Valorant: How Riot finally made something new
For years, League of Legends players have lovingly taunted developer Riot Games that the company should remove the “s” from its name until it releases another game. Of course, in the years since that joke first sprung up, Riot has released things like Mechs vs. Minions, a board game; Teamfight Tactics, an auto battler; and soon, Legends of Runeterra, a card game. But each of these has been set in the League of Legends universe, and that’s not really what fans have meant.
What they’ve been looking for is something like Valorant: a team-based tactical shooter on the scale of League of Legends, and the first Riot game since League to take place in an entirely new universe.
But while Riot will soon be publicly earning the “s” in its name, the truth is that it’s actually been there for a lot longer than players might think — the studio just didn’t tell anyone. During a recent visit to Riot’s headquarters in Los Angeles, I was able to hear how Valorant’s long and winding development process started, from the developers who have been there every step of the way.
Valorant’s development goes as far back as “just over six years” — that’s the earliest time frame I hear among conversations with developers. Back then, the game was only a small demo within Riot’s R&D division. While none of the developers can give an exact date for when work on Valorant began, one thing that’s clear is who was there at the beginning. Multiple people describe Joe Ziegler as employee No. 1 on Valorant. And in fact, that’s not too different from how he describes himself.
“[Valorant] started from a few different angles at the same time,” says Ziegler, now the game’s director. “One angle was, I was just chatting with a couple other designers, one of them Trevor [Romleski], and we were just theorizing on what other kinds of games Riot could make.”
The tactical shooter is a crowded field with games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Rainbow Six Siege attracting thousands of players a day. But according to Ziegler, Riot was confident that its ability to balance, update, and evolve games was something no other competitor in the genre could match.
“We were already good at doing the service things like Champions with League of Legends,” Ziegler says. “And we’re like, ‘What if we took a model like that, and we thought about how we would take these games that normally have really closed legacy loops, like Counter-Strike, and turn it into a service — into something you could continuously add to, where people don’t hate it if you add a new gun or character?’”
Few games have proven as elastic as League of Legends. Riot’s signature multiplayer online battle arena title is over a decade old at this point, and the company still updates it every two weeks, adds new Champions, refreshes old ones, and overhauls critical game systems. Six years ago, the studio completely reworked the game’s visuals. Throughout all these changes, League has remained one of the most popular video games in the world.
One of the major ways that the team planned to create those kinds of changes for Valorant was through Agents, characters that players select at the beginning of each match that have unique abilities. While Valorant is still just as much about twitch aiming and perfect precision as games like Counter-Strike, Agents supplied a new wrinkle to that formula, and a ready-made ingredient that Riot could continually add to keep it fresh.
With that in mind, it isn’t surprising that Trevor Romleski — who worked on League of Legends for nine years, mostly on the game balance and live services team — was part of the project from the beginning. Romleski brought an intricate knowledge of what made League successful and moldable, and now serves as a senior game designer on Valorant. Aside from his experience on League, he brought to the table an excitement for playing other kinds of competitive games.
Romleski describes himself as genre-agnostic, but mentions that competitive games have always been his favorites. “Lots of RTS, StarCraft, and Warcraft 3, World of Warcraft Arena, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2,” he says. “I just kind of play a lot of stuff.”
It’s easy to see where this competitive spirit comes across in Valorant. Along with the regular updates, a tactical shooter also fit in well with Riot’s goal of making games that can keep challenging players. Both MOBAs and tactical shooters like Counter-Strike have proven themselves to be some of the longest-lasting and most consistently entertaining esports (and competitive genres in general). According to everyone at Riot speaking for this story, one idea that’s been integral to Valorant from the beginning is competitive integrity. That means that the studio is designing everything in the game around maintaining fair competition, and ensuring that skill is the most valuable resource for any player.
One of the most important parts of keeping any tactical shooter competitive is its map design. About a year after Romleski and Ziegler started working on Valorant, Riot set out to find someone with experience designing maps in competitive shooters. That’s where Salvatore Garozzo enters the story. Garozzo is a former professional Counter-Strike player, and after his time competing, he started designing maps for the game. In fact, Garozzo designed Cache, a map that still remains a fan favorite and a frequent feature of the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competitive scene.
When Riot first reached out to Garozzo, he was understandably confused. “I remember being surprised,” Garozzo says. “Because I was interested in Riot because of League of Legends for sure, but I didn’t find out they’re working on a shooter […] it wasn’t initially on my radar for an FPS game.” After a few conversations, it became clear why Riot was looking in his direction, and he took an interview to join the Valorant team. “I interviewed and I actually got to play the game, and I was just convinced. I could see the potential and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Other developers tell similar stories of being persuaded by an early build of the game. Many of them, like Garozzo, joined the team five or so years ago. Their stories are a reminder of just how long this project has been in development at Riot in one stage or another, and how long Valorant has been fun to play.
Another team member, Paul Chamberlain, says, “I haven’t worked on a lot of games, just League of Legends and Valorant, but everyone tells me that it’s super weird that this game has existed [for that long] and been fun for its entire life.”
Image: Riot Games
Image: Riot Games
Image: Riot Games
Image: Riot Games
Solving the technical trouble of shooters
Early on, when the Valorant team was still small, it identified one of the core problems with other PC shooters: cheating.
“The core group of people who formed the project all have competitive shooting backgrounds, and they’re like, ‘What kind of things do we need that we aren’t getting now?’” says Chamberlain, a senior software engineer and the head of Valorant’s anti-cheating efforts. “It wasn’t that any game in particular was awful; it just seemed that every single game had, at some point or another, the experience really negatively impacted by cheating.”
Most players of a given game won’t ever cheat. But the problem is that once people know that cheating exists, and they come into contact with it a couple of times, everything about the game gets called into question. If you’ve been a victim of an aimbot before, the difference between a particularly impressive — or lucky — flick headshot and an illicit hack can sometimes be frustratingly hard to spot.
The Valorant team brought in Chamberlain to help combat the possibility of cheaters. What was strange about the addition was exactly when they tapped Chamberlain.
“I had just helped ship League of Legends’ anti-cheat system, and we thought we solved cheating forever,” Chamberlain jokes. “And that’s when I heard about this Valorant project, and basically the pitch to me was like, ‘Good job with cheating in League of Legends; do you want to do hard mode now with tactical shooters?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, a challenge, sign me up!’ Then I realized that it was 10 or 12 people, and that I was the fourth programmer.”
Before Chamberlain could help stop cheaters, he would have to help the development team actually build the game.
“OK, I got bamboozled,” Chamberlain says. “But it turned out that’s really helpful. We could start planning security features and look into what problems we have to solve right at the start of developing the game.”
Rather than trying to weed out cheaters once Valorant was already released with a security program that could sit on top of the game, Chamberlain and the team opted to build the anti-cheating features in from the beginning. One thing he points out is the idea of having the main server authenticate everything that happens in each match. That kind of system is much harder to implement, but it was possible, Chamberlain says, because the team began integrating it at the outset of development.
“If we want [players] to invest in being good at this game, we need to give them strong anti-cheat [protection],” says Chamberlain. “So we started early. We built the whole game with the fact that there are cheaters in the world in mind.”
This approach to the tech behind Valorant isn’t limited to stopping cheaters. Riot has also gone out of its way to try to make sure the game itself never gets in the player’s way. Things like server refresh rate, frame rate, and latency have all been top of mind for Valorant’s development team since early in the process. Which is why the team brought in Dave Heironymus to help with the game’s networking.
Heironymus had previously worked on the networking team for League of Legends, helping develop a technology called Riot Direct, which acts as a sort of secondary network specifically for traffic from Riot’s games. When Heironymus joined the Valorant staff, he employed Riot Direct to keep the game’s latency extremely low, to help ensure that players in most parts of the world wouldn’t have to deal with lag.
Another member of the networking group, David Straily, came to the team just a couple of years ago after working on the Xbox One and Halo 5: Guardians at Microsoft and 343 Industries. Straily describes the way that the Valorant team is trying to tackle other problems that have plagued shooters in the past, noting that things like peeker’s advantage — the fact that a person can turn a corner and see their opponent before their opponent can see them — are being fixed by improving the way each individual player’s computer communicates with the server.
Straily and other members of the engineering team say their goal is to be invisible. If people notice the game’s tech, either the network or the performance, chances are it’s because they’re frustrated. The engineers want to do more than make a game that works well. They want to make a shooter that solves some of the problems that have plagued the genre forever.
Presentation is everything
Gameplay and technology have always been Riot’s primary focuses for Valorant. The earliest members of the team weren’t especially worried about fitting into a specific world or setting; they just made the best game they could, with characters, abilities, and maps that had little thematic or narrative connection. But it takes more than that to ship a game. To help move Valorant from a fun, playable game to a finished product that Riot could show to the world, the team brought in Anna Donlon.
“My skill set is more toward taking a game where we think we have the right core game loop, and then figure out what exactly we need to do to actually launch it to players and then grow it into a live service,” Donlon says.
Donlon is a veteran video game producer with plenty of experience making shooters. She was a producer on two Call of Duty games, so this stage of the process was no surprise for her. She first joined Riot almost five years ago and worked on League of Legends, where she was the lead producer of the game’s cosmetic content. A few years later, she was brought into Valorant with the goal of helping polish the work in progress into a game that the public will get to play.
John Goscicki works in a position similar to Donlon’s, as character producer. While many members of League of Legends’ champion design team were brought over to work on the Agents of Valorant over the years, Goscicki didn’t join the project until 2019 — after almost five years on League of Legends.
“I had been on League for a while and I was starting to have that itch of, ‘Oh, let me try something new,’” Goscicki says. “And I had a lot of friends on the character team for Valorant, former Champion people from League, which makes sense. And [Riot was] like, ‘Hey, we need someone to help out with this stuff.’ I came over right around the time they had started to reboot all the art for the characters.”
Each of Valorant’s characters has a unique look, both for style reasons and to help keep them all easily identifiable from a gameplay perspective. Goscicki describes the overarching fashion sense of the Agents as a combination of “modern tech fashion, athleisure, and high fashion reinterpreted.”
But what really stands out is that every character in the game looks like someone you might want to play as. Not just for a round, but for an entire game. Goscicki explains that that was very much by design.
“One thing [we wanted] was to make the characters aspirational, make them appealing,” Goscicki says. “I think a good analogy here is like, we’re not looking to make the main NPCs. Each character is a protagonist.”
One of the final pieces of the larger Valorant puzzle was David Nottingham. Shortly after Donlon arrived, and with many parts of the game already in place, she brought in Nottingham as the creative director. Several Rioters describe Nottingham as a sort of ethereal creative presence. He seems to be able to float easily from one subject to the next, expanding on any and every idea. It’s this quality that explains why he was brought in on Valorant at this stage of development.
When asked what the world of Valorant was like before he arrived, Nottingham gives a small laugh. “The team had really prioritized gameplay for a long time,” he says. “And that’s great because it’s the most important thing, but there was definitely a lot of reboot for what the IP could be. And I was just observing from the sidelines. I was able to kind of look at all that and then tunnel down and say, ‘Oh, this is where you’re going,’” Nottingham says.
With so much of Valorant already in place and no narrative to fit around it, a vaporous creative presence like Nottingham made sense: someone who could fill in the cracks between the game’s various characters and concepts, and make them all seem to fit together into one cohesive world.
“I think that made it, for me, a really interesting creative challenge,” he says. “It’s almost like a Rubik’s cube: ‘How do I take all these different elements and stitch them together into something where we felt like we now have a foundation that we’re pretty excited about?’ And then we can see where we want it to take us in the future.”
Valorant’s characters all have funny quips that show off their personality, and short conversations between them hint at deeper relationships. All of this comes through in short bursts of in-game dialogue, and Nottingham says that these lines will change over time as the Agents’ stories evolve. None of it takes away from the gameplay or lasts more than a few seconds, and it makes for a nice break from round after round of high-tension shooting, but it’s hard to tell how much story Valorant will tell in these bits and pieces. Nottingham brings up Fortnite as an example of the kind of large-scale in-game storytelling that Riot is aiming for, but in this early glimpse we didn’t see much of a larger narrative.
Valorant: Everything we know about Riot Games’ new shooter
While Valorant may not actually be Riot’s second game, it’s certainly the most ambitious project the company has attempted since League of Legends. In many ways, Riot seems to be trying to release Valorant as a game that’s comparable to what League of Legends took a decade to grow into.
When I played it at Riot’s headquarters, Valorant was highly polished, a technical marvel, and one of the most fun tactical shooters I’ve played. And it’s still a few months away from the version that will launch sometime this summer. But as is the case with most free-to-play games, the way players feel a year from now is even more important than how they feel at launch. At 10 years old, League of Legends is still one of the most popular PC games in the world, and after nearly six years of development in on Valorant, Riot is finally ready to see if it can repeat that success.
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