League of Legends has 136 playable characters, each with four or more unique abilities. In a community of over 100 million players, storytelling can be difficult. How can you possibly cater to that many people’s unique attachment to their favorite champion?
“That has been a challenge since day one,” said Ryan Woodward, one of the lead animators for Riot Games, in an interview with The Rift Herald. “Standing in a massive football field full of pretty, little flowers, which one do you pick to go sniff? ”
In a game with such a massive cast of characters, there is a personality for every occasion. This week, Riot Games released four separate cinematics from the Animation Workshop. Each of these animations features a different champion and art style. One of the videos, focused on Darius, is about striking fear into the hearts of your enemies. But why Darius and not Thresh, Sion, or any other of the myriad of intimidating champions?
“I can’t say it was a science,” he said. “There is a lot of holistic thinking that happens instead of a formulaic, linear way of thinking, where things are really planned out far in advance. The company and its choices move around a lot based on players. These ones came up just out of passion for the artists. They were chosen that way, what the artist wanted to do and say. Treating the writers as players. What champion do you resonate with? Which one would be a lot of fun to do an animation with?”
Each match of League of Legends has no innate story built into it. There is no cinematic baked into the start of every game or a detailed reason for these characters battle. Instead, aside from the voice lines and interactions that thinly outline a champion’s personality, players make their own stories.
This can pose an interesting problem when it comes to detailing lore. When players spend so much time with an individual champion, they begin to equate certain attributes to them. If Riot then releases a video or a story where your favorite champion is depicted differently than in your head-cannon, it can be disappointing. This is an issue the narrative team is well aware of.
“In game, the characters are only developed to a point, so when you play a character for a long time, players will assert their own identity with them,” he said. “That identity can be very different from player to player. We try to not pinpoint things so defined that it can pull people away that don’t agree.”
The process of building a world around a loose infrastructure can certainly be a challenge. Branden Beck, one of the founders of Riot Games, released a development vlog in late April, suggesting it was constraint and over-explanation that ruined the initial League of Legends lore. That’s why Riot decided to reboot the entire story back in 2014. Now, almost three years later, they’re taking a simpler approach.
The process of creating animations like this boils down to four simple selections.
“First, we select the champion that we want. Then we select a human characteristic that we want to showcase in them. Next, a desired emotion that you want to get out of the viewers. With Zed, I wanted anyone who was watching to need a nap after one minute. The last piece was music,” he said. “The Zed animation came from me. I just wanted to make something violent and cool. I wanted to show how 2D animation could carry mature content.”
Catering to players and capturing champions in animation can provide some conflict. Sometimes, liberties must be taken with characters.
“Going from the game identity to a cinematic identity, a lot of things need to evolve and transform. Miss Fortune in game is super flirtatious, sexy and sassy. We made her out to be this girl that just likes to be out on the open sea, but if you mess with her, she will take you out,” he said. “The in-game personality didn’t really work for a cinematic. It would have been silly.”
Earlier on, Ryan spoke about players helping Riot to shift in new directions. In Miss Fortune’s animation,her outfit and weapons hardly resemble what she uses and wears in-game. It is clear that Miss Fortune had to be changed in order to better fit the cinematic. When asked if player feedback on the cinematic could lead to a possible Miss Fortune visual update, Ryan had this to say:
“Absolutely! If there is a common pattern of thought and players really want it, there is no doubt in my mind that we will get marching orders to go for it. Players make a huge impact on these things. More than any other company I have been to. Their response can shift the whole company. It is really, really cool. I don’t know if they understand the kind of power that they have. If they knew, I think they would curve and become a little more filtered with their comments.”
Riot has always tried to cater to their fans in one way or the other. Over the years, they have attempted to diversify their cast and hope to do so more in the future. Flexibility is perhaps one of the most admirable traits for a game-maker to have. It is encouraging to see Riot is willing to spend the time and money required in shifting to meet player expectations.
In terms of lore, Riot make a tremendous effort to rebuild with their League of Legends Universe site. With short animations like these being shared with their community and a continuous commitment to story telling, perhaps the long-rumored League of Legends feature film is closer than we think.
For now, all we can do is look longingly at the beautiful works Riot’s animation teams have created.