When a champion has been germinating in the minds of our developers and designers for as long as Zyra has, you would expect some good stories and lessons to come from the process. For over a year, Zyra was in one stage of production or another, slowly becoming the champion you see today.
Join two of Zyra’s developers, lead champion designer Ryan “Morello” Scott and Bradford “CertainlyT” Wenban, as they take you into the depths of the champion design process, giving you an inside look at how champions are born.
Riot: Start at the beginning. Where did Zyra’s development start?
Morello: We were looking at the archetype for a long time now; maybe a year. We’d just been calling her “plant girl.” Originally, she was a take on the nymph or dryad from traditional fantasy with a distinct League of Legends flair. Dryads are kind of “hey, heal you with nature” and soft and flighty, not the most fleshed out concept. So what is cool in nature? Strangling you with vines, man-eating plants – these were brutal. What if our dryad was focused around this sharper side of nature?
Zyra is also one of the champions that had a ton of developers working on her. At least three designers had a hand in in iterating on her kit.
Riot: CertainlyT, you were the final designer to work on Zyra. What was unique about your time finalizing her?
CertainlyT: When I came onto the Zyra project, a lot of the problems were about going “too far” in the seed direction. There were too many choices as to what you could turn your plants into. Having so many different plants to create made it so that you always felt bad about the choice you made. It was very overwhelming. The seeds themselves had also been a challenge, from their function granting vision to how long they can live in the world.
Riot: So how did you solve the issues with her seeds?
CertainlyT: We wanted to put more emphasis on planting seeds out in the world and making that a decision-point about whether you should create a plant or not. This way, you never feel like you are wasting a seed because it could always become something else and serve a function.
Riot: How has Zyra’s kit changed over the course of her development?
CertainlyT: We had to cut down on a lot of variables. There were dozens of balance problems resulting with Zyra. Having too many plants felt like the kit wasn’t clean. We wanted to add depth to the play experience by enabling the player to doing clever things with their plants, rather than just giving you a huge number of plants to choose from. That way, it’s more about the way you play Zyra than the complexity of her kit that defines her.
Morello: Yeah, it’s done nothing but help the character, trimming down the number of ways you could interact with plants.
CertainlyT: It’s actually given Zyra more options by opening up more possibilities for the remainder of her kit. We could increase her ranges and give seeds more flexibility, for instance, since she doesn’t have a plant for every job. It was a balance between the awesome toolbox-aspect of the character, where she could whip out one of a plethora of plants versus using your plants in strategic, fun ways. Everything is a lot cleaner, she plays better and you never feel punished for your choices when it comes to seeds. It’s about how I use my plants versus choosing which plant for the job.
Morello: There is a lot of decision making with Zyra and her abilities.
CertainlyT: What I’ve noticed is that Zyra is played in dramatically different ways based on how people approach mages or how they think about the game. We’ve seen Zyra played as a controller-type, creeping around and always knowing where you are so she’s ready to strike. We’ve seen her played extremely aggressive, waiting for her moment to strike and placing plants in the path of his enemy’s escape, trapping them between two powerful damage sources. Zyra can even be played like a tricky, trap-setting, defensive mage who rolls with the punches. She moves back, kind of kiting her enemy with an obstacle course of seeds and plants.
Zyra’s plant-play is much more open in terms of how you can combo her spells and set the map up for yourself, and she will be fulfilling for many different players in many different ways.
Riot: Were you looking to fill a role with Zyra?
Morello: It was archetype first and then whichever role would make sense for that archetype. For a more open champion like Zyra, I expect that we’re going to see some crazier stuff. Unexpected bottom support Zyra might turn out to be incredibly powerful. Jungle Zyra might turn out to be the greatest counter-jungler because of her seeds. She’s so open-ended, since she doesn’t bring the same guns to the fight like other AP champions. She’s not going to go toe-to-toe with other pure APs – she needs to use her abilities and combos to dish it out. Her play is important.
CertainlyT: Once her kit was set, we focused on where she would most likely appear most – mid lane. That’s where we might have to rein her in. But the real take-away is how emergent her gameplay can be, and the anticipation of seeing what people are going to do with her.
One thing I was really happy with that came from Zyra’s development was that she doesn’t actually have a bright line role to play in game. We could add usefulness and fun to this champion and not pigeon-hole her into a role.
Morello: Orianna, Blitzcrank, Lulu to some extent – these are champions that are more open-ended and can live in multiple places in the game. Their open-ended abilities and play styles let players who are into that sort of thing -- the player who wants to be creative with this type of ability set -- really think about how their champion can affect the battle.
Darius, on the other hand, was always going to be a top lane fighter and a killer of men. Sometimes you want that type of focus. The players want lots of different types of champions.
Riot: How did you go about balancing seeds? They are critical to her kit, right?
Morello: There are different costs for everything, and Zyra’s seeds are more about opportunity cost. Since you can only have two seeds stored up at once, it’s up to you to create the opportunity to use or not use them. If you drop two seeds immediately on top of your opponent and grow them into plants, that’s two plants that you’ve got and no seeds for other uses, like preventing a jungle gank or for scouting. They’ll come back, sure, but the limits to her power come from these opportunities to use seeds.
Riot: Where do you feel Zyra lies in difficulty to pick up for summoners?
CertainlyT: I’ve actually done a lot of the work on her usability. We had to establish and be accepting of the fact that there would be multiple play-patterns for Zyra. For the novice Zyra player, or a less-sophisticated player might start out by placing seeds on the ground and casting spells opportunistically, hitting both the enemy and a seed to get a double-whammy out of the ability. As players progress in skill, sophistication, and comfort, it becomes more like a combo casting system, which is more difficult. It’s achievable by our players, though. Then there’s the type of player who is a little bit of both. Our best Zyra players are leaving out seeds and coming back to them later to cast spells on or near them. We’re not too worried about mechanical difficulty.
The goal with Zyra was that as you progress with her and learn her abilities and get more comfortable with the potential combos, you’ll feel more clever as you trap enemies, spring a surprise plant uprising or turn the tide of a team fight with clutch seed and plant placement. She’s incredibly rewarding as you learn to pull off new stuff.
Morello: Zyra appeals to people who want to play a little more of a chess game. The fantasy of Zyra is that you’re ready to outthink and outsmart the other champions in your lane. Sure, she’s got some good burst and interesting abilities, but she truly shines when you take a step back for a second and think about the best course of action.
CertainlyT: There is a healthy amount of predicting where your opponent will go. I actually slowed down the speed of her E to make it more rewarding to hit. You feel really clever when you hit with it.
Morello: It’s almost a “less is more” design decision. You can actually make a spell more powerful in other ways when you weaken it. Take Anivia’s Flash Frost as an example. People who play Anivia love that skill because of how slow it moves. When you hit with Flash Frost, you hit with Flash Frost, and your enemy feels it. Plus, we’re able to add more to abilities that are harder to hit, like a big stun, more damage, etc.
Zyra is about getting into your own head. You’ll be rewarded as a Zyra player by taking a second to plan your moves and execute on your plan.
CertainlyT: You also get actual power from planning. For instance, if Zyra is in top lane and knows she’s going to be imminently ganked, she can drop a seed down in the brush and know what’s going on. The enemy jungler will know that he’s stepped on a seed, and the Zyra player can continue to go about her business. Now you’ve wasted that jungler’s time, right? You did a tiny bit of planning and now you’re reaping the benefits of being informed on the battlefield.
Riot: What about playing against Zyra? How can players interact with her to prevent her from being so manipulative and tricky on the Fields of Justice?
Morello: Seeds can be used as speculative ways to gauge what an opponent will do next. Zyra could toss a seed out and see how you’ll react. Remember, enemy champions can step on seeds to destroy them. They aren’t targetable, so you have to get close to stomp them out, but in order to remove the potential seed threat you have to get close, so you might get hit by a spell or a plant while reacting to the seed.
CertainlyT: We wanted to create a feeling of fundamental fairness. You can react to Zyra by trying to stomp out seeds, and Zyra can force players’ hands by placing seeds that could become threats.
Morello: Thematically, it also made sense. Step on a seed and it’s crushed.
CertainlyT: Stepping on the seeds wasn’t necessarily done for pure balances purposes. Originally you couldn’t interact with her seeds, but players felt like they could be pushed around too easily by Zyra and couldn’t do anything about it. By making players able to step on seeds, it gives you a method to get rid of them when playing against her, but also exposes you to danger since you have to get close to them do it. This makes seed interaction even more of a mind game.
Morello: There’s a wind-up time on stepping on them, too. You can’t just run around immediately to crush her seeds. Zyra always has some time to use a seed to make a plant.
Riot: Did any funny or unexpected stuff happen over the course Zyras’ development?
CertainlyT: In the early stages of development, we actually set up all of her plants as using the models of other champions. Her Q plant was Ashe, for instance. She popped up and would shoot at enemies. Her E plant was Jarvan using his lance.
Morello: There were also some prototype plants that didn’t get too far. Morgana, for instance, was a plant. She would pop up and “Morgana” you. There were also Sion plants that ran around and chopped you up. We moved away from mobile minions, however, since having her plants stay stationary ultimately made better balance sense.
CertainlyT: Games looked absolutely hilarious with little Sions and Ashes and Morganas running around. You can imagine the chaos.
Morello: Zyra’s development was a unique process that was all about finding what worked out of many, many options and concepts. If players should take anything away from all of this, it’s just how important clarity is to design and finding that special moment when everything finds a way to fit. It’s an awesome feeling, especially when you know you made the right calls.