Even those who cringe at the thought of shelling out hard-earned money for often exorbitantly priced in-game cosmetics can surely appreciate Valorant’s incredible weapon skins. They’ve arguably set the high standard for design in an FPS. Clearly, there’s a huge amount of work that goes into the concept, artwork, and sound effects that have created some of the coolest and most elaborate weapons seen over the past two years.
At this point, it’s obvious that when it comes to designing new Valorant skins, Riot Games’ art team is a well-oiled machine that knows the key to success. It’s become such a popular feature of the game that I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to speak with VFX artist Nicolas Ceriani, who has come through Riot Games’ internship program to work on some of Valorant’s most popular skins ever.
Senior editor Alex Gibson: Breaking into the games industry in any capacity as a developer is tricky; how does Riot Games differ in its approach to providing opportunities to those who don’t have the prerequisite experience to get involved — which is so often a hurdle for aspiring young graduates?
VFX artist Nicolas Ceriani: I feel like Riot’s internship program is such a valuable system, both for young students facing the challenge of having to secure a job, and for companies in need of talent. Anyone is welcome to apply – the requirements for the type of education, duration of education, and experience are broad enough to encourage a large range of individuals to apply. I was especially excited about the fact that I was able to apply as a European student, which is not always the case for some US-based companies.
What impressed me most was the level of effort invested by the University program team to make sure each intern was treated like a real member of the team and provided the support they needed to succeed. The support system for interns was put to the test to an unprecedented level for my 2020 internship. As you know, a little worldwide event called COVID kind of changed the dynamics of the program and how we all worked together. They were able to reorganize the entire internship system making sure everyone was able to get the best and safest remote internship experience possible despite the conditions. (Matt, Mina, and Shireen, if you’re reading this, y’all are badass).
Alex Gibson: How was the experience as a younger and inexperienced member of the team with respect to how quickly you found yourself involved in key aspects of game development at Riot?
Nicolas Ceriani: My first ever task as an intern on Valorant was the Reaver bundle, so you can imagine how amazed and surprised I was to be trusted to work on such a highly anticipated skin. I had reviews and 1-1 sessions with my mentor, but I never felt like my hand was being held. I was treated like any other developer on the team. If I ever needed help, I had quite literally the most talented and experienced individuals just a Slack message away.
Alex Gibson: Can you speak a little about the process of how Valorant skin designs are conceptualized, and how many are in development at any one time? Is it a case of many ideas being brainstormed all the time, or does the team work one by one?
Nicolas Ceriani: Skin bundles vary in scope and requirements depending on a variety of factors. Skin level and skin complexity are two of many factors that impact the development strategy and duration of a skin. Because of these factors and multiple teams working in tandem, we’ll scope work per discipline to provide enough development time to hit our quality bar. This provides a more organic creative process where we can test, change direction, add features, or pivot if needed.
So to answer more specifically, there are a ton of skins being worked on at the same time, all at different stages. While an animator is giving life to Skin A, a Sound Designer is working on Skin B, and a VFX Artist is perfecting performances on Skin C. It’s also not uncommon to jump between a few tasks on different skinlines depending on priorities. When it comes to brainstorming phases, we have pitch sessions where we bring the team together to explore a bunch of ideas, form teams, and push some concepts a bit.
Alex Gibson: New skins are obviously hugely exciting to many Valorant players, and they’re something they look forward to every two weeks. What is your understanding of how much priority the design team puts on delivering skin designs that they think Valorant players will find appealing based on the successes/failures or prior designs and player feedback?
Nicolas Ceriani: The skins team overall enjoys observing player reactions to the skin we make. Twitter comments, Reddit posts, streamers insta-copping a bundle after watching five seconds of the skin trailer, we see them all! Even the negative stuff. Of course, that involves a bit of filtering because… the internet, but every now and then we can see some genuinely constructive feedback. I think absorbing all of these comments and clips, even passively, influences some of our decisions, consciously or not. Of course, we know that not every skin is for everyone, and we have a clear target audience defined for each skin, but I think it’s important to stay aware of the community’s thoughts and tastes. So keep your (constructive) feedback coming!
Alex Gibson: What skin line have you enjoyed working on the most during your time at Riot Games, and which is your favorite?
Nicolas Ceriani: My favorite work is by far the Radiant Crisis skinline. I was in charge of the VFXs of the entire bundle, from concept to finish, and it fits quite literally where my personal artistic taste lies: vibrant, flashy colors, with a spoonful of sharp and bold shapes. I absolutely love the process of translating another art form or media within the video game space, which involves a nice blend of technical knowledge and an artistic eye, so I’m pretty happy with how it worked out for this skin.
It’s hard to pick a favorite finisher, like I mentioned the Radiant Crisis is pretty personal, so I have a bias toward it. Plus I feel it’s quite unique and funny with all the little jokes and onomatopeias I was able to sneak in. But I gotta admit I’m still pretty proud of the old Reaver. I’ve learned so much since then but looking at it with my more experienced eyes when it occasionally pops in my games or VCT matches, I still feel like it looks really nice, and delivers on that really dark, edgy fantasy in a satisfying way.
Alex Gibson: I notice that one of the skins you worked on was the Xenohunter. That’s a design I absolutely love as a big Aliens guy, but it came under some scrutiny for featuring a large screen that reduces visibility for players due to its size. To what extent does the design team consider tactical elements in a skin’s design when in development?
Nicolas Ceriani: Competitive integrity is one of the key aspects we never lose sight of when making new content, so these kinds of questions come up constantly. We have playtest sessions every week fully dedicated to testing new skins. This is obviously where we hunt for bugs, but also get a feel for these trickier situations where a weapon has something that could work in or against your favor. We specify these important testing points prior to the session so that the testers know what to specifically pay attention to. Then it’s a matter of balance, we just need to play with the right levers. Is the screen too distracting? We can resize it, move it, and reduce the VFX intensity. Is the Neptune aquarium too see-through? Just slightly raise that water opacity, and we’re done.
Sometimes it does require a bit more work, like that Xenohunter screen. In this example we felt it might give a competitive advantage to have the map closer when navigating through smoke, which is supposed to be slightly disorienting, so we chose to go the extra mile by distorting it when entering them. No matter what, we’re always doing our best to thoroughly inspect each detail, each animation frame, and each shape to make sure nothing slips past.
Alex Gibson: The Neptune skin is another that you worked on, a skin that has become a big fan favorite. Its design is obviously quite unusual compared to other skins in the game, and the iconic “bloop, bloop” noises have become a beloved meme. Is a design you foresaw as being such a massive hit with players or did it come as a surprise? Can you speak a little about its development given you were so involved with it?
Nicolas Ceriani: Definitely surprising to me! I feel like there are skin thematics that we expect to be appreciated by a good amount of players. The darker sci-fi or fantasy universes are the ones that generally come to mind since they stay close to the more serious and mature tone of the game’s narrative. That said, we know other players love those wacky, silly thematics, but I feel like it’s more of a niche, so it feels nice to see a lot of players embrace the goofiness! I had a lot of fun working on this one since I’m 100% part of said niche. It was an interesting challenge too because we didn’t really have many examples of water in the game before, so I had to come up with a visual language that fit the art style somehow but still delivered on the more whimsical fantasy.
The most unique task was probably the aquarium itself, it involved a bunch of people to figure out how to get the fishes moving and wiggling nicely, with a good-looking environment full of plants and rocks, without breaking perf or distracting the eye. I think a “fun” challenge especially was to figure out how to prevent every single fish from clipping out of the aquarium, for each gun. Shorty included. They kept wanting to escape…It was a nice change of pace too, shifting from the crazy flashy explosions to some very subtle, slow effects that help tie the different elements together.
Alex Gibson: To follow on from that, is it often that the team is surprised by fan reception to a given skin in that way, and can you think of any others that disappointed the team with a negative reaction from fans?
Nicolas Ceriani: I think we’re most surprised by the consistent and overwhelming podium fight that each big new skinline creates. Every time we think we released the most popular skin of all time, another one comes out, and the community loves it even more than the one before it. I don’t have access to the fully detailed data and insights on skin sales and performance, but I feel we’re on average more positively surprised than negatively. Although, deep down, I’m sure we’re all a bit disappointed in the Smite knife, but it’s ok, it was just a bit too avant-garde to be fully understood…
Alex Gibson: Finally, we’re seeing a lot of Valorant skin bundles receive sequels –the Reaver, Ion, etc–, and that seems to be something the team is ramping up. Should we expect more sequel bundles in the future or is the team more focused on developing all-new designs?
Nicolas Ceriani: It’s a matter of many factors. Does it make sense to give a sequel to this skin, is there time for it etc. There are skins that we love, players love and meet these criteria, so when the stars align like this, sure, why not? Obviously, I cannot disclose any details on what we’re working on, but we’ve already done it a couple of times already, so we could do it again in the future. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. But I can guarantee we’ll keep making epic bundles!
You can check out the latest on everything Valorant right on Twinfinite, including our breakdown of the crypto-throwing ranked saga that’s seen Pro City 10-Mans take over North America’s highest elo. Valorant is set to launch a new knife skin to celebrate the upcoming LOCK//IN tournament coming later this month; details here.