Dev Diary: Xin Zhao, League of Legends' newest champion

Josh Augustine at

Xin Zhao, the Seneschal of Demacia.

PCGamer.com routinely features Developer Diaries: tales of what goes on behind-the-scenes in the development studios making your favorite games. This Dev Diary is titled "League of Legends Character Development and the Creation of Xin Zhao” and was written by Tom Cadwell, Design Director for Riot Games. This is the world exclusive announcement of the upcoming martial arts hero for League of Legends, Xin Zhao!

Hi, I'm Tom Cadwell, Design Director for Riot Games, creators of the acclaimed free-to-play online game, League of Legends. My primary responsibility is to oversee the design, balance and implementations of Champions and game modes within League of Legends. Character design is one area where we feel League of Legends stands above other games in the genre because each Champion has been carefully built to give a unique play experience. This ranges from their role and ability design, to their art and their back-story.

We sometimes get asked how we go about making characters, so I’m going to walk you through the Riot Games Champion development process giving you an idea of how we create our characters. I’m also going to give you a sneak peek at Xin Zhao, the first Champion to be launched for League of Legends’ Season One.

LoL - Xin Zhao

Exploding lightning spear? We like this guy already.

Developing League of Legends' Champions takes longer than most people realize. Part of that is because we release new Champions fairly often–since we operate our game as a service to our Community, we release new patches every two to three weeks that include at least one Champion and several Champion skins (outfits, armor or new models that you can use to customize your Champions)–so people assume it only takes a few days or weeks to come up with someone new. But we actually have a long Champion pipeline that gives us several months lead time. So let’s take a look at the beginning of the creation process.

Generally, our design and character creation teams brainstorm ideas for Champions and actively solicit creative input from others within Riot Games. The teams then write-up a short description for each character which includes their personality, main abilities and usually include a couple sketches for inspiration. The character creation team then reviews this large pool of ideas and chooses only the best ones to move to the next round.

In the case of Xin Zhao, it was Kevin O'Brien, one of our associate designers, that came up with the idea. A lot of us are fans of Chinese martial arts films, and Kevin took the time to pull some source material together and do a brief write-up.

This write-up contained a lot of background information and some ideas to use as inspiration, and our art team used it as a spring-board to create concept art. To give you an idea of what our concept art looks like, here’s one of the concepts that the art team put together for Xin Zhao:

Xin Zhao concept art

Now that we have some artwork to go along with the written descriptions, we pass along the information to a wider group for approval – if people are getting excited about the Champion, we send the concepts back to the designers to create a model. At the same time, one of the designers, usually whoever is most passionate about the concept, starts to flesh out the Champion’s abilities in more detail, ensuring that they are going to be as balanced as possible.

Xin Zhao’s particular abilities are very unique compared to the other Champions in League of Legends:
Three Talon Strike: (cornerstone ability) A series of attacks that culminate in a powerful move that inflicts considerable damage to his opponent.
Unnamed ability: Increases his attack speed and causes all of his attacks to cool down his other abilities much faster than they normally would.
Audacious Charge: Quickly charge an opponent and slow them down.

We came up with this design build because we wanted to capture the spirit of the free-moving fighters you might see in martial arts films. Xin can move freely about the battlefield, drawing power from attacking his enemies, so he can act as an initiator and maybe even as a tank, while still able to deal lots of damage very quickly. One problem we struggled with was how to make Xin Zhao able to initiate but not be a full tank. We tried a number of iterations on this, trying out different defensive components to his Audacious Charge and ultimate. In the end, I think we came up with a really strong build that our players are really going to enjoy.

Xin Zhao

After the design stage and once there is a playable model, we add the Champion to our internal test server for QA and internal play tests. This gives us a chance to make notes, tweaks and updates while their animations, sounds, voices and artwork are all finalized. The more iterations and testing we can get on a Champion, the better it will turn out.

Xin Zhao, like many of our Champions, spent several weeks on the internal test server. He was a fun Champion to play from the start, but in order to make sure he was balanced and all of his abilities were acting as they were supposed to, we've made several changes. His Three Talon Strike ability in particular went through several different iterations before we were happy with the way it was working.

After serious internal testing, the Champions are generally put on the public Test Realm for wider testing. We have a pretty strong pool of testers that play each Champion and give us detailed feedback before we release them to the public, helping us make final balance and animation changes. Once these final changes are implemented, Champions are deployed in a patch for all our players to get their hands on. So what began as a mere idea in a company meeting turned into something as awesome as this:

Xin Zhao, the Seneschal of Demacia.

But wait, there’s more. Our time with Champion development doesn’t end with the public deployment. As I mentioned before, we operate League of Legends as a service, meaning we evaluate user feedback and do extensive testing on the game even after content has gone live. If needed, the design team continues to make minor adjustments and changes to keep the Champion balanced (especially as we introduce even more Champions that shift the dynamics of the teams). Therefore, we never consider a Champion truly “finished” because we will often come back and revisit them to keep them fresh and relevant.

So there you have it. The League of Legends Champion creation process. We're really proud of our Champions and hope you enjoy playing them as much as we enjoy making them. You can download the game for free and check out the more than 50 available Champions at www.LeagueofLegends.com.

Xin Zhao will be available at the launch of Season One, which doesn't have an announced release date yet, so stay tuned!