This interview took place before Kled’s release to the live client. It has only been edited for clarity and length.
Our own Phil Kollar was able to go to Riot Games headquarters to have a chat with Iain “Harrow” Hendry about League’s most recent champion release, Kled. There’s a lot of good stuff from this interview, including how Kled’s development started, his relationship with Skaarl and how well he could be played on off-roles.
The Rift Herald: I guess to start off with, I’ve talked to some people about the process of creating a champion before. It sounds like from the beginning an interesting process in that there’s not one direct path that you take. It depends on a lot of different things and what you’re looking to create and all that.
Harrow: Yeah we don’t have a waterfall spreadsheet, like ‘Okay, have we done this part yet? Okay, now we can move on to the next part.’
TRH: Exactly. So I guess with Kled, I’m curious - what did you start with? What was the beginning like? When you set out to create this new champion, what’s the thing you were looking to do that was like a character thing, a mechanics things, whatever?
H: Boringly, it was kind of a role in the game we hadn’t done in a while. These like, light fighters, usually living in the top-lane, sometimes the jungle, like a Master Yi, Riven, Fiora, those types of things. We hadn’t done one in a while. That was kind of our entire starting point. So we started thinking into that and tried to figure out more specific needs, to kind of kite our path, and we decided we wanted to diversify that space a bit because all of those characters have been typical tryhard people with swords, typically. So something a bit different in that space from those. A little bit more lighthearted maybe, whimsical, strange? So that kind of pointed us in the direction of a yordle. We were like, ‘What kinds of yordles haven’t we done?’ and that led us to the mounted character, a light cavalry. That was one of the early keywords that we were kind of working on and it all kind of flowed from there, essentially.
TRH: So you don’t have a lot of mounted characters in the game. This and Sejuani…?
H: Sejuani and Nunu is actually the boy on top of the yeti? Nobody knows that.
TRH: Technically, yeah.
H: Rumble is riding a mech thing? I guess?
TRH: I guess that counts as a mount in a way. What are the challenges in doing a mounted character? I would guess there’s unique challenges just in terms of creating the assets and everything.
H: Yeah, in a lot of ways, it almost just doubles the character in terms of modeling and animation, especially if you want them to separate, which is one of our goals early on. We didn’t think Sejuani took advantage of being a mounted character early on in the game. We want the character to feel like a mounted character with two separate entities.
That meant they had to be able to separate and the models had to be separate. There are animations that had to work separately and there had to be animations of them coming back together. This also necessitated slightly more abilities than usual. Kled doesn’t have a completely separate kit when he’s on foot, but he did have to have some different things so that creatives more visual effects work! Every single part of it is slightly more work than a regular single character would be.
THR: How does the separating of the mount work? Can you walk me through how that works and then also of how you came to that decision of how that works, like when they’ll separate and when they’ll return?
H: Sure. So the way it actually works in the game is that you start the game and you’re mounted. You’re full normal, full-health state. A significant portion of your health is Skaarl’s health, and it’s a different color on the bar. It interacts with being damaged like a normal health bar and when the Skaarl heath part is empty, Skaarl freaks out, kicks you off, runs away and hides and Skaarl is just gone for that time.
Then, as Kled, you have a secondary resource bar that we call the ‘courage bar’ that works kind of similarly to Gnar’s bar and once it’s filled up to 100 percent, Skaarl with run back and that process takes about a second. Then you’ll remount and get a big chunk of Skaarl’s health back and that’ll be your turn-around moment. You fill up the bar by - we tried to frame it around taking courageous actions, to inspire Skaarl to come back. So, the big ones are fighting champions, just hitting champions with your shot ability or your poke-y basic attacks, give you the most. Then if you hit big objectives, like towers or Dragon or Baron, that also ticks it up a little bit. That’s semi-courageous. Then, just sticking around to last hit minions in lane gives you a little bit. That’s the slowest way to build it up.
How we got there, like I said, early on we wanted to feel like you were the mounted character and you were at the peak of your power when you and your mount were working well together. I think some of the specifics of the mechanics, I tried to be a little inspired by the character, of Kled and Skaarl as they were coming together. I think the spark for me was early on our writer started to phrase it as the commonly duo, but loyal and hardy. The straight man and the fool kind of thing. We sort of decided that Skaarl would be the straight man. That’s almost funnier, since he never talks, right?
But Kled just always want to ride into battle. He always wants to fight, fight, fight to the death. Skaarl is the voice inside his head that says, ‘Maybe this isn’t a good idea?’ So when things get bad, Skaarl’s like, ‘Nope, I’m out.’ It’s essentially a shield for the character - when you take a certain amount of damage, fighting is going bad, so Skaarl peaces out. The second part is how you get the mount back. I tried to stay true to the character in that you should always be rewarded for taking aggressive, courageous actions. The sort of skill I wanted to test on the player was that sort of risk analysis and risk management. It’s like, ‘If I go in there for one last attack, that’s putting myself in danger. Theoretically could die if they sort of outplay me, but if I get it, there’s a huge pay-off.
TRH: So one of the things that sounds challenging with Kled, as you said, you wanted them as they’re mounted to be the most powerful. That means you have to design a specific character that when you get to a certain point, they weaken in power. I guess I’m curious about your approach to making Kled weaker while he’s unmounted, but also still fun to play. So it’s not just like, “Oh, as soon as the mount is gone, it’s shitty being Kled.”
G: Right. Part of it is that you want to keep complexity low so that when you enter this new state you don't have to suddenly learn a bunch of buttons. That's kind of part of why it ended up being such a simple kit, also less powerful? I guess the ways I tried to keep the fun in it was to give you things that don't translate to just straight-up killing power but still have the promise of still doing something greatly exciting. Kled having 75% of that courage bar is really frightening and that's powerful without just being a direct kill threat. so if you have that in the back of your mind and you play through those moments when you get your mount back, you have like 10 health or something and you turn it all around, you just kind of have that promise of excitement that you're like shooting for a certain thing.
Honestly I think that the potential for that when you're at your weakest almost sort of heightens the payoff when it actually comes. ‘I was brave enough to go in there, even though I was reduced to a little gun and a pokey stick, at that moment I was also I was rewarded so heavily for doing so.’ It's kind of how I tried to keep it together. It's certainly some sort of balancing act. Part of it is to give the opponent a good experience as well. They should feel like they should be rewarded for kicking you off your mount. They put you in this state and we've had times where they were like, "Yes! We got him off his mount!" and due to the state of the character he just killed them anyway. So that's kind of what drives keeping you at low kill threats state when you're off your mount.
If you build a million attack damage items he does totally fine anyway. [laughs] He can still kill people. That's how the game works. It was definitely a challenge to find the smallest set of tools possible that could allow him to engage in this game of trying to shoot for the rebound without making opponents feel like he was also, for them, an entire new character to learn how to play around. They could just understand the game and how to interact in the same way.
So we ended up using the little things, like using incredibly faster running towards enemy champions. That's almost like a new power that he gains. His one ability is sort of a multi-functional thing where he has a few different things; One, if you hit someone point blank, that's a big courage gain, two, a 'I want to disengage right now' type of tool and then three, you have the extreme case of ‘I just want to shoot myself towards enemies so that I can hit them more’ and that's the absolute bravest thing that you could do. I just tried to find small numbered easily understandable tools to both Kled and the enemy that could still create an interesting game.
TRH: Can I ask a super nitty-gritty mechanics details question? Just because I’m curious. I haven’t had a chance to mess around with Kled myself. Let’s say Kled is knocked off his mount, you’re fighting. Let’s say it’s that scenario when Kled is at like 10 health and he suddenly gets his mount back and he finishes off whatever enemy champion he’s fighting and his mount has taken a little damage there, too, and then you pop a potion. How does the health recovery there work? Is it like just Kled’s bar? Is it both bars simultaneously?
H: It prioritizes the state you're in right now. So if you have missing Skaarl health and you’re mounted, then it’ll heal Skaarl’s health until that’s full and then spill over, if you have missing Kled’s health. It’ll fill that up from the bottom. You have the wacky damage build with a lot of lifesteal as well, like an AD-carry to go farm the jungle camp, it’ll fill up your regular bar and then fill you back up to full health again.
TRH: Just a weird mechanical thing where I was thinking “How does this work?”
H: In that case I just try to think ‘What does the player want and need in this area where they’re trying to heal through whatever means?’ You probably want to extend the lifetime of whatever state you’re in right now.
TRH: So you started off wanting to make this top-lane character and wanting to make a mounted character, but I’m curious of the character design of Kled and Skaarl. How did you get to those characters actually being who they were aside from how they fit into the game on a more mechanical level?
H: Once we knew ‘mounted yordle’ in addition to diversify the game space, we wanted to diversify yordles because most yordles are similar to tone and humor. We wanted to take Kled in a very different direction. We were starting to wonder, what would that look like and that’s when we came up with the idea of an older yordle - maybe a battle-grizzled yordle would be interesting and we started thinking about where we have yordles attached to other parts of the world in Runeterra.
We recently did Poppy, the very sort of Demacian hero and she’s a courageous yordle in that way. So we were wondering what the polar opposite would look like in a Noxian yordle. That was kind of the driving part of his personality as well. What would a Noxian yordle look like? Well, courageous, but in a very different way. Never die, never surrender sort of vibe. It was also driven by the kind-of comedy deal aspect that I was talking about before. That was kind of why when we were starting to do our explorations of what the mount would look like, we had no idea other than it shouldn’t look like a heavily armored creature. We didn’t want to do the heavy cavalry sort of thing. So we explored a lot of things, like birds and weird bugs and beetles you could ride along and it eventually came to lizard which kind of had the capacity to look capable in battle but also goofy and silly that would come to contrast with Kled, which was this older, grizzled, Noxian war veteran.
TRH: How do you feel about the reaction of the people who have gone on to the PBE and checked out Kled thus far?
H: It’s looked really positive. My favorite reaction, I was watching one streamer, WingsofDeathx, great name. I was watching him and he was a few games in at this point and he was really far ahead. PBE games are always really unbalanced because there’s no match-making happening. Often the streamer you’re watching is an experienced player and he’s against a mirror match Kled who is much less good and hasn’t played as many games, so it’s hard to take balance cues from it. So he was pretty far ahead, and he was looking at the game state and they were sieging the base and he was like, ‘I could just charge right in there, yeah I probably should,’ but he stopped, alt-tabbed and put on some hype Dragon Ball Z music. [laughs] Tabs back into the game, presses ult and charges right in, half of his team all comes along with him. Although it looked like a terrible decision, he ended up getting a triplekill and he closed out the game soon afterwards.
I think it’s hard to tell how Kled will be appreciated long term by players playing as him and against him. I think PBE gives you a pretty one-sided idea of how people are reacting to him. But in terms of the personality, people have been really appreciating it. They really like the VOs giving them a really good sense of the character from day one. Especially coming after the little teaser video thing, so I think people really get Kled immediately and it seems like they’re having a lot of fun doing a lot of stupid things which is kind of what I was hoping to encourage with the character. So it’s been really fun and exciting to see.
Honestly some of my worries were that people wouldn’t really learn all the systems. There’s a lot of little weird systems and I was worried that people wouldn’t learn them super fast and the first few games playing against would be super frustrating because you don’t know how he remounted. Where’d all this health come from? People seem to be picking those things up pretty fast actually, although people on PBE are probably like our most engaged players who read all the websites. So we’ll see when he goes to live. I’m still going to be nervous especially because this was my first champion that I was gameplay designer on.
TRH: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.
H: Yeah, I was a writer on champions years ago, but this is the transition over to gameplay design. So that’s going to be a fresh and interesting experience.
TRH: Well, I’m interested in getting your thoughts, too then. I’ve talked to some of the other gameplay designers at Riot but as somebody coming into it fresh, as you’re getting ready for Kled to go live, how important is it to you for Kled to have a solid winrate? How important is it to you for Kled to be viable in esports? What is your metric for “Okay, I did a good job. I’m happy with this,” versus “We need to go back and fix some stuff.”
H: I think it’s hard to take back a bad first impression so I really hope he doesn’t come out in either we’ll bounce off the character because we can’t succeed with him or if people get excited about this champion and their first few games are terrible, then people often just don’t come back to the character after that because that was their first time. Conversely, if Kled’s initial reputation is just ‘Holy hell, what do I do against this guy? He’s ruining every game and just stomping us completely,’ that similarly just colors the character’s reputation for a long time. So I hope neither of those two things happen. In terms of esports viability, I think it’d be cool to see a character I worked on, on one of the biggest stages in the world. I think that’d be exciting, but it is definitely secondary to just your everyday League of Legends game being improved and not ruined by Kled.
TRH: Is Kled going to win worlds?
H: Maybe I can just go in secretly right before finals and whisper in Faker’s ear, “Pick Kled, Faker.”
TRH: Kled mid! Amazing. I also really want to ask about the positions because that’s something I also find interesting. You’re in such an interesting spot as a gameplay designer where you design a character for a specific spot in mind, obviously knowing that they’ll get shifted around. Some people will try different things, but immediately when the character is announced, the community has some ideas about where they go, where they should go, where they could work best. I know with Kled immediately I saw a lot of people were like, “Jungle. Jungle, of course.” Is that something that makes you nervous? Are you excited by the prospect of people trying the character in different lanes? What are your thoughts on that?
H: Mostly excited. I think very rarely it comes up with like, ‘Oh, we really didn’t anticipate being played with in this position and there were unforeseen consequences.’ In Kled’s case, we did try most things. We didn’t try Kled ADC extensively, but...we don’t think that’s going to be a thing…
TRH: I have a friend who said he’s going to main Kled support. So…
TRH: He’s going to lose all his games, but he’s going to make it work.
H: I have a friend who mains Ekko support, so...and Yorick support as well, but he’s weird. As long as they don’t turn out to be much more negative and unhealthy for the game as we expect, then I get excited about them being taken in surprisingly unexpected places. In terms of Kled jungle, I see a lot of people hoping that we’ll make it more supported, in a way. One of the ways that doesn’t give you courage back is fighting or killing jungle monsters and that’s not to try to undercut jungle Kled because I hate people who want to do jungle Kled, but the thinking right now, and this could change in the future, is that if you can go and farm the jungle to get your mount back, I’m more worried about what that does in other phases of the game, either for top-lane Kled or late-game teamfight Kled who gets dismounted.
Rather than doing something aggressive and exciting and engaging with the other team, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s my time to disappear for a few minutes, farm some jungle monsters, get my mount back and then come back at full strength.’ Even if it wasn’t very much, it still sends a bad signal to players to show that this is something that you could do. That is one thing that people struggle with when they try to play jungle Kled right now, but when I’ve seen when people get over the early-game hump with jungle Kled, they can actually be pretty effective. That ‘CHAAAAARGE’ ultimate roaring out of the jungle with a friend or two is also pretty cool. We’ll see how it goes.
TRH: At this point, what’s the next step for you as far as, well the character is about to go live. Are you going to focus primarily on seeing how they do? Doing first updates and stuff or are you moving directly onto the next character you’re working on.
H: For the first few weeks or so after a new character is live, it’s still up to me to make decisions about first balance patches and so on. I’ll be watching nervously. [laughs] Watching a bunch of games, seeing at a bunch of skill levels, reading our internal stats and all that kind of thing to try to get a good picture of how much he’s succeeding or failing and where. We’ve already drawn out the plans of places we might expect he might be overwhelming or underwhelming and have plans in place of what to buff or nerf to fill those holes if those things happen. Potentially, if he completely surprises us in some kind of way, we will scramble to respond to that, but we think ahead a lot about what ways the character could be…[trails off]
TRH: Oh, that’s really cool. So at this point it’s already like, “If it turns out that it’s this way, we can tweak this.” That’s cool. Obviously I’m not going to ask for you to give us any spoilers about what your next champion is. I’m sure you haven’t even decided at this point, but do you have any, looking at the state of the game and the champions in it, are there any specific holes that you’re like “Oh, I wish we had more of this,” or “I really wish we could fill this,” whether it’s like a species of character or like a role, a type of whatever.
H: One thing I’ve been thinking about forever is that, and we kind of said this with Taliyah, but it’s been some time since we’ve had a traditional-feeling mage for traditional mage players. Taliyah turned out pretty different from a traditional mage actually, so I still think that hasn’t been fulfilled for players. It’s tough to make another Lux or Brand, for instance, who just dumps a bunch of damage on so many of those characters at some point. Every character we make for League of Legends has to justify its place in the game and bring something new, right? So trying to find that balance of what do people who play traditional mage [champions] want that is also something new? It’s been something that I’ve been trying to think about.