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Designing a League of Legends champion: “Sometimes you get Vayne and sometimes you get Yorick”

League of Legends Jhin concept art

League of Legends possesses one of gaming’s most intimidating rosters of playable characters: 128 in total. This veritable army has been amassed in a period of just six years, and now number 129 is about to make his debut to the worldwide community.

What’s coming next? Here’s all the details on League of Legends’ Lunar Revel event.

We recently spent some time with August ‘Gypsylord’ Browning, a designer at Riot who is responsible for some of League’s most cherished champions in recent years including Jinx, Vi and Ekko. He’s also the mind behind Jhin, the marksman headed to live servers in the next week or so.

PCGN: You’ve been heavily involved in the development of some great champions. How does the champion creation process begin?

August Browning: It really depends – designers work differently. Some people start with a gameplay concept, some people start with the thematic concept, others with a character reference. I like starting with a character if I can. Take Vi, where I was like ‘you’re making this punk girl from Piltover with these giant hextech gauntlets’. Then I look at the character and ask ‘what does this character look like she would do in the game? What would it feel like to play her? What experience am I trying to deliver to you?’ Once I have that I can start fleshing out the kit.

Let’s say you begin with a character, how are they initially conceived? Do you tend to start start with sketches, or is there an area of Riot HQ littered with books and comics for research?

I want to start by saying that I don’t draw, I’m actually pretty bad at it, but we have a lot of incredibly talented concept artists and they’re the ones who are able to provide that. I suggest mechanics, I decide what the champion is doing, but we also give feedback to each other throughout the process, so on Jinx I was giving feedback to Katie De Sousa, her artist, about potential body types or weapons but the base drawing and idea of the character came from [her]. She was like ‘I want to create the crazy girl with blue pigtails and guns’ and then we went from there and refined it.

Jinx splash art

Jhin’s voiceover work is vital to understanding who he is, more so than other recent champions who you get at first glance. How involved are you in his creation of his wider personality?

I’m actually very obsessed with thematic resonance in my champions. [Fellow Riot developer Bradford Wenban] is brilliant at delivering really mechanically compelling experiences: Thresh, Yasuo, Kalista, whereas the best thing I think that I could deliver to a player is a champion who feels exactly like the character they want to play. It’s like Jinx – you get to be the manic girl with the guns. I will actually edit my kits to accommodate themes that the writer and concept artist feels are important. For example, with Jhin we realised that he was about beauty and death and at that time my kit didn’t really have any death effects in it so I scraped my mind for two weeks to work out how we could arrive at a death effect that worked.

When I was making Vi she didn’t feel ‘punchy’ enough so I made the rule that every spell needs to be able to be described by ‘[blank] punch’. So her spells are ‘Falcon Punch’, ‘Denting Punch’, ‘Explosive Punch’ and ‘Kill the Carry Punch’.

It feels like we’re receiving champions at a slower rate these days. Has the start-to-finish time of champion creation increased over the past few years?

There’s a lot of reasons for that. One of them is that, honestly, we feel that the rate we used to release champions at was far, far too fast. When you release a champion every two weeks it’s kind of a gamble. Sometimes you get a Vayne and you’re like ‘wow, this is an amazing kit’, sometimes you get Yorick and that was a big problem. We have deliberately slowed down the champion cadence because we feel it gives us enough time to assure that the quality is high. When you’re trying to release a champion [fortnightly] and meet those deadlines, sometimes you let the quality slip.

Secondarily though, we do think that at this point we’re probably releasing champions too slow and we’re trying to explore ways to speed up our production process. Jhin was actually an attempt at this, he was released in about 7 months which is really fast for a champion nowadays. One of the reasons for that is that we cut his ideation phase very short; for Jhin we actually salvaged an old Kindred concept. We used to have this cowboy bounty hunter [idea for Jhin which we lost to] Kindred because the designer made a kit for them that was this jungle marksman. So we thought ‘this cowboy concept isn’t going to work, but this death concept is a lot better, let’s see if we can make that work out.’

Kindred splash art

So how did this eventually transform into Jhin’s ‘deadly artisan’ persona?

Honesty it came from his passive. The way that we make a lot of champions these days is a process where you have the artist, the writer, and the designer all working together and giving each other feedback. For Jhin we started with the ‘mysterious sniper cowboy’ concept and I, from a design perspective, was like ‘how can I make a champion feel like a sniper without giving them 5 million range on their auto attacks?’ – that’s what Caitlyn is. So first of all, I thought ‘what if I give them a shorter range weapon?’ Being a sniper isn’t just about range it’s about every shot counting. If you play a sniper in Call of Duty then every time you pull that trigger it really matters. That’s where his four hit passive came from, where every four attacks you get this fourth bullet and you have to reload and you attack slowly.

But then we had to ask ourselves who the heck uses the fourth shot as the good one? Any smart sniper or gunslinger would just use the first shot as the good one. That’s where Jhin’s eccentric artist psychopath idea came from because we thought ‘what if the guy was kind of OCD and wanted every kill to be absolutely perfect and have this whole performance to it?’

Hence Jhin’s obsession with the number four.

Exactly. Actually his kit only used to have the number four once, which was just on the passive, and then the writer said ‘well what if this character is obsessed with the number four?’ Then we put it on his ultimate, and his Q which bounces four times, and his E reveals you for four seconds.

Jhin design evolution

Are there any abilities that you threw out along the way? I remember that at one point Ekko’s proposed ultimate was a global time rewind but it was deemed too difficult to implement.

There are a couple of things we threw out along the way. I’d like to emphasise that this character used to be Kindred so there used to be a whole different kit for Jhin that was about jungle bounty hunting. We had a version of the ultimate that used to do one super powerful shot that had a long channel time and while you were channeling you’d have a targeting laser that only your allies could see – think Vel’Koz ultimate but it doesn’t do any damage – so you’d put your laser sights out on the battlefield and your allies would try to corral people to where you’re shooting. The problem was that it was really buggy and hard to implement, it just wasn’t working out from a feel perspective.

Secondarily, I wanted to steer clear from the single shot ultimate not only because Jhin likes the number four but – have you ever played Call of Duty and you’re fighting a sniper and he misses the first shot but you know where he is? You’re like ‘oh crap’ and you have to duck and cover; that’s what I wanted to create with Jhin’s ultimate, I wanted it to feel like you’re being suppressed by a sniper. Four shots creates that, where you have an extended period of trying to hide behind allies and get out of range.

One other thing we got rid of, and this is more of an interesting design story, is Jhin’s Q. These days [you’ll] probably note that it’s very simple; just throw this grenade and it’ll bounce and do some extra damage if it amps. For the longest time I had a problem with that, I didn’t like that the Q was simple so I tried all these different versions where it only replicated itself on kill but could bounce an infinite number of times or you could cause it to split by reactivating it. At one point Jhin could even embed [his Q] in an enemy then shoot a skillshot out of them.

What I found out about the Q though was that Jhin’s kit is really about his ultimate, his W, and his passive. His ultimate and W are his long range pattern when he’s sniping you from across the map and his passive is his short range pattern where he’s constantly trying to kite in and out of people’s range to get his auto attacks off. I found out that with all those things he was already thinking about, a complex Q didn’t really make sense within his kit – it was just an extra thing he had to think about that he didn’t want to.

Jhin dance gif

Jhin is definitely more straightforward than Gnar or Kindred whose kits require a great deal of dexterity, was this a conscious choice?

Yes and no. We are of the opinion right now that we overloaded the last year with very mechanically complex champions and I think that there’s two things that we have to think about: first of all, not every champion needs to be complex, but not every champion should be simple. Maybe we should release a Garen a year and a Yasuo a year and a couple of champions in between. It’s important that we have a spectrum of complexity in our release cadence to serve different players.

What about balancing the needs of the hugely popular pro-scene and more casual players when creating a champ? How do you make sure that everyone from low-skill players to the likes of Faker are accommodated?

I think the thing we should be worried about as designers isn’t complexity. Yasuo has had some problems in the past, but one thing he actually hasn’t been is a pro-game problem. He’s never been 100% pick / ban in competitive every time where we’d have to make him complete trash to the average player otherwise he’d be in every pro game. One of the reasons he hasn’t had that problem is that there are certain champions where weaknesses can be negated the better you get at them.

For example, a problem we’ve had with Azir is that people who are great with him and have perfect communication with their team are unassailable in the late game. Even though Yasuo has strengths, he still has to get up close and melee you and that puts him at a lot of risk. It’s not bad to create champions that pros are better at playing than normal players, what creates true problems is when perfect communication and play results in a champions weaknesses being totally negated.

League of Legends' best player Faker

With that in mind, which champion would you say is currently the most broken?

I wouldn’t say there is one champion who is ‘most broken’. Historically some of the champions we’ve had bigger problems with have been Azir and Elise though we’ve managed to get them into better spots and are still looking at them.

When you’re evaluating the current roster and looking at the stats is there a percentage win rate that signals a red flag the developers? I remember reading that Jinx once possessed a 55% win rate and that was why her R was nerfed at close range.

We don’t go with specific numbers: we’re data informed not data driven. We do take things like win rates into account, but it’s all within the context of what a champion should be good at and what they should be bad at. Jinx historically has a very high win rate, someone might look at that and say ‘Jinx is at 53% wins, that’s above 50 and therefore overpowered’. That’s not exactly how it works. Jinx is a champion who loves taking objectives, snowballing teamfights and doing AoE damage – for the average player that’s how most games go down in League of Legends. In a world which is balanced she wins a bit more because most of the games she’s in tend to favour her but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have weaknesses. Whereas Yasuo has a 47-8% win rate and that’s just because he’s so hard to play that on average he’s going to win less games.

If you go into a game and a champion beats you, [then the question is] can you go out of that game with a plan about how you could have performed better? If the answer is yes, then that champion is probably more well balanced than their win rate might suggest.

Jhin concept art

Multiple-hit passives seem to be the norm these days: Tahm, Ekko, Kindred, Braum, Gnar all rely on them. What alternatives has Riot explored to create ‘windows of opportunity’ for players?

The thing about multiple hit passives that works so well is that they’re such an understandable and straightforward way to do it. Every champion has a basic attack and we can use this to make them feel good and give expected pacing to a fight. As for things like timing levers where you have 3 seconds to do something and after this time it happens, that can be good, it just depends what champion you’re looking at.

It’s possible that we’re overusing them right now and I’m a big culprit of this, but one of the reasons we really like these 3-hit passives is that they create a lot of tension and build up to a big moment. Imagine you had a champion who did 100 damage on every auto attack, we can’t really represent that with particles because it’s every single attack, so there’s not any new gameplay there. Or we could say that your champion does 350 damage on the third auto attack, and what’s exciting about that is that it condenses all that [tension] into one moment. Even though attacks one and two might do no damage, they still feel great because there’s a build up to a goal. Attacks one and two are now special because they get you to attack three and attack three is special because you crush people with it.

Timing levers sounds like the domain of mages, but we haven’t seen any true mages hit the Rift in a long while. Is there reason for that?

I can’t really give you details but we’re working on a mage right now. The thing that players have really been missing is your standard mage who’s not about a mobility fantasy or anything like that, they’re about casting powerful spells – our last ones like that were Lissandra and Vel’Koz. We’ve realised there’s a gap.

Lissandra splash art

Part of the reason is that we only released five champions last year. There are a lot of different needs to fulfill in our roster. Every year, should we put out a support for support players, or do people want assassins, or a tanky tank tank who tanks, or a fighter who brawls with you, or an AD carry?

We made a mage, it was Azir. He wasn’t the typical mage that most people wanted but he was an AP midlaner. It’s less that we’ve avoided mages in 2015 but we had a lot of things we wanted to fulfill and ‘mage’ was lower priority than ‘assassin’. Ekko was our first assassin since Zed who I think was two years before him.

Do you ever look at the champions in other games and see close similarities to those in LoL?

I think it’s very important as a designer to play other games and understand why other games are exciting. I play Overwatch, I play HoTS, I play Dota 2. I think League is a great game and I think they’re great games. Sometimes you can port mechanics across games and I think that’s really cool. When I was working on Ekko, the first thing I thought about when I heard time assassin was the Weaver ultimate in Dota 2, where you push a button and you go back four seconds in time and you get all your health and mana back. I was like ‘wow, is there a version of that ult that could work in League because it’s such a cool ability.’ That eventually became Ekko’s ultimate which was inspired by Weaver.

Ekko splash art

It’s about being aware as a designer that you have a lot to learn from other games, and other games do really good jobs of delivering certain fantasies.

Jhin is currently live on PBE and will be headed to the live League of Legends servers in an impending patch. Those who have an itch to snipe that must be sated immediately can sign up to become a PBE tester here. If you haven’t yet encountered Jhin and his devastating abilities then why not peruse our Jhin gameplay guide.