In addition to adding brand-new champions such as Taliyah and Aurelion Sol to its intimidatingly large roster, Riot are also working hard to bring the rest of League of Legends’ cast up to their current, stratospherically high standards. The past two years have seen several major reworks, as is the case with Poppy, Sion, and more recently Taric, but also more sweeping updates which tweak rather than transform the kits of several champions at once.
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‘Mid-Season Magic’, as it’s been dubbed, sees sixteen mages go under the knife, as well as changes to items and The Rift’s beloved dragon. We’ve spoken before to Riot champion designers before, but never to those involved in the nitty gritty of balancing the game’s constantly swaying scales. This time we took the time to speak to Brian Feeney, aka ‘FeralPony’, a key member of the game balance team, about the latest wave of changes to hit the Rift, and what it’s like at the coalface of the world’s most popular game.
PCGN: Let’s start with Cassiopeia. There’s been talk for a long while about how impractical she is, and I think most people were expecting to see much wider-reaching changes. Why has she been so lightly modified?
Brian Feeney: I think a lot of this is about managing expectations about changes, especially when you try and prep people for them before you send them out into the world. It can be difficult. We use the term ‘character rework’ or ‘character redesign’ fairly loosely so you’ll see an update as big as something like Sion where we’re like ‘every skin gets overhauled, every animation, all the splash arts, all that kind of stuff’ next to the juggernaut updates from patch 5.16 where Garen counted as a rework but all the skills sort of remained the same.
So I can sort of get where that expectation comes from. That being said, on the Cassiopeia change, she has a totally new passive, her W is very, very different, as are the interactions with her other skills. I can see where you might be expecting a ‘larger’ change, but at the same time we touched sixteen mages.
The balance changes in League are usually so gradual. How does the process of implementing such broad-reaching updates differ to your bog-standard patch?
I think mages in particular were probably the toughest group. We’ve done three groups so far: juggernauts, marksmen, and now mages. [These] were the trickiest partially because of just picking what characters we’d get; if you delve into what players determine as mages, beyond what the tags say in champion select, I think there’s about thirty five champions people could determine were mages, and we’re not going to do an update with thirty five champs - that’s just kind of crazy.
There are a couple of things we look at. there’s sort of this high-level equation and then each of those factors have different weights. Some of those weights would be ‘how long has this character gone without an update?’ A lot of our older characters are in more drastic need of attention. Also, ‘How much value for effort can we get out of it?’ As an example, if we could do five good updates to mages or one ‘sort of good’ update to a really difficult mage, we would probably pick the five over the one just because the reach is a lot broader.
Is that why Galio was conspicuously absent from the update? Guy needs some loving, in my opinion.
So Galio was pretty contentious internally. The two things that steered us away from Galio were that one, this is a guy that needs a much larger-scale update; we thought there were some substantial changes that needed to be made. Number two, because there are so many mages in this space we sort of leaned away from ‘mage / other class’ hybrids. We wanted to be sure we just focused on mages, especially since we’re looking at the option of doing a tank update in the future and Galio is a very logical fit there as well. And when we broke down the class list and how the champions fit and what attributes they have, we felt that he fit more into the tank category than the traditional mage camp, and so he made more sense in a separate update.
Another thing that we see come out of this is that whenever we do an update, play-rates of all those champions spike, so we’re going to see sixteen mages and all their play-rates go crazy. Who’s the one champion you want to play in League of legends when you have three to four mages on the enemy team? It’s gonna be Galio. So we felt a little bad for not putting him in the update, but at the same time I don’t think he’s ever had a patch where you want to play Galio more than right now.
Naming no names - Origen - a few voices in the pro circuit are complaining about the constant changes harming League as an eSport. Do you have a response to that?
There are several elements I want to respond to in that. I mean, I’m not big into the eSports side, but there’s several things I’ll touch on. The first is that we do try and time these changes specifically around eSports season. They come after the main tournaments - they come after Worlds and they come after MSI. The MSI matches are not being played on the Mage Update. We’re not like ‘Hey guys! Guess what? Here’s sixteen mages, new dragons and a bunch of new items, you’ve got three weeks to get into it’. We try to be respectful.
Of course, it does cause a little bit of chaos, especially for the first week afterwards. While they’re practicing and they’re working and they’re finishing up their season they have a lot of time for the community to figure out stuff for them as well. They’re not going in totally blind.
The second point I’ll touch on [is that] this has been a recurring trend throughout League of Legends - we patch every two weeks and so in addition to the game being very complex and very skill-driven, one of the things we look for if you want to be top of the game in League of Legends is a certain level of adaptability. You need to be able to learn quickly, to adjust your strategies and pick up new things. That’s been a trend since we launched in 2009. Since then we’ve never stopped our two-week patch cycle.
You’ve worked on both updates like this one and the pure champion development side. Do you ever get jealous of the guys working on new champs like Aurelion and Taliyah?
So I’ve actually been at Riot for almost six years now and I’ve been on most of the different development teams. I’ve done champion design I’ve done balance work I’ve done updates.
There is a certain appeal to being able to finish a champion. I think I worked on Rumble as my first champion and he was literally given to me on a post-it note. It was like ‘Yordle - make a yordle, you have five weeks, ship it’. It was really satisfying going from a post-it note to seeing fan art and cosplay, that jump is so insane as a developer.
That being said, right now I’m concerned with a two-week release phase and it’s sort of addicting. You get into a feedback cycle with really rapid iteration, and I much prefer that side of the fence than the isolation for several months or half a year. I really like the interaction, putting changes on PBE, getting feedback, iterating and then shipping. You’re shipping something basically every week as you put something on the PBE you get feedback you make adjustments do it again and that feedback loop is really really exciting as a developer.
How do you feel about Rumble now that he’s five years old?
I’m actually a designer on the balance team right now, so in theory I could just wave my wand and be like ‘buff all of my champions!’ I try to pretty much stay out of that, especially when it comes to champions that I’ve worked on directly, just to avoid a conflict of interest there. That being said, he definitely could use a little love. We actually gave him some buffs pretty recently which I would say from the data that we’re looking at [were] pretty successful. We put some pretty sizeable buffs in and he’s doing really well right now.
The marksman update saw Graves move into the jungle. Are these kinds of role-swaps welcome? Don't mages belong in the mid lane?
The answer to this is yes and no. In general we don’t have an inherent aversion to champions going into other lanes, we’re not like, ‘Oh no we saw Graves in the jungle, what do we do? Kill it with fire!’ That doesn’t generally happen. First off, we have a lot of present experience with champions and how they behave, as do players. So if the stats show a champion is going into a different lane, then we ask a couple of questions generally speaking.
Number one, does the new lane eclipse their old expectations and the way the players would want to play the champion? For example, if Graves is going jungle and people really enjoy Graves as a laner, if to make jungle Graves balanced we have to functionally kill his other lane, that’s something we generally try to avoid. The other thing we try to avoid is champions that can go into every single lane and every single role, because that causes some other problems as well.
Wow, that’s actually happened to some champions? Like who?
Kayle has typically had this problem in the past, where you’re like ‘marksman, support, jungle, solo-lane’ you can just pick her anywhere. But we’ve also had a couple of other ones where you get four out of the five positions, but even then that gets a little shaky. There are a lot of champions in League of Legends, we want you to be able to pick and enjoy all of the champions and you’re at much higher risk of any champion eclipsing the others if they can function in every single lane. They get a little bit too powerful and they dominate the entire game.
When you’re looking at the enemy team and trying to figure out how this influences your game plan and how you want to react, if you’re four champions in and you’re like ‘I have no idea what they’re doing’ then that sort of poses a problem. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with champions going into other lanes, in some ways we actually really want to support that, but only one, maybe two additional lanes, as long as they’re healthy and happy to play.
Can you foresee any champs who you think might partake in some lane drifting, after these recent changes?
From the Mage Update it’s still a little too early to see. Obviously we saw Malzahar jungle right out the gate but that took a pretty big hotfix where we did some work on his voidlings.
When talking about Kindred I heard a developer mention that Riot are adverse to the idea of controlling multiple characters at once, which is why that champ is a single controllable unit. If that’s true, why is Tibbers still here?
The biggest problem we have with two characters is, quite frankly, control scheme. We are a game where you don’t have RTS-style unit selection, you control your one character. So, Tibbers is cool, Tibbers is impactful, you throw Tibbers down and he blows dudes up and starts mauling ‘em, but the problem is that he’s very difficult to control.
I think you’re right to call out why he’s still there, but I think fundamentally when players think of Annie it’s very hard to separate her from Tibbers. I mean, when you walk into Riot HQ within five seconds you encounter a 9ft tall bear statue on fire and then a tiny girl behind him, so Tibbers is really fundamental to the character. Even in the bigger updates we really don’t want to remove the core of the character that people have become attached to and love, so we’re certainly not going to remove Tibbers even if the controls are a bit difficult. The guy who was working on Annie spent a lot of time trying to improve the behaviour of Tibbers, making him easier to control and a more integral part of the kit. That being said there’s still down time there - it’s not like you’re controlling him 100% of the time. Micromanaging multiple characters all of the time is really hard and really complex, but in Annie’s case you throw down all of your spells and everything’s on cooldown and at that point you actually have time to breathe pause, and focus on how you’re controlling Tibbers as opposed to yourself.
Moving sideways, the change to elemental dragons has proven divisive. Why complicate what was a pretty comprehensible buff?
I would say that this dragon is both more complex and not, at the same time. Some of this is just how fast people get used to changes. If I tried to introduce the old dragon from the update we got two years ago now people would be like ‘oh, so it’s a buff, it gives you some sort of stacking permanent buff that changes over time and there’s five different effects; attack damage and ability power, then it gives you turret burning… it doesn’t really make a lot of intuitive sense to people in spite of the stacking model being similar.
We actually found a lot of ease of simplicity in this version because elemental themes in particular are very strong and resonant with players, and they make a lot of sense. People are like ‘okay, I took fire and I get damage’ or ‘I took wind and I get speed’ and we actually found that people were able to pick this version up easier and understand it better than both previous versions of the dragon. While it may be a fairly drastic change, people were able to adopt it quickly.
Why is it that people seem to resist changes to the environment far more than changes to champions themselves?
I think to some extent that’s because no matter who I am in League of Legends, if Dragon gets changed that’s something I have to learn and a new thing I have to overcome, adapt to and re-optimise. Whereas, let’s say I’m a Sion player and he gets a kickass update, I’m really excited but other players who prefer the other 126 champions in the game aren’t as directly impacted. So you get to focus that excitement for that narrow subset of players whereas generally systemic changes touch everybody and it’s a much harder audience to universally please.
Mid-Season Magic is now live on the League of Legends servers and ready everyone to enjoy. You can read a detailed breakdown of the changes to each champion as well as adjustments to dragon and items here.