ARTICLE BY RIOT BLAUSTOISE AND RIOT JAG, DESIGN BY NANCYMON
Blaustoise: Hey all, Riot Blaustoise here. I’m the lead of gameplay insights and one of the researchers embedded on the Champions Team. Insights recently published the more quantitative methodologies we use to help assess the state of our champion roster, identify rework opportunities, and measure the impact of balance changes on champion popularity. Today, however, we’re going to focus on how Insights helps in the design and development of a champion. Specifically, we’ll be looking at Kai’Sa: The Daughter of the Void. Insights and the Champions Team have a close partnership, and we couldn’t do this piece justice without bringing in a voice to represent their team. And who better to speak on the development of Kai’Sa than Riot Jag, the unquestionable King of Voidspotting himself.
Jag: Hey, I’m Jeevun Sidhu, aka “Riot Jag,” aka the Slumdog Camillionaire, aka the lead gameplay designer on Kai’Sa. As with every champion we work on, we leaned on Insights to get some early player perspectives on Kai’Sa and to help us answer questions that were more difficult to resolve internally.
What’s in a Champion Lab?
Champion Labs Sundae
During a champion’s development, we typically have 3 rounds of player labs. Each round usually has a theme or set of goals associated with it.
Round 1: Choose your ice cream flavors.
2-3 spells are typically locked or close to locked
Goals: Validate the primary gameplay hook and overall play pattern; check for thematic cohesion
Round 2: Select your toppings.
3-4 spells are locked
Goals: Full kit validation and evaluation of thematic execution—what other opportunities are there?
Round 3: Add the sprinkles and cherry on top.
Champion kit is locked
Goals: Final polish pass, with extra focus on VFX and SFX clarity
Blaustoise: Long before a champion sees the light of questionably balanced mirror matches PBE, it’s first experienced by a handful of players who are invited to the Riot Campus (or other global offices). These players examine concept art, spam abilities in the development environments, and play full 5v5 games with new champions. Afterwards they fill out surveys, have 1-on-1 chats with researchers and designers, and typically finish with a group discussion on their experiences with our potential new additions to League.
Jag: Player labs are exciting because it’s the first time we get see a genuine reaction to a character. We have Rioters playtest champions hundreds of times before labs, and they have all sorts of biases that make it impossible for them to be blank slates. A new player generally has a purer perspective and provides much-needed honesty when the pod really needs it. On top of that, player labs allow us to prove out the riskiest elements of the champion we’re developing—labs let us see if we can make it work or if we should try a new direction.
In Kai’Sa’s case, we wanted to see if people would have interest in a more human-looking Void character, and if a super-aggressive ADC playstyle would resonate with players.
Round One: Soft Marksmen on a Hard Carry
Blaustoise: We often use the analogy of creating a delicious ice cream sundae to represent the different stages of champion labs. For Round 1 labs, we’re validating that we have a delicious set of initial ice cream flavors. Those flavors include the primary gameplay hook (why would you play this character?), their uniqueness (what new thing does this character bring to League?), and overall thematic direction & cohesion (does this character have an appealing fantasy and does that fantasy match with the gameplay?).
Jag: When we started out with Kai’Sa, the ultimate was always there, even from the first playtest. The fantasy of combining ADC-level DPS with the playmaking target access of an Assassin was super unique and exciting, so we wanted to prove out if people would instantly see the upside of a full damage carry able to position literally anywhere in a teamfight.
Blaustoise: On the note of “aggressive marksman,” we encountered a major issue in our first round of player labs for Kai’Sa. While we specifically invited Marksmen players, it quickly became evident during the group discussion that almost all of the players prefered the more traditional stay-safe-and-deal-damage-from-afar Marksmen. Ashe, Caitlyn, Miss Fortune. More… “soft” Marksmen.
Jag: I tried to tell you this was an alpha test, not an open beta.
“Void ADC” First Impressions
Blaustoise: Still, we did get useful feedback for Kai’Sa’s thematic and visuals. Players were shown her early concept art before actually playing her, and we recorded their pre-game expectations for her gameplay as well as other aspects of her design. We asked, “What are your initial impressions of Void ADC? Where in the League universe do you think she is from? What do you expect from her gameplay? From her character?”
Blaustoise: Not only did we invite players who were interested in the the more traditional, long-ranged Marksmen playstyle, but the “Void rifle” in Kai’Sa’s original concept was reading as a long-ranged sniper. We pivoted away from the sniper-esque weapon that formed from her suit to the energy-based “void guns” she has today.
On the flipside, player impressions reassured our direction with Kai’Sa’s Void armor, and one player even hinted at Kai’Sa having evolutions before they were even in her kit.
“I really liked the alien-ish, bug-like armor look. To me, that armor is the champion, and I couldn't really care what she looks like otherwise. If the armor is badass, I will be buying the champ in every chroma available.”
--I definitely didn’t misinterpret this as a market researcher and then constantly pressure the team to make chromas for her… :)
“I think the visual art looks very good from the concept art. I like the idea of the look, and look forward to her maybe transforming slightly when using abilities? That’s what the concept art made me think of at least.”
Blaustoise: Overall, the first round of labs was a miss in terms of understanding our primary goal for Kai’Sa: Creating an appealing and aggressive marksman that looks for opportunities to dive the backline and assassinate.
Jag: You’re a Yasuo main, so you would feed first blood before level 2 anyways.
Blaustoise: Fair enough, but maybe you should have considered making Kai’Sa a little more ranged. I don’t know, something small like 25 extra could have helped.
Jag: ...cue Gru Plan meme?
Round Two: Evolving Kai’Sa
Blaustoise: Round 1 told us that Caitlyn mains don’t want to dive across a fight to burst down an enemy carry. Hard-hitting insights at its best. But working on Kai’Sa meant we had to adapt, improvise, and overcome. If Kai’Sa is an apex predator in the Void, we needed apex players. Jag: When making a champion, I often try to imagine exactly what type of player would be excited to play it, and what core features would motivate them to keep coming back to master the champion. In particular, if we can get a player that loves what’s already great about League, but has a fantasy or gameplay style that hasn’t been fulfilled, that’s the perfect candidate to have in mind.
Blaustoise: Thankfully, we eased up on our restriction on allowing toxic players to come in for playtests. We didn’t used to allow players with recent unsportsmanlike behavior into labs, and while certain egregious offenses (cheating, intentional feeding, hate speech, etc.) were still red flags, we loosened up some restrictions on… “passionate” player-to-player interaction. We knew exactly who to turn to for Kai’Sa’s Round 2 labs.
Enter our next group: Vayne, Lucian, and Draven mains with an appetite for aggression.
Upgrades & Evolutions
Blaustoise: While the first round of labs didn’t even validate our selection of ice cream, the second round not only confirmed that we had the right flavors, but also helped inspire some additional toppings. The more aggressive marksmen players were all about diving and repositioning mid-fight with Kai’Sa’s ultimate, and they provided us with other ideas for how she could evolve even further.
Jag: At this stage of Kai’Sa’s life, only her E spell had a distinct evolution state. Players absolutely loved the idea though, and wanted to see more of that mechanic on the rest of the kit. I felt like I had just enough power budget to add another upgrade to her AD build, so the Q evolve was easy to create. For the W, I couldn’t add another particularly game-changing evolution without too heavily adding complexity and warping her super-spiky power curve even harder. I still wanted to add interest to Kai’Sa’s builds, so the first idea was to give the W evolve some power along a different axis from her core ADC build, which naturally suggested to develop an alternate playstyle.
Void ADC or Void Mage?
Blaustoise: Another major takeaway from the second round of player labs was that Kai’Sa’s visuals weren’t reading as a Marksman: 9 out of the 10 players thought she was a midlaner (specifically a Mage or Assassin) when we showed them concept art stripped of the “Void ADC” title.
Jag: A lot of the feedback indicated some confusion around her energy weapons feeling mage-y and not having the physical/concussive impact that most ADCs had. We ended up solving this with other disciplines (VFX artists and animators added better feedback for the auto attacks, like more impactful recoil on each shot), but at the same time, I decided to run with the feedback. Given the space available for the W evolve, we pushed towards hybridizing Kai’Sa so she could lean harder into being a Mage.
Some other feedback that influenced Kai’Sa’s development from Round 2 labs included…
Round Three: Void Cherries & Sprinkles
Blaustoise: Feedback from our passionate Vayne, Lucian, and Draven players led to two additional evolutions, as well as the ADC, hybrid, and mage playstyles. Going into our Round 3 player labs, we had all the makings of a delicious champion sundae—we just needed the sprinkles and cherry on top. For Kai’Sa, these final labs showed us another opportunity for her evolutions.
Jag: Initially, Kai’Sa’s abilities just silently upgraded when you reached enough stats to evolve them. Players really wanted to enjoy that moment, so we added the ceremony you see today. There’s a button to push, a cool animation, some visual and sound effects, and even some small post-evolution effect changes, depending on the slot.
Blaustoise: The final contribution of player lab feedback to Kai’Sa directly impacted her splash art. All three rounds of labs hinted at the need to clearly identify Kai’Sa’s power source, or what it is she uses to hunt Void monsters. We’d also heard from players that they wanted more emphasis on her “Void guns.” With that player sentiment in the minds of the team, we created a composition that shows off one of her Void guns front-and-center(ish), while the other gun is firing a projectile behind her, ripping through a Void creature.
Pro Perspective & The First Kai’Sa Pentakill
Why We Do Pro Player Labs
Blaustoise: We recently introduced one final step of player feedback to the Champion Insights partnership, which are pro player labs. Continuing with our sundae metaphor, this is when Gordan Ramsey comes in to taste test and tells you whether or not it’s shit. Goals for the pro player labs typically focus around how champions (and other substantial gameplay changes) might impact professional play, plus what levers for tuning and optimizing we might have overlooked.
Jag: Getting professional players in really helped us get an understanding of the high-level reaction to Kai’Sa. They gave us some solid feedback on how to optimize her, but for me personally, it was just really cool to see a super-skilled player go to work with Kai’Sa in a playtest. Plus, we wanted to see a little more Voidspotting, especially in a competitive setting—which is why we made sure to invite NA ADCs for this effort. Just kidding. But we did keep some footage of Doublelift giving our playtest team the business.
What’s Next for Champion Player Labs
Blaustoise: Just as we evolved Kai’Sa and our other champions, we’re constantly evolving our research methodology and how we test content with players. Our next iteration of player labs still includes playtesting champions at multiple stages (Round 1, 2, 3, etc.), but instead of testing one champion, we’ll show players almost all the champions we’re currently working on, as well as other in-progress features for League. We refer to these as Mega Labs (“Blaustoise’s Feedback Bonanza” was too long). We bring in 30-40 players for a weekend of League games and content. Players get exposed to multiple new and updated champs, and while games one and two might involve some cognitive overload, by games nine and ten, players start to have a deeper understanding of what these champions offer to League from playing with, as, and against them.
Jag: These labs heavily resemble a lot of our internal playtests, which can have many champions in development simultaneously, with wildly differing levels of tuning and balance. I’ve already put the big boy himself—Aatrox, my next project—into these Mega Labs, and we’re getting more players than ever testing out our new content and making sure you all are going to love what we deliver.