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Typhoons and Sand Worms
Most champs who make it through the development process eventually find a home on the Rift… but not all. And while lost-but-not-forgotten champs might not ever reach the promised land, they often inspire new designs and pave the way for future champions who do. Well the Hydrosoul is one of those characters.
Well was a water mage developed during League’s Beta whose abilities summoned rainstorms, vortexes, and other watery things. He needed a ton of particle effects, but League’s technology wasn’t exactly the greatest back then. Unable to support such a VFX-heavy champion, Well ultimately met the dreaded fate of cancellation.
But a few years—and tech advancements—later, Well’s designs inspired a new champ named Seth the Sand Mage. Senior game designer Colt “Ezreal” Hallam says, “If you compare Seth to Well, he’s basically the same guy, but instead of controlling water, it’s saaand.”
Seth was an aspirational fellow who wanted to turn everything into a desert, thus spreading the realm of Shurima across the land. In-game, his abilities left sand on the map for a few minutes—the more abilities you used, the more sand you created. If you landed an ability on an enemy standing on the sand, it had a bonus effect, like extra range or a knockup. In some iterations, Seth even had a friendly sand buddy: a terrifying sand worm that sporadically attacked wanderers above.
It wasn’t long before Seth fell into developmental quicksand—adding so many particle effects to the game was causing lower-end computers to struggle. To counter this, the duration the sand stuck around for was reduced, then the number of particles was lowered, then the duration was hit again…until eventually, the sand-creeping idea was abandoned altogether. “To hit worldwide players, we just couldn’t go into this design space,” Colt says, “which still breaks my heart, because it was dope.”
When Seth lost his sand-spreading privileges, he was left with a hodgepodge of abilities no longer united by their creep-spreading mechanics. Brad “CertainlyT” Wenban took over gameplay development, but he quickly became disillusioned. Concept artist Gem “Lonewingy” Lim says, “Brad was like, ‘What even is sand? Does it burn it like fire, or is it slow like ice? What is it?’ Then he went crazy and didn’t want to work on the champion anymore.”
Seth the Sand Mage seemed quite lost.
Seth’s character design was just as muddled his gameplay. Since Seth stopped spreading sand in-game, his identity as a “desert expander” no longer made sense. His kit change drove devs to reimagine the Sand Mage’s character, which resulted in a royal upgrade: Seth was now the long lost Emperor of Shurima. This shift also meant artists and writers could explore a region that (until the Shurima event) lacked a central story.
Seth—make that Azir—was the last ancient Emperor before Shurima fell, but what exactly was his role in the kingdom’s demise? Did his malicious decisions lead to the downfall, or was he a well-intentioned ruler who made costly mistakes? The second option seemed like a more complex, dynamic approach, and Gem set out to redesign Azir from this perspective.
The Emperor’s new appearance was primarily inspired by Egyptian mythology, which seemed fitting because two previous Shuriman champs were already modeled from Egyptian gods. Nasus was inspired by Anubis, god of the afterlife, and Renekton was influenced by Sobek, a crocodile-headed god associated with military prowess. The foundation for soon-to-be-Azir was Ra, god of the sun. Ra was a powerful, falcon-headed god who was often pictured with a sun-disk, much like the now-iconic one in Shurima.
Azir had an updated backstory and new look, and now he needed fresh concept art for his abilities. Inspired by his position as the Emperor, Gem drew a picture that’s now recognized as the turning point in Azir’s development: Azir summoning sand soldiers.
After that, everything fell perfectly into place…except not at all.
Back then, the soldiers were assigned to just one of Azir’s abilities—an addition to sand hands and a newly-designed windmill of death, which was a summoned tower that shot four rotating beams of lethal light. When Daniel “ZenonTheStoic” Klein—Azir’s fourth and final champion designer—took over for Drew Marlow, he realized Azir’s current kit was dead on arrival. “Nobody could quite find a kit for this guy,” Daniel says, “And sometimes, that just happens.”
But instead of leaving Azir in dust, the champ team tried to reimagine him using the existing concept art and in-game assets: a character model, a sand soldier (and its dash animation), and the windmill of death.
For three full days, developers worked in small teams, each trying to create a compelling character from the ruins. When it was time to share their designs, everyone’s had one thing in common: The soldier was central to the champion, both in gameplay and thematic. “Everyone thought everything else about this guy was generic,” Daniel says, “except for his soldiers. We knew then it had to be about the soldiers.”
At long last, it was time for Azir, Emperor of Shurima, to rise.
The Order is Given
Designing a champion centered around soldiers meant abandoning the sand mage’s kit completely. Instead, he became a minion-mancer, a champion who controls summoned things. “Deciding to go in this direction was scary,” Daniel says, “Because it was a very unresolved space.” They looked towards champs like Heimerdinger, Malzahar, and Zyra to see what about their kits worked… and what didn’t:
Minions who automatically attacked (Heimer’s towers) weren’t very interactive, minions that acted on their own accord (Malz’s old, old voidlings) weren’t fun, and most minions could create oppressive zone-control (Zyra’s plants), so there needed to be a trade-off. All previous minions were also targetable, had HP, and blocked skillshots. In an attempt to sidestep previous balance issues, they approached the design space from a different angle: Azir’s soldiers were untargetable and couldn’t act on their own; rather, their actions and positions were controlled directly by Azir’s player.
The resulting kit looked a lot like the one you know and love—or don’t love—today, but with one key difference: Azir had to personally auto-attack a target before his soldiers would follow suit. After one playtesting session, Colt said, “This is kind of cool, and I see what you’re trying to do, but wouldn’t it be better if you just commanded the soldiers to attack instead?”
“That was the moment we were like, ‘Oh shit. We have an actual champion,’” Klein says.
When playing Azir, you are the emperor. You make your own army and everything you do commands them, even your right-clicks. Azir doesn’t have to attack you; he just points in your direction, then his sand soldiers stab you to death.
Lessons From the Emperor
It’s no secret that Azir had one of, if not the, roughest champ releases in the last few years. We were fixing Azir bugs for months after his launch, which made an already difficult-to-play champion feel practically impossible. Part of the reason Azir was so buggy was because multiple teams at Riot (including Azir’s) agreed stuff related to the Shurima event would all be ready at the same time. Azir’s coding was really complicated, and when that date came, he still had problems. However, his release was central to the Shurima event, so he launched anyways.
Since then, the champion dev team has been very reluctant to commit to a hard deadline. You never know what can happen in development, and we don’t want to release a champ that isn’t quite ready for live again.
Aside from technical issues, balancing Azir has always been a struggle because the problem lies within his kit. “We completely underestimated how hard he would be to play,” Daniel says. The individual inputs, or buttons you hit in-game, seem easy enough—click on an enemy to do damage—but altering a fundamental system—right-clicking usually makes you auto attack (not soldiers)—caused the learning curve to go through the roof. Even though his strength was hidden behind really complicated inputs, it was only a matter of time until god-like players could pull it off. For awhile, if you could hit the all the right buttons, Azir was OP, but if not, he was basically garbage (and today he’s seen as rather weak across all divisions).
Throwback to when Azir was OP.
Part of the reason Azir’s kit is so unique is because around the time of his development, the competitive pool kept shrinking. Devs thought it was because so many champs had overlapping strengths and weaknesses, so in 2014, devs set out to make champs that were really, really distinct. Creating a super original champion was a success, but it came at the expense of long-term balance. “Azir’s development is a cautionary tale of executing too well on bad goals,” Daniel says. “And in the future, we’d like to make Azir more possible to play by mere mortals.”
ORIGINS is a new series where we deep-dive into the development of champions. Feel free to drop some thoughts and feels on the series below and let us know which champs you’re most interested in hearing about!