Interview: Cliff Zhu from Riot Games

A look into the mind of a gameplay engineer from one of the world’s most famous studios

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I sat down with Riot Games gameplay engineer Cliff Zhu to talk about his experience with Riot Games, the leading company in both the game industry and esports. Cliff works on their most famous game, League of Legends, which is widely recognized as one of the most successful MOBA games of all time. Here is the transcript.

Boting: What’s up Annenberg Media, this is Boting from the Media Center Esports Desk. Today we are lucky to have Cliff Zhu, the gameplay engineer from the League of Legends team in RiotGames. Hi Cliff, how’s everything going?

Cliff: Hey Boting, I’m doing good. How are you?

Boting: I’m good, why not just give us a brief self-introduction to let everyone know a little bit more about you.

Cliff: Sure. My name is Cliff. I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University roughly about one and a half years ago, and then I joined Riot Games as a gameplay engineer/software engineer as my first job under League of Legends, specifically the champion’s team – the champion engineering team. What we do in the champion engineering team is: we help our artists, designers unlock the possibilities of creating new champions and then work on the technologies behind those abilities.

Boting: I see, it’s so dope. So, today we will go through three main topics like I have already told you before haha. The first one would be your working experience in the gaming industry, the second one is going to talk a little bit about the dilemma, the confusions, and the challenges you have confronted in your works, and finally the third one would be your suggestions and advices to our audiences who want to explore their career in gaming and esports.

PART 1: Working in the gaming industry

Boting: So let’s move to part one.

Cliff: Sounds good!

Boting: What’s your job title right now in Riot Games? What projects in Riot Games are you working on right now?

Cliff: As I already talked about, I’m in the champion engineer team under League of Legends game studio. The project I am working on right now are two champions. One of them has already been shared among the League players, its Udyr’s VGU — Visual and Gameplay update. And then the other one, I think, is one of the upcoming new champions this year, but is not shared, so it’s like an undisclosed champion.

Boting: Haha I see, it’s like a top secret. So you said it’s about the rework of Udyr right? All the visual effects, all the spells, all of these would be visually reworked, so it would be done by you.

Cliff: Uh… yeah, partially by me for sure. It’s a complete visual and gameplay rework, meaning that all the abilities will change, like the spells, Udyr’s casts will change, his whole model in game will change. And then we will do a complete paintover obviously, concept arts or a special art, and then all the virtual effects, sound effects, even like the voicelines he says will change.

Boting: That’s a 100% rework. I completely believe it.

Cliff: Yup, yup, yup. For me, I’m working on the engineering part of it, which is writing the codes, the logic for the spell casts, or to support the new arts.

Boting: That’s you making them into reality from the design, right?

Cliff: Yeah yeah yeah.

Boting: Any champion you have done with your group before? Like maybe…. Zed, my favorite champion, or other champions?

Cliff: It’s unfortunate because Zed is too long ago, I think he was already released in 2012, which was before I started my career as a game engineer. So, I was unlucky to not work on Zed, but after I joined Riot, the first project I worked on was actually Viego – the Ruined King.

I wasn’t the main engineer on Viego, but I helped out for sure. As you can tell, Viego has a huge workload, and there are enormous numbers of bugs and technical challenges for sure.

Boting: Yes, it is, and that champion is really dope though. Some of my friends like to play him as jungle; even play as mid-laner, it’s a really powerful champion.

Cliff: Yup!

Boting: So next question, working in the Riot Games, what are the most exciting experiences you have had so far?

Cliff: That’s a tough question, but two things come to mind. The first thing is definitely when I fix a bug and that bug fix appears on the patch notes, and then I go to reddit or like other social media platforms and I see players recognize and say: “They finally fix that bug, that makes my life much better.” I see them talking about it and that feels like really an achievement moment, a redecorating moment, makes me feel that my work is worth it, and people starting recognize my work.

Boting: What about the other one?

Cliff: The other one is…, you know Riot Games put a lot of effort into developing our own IP. And then League of Legends IP last year they made an animated series on Netflix called Arcane. I highly recommend it to you.

Boting: I watched it. I give it 10 out of 10, it’s a masterpiece. Me and my friends really enjoyed it.

Cliff: Yeah, I totally agree. It was like a powerful moment at Riot as well, because we had a lot of like inventions and experiences we created both in-game and out of game. For example, we had new champion skins for Jinx, Vi, Echo, and other characters in both the game and the Arcane. We also organize events, they collaborate not only in LA, but also other cities as well to celebrate the Arcane’s launching, and then to connect our players to recognize this launch. We even built a cinema in our Riot Games campus, and I was invited to watch Arcane in that cinema, and it was so dope.

Boting: I agree with that. So talking about the Arcane, it’s there anything you can leak to us, that I think it’s believed by many players in the League that Riot Games is trying to create a League of Legends Universe, even creating a MMORPG (Massive Multiple Players Online Game) Open World Game for League of Legends. Is there any news about it you can share with us?

Cliff: You know that’s like a kind of great area. As you all know that we have announced that we are developing a MMO, that’s for sure. But for all the other parts I have no ideas.

Boting: OK, so move to next question: How much time do you spend a day playing computer games? Because for me, I am a big gamer, so I think I eventually spend 5-6 hours a day playing many games.

Cliff: That’s a good question. So that depends on my mood and also like month through month is different. Sometimes when I go back home, I just feel exhausted and I just wanna take a rest from the computer world. But sometimes when there is a good game, or a game just got released, like Elden Ring recently released. I don’t know if you heard about that, but I’m a huge fan of Elden Ring and I played a lot as it released. It’s probably more than 5-6 hours a day, but that is not normal for me. I usually play not much on workdays, because sometimes we will do team games at Riots, like a pretty great way to bond team members together. But we don’t do that very often, and sometimes I don’t play League of Legends very often, it’s all depending on the feeling.

Boting: How’s the feeling of playing the champions you work on in the actual games?

Cliff: It makes me realize one thing for sure, when you work on the champ, especially for us as engineers, it doesn’t mean that you are good at the champ.

Boting: I see.

(Both Laughing)

Boting: Except for the League of Legends, as you mentioned you played Elden Ring recently, do you think playing other games would help you to have a better understanding of what you are doing in your works? For example, you maybe can get some ideas about the visual effects of the casts, or any idea in the games?

Cliff: Yeah for sure. For me, I am a gameplay engineer, so I focus on writing the codes to make the game run and function in high performance. But that doesn’t mean that I know a lot about game design, even though that’s my interest as well because I work a lot with game designers. I feel like playing other games outside of the League always gives me new perspectives on how games work, and how a creator would do to make a game that is fun to the players. Ultimately, that’s a dream for every game developer because we want to make games that are fun, and we want our players to enjoy our games. So I know League of Legends is a great game, but other games had other approaches and other stuff they do which I think is also pretty good. So when I played those games, I would be delighted to realize: “Hey, this is the part they’re doing that makes the game really fun.” Because at its core, I am a game developer, but I am also a gamer as well.

PART 2: Dilemma and Confusions

Boting: I can see it. So after you talked about your experience, now we move to part 2 and I want to focus more on the dilemmas and confusions sometimes you might have in your works. The first one is a very straight question: What are the biggest challenges you have confronted in your work so far?

Cliff: I feel my biggest challenge is not directly from work, but it’s related to work – It’s how I balance my work and life. Riot Games is my first job, my first time adventuring through the game industry. Before I had no ideas, game is just my passion and interest. But working on the game or making games in your career is totally different. That makes something you enjoy in your free time suddenly put into your work time. So it’s kinda hard to separate work and life. For example, when I first got into the Riot Games, we were trying to shape Viego, and then I was paranoid of not fixing enough bugs to make Viego shift. Even after work, I would go to social media like Bilibili or TikTok to watch videos talking about Veigo, and I thought I had to fix these bugs. I think about the concerns and comments from our players online about our community and the champions even before I get to sleep. Sometimes it makes me feel frustrated and mentally exhausted as well. Thinking about something everyday, every minute. And you don’t have time to take a rest. But the thing I learned from that is you have to recognize the border line between work and life, and then understand what burned out things to you, when you couldn’t finish your work sustainably, is really important for people like me who are starting their career in the game industry.

Boting: But it’s still very successful for you as a person, your first job is already in the Riot Games, and just can’t imagine how bright your future would be.

(Both Laughing)

Boting: So, as a gameplay engineer specifically, you need to work closely with game designers and the arts team. So is there any clash taking place when you guys have different visions about your works, for instance, the arts team wants the champion to have some cool effects but from your point of view it is inaccessible and hard to reach?

Cliff: It’s definitely. First I wanna point out that all our artists and game designers I worked with are highly empathetic, they care deeply about colleagues from other disciplines’ workflow and time as well. So before they come to me with features and requests, they will always ask about how many days it would take, and if it is feasible to fit under my timeline. I’m actually very grateful for that because I feel like they care a lot about me and I care a lot about them as well because I want to deliver some features or the “blocks” as we called to help them deliver what they want. I think at least for Riot, game engineering is like a support role, so we support our artists and game designers to achieve what they want to do. I wanna play like a support role, guess have fun by the way, to basically help them achieve what they want. Clashes will happen because we come from different backgrounds, and disciplines are different as well. So sometimes when I work on the features that have to change something fundamentally in our game engine, and then by the time it was blocking our animator who has a deadline to finish some animations, that’s highly dependent on my call as well. We resolve the tensions by having lots of communication back and forth, and also let the product manager know about the situation.

Boting: It’s all about teamwork, I believe all the greatest ideas are actually coming from the clashes and conversations you have. You can always get inspired by your colleagues and your working groups, and I think that’s one of the greatest things in the gaming industry so far. So, you said you have suffered from those frustrating moments, have you ever thought about quitting your job in the game industry and moving on to new fields?

Cliff: So far NO, because I feel I am still just starting my career in the game industry, so I will see how far I can go. But right now, my plan is to continue rolling in the game industry.

PART 3: Advices for career and jobs

Boting: Now we move to the last part of our interview, so it would be like giving some advice to our audiences for their career and jobs if they want to explore the game industry and esports. What skills you have learned in school helped you the most in work?

Cliff: I majored in computer science and minored in game design for my undergraduate degree. I took some minor courses which are like the open project course for letting you have a team of five: two programmers, two artists, and one sound designer to work on a game for one semester. I think that is pretty helpful because it gets you experiences of working on a game, but not like in a game industry scale, it’s more like a prototype, an indie game scale.

Boting: But you already had a team with people from different backgrounds, having different skills that you can work together to create a game right?

Cliff: Yeah, that part I can say it’s also really cool because I also learned that in the game industry, everyone is an engineer and you have to work with different disciplines, and how to work with them, and how to communicate with them is also pretty key to becoming a successful game engineer.

Boting: So after you graduated, how did you get into the Riot Games? By attending the career fairs held in schools or applying for it on your own through a third-party platform like Linkedin? Because most of my colleagues and myself right now, we are not in the game industry, and we just shot out our resumes and cover letters to the companies through Linkedin.

Cliff: I definitely attended a lot of career fairs. And if there is Riot Games, I would definitely go there and talk with the recruiters, and then shoot them the resume. And if my school is hosting a Riot Games’ event, I would definitely go there and connect with the recruiters or the “Rioters” over there. I applied every year for the Riot Games’ internship, and then I finally got an interview in my senior year, and I got in the Riot Internship Program, and then returned to Riot Games as a full-time “Rioter”.

Boting: It’s always best to become a company’s intern or get into their training programs, it just gives you more opportunities to get a full-time job after graduation right?

Cliff: Yes.

Boting: So you also mentioned about the Interview. How’s the interview going? Anything you want to share about it?

Cliff: I think one thing I want to point out for Riot’s interview which is different from other tech companies’ interview I have experienced is they cared a lot about how you actually make a game, your hand-on experience, and how you work aside the people basically.

Boting: So it’s more about your practical experience, instead of where you came from, what colleges you attended. It’s more about what things you can do for the team, for the company, right?

Cliff: Yes. And also how you can apply the stuff you learn into a specific product like a game or something.

Boting: If you are asked to give one key advice to the people who want to work in the gaming industry in the future and for someone who is currently reading this interview on Annenberg Media, what advice you can give them, the key advice for them to think about their careers, to get into the training program or the internship role in the Riot Games. What’s the key advice from you?

Cliff: Two things come to mind. The first thing is try to figure out, or to discover your passion, which part of game that interests you the most. For example, I see some people who are very passionate about the rendering part of the game, to see how things are rendered, ray tracing, stuff like that. So they would dig deep into the rendering pipeline and then how to optimize the game to make render better. And that’s like one way of doing it. If you want to get into the game industry, it’s not limited to game engineering, there are concept arts, 3D arts, visually effect arts, sound design, game design as well. So any of those could be like one of fulfills. So I would say try to figure out which one interests you and then you would be passionate to invest a lot of time and energy in it. After that, I would say start making a game because that’s the key skill set of the game industry. The game companies want people with experience, and the game doesn’t need to be a pretty large scale or anything, but having the experience of making games at least is pretty key to landing a job in the industry.

Boting: I agree with that. And also for your first advice, I think it’s really important that one should have his or her focus and concentration because you need to have your particular skill which attracts the companies to hire you. Because they have a lot of talented people here and what they want to do is to group all the talents together to have big outcomes. They just don’t need you to know everything, but you have to know one thing pretty well right?

Cliff: Yup, it’s like you know one thing and that shows you have the ability to learn about other stuff that makes you successful in the company.

Boting: I see, I think that would be all for today. So Cliff, Thank you again for joining us today. And to all of you who are either listening or reading this face-to-face interview, keep following Annenberg Media esports desk for the latest news in the gaming and esports industry, see you around and bye.

Cliff: Thank you Boting.

Boting: Thank you Cliff.