Much of the world's recent interest in Riot Games has been centered around its expansion into TV and film or its efforts to expand its portfolio of games. But while it's playing in new genres and making friends in Hollywood, the dedicated design team behind League of Legends is still adding champions to the roster, and tweaking old ones at the same time.
With the recent release of Bel'Veth in June, Riot is now supporting a multiplayer game with 160 playable characters. Though only a maximum of 10 can be in Summoner's Rift at any given time, each new addition to the roster has incredible rippling effects on the state of the game.
Bel'Veth's addition to League of Legends allowed the development team to flex its muscles and explore new technical and creative fields. Some of the team that helped bring her to life took time to explain the highs and lows of that process, and show how developers can still conceive new design space even after a decade of live game development.
Bel'Veth: an empress and a monster
Bel'Veth is the self-proclaimed empress of the Void, a nether-realm in the League of Legends universe that is home to a number of dark, destructive creatures. Like other Void-themed characters, she's monstrous in nature, taking on a humanoid form in the narrative cinematics, but assuming the form of a floating supernatural manta ray in gameplay.
"We looked at our roster and realized that we didn't have any monstrous humanoid female [champions]," said Ryan Mireles, lead producer on gameplay for League of Legends. He compared her to other champions like Renekton (alligator humanoid), Nasus (jackel-headed humanoid), and Rengar (big cat humanoid), reflecting a more modern approach that differs from reported sentiments earlier in the company's history.
Over the course of her development, Mireles said that Bel'Veth pushed further into the "creature" camp. The team noted that other Void-adjacent champions like Vel'Kaz or Rek'Sai are a group of "unrelatable monsters." "How could we create a champion that could be a little more relatable, something from the Void while also interacting with other champions and humans?"
He said this led the team to the "angler fish" approach, where the character would have a humanoid head poking out of a monstrous body—giving the illusion of a more human-looking creature—but in gameplay, that head is concealed to reveal the form of a creepier, stingray-looking creature.
Those "stingray" features presented unique challenges when designing her gameplay model. One of her gameplay gimmicks is that she has a very fast auto-attack. Bel'Veth gameplay engineer Jason Hwang said that the team had to implement "tech improvements" to specifically accommodate this playstyle.
"Some of Bel'Veth's auto attacks involve [visual effects] that create large flowing swipes. Because her play pattern involves players moving between auto attacks frequently, we noticed that the VFX didn't have the ability to blend out smoothly like the animations, which led to visual clutter and confusion in playtests," he said.
The tech improvements Hwang and his colleagues implemented allowed the VFX to blend out alongside her animations leading to a "tighter, clearer" feel while she's in combat. Bel'Veth art lead Larry Ray said that her silhouette was "something not seen yet" in League of Legends, and the back-and-forth he had with the gameplay team involved finding the right size and animation transitions to make those attacks fluid.
Bel'Veth is one of the few champions in League of Legends who spawns her own creatures. Every League of Legends game is populated by minions that rush each other's bases, and that players farm for gold. "The regular lane minions that we know and love were made a long time ago, and haven't seen [many] changes over time," Hwang said with affection.
He explained that during tech discovery, the team discovered that lane minions have "siloed" bits of tech, and are baked into League of Legends in a way that makes it difficult to build a custom variation on their behavior. Early prototypes suffered performance hitches for players when Bel'Veth needed to spawn many voidlings at once.
The solution? "Some opportunistic refactoring," he explained. Retooling how lane minions worked across all of League of Legends allowed the game's designers to create "custom" lane minions (for Bel'Veth and beyond).
Bel'Veth's voidlings spawn when she uses her ultimate ability, called "Endless Banquet." Unlike other classic champions like Jinx or Garen, it's not an ability where players just push a button and deal damage. To activate it, they need to consume pieces of "void coral" that are dropped from slain minions and monsters on Summoner's Rift.
Activating the ability does some area-of-effect damage, increases her total health, gains a short "dash" traversal ability and turns slain minions into voidlings.
Game designer Jonathan Fuller explained that this is not an "average" League of Legends spell, and that the team spent a lot of time making sure the ability was "understandable/accessible" so players could understand what was happening in chaotic team fights.
"Because Bel'Veth is so fragile, it was a tough ask for players to stand still and eat a coral," he explained. "What we shipped was the minimum she needed to not be 'trolling' if she cast her ultimate in a team fight."
The "sweet spot," he said, involved shifting the power into survivability rather than damage. It feels good to make her more mobile and harder to kill, and she can influence enemy players' decision making by making fallen enemies explode.
Skills floors and ceilings in League of Legends
League of Legends is still big bucks for Riot Games not just because of its dedicated playerbase, but also its function as an esport. When the champion design team is working on new characters, some portion of their identity needs to function in high-level competitive play.
Interestingly, champion designer August Browning told us that Bel'Veth was designed "primarily with average players in mind." He said that the team's goal was for her to be "skill expressive," but the specific play fantasy she's built around (rapid melee attacks) "tends to struggle in professional play."
With her powers tuned for the average League player, Browning says it was critical for her to have early-game weaknesses. Like certain other popular League of Legends champions like Master Yi, she performs better by farming creatures early before entering team fights.
But Browning says there may be hope for Bel'Veth in the competitive scene yet. "There's a certain KING of melee attacking skirmishing that sees quite a bit of pro-play at the moment," he mused (he's probably talking about Trundle?) And he noted that Bel'Veth has "decent mechanical demands," and a focus on map objectives, which pro players tend to enjoy.
Bel'Veth is the kind of character that's made League of Legends so attractive for so many years. She's mechanically compelling, has an alluring backstory, and shows how the live games like League can evolve their technological capabilities to keep up with the times.
If Riot's plans play out, there's a decent chance she'll be a hit in other games like Legends of Runeterra, or other entertainment mediums as well.