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Balancing art and production needs to create  Valorant's  cosmetics

Balancing art and production needs to create Valorant's cosmetics

July 23, 2021 | By Bryant Francis

Games like Valorant don’t just live and die off of their huge playerbases—they also rely on premium, top-tier cosmetics to drive revenue and fund new characters for the growingly popular tactical shooter from the company that brought you League of Legends.

At the 2021 Game Developers conference, producer Preeti Khanolkar and art lead Sean Marino teamed up to pull back the curtain slightly on Valorant’s cosmetics production process. Their talk (aimed at producers and art leads in collaboration) explored how Riot balances its resources to produce its animation-intensive, aesthetically unique products, using the Elderflame and Reaver cosmetics sets as key examples.

Dragon their feet

The pair’s first example came from the Elderflame skin—an exceptionally expensive weapon skin that trades several Valorant guns’ normal reloading and firing animations for ones that look more like a dragon acting as a living weapon.

Marino said the team’s inspiration came from the variety of dragon-themed cosmetics in other shooters, which mostly looked like scaly models of pre-existing guns—the most lavish of them might have a sculpture on the barrel, but the fundamental shape remained the same.

He also brought up one immediate challenge that raised the bar for what Valorant would need to do with its cosmetics. Because the game comes from the same company behind League of Legends, there was a player expectation to match the lavish, intricately animated skins seen in the company’s flagship game.

But Valorant, being first-person, opted away from character skins in favor of the weapon skins, and an intricate, high-animation gun skin presents a number of problems. The pair identified one early challenge when the team began work on a reload animation. The concept art resembled a smoldering fire dragon, while the early animation looked like a cute grubby lizard holding an egg.

“That brought up an interesting point,” Marino said “which is that we were trying to bring something inanimate to life. It has a personality whether we want it to or not.”

With 4 guns in the skin set, this meant each skin could have its own personality. So the “cute” animation survived, just on a different weapon.

“It was a good exploration for us to dive deeper into what a skin is,” he explained.

The final result served as a strong contrast to what “dragon-themed” skins typically look like. The one on the left was a living creature, the one on the right felt like van art stapled onto a shotgun.

Khanolkar stepped in to raise two production concerns: first, these time-consuming skins needed to be made alongside a whole other pipeline of content. Second, they weren’t sure if players would fully understand why they were suddenly carrying a dragon instead of a gun—would they even want these dragon guns?

Luckily it turned out, dragons are indeed very rad, and by launching these weapons early in Valorant’s life, Khanolkar said the team was able to convince stakeholders by making the skins a selling point—that Elderflame would be just the first of other high-quality skins to come down the pipe.

Don’t fear the Reaver

Next the pair moved on to discussing the Reaver skin set’s origins—the first weapon cosmetics made for Valorant. Marino explained that at this point the team didn’t even know what players wanted out of cosmetics or if they’d want a fantasy skin laid on top of modern-looking tactical weapons.

“Let’s just put a generic fantasy skin on a weapon and see if players respond to it,” he said, in a description of the process.

Khanolkar said this gave a chance for the team to learn what players wanted out of skins—did they want simple, unflashy weapons, or did they want unique animations and sound effects?

This led to some interesting findings—like the fact that some advanced animations could be misleading. Players might not feel a gun was ready to shoot, or it might slower even though it was literally the same time. “It felt pay-to-lose,” she deadpanned.

What surprised the team was that players did respond strongly to “evolving skins”—skins that changed shape and gained new forums as players completed more in-game challenges.

Reaver wasn’t planned to be included in a formal launch, and was only made available in Valorant’s Closed Beta to show off what was possible with skins. It remained unpopular for some of the reasons mentioned above—but then Valorant launched, and suddenly players were begging Riot to put Reaver back in the game.

“’Bring back Reaver’ became a meme!” Khanolkar said with exasperation. She said they even got queries during press interviews about it. She described there being two ways to re-include Reaver—one of them being “the wrong way.” The wrong way, in her words, would just be to re-ship the skin pack and charge players for it with no changes.

“The right way is a lot harder than the wrong way,” she explained. And the right way here was re-doing the Reaver skin to mirror the standards of skins like the Elderflame skin.

But there was stress from all the player interest in the skin—as speculation about the skin grew, the team began to recognize that player nostalgia and self-driven hype would not satisfy players.

This all came to head in a marketing meeting where the team was discussing the pack’s imminent relaunch. Khanolkar expressed worry over the player reception, especially with all the changes that had been done to the skin. Marino jumped in to ask what exactly she felt wrong about it, and clarify what changes had impacted the mood.

After A/B testing on a mood board, he realized her concern was over a very subtle effect—the animation included more pink than the original dark and moody purple.

The fix was equally surprising—Marino brought the skins back to a VFX artist, who pitched swinging the color in the complete opposite direction—pure black effects.

Khanolkar said that looking back, a core issue that led to this conflict was worrying over being a producer who, with little understanding to art, dictated artistic choices to the art team. Marino’s decision to solicit direct feedback from her helped the team course correct—to acclaim from players.

Marino said there were lessons for artists in this process too. “If people are giving you feedback, do your best to understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “If someone [on your team] is coming to you as a player, and saying something’s wrong…you need to give them the space to be honest with you.”

Khanolkar and Marino’s talk was ultimately one about navigating different kinds of trust—trust in your team, trusting your gut, and trusting your creative partners. But amidst the trust, the pair also uncovered key lessons from the cosmetic design process that can be applied to any live game, to help create standout cosmetics your players will resonate with and enjoy purchasing.

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