How Riot reinvents old League of Legends champions like comic book superheroes

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League of Legends is now more than a decade old, and over that time the competitive strategy game has amassed a roster of close to 150 characters. Some become so popular that they join virtual pop groups or have outfits created by designers at Louis Vuitton. Others… well, others can get left behind. Because of this, developer Riot regularly revisits some of its older champions so it can revitalize them for modern players.

It’s a process that producer Ryan Mireles likens to superheroes, where someone like Batman can be reinvented across countless comic books and movies to better suit the moment. Even before he started working at the studio in 2015, Mireles liked to think about how these unloved characters could be reimagined in a similar way. “I always thought that was an exciting approach,” he says, “so I was always thinking what could these older champions be under the lens of modernization.”

The latest to get the treatment — which Riot calls a VGU, short for “visual gameplay update” — is Volibear, a giant armored bear whose update is now available in the game’s public beta environment. According to Mireles, there’s a process for choosing champions that involves ranking different factors like gameplay, visuals, lore / tone, and also factoring the variety and diversity of recent characters. Last year, the team narrowed it down to five fighters in need of a revamp, and then let fans vote to choose the next two they would work on. The results were Fiddlesticks — who recently returned as perhaps League’s most terrifying champion — and Volibear. “His theme was pretty bad,” Mireles says of Volibear’s inclusion. “He was just this random armored bear.”

The goal with Volibear’s redesign was to update his theme to turn him into an intimidating demigod, one with the power to harness lightning and thunder. At the same time, the team at Riot wanted to make the champion stickier for the players who do enjoy playing as him. “Our goal is not really to make him suddenly the most popular champion,” says Mireles. “But we want people that play him to like him and keep playing him.”

The VGU process can take around nine months, with about half of that time dedicated to experimentation and ideation. Concept artists will throw out wild ideas, and designers will brainstorm new gameplay elements. “We just try really crazy things. Then we’ll figure out what’s the coolest, what sticks,” says Mireles. For Volibear, early ideas included an “Eldritch horror” design that turned the demigod into something more grotesque, and a special attack actually destroyed terrain. Since Volibear is something of an unstoppable force, they also played along with the idea of making him impervious to stun attacks. While some of these ideas were fun, they didn’t all tie into the character’s theme, or they broke elements of the game’s balance.

Once the team has a clear direction, they move into production, which involves expanding to bring on animators, visual effects artists, and other people who can bring the character to life. This generally takes an additional four to five months.

VGUs aren’t a new phenomenon for League of Legends, but the process has changed significantly over the years. Initially, the team would target characters with extremely low play rates and attempt to completely rework them to increase engagement. Then came Aatrox. In 2018, Riot reworked a demonic sword wielder named Aatrox who had a terrible play rate because fans were asking for a change. They turned him into something akin to a Dark Souls boss, with big, heavy attacks and a dark backstory. In most respects the VGU was a hit: Aatrox is more popular than ever. But his dedicated fans weren’t happy with how drastic the change was.

“We really upset a lot of players who played Aatrox previously to this,” Mireles explains. “That made us rethink our strategy as we moved on to more champions that had larger player bases.” He says that now, while engagement is still a big reason to update older champions, maintaining player trust is just as important. Riot doesn’t want dedicated fans to get scared when their favorite characters come up for a redesign.

It’s a tricky balancing act, and that’s part of the reason the process can take so long. In fact, Mireles says that it takes around the same amount of time to redesign an old champion as it does to create a new one from scratch. “The process is different, in that they both have very different challenges, but the time it takes to solve those challenges is roughly the same,” he explains. “Because with a new champion you don’t have to worry about upsetting a bunch of current players.”

Over the years, the process has also become more complex as League’s storytelling has become a more coordinated effort. When Riot introduced a new champion called Senna last year, for instance, she was not only a new element of the game’s ever-evolving lore, but also a part of a new virtual hip-hop group called True Damage that also happened to perform a holographic concert at the League of Legends World Championships in Paris.

The version of Volibear that’s available to play today is one that’s gone through many iterations, but it’s also much more interesting as a result. No longer just a “random armored bear,” the champion is an intimidating force, with a new moveset to match, including the ability to summon lightning bolts and going into a mauling frenzy. It still has the appeal of a big intimidating bear, but with new layers to keep players excited.

“It’s the main reason we make champions: to keep people excited about playing League,” says Mireles. “They’re kind of like mini expansion packs.”

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