On Wednesday morning, Riot Games announced Valorant’s most elaborate set of skins so far, themed with dragon designs. They also look great. Each different gun-dragon has its own roars, firing sounds, and animations for things like reloading or equipping. The dragons spread their wings, grab magazines with their claws, and fly toward players’ hands. They’re complicated and detailed, but Riot had another challenge with this skin line beyond just making it look good: The skins had to be fair and they had to feel fair. And those aren’t always the same thing.
Fairness in Valorant is tied to an idea that Riot refers to as “competitive integrity.” The main idea is that anytime you die, all the information and technology needed to avoid dying should have been at your disposal — rather than you dying because of lag, for example.
Competitive integrity can be a little harder to see when it comes to cosmetics, but everything still has to feel fair both to other players and to the player using the skins, which wasn’t easy to do with the skins as complicated as the Elderflame line.
In a recent interview with Polygon, Valorant producer Preeti Khanolkar explained, “Ultimately, you just want to win your game, so [finding] what’s going to look cool but not be ‘pay-to-lose’ has been a challenge.”
One of Riot’s early struggles with the Elderflame line, according to Valorant art lead Sean Marino, was trying to make sure both that the guns looked like living dragons and that players could still identify them as the same base weapons they’re familiar with.
“Silhouettes are really important,” Marino said. “This one definitely pushes the boundaries of it. But we tried creative things like with the Frenzy and we’re like, ‘How can we fit a dragon into this situation?’ And we found a cool opportunity to take its tail and wrap it around the bottom of the magazine to put it into the correct shape. That way, if someone sees it on the ground, they immediately know what it is, and if you see it in first person you know what it is.”
The more complicated task was making the Elderflame set feel fair to use. One challenge is that the skins need to feel complex and unique, with all the details specific to each dragon, without actually taking up more screen real estate than any other skins. After all, covering more of the screen would make the skin objectively worse to use.
According to Marino, the Operator sniper rifle proved to be particularly challenging, “We were on the verge of cutting it, because it’s the only dragon that has wings,” Marino said. “It was like, if you open up these wings, now it takes up all of your screen space, and that compromises competitive integrity.”
“Yeah, there were at least a couple of moments where Marino would turn to me and be like, ‘Can we ship this skin line without an Operator?’” Khanolkar chimed in, laughing. “And I was like, ‘OK, well we have a couple of months; let’s just see [...] and it did somehow make it. It was just intense collaboration between the group and refusing to let it fall through.”
Perhaps the most specific struggle of the skins, though, was making them feel balanced, even if there wasn’t actually anything unbalanced about them. According to Khanolkar, this was one of the problems the team ran into early on with the Elderflame skins.
“[They] had a long summon animation,” Khanolkar said. “It [was] this kind of swoopy ‘gun materializes’ thing. And it was cool. But everyone was like, ‘I hate this. I know it’s the same speed, but it feels slower and that messes with me.’”
Since the actual time it took to equip the weapons with Elderflame skins was the same as any other gun skins, it was all about feel. And the only way to find the perfect feel was through lots and lots of testing.
“We did extensive testing with our design play-test crew, which is, like, our highest ELO players who play twice a day and test maps, characters, everything, and of course, skins,” she said. This team went back and forth with the art team and the animators constantly on each of the skins to make sure that they all felt just right.
During our interview on Monday, before Riot’s well-received skin teaser on Wednesday morning, both Marino and Khanolkar were excited but nervous about how players would react when the skins drop on July 10.
“It would be the most heartbreaking thing if [players] look at this and [are] like, ‘Yeah it’s a dragon gun, I guess,’” Khanolkar said. But, she said, if players like the Elderflame skins, then the team can see just how much further and weirder it can get with Valorant skins in the future.