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/dev: On the Champion Rework Pipeline

What it takes to rebuild champions

By Reav3
Twitch Exploration

Why does it take so long to rework champions?

Players ask this question all the time—they want champs to get the updates they need, but they also want to understand our process better. I’m Ryan “Reav3” Mireles, lead producer on the Champion Update team, and today I’m here to explain.

Reworks Past and future

A few years ago, reworks could take forever because the process wasn’t very structured. These days, there’s a much more streamlined and organized process for updating champions—which is one of the reasons our class updates and Visual & Gameplay update (VGUs) have been released much more consistently lately. For example, while many designers tried iterations of Yorick over the years, the Yorick that shipped didn’t take quite that long. SolCrushed actually started on that version shortly after he finished Poppy and, using the new process, Yorick was finished in 11 months—roughly the same time as most VGUs or new champions. Yorick was a bit longer than the usual nine months due to him having additional characters to create and animate (the Maiden and his ghouls).

Yorick Sketches

We currently have two pipelines in ChampUp: VGUs and class updates. Both are slightly different.

Visual & Gameplay Updates

Currently, VGUs take roughly the same time as new champions—about nine months. This can be longer if a champion has multiple forms, minions it controls, or relies on some previously-nonexistent tech, but nine months is the average. There are three phases of production for VGUs that break down like this:

OPEN IDEATION PHASE (ROUGHLY THREE MONTHS)

During this phase we have a small team consisting of a designer, concept artists, narrative writer, and producer that start to develop the direction for the new kit, lore, and art for a rework. The goal is to get the final concept art, narrative direction, and kit locked and ready for pre-production. This is the most delicate phase; a project can end up being canceled if we don’t get something we feel confident in. We usually have two or three of these going on at any given time, so if we icebox one we still have a high chance of getting one of the three ready for production once our production team finishes their current project. After this phase is usually when we feel comfortable announcing a project and adding it to the champion update schedule.

Reworked Yorick Concepts

PRE-PRODUCTION PHASE (ROUGHLY TWO MONTHS)

This is the phase where a character artist, tech artists, programmer, and animator will transition onto the project. We start building the in-game model and rig, as well as beginning “animation exploration” to determine how the champion will move/look in-game. Our narrative writer starts VO auditions during this phase, and we usually start concept art for ability FX as well. There are usually a lot of problems that arise once we see the 2D concept art in 3D form, so the next step is solving all of these problems and getting ready to start building the champion. We also start concept art on the champion’s skin catalog during this phase so we can get all of the skin models out to our outsourcing partners before we start full production. These partners usually get the models to 80-90% completion based on our concept art and then we finish them up internally.

We generally have a lot of discussions about which class we should look at, what the class’s strengths and weaknesses should be, and which champions are the highest value targets.

PRODUCTION PHASE (ROUGHLY FOUR MONTHS)

At this stage, we’ve got a large number of people working on the project (roughly 15-20 people). Multiple FX artists, animators, splash artists, and sound designers join the team. This is when the champion starts to actually become a champion. Model, animations, sounds, and VFX all get finalized. We record new VO and start to implement it. We start to get the skin models back from outsourcing and polish them up in-house. Our splash artists finish the base splash and skin splashes. We constantly playtest and iterate on everything until we get it to the point where we feel really confident in the champion. Our promo team also starts to ramp up and puts together the launch website and promotional campaign. Localization teams then work to translate everything to all our region’s languages.

Yorick Color Explorations

Class updates

Class updates generally take about six months. We usually target a specific patch with these so as not to disrupt pro play, so there’s not a lot of leeway in terms of production time. With class updates, if a champion isn’t coming along we cut it rather than extend the timeline. The production process for class can also be broken down in three parts:

EXPLORATION PHASE

During this phase we generally have a lot of discussions about which class we should look at, what the class’s strengths and weaknesses should be, and which champions are the highest value targets. We generally determine our highest value targets under three criteria:

  • How unique is this champion? If they’re generic, they’re a target for an update.
  • Is this champion in scope for a class update? If the champion needs too much work then the champion should get a full VGU instead.
  • How resonant is this champion’s thematic? It is generally easier to work on champions that are already thematically powerful for class updates so we don’t have to re-invent their thematics or backstory like we do with our big VGUs

During this time, our class design team is usually doing follow-up tuning on the previous class update while also experimenting with different possible candidates for a rework. At the end of this phase our goal is to have the class chosen, the champions selected for large reworks, and the high level class goals set.

DESIGN PHASE (ROUGHLY TWO MONTHS)

After we have the class and champions chosen we focus on iterating through design changes. We usually go through multiple iterations on each champion until we settle on something we like. For example, at one point during Rengar’s design, Bonetooth Necklace was a trinket that placed a ward that could eat enemy wards! Sometimes these ideas never see the light of day, while other times we save them for another champ. Eating wards might be better on a support-orientated champion in the future, rather than something Rengar needs in his kit. Once we have the skills locked down, we bring in the artists.

Katerina FX Concepts

PRODUCTION PHASE (ROUGHLY THREE MONTHS)

Since the class updates work on existing champions that don’t need new models, we can skip pre-production and go straight into full production. During this phase, animators, VFX artists, and sound designers join the team. We add all the updated art to the abilities we’re changing (and sometimes ones we are not) for the big reworks. The designers usually keep iterating on feeling and tuning during this phase, while also beginning design work on the “small class reworks.” Promo also starts to get involved and we work with them to figure out how we want to communicate and inform players on all our updates. At the end of this, they go live with all kinds of other crazy mid-season or pre-season stuff.

Conclusion

So that’s the basic rundown of how we rework champions and handle class updates. Hopefully this clears up why it takes so long to rework champs. I’ll be around to answer any questions you might have in the comments below.

Next Article

/dev: On Story Hooks