The Skin We’re In: How Riot Games Crafts Its Virtual Couture

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Seth Haak is an art director at Riot Games, where he guides the League of Legends Player Immersion and Experience initiative. He was also previously an art lead on the League of Legends Skins team.

Seth Haak: My wife was working in the fashion industry, so I’m familiar with it through her. Other than that, I’m a black V-neck and black denim jeans guy. It’s been really exciting over the last couple years to move away from maybe traditional fantasy [imagery]. Now we’re able to play more in modern fashion spaces. Or be able to take some of those aesthetics and pull them more actively into the game world. That’s been a lot of fun.

Yeah, very much. I’m not sure how familiar you are with League of Legends, but we have a bunch of these alternate universes. And whenever we approach a new one, we are looking at what really separates this weird fantasy world – we want to have a lot of clear pillars and references. A lot of that is pulled from pop culture; film and television, comic books, other video games things like that. But a lot of it is from fashion too. Some skins are more inspired by fashion than others.

We want to make sure that no matter what universe they’re in, the things characters wear still reflect their core identity. We want to make sure that carries over in their visuals.

When we’re designing our skins, we look for these big bold silhouettes and designs, big cuts. Stuff that’s really obvious and sets your character apart. Things that don’t work as well for us in-game are focusing on the texture or the detail of sneakers, shoelaces, belt buckles, and boots. We still put that in there, but we have to be way less focused on it.

We have to think about who the players are. Why are they coming to play our game? What are the pillars of the character? And also, what is this universe? We’re balancing a whole lot of different buckets when we come up with these designs. That still gives us a lot of room to play with. We get a lot of our inspiration from haute couture, Met Gala stuff, where it’s really big, obvious cuts and designs. For the players themselves, we still want to make it an aspirational thing – where’s the power fantasy that’s being fulfilled?

When we have different tiers of skins at different prices, basically it’s about how complicated or complex we make it. So you might say my base character is this fire wizard. For a very inexpensive thing, maybe we only change the textures and colors that he’s wearing. If we want to go a little bit beyond that, maybe we can change the spells and things that he does. Maybe we change those from fire to ice and snow. We’re challenged to think about what we can do that clearly communicates visually to other players. If they just load up, and the first thing they do is they look at it and say, “Okay, here’s the other players I’m playing with. Oh, wow, that’s a really unique and rare design.” We lean into a lot of gold and sparkly, just because when somebody sees something that’s bright, sparkly, and gold, then it communicates “I’m really invested in this event that I participated in, and I was able to unlock this skin. I was able to achieve it.” It’s a little bit of a flex – “Here’s my mastery and my investment. I worked hard to get this skin.”

It’s a status thing; a self-expression thing. At the end of the day, we’re not a pay-to-win game. So anything that we do is 100 percent visual. And the visual has to still be balanced with the gameplay experience. So it can never be, “I’m going to pay this money and have a competitive advantage.” It’s just like, “Here’s me showing off these visuals.”

Speaking for League of Legends (because it has always been a free-to-play game), the question is, okay, here’s this amazing product, but at the end of the day, how do we keep the lights on and pay the bills without creating a monthly subscription or something like that? So one of the methods that a lot of companies were experimenting with at the time were these cosmetics. Some companies went more with the pay-for-power route, others went for the pay-for cosmetics-route. League of Legends went that route. I don’t even think we as a company, or studio, or game, took it as seriously until a couple years ago. That’s when the designs became much more intentional. Now, when we build out a mood board, or a new skin line, a lot of crafting goes into it. All of that really goes into being invested in building out these really deep alternate universes with these backstories and lore.

Absolutely. I think we’ve gone from gaming as an activity into gaming being like a lifestyle product. And so the more that we see opportunities to collaborate with other lifestyle products, or blend these things together, it makes a lot of sense. If anything, it’s only going to become more relevant. We’re going to see more and more of these collaborations. We’ve just started to dip our toes in that. I can see that when we’ve done it and it fits right, it feels really, really good. It’s a lot of fun for us as artists to work with people in other industries. Even though we may be speaking in different technical terms, some exciting stuff comes out of it.

Maybe eventually. I think we’ll probably always be going bigger and more above and beyond. You know, speaking frankly, Louis Vuitton a couple years ago was not super on my radar, besides knowing they exist and being familiar with some of their designs and things like that. Since we’ve had these partnerships, I’ve gotten excited [about fashion], and we’re seeing that same thing with players. People that maybe wouldn’t have been as invested or excited. They start to see, “Oh, this is really what this brand, or fashion [in general] is about.” And then they start to do the homework on their own, incorporating that into their own style.

I am actually really excited about a lot of the collaborations. We’ve only just touched the tip of the iceberg. Now whenever we’re designing a skin line or a really big event, we’re keeping that in mind. In the back of our heads we’re thinking, “Man, wouldn’t it be awesome if we did a collaboration for this?” Not even in fashion alone, but a lot of different industries. As gaming continues to get more accepted, or mainstream, brands recognize, “Oh, this isn’t just a weird niche. This is mainstream. This is a lifestyle.” They see how they can reach out to new audiences. We’re not doing it NASCAR-style. We have the luxury of being able to really pick and choose what feels right and what resonates with our players, versus just being financially driven.

Absolutely. I think people that maybe wouldn’t identify themselves as gamers still spend a significant amount of time every week gaming, if you actually look at where they’re putting their money and energy.

We definitely have certain popular, main skin lines. But what we’ve seen is that even if someone has a favorite, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will skip the next skin that comes out. It’s a lot of, “Oh, this is this year’s [skin]. I want to collect that, because it’s fresh.” It just feels like something new. “I want to wear the new thing, and I’m gonna wear that during this event,” or things like that.

It’s probably perceptions on both sides. There’s still a perception that gamers just don’t care too much about fashion. Or they’re looking for these Lord of the Rings items, like leather and big horns and fur kind of stuff. When we first pitched the idea to the team, “Hey, we’re looking at this idea of collaborating with Louis Vuitton.” Everybody thinks “Oh, it’s gonna be leather, like brown leather head-to-toe with their monogram on everything.” Which was wrong. Working with them, they really shied away from their monogram. They wanted to show off their other design sensibilities: their fabrics, cuts, and things like that. We have had a lot of eye-opening experiences working with each other. There’s a lot more crossover in our tastes, designs, and vision for the audience than we initially thought.

A lot of players have fan art of skins they wished existed. That’s pretty exciting to see – that engagement with players in the industry, projecting what they would love to see, and being excited about something that doesn’t exist. It gives us a lot of energy and inspiration.

Absolutely. We want to stay in touch, and we want to make something that’s going to be resonant, right? We don’t want to take a player’s art and exploit it in any way. But we do want to take what’s working really well. If there’s a lot of buzz around something, then we should really consider it next time we make a skin for that champion.

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