Greg Street, known as Ghostcrawler to World of Warcraft and League of Legends players around the world, has been Riot Games’ Lead Game Designer since January 2014. Now entering his fourth preseason with League, Street took the time to catch up with The Rift Herald last week about this season’s changes, feedback from players and the direction of the game’s design choices.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This is part three of a three-part interview. You can read part one, which covers plants and the assassin update, right here. You can read part two, which talks about the state of the support position, right here.
PV: The first patch that immediately followed the preseason one was smaller than usual, and we’ve seen recently Ivern, who came out with a very low win rate that has since increased dramatically with each following patch and he got buffed on the preseason patch. Is that something to consider — giving champions and champion updates a little more space before tinkering with them?
GS: Possibly. Honestly, even with Ivern, we knew his win rate would be low at first, because he is a very different champion, he just takes a while -- you’re not going to be good at Ivern after two or three games. Sorry, you’re going to lose a lot. We need to assume that the win rates are going to start low and gradually creep up over time. At the same time, there is a psychological element, and when players see that a champion’s win rate is really low, they may say ‘Well why even bother? I’m not going to waste my time losing 20 or 30 games just to see if Ivern is a good champion for me.’
Weirdly, Bard was very similar, where he came out and the win rates were just terrible, and it took him a while to recover, in the sense of players taking him seriously. He’s in a pretty good place now, and you even see him in pro play, and Ivern will probably get there. It’s definitely not great optics to buff-nerf-buff-nerf-buff-nerf until he kind of finds the right spot. So yeah, maybe we reacted too quickly, and I think we’re being a little more measured with the assassins, which as I’ve said I think also has to do with the fact that we don’t yet trust the data we’re getting, but that will start getting better.
PV: We also saw the ability kit for Camille revealed today. It’s one thing to see the kit and another to experience it in-game. What kind of feel does she have as a champion, to play with and against?
GS: Um, she likes to kick things [laughs]. I will say overall we have made a lot of champions this year that are very, very high skill floor, which has maybe affected their popularity, there haven’t been a lot of champions that players could just get into and after a few games be like, ‘Okay, I know what I’m doing with Taliyah, or I know what I’m doing with Kindred, or Illaoi.’ Camille is hopefully a little more back to that ‘easy to learn, hard to master,’ where you look at her abilities like nothing here is too crazy, there aren’t like passives stacked upon passives and stuff like that, but there’s still a lot of really cool things you can do, particularly with the hookshot, which is kind of her core that the rest of her kit is built around. We really hope that will turn into something cool, she should get some flashy plays.
PV: That seems like something that would be difficult as a balance team -- you’ve been looking at older champions from the earliest iterations of the game to try and update them for the newer parts, but also as you were saying, many of the new champions are more complicated as the game continues to evolve. How do you try to balance introducing new champions that new players can latch onto?
GS: Overall, the philosophy is ‘Easy to learn, hard to master.’ We talk about the skill floor and the skill ceiling. The skill ceiling of an old champion like Warwick is literally five games. You play five games with him, you’re probably not going to get any better with that champion, which is definitely why we’re updating him. A lot of the champions we’ve made recently have been really high skill floor, we’re talking about Ivern is a great example, it takes a lot of games to even be decent at Ivern, let alone be an Ivern master. So we want to have more champions that are a little more straightforward. You think about Jinx: none of her abilities are that crazy, it’s just kind of the overall package, and she’s a super popular champion, even today.
PV: Also today we learned a little bit about the Shyvana update. It’s int he past, the balance team has talked about how it doesn’t want any passive abilities to be impacted by the global map, but we’ve got Shyvana interacting with the dragons. Was that a discussion going in, or was it kind of ‘this is a cool idea, let’s go with it?’
GS: It was kind of a cool idea, the team was like ‘Hey, we know there’s some risk here, let’s see if we can make it work.’ As we have 134 or 135 champions, we need to find ways to distinguish them. It’s not enough just to be like ‘Hey, I’m a lady that turns into a dragon, aren’t I cool?’ There needs to be a little more going on that helps players remember ‘Oh right, Shyvana plays like this,’ which is different than our shape-shifting cat lady or our shape-shifting whatever.
PV: We’re so close to the assassin update that it’s hard to tell the full ramifications of that, but we’re six months out of the midseason update. With the mage rework and the dragon changes, how do you assess their successes and how they’ve impacted the game?
GS: I’m super happy with the dragon changes overall. There’s always debate about whether one of the buffs is too strong or too weak, but I think this Worlds, particularly the last few games were just a great example of ... it’s not always the right decision to take dragon, depending on the number of stacks your team has versus the other team. Getting a critical dragon steal when your team has a lot of buffs could really turn the game around.
But it’s not just one dragon, it’s kind of the overall how does your team play. We took something that was a little too solved, by which I mean ‘Hey, dragon is up, you probably wanna go get dragon,’ and we added a little more depth to the decision-making process without it being some kind of crazy flowchart of like ‘if we have these champions and these items then we should...’. You know, it’s probably still safe to take dragon most of the time, there’s just a nuance there.
Overall, I think the mages are our most successful roster update so far. It was a pretty easy group to tackle, compared to say, marksman, which both marksman and juggernauts have really high dependency on basic attacks and auto attack damage, kind of hard to differentiate them that much. Mages already have a lot of cool stuff going on, so that gave us room to expand on that a little bit. We had some balances issues with Vlad in particular and maybe Malzahar, but overall I think that is kind of the template of how we would like future roster updates to be.
We didn’t see too many mage players say ‘Oh I’m out, I’m not going to play these anymore.’ With a population this large, you will always find players that feel that way, but I think compared to say, looking back, Graves, we really liked the changes but it did alienate a lot of Graves players and that’s not ideal, that we take someone’s main away from them.
PV: Now that Graves is primarily a jungle champion, is that something to be considered in the future?
GS: Like I said, I think we like where he is. I don’t know if we would go and revert that update in the way that we did with Kog’Maw. I think going forward we just need to be really forward to pay attention to why do players love certain champions. I think the Sion and the Poppy update, there are still people who are like ‘Well I no longer play Sion,’ but overall I feel like those delivered on what players were looking for without completely changing the champion and adding more interesting gameplay to them.
PV: Those are literally the two champions I play the most, so I’d have to agree.
PV: Back to the mage updates, do you think this change is finally the one that kills Tank Ekko?
GS: [laughs]. Well gosh, he won’t stay dead. We’ll see. I will say that hopefully the assassin changes overall open up more space for assassins to be assassins, and I think part of the reason they collapse into tanks sometimes is because players don’t feel like they can do their job of catching someone out alone and taking them out.
I can’t remember, one of the designers had this line that I really loved, which was that assassins have the most fun during the laning phase, because that’s more likely when you catch people out, and they kind of want the entire game to be the laning phase, and when you have skilled players, that just doesn’t happen, because they know to group up, and they know to have good vision so they’re never going to get trapped out alone, which kind of shut down assassins from showing up in high-end games or pro games. So hopefully now we’re in a better space where they’re less reliant on ‘Oh I caught someone out alone and they’re dead,’ there’s a little more depth now on both sides, which should allow tank Ekko to be an assassin and all of those guys to function more like assassins.