A few days ago, MGG had the chance to meet Valorant Producer Preeti Khanolkar and Art Lead Sean Marino. They're responsible for cosmetics in Riot Games' competitive FPS, such as the brand-new Ion skin range, which we can exclusively reveal now.
Their work is extremely valuable to Riot, and the consistency in the quality of cosmetics in Valorant is telling — one look at the Elderflame collection will tell you that. We were curious to find out Riot's cosmetics department works, so Preeti and Sean generously lent their time to give us a behind-the-scenes view.
Where did you get the inspiration for Ion skins?
"I'd say they're a mix of Iron Man's armor, Daniel Simon's automobile designs, the motorcycle from TRON, and the bubble ship from the movie Oblivion.
We looked at a range of 'Industrial Sci-fi' inspirations, and we ended up gravitating more towards those four examples."
Did your work on skins influence the look of the base game?
"Yes! We knew we were going to produce a wide variety of skins, so it was important that the basic weapons met strict specifications.
Weapons must all have a unique shape, so that they can be recognized regardless of their skin — the long nose of the Phantom, the round magazine of the Judge, for example — but they must also be as simple as possible so that one is free to invent over them.
That's why the default appearance of the weapons is black, matte and unadorned — because it's the perfect white canvas to draw on. So, ironically, the existence of skins has had a huge impact on skinless weapons."
How many people work in the cosmetics department?
"There are far fewer of us than you might think! [Laughs] People think of Riot as a huge company, but the Valorant team isn't that big, and if you only count the skins department, there's probably between 20 and 30 of us."
How long did it take you to create the Ion skins?
"One year! We started working on them on November 11, 2019 and they arrive in the shop on November 11, 2020, so one year exactly. It seems like a very long time, but we work on many series of skins at the same time — and then creating a series takes a lot of time!"
Precisely, what is the process of creating of a series of skins from beginning to end?
"First we have an idea, like 'I want sci-fi weapons,' and then we pick a weapon from the game. It could be any one, and we try to dress it up with our idea. That's when we pull out a thousand sources for inspiration, and try out a bunch of skins until that weapon with its skin really represents the idea we had. This first phase takes two to three months. Then, we send the weapon to the rest of the team and tell them to do the same with three or four other weapons.
Once the series is complete, we still have to spend several months testing the skins to make sure they are neither pay-to-win nor buggy — and there are tons of bugs! For example, a few days ago we implemented the possibility of having the weapon on the left, and we realized that the visual effects of the Ion weapons remained on the right when the left-handed option was activated. We fixed that just in time!
Once everything is running smoothly we still need to coordinate with marketing to find out how we're going to advertise the skins, if we're going to make a promo video and if so, in what style. To do it all perfectly, it can easily take a whole year."
Speaking of choosing three or four weapons for each series, do you choose them according to their popularity?
"Popularity plays a part, yes. That's why at the beginning of Act 1 players were surprised to receive so many skins for the Guardian. It's because the Guardian was very popular during the beta, so we started preparing several skins for it at that time.
But we also sometimes choose weapons that aren't popular, precisely because spreading skins across all weapons is also important. If all packs contained Phantom/Vandal/Operator, players would buy one and never be interested in the others!
And sometimes, it's just out of artistic sensitivity. The Glitch Hop weapons aren't the most popular, but they work extremely well with the Cyberpunk theme of the series. It couldn't have been any other weapons."
Speaking of pay-to-win, have you ever modified a skin because it was too strong or too weak?
"It happens to us a lot, but contrary to what players might think, it's often because it's inconvenient for them and rarely because it's pay-to-win. Often you have an incredible idea in your head, but once it's created in the game there's too much light and color — the player doesn't see anything. It's a horror, so most skins are muted before they make it into the game.
Some people say 'if I want to buy a skin that looks like a disco ball, that's my problem,' but anyone in the game may have to pick up your weapon to clutch a round, so it's very important that no skin is too eccentric. The exception is the knife. No one can pick up your knife, so there's usually less hesitation to put a lot of effects on the hand-to-hand weapon.
It also works for inspections. There's no need to inspect a weapon to play, so we would like to create some really crazy inspections in the future. Besides, we wanted the inspection of the Elderflame skins be that the dragon could be scratched, and it would start purring. We also wanted that, one out of a hundred times, the dragon would get angry and spit flames in the player's face. We had a lot of ideas, but we had already spent a lot of time on these skins so we had to take them out. In the future we plan to use inspections to let our creativity speak for itself!"
Are you working on something as big as Elderflame at the moment?
"Not right now. We'd love to, and we have lots of ideas, but it's not the right time yet."
Are there series of skins inspired by League of Legends?
"It's very important for us that players understand that Valorant is its own brand with its own world. If we had immediately offered Bilgewater or Demacia skins, that might not have been clear.
Anything is possible in the future, but for now we'll stick to a few nods on the maps. Nods can go either way — have you taken a close look at the League of Legends PsyOps skins trailer?"
Have you ever been blocked by game performance requirements?
"Unfortunately, yes. For example, we would like to allow players to change their skins every round, or to have a random skin equipped every round. However, the game has some obligations, in particular one to ensure it runs at least 30 FPS on less powerful machines. If we had to load all the skins that each player has in the game, we would never be able to stay a constant 30 FPS.
On the other hand, it's already happened to us that we realized a bug was present, thanks to an issue in the game's performance! Once, one of our testers found himself with 10 FPS while walking around with a new skin. We finally realized that each time he re-equipped his weapon, the animations were superimposed over one another. This wasn't visible to the naked eye, but by dint of chaining between knife and weapon, our tester had triggered several dozen animations that were running at the same time. The server wasn't far from packing in!"
Final question — which is the best-selling skin?
"We don't know if we have the right to tell you! [Laughs] The truth is, we don't have the exact numbers, so it doesn't matter if we try to guess."
Sean: "I think it's Elderflame — it's the most unique line we've done so far."
Preeti: "I think it's Prime — just because that's the line which arrived first."
Additional content by Augustin "Review" Heliot.
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