game, and it's a mixture of magic and technology that exists just specifically in our game. For Viktor we've created a mage who represents the idea of of Hextech technology. Viktor has conformed his body to become this technological war machine, but a war machine of magic, if that makes sense.
RPS: So where does he sit in the spectrum of existing champions?
Ziegler: Functionally in design he's a mid-range caster, who uses this technology to develop and control location-based gameplay. So he's got a lot of control of the area around him. He doesn't have a lot of range like other mages, but he has a lot of dominating power in the immediate vicinity.
RPS: So what's the process that came up with Viktor? How do you decide on the characters and abilities? Is it just a case of filling in a blank space?
Belleza: It comes from a specific idea, and everyone in the company is encouraged to submit ideas for champions. Viktor came from Joe himself here, and the main pitch was what Joe was talking about, to create a mage that utilized the hexTech idea we have in our game. Basically Joe put together a document that suggested a design direction, a thematic direction, and some art inspirations that he'd collected. We review these submissions as a team every week. Viktor came with another batch of ideas we are really excited about, actually, and once we'd got through that approval Joe started to prototype the mechanics. We go through a series of of design checks and balances, a prototype stage, a concept stage, and we get together to review it and when we have something we've decided is fun we'll slot it into official production and find a release date. From there it's off to the races!
RPS: So once a champion goes live, how does the feedback process work?
Belleza: We go through lots and lots of play-testing. The first stages are design play-tests - so Joe created a prototype for Viktor, we started playing it. At this stage it is just the main mechanics, without any artwork. Joe you pretty much worked on his design for a couple of months right?
Belleza: So when we've been doing that for a while we go into design lock, where we're sure about the character's abilities. These are subject to tweaks in a wider group's playtesting, but once we're at design lock we can lock in what we are going to create for art assets. Then it goes to the company playtest where everyone in the company plays a character. We do this every day for all our patches. Viktor goes in there and then we take feedback on a company-wide basis. We also work with the live team who are able to work with us to make sure that the character feels good at a high level within the competitive space of the game.
Ziegler: I think what's interesting in our process is that what we really focus on is whether we are meeting or exceeding player expectations. What we want to do is make sure that when this character releases not only is he balanced but also is he delivering on what characters want? Is he what players want to play? Getting a character to a state like that, and the work we put into getting them to be like that, is, I think, a unique aspect of what we do here.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Expect a much more wide ranging interview with the Riot team in the new year.
Viktor is out in the next patch. And here's a video of him I pinched from the IGNs: