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League of Legends: How they choose champ skins

Skin deep

I was wondering whether to ping the League of Legends blog post about how they choose champion skins, why some champs get more skins than others and a bunch of other skin-based rigmarole over to Graham for the Sunday Papers but it was interesting enough that it stands alone. Skins are the digital cosmetic changes you can pick up to give characters in the game a different outfit or look. In MOBAs like League and Dota they're one of the ways you monetise free to play, enticing players to drop a few dollars here and there to spice up a favourite or collect a cool-looking set. I myself have spent COUGH COUGH COUGH on skins and similar in MOBAs so I'm fascinated to know how and why they get made, which champs are favoured and - if at all possible - when I can expect Rek'Sai to get a Beyonce-tastic sparkly disco makeover. RITO PLS.

There's a whole bunch of conflicting priorities and balancing acts tied up in changing the look of characters so if you're interested do read the full post. One of the interesting points for me was that with the roster being so enormous Riot are looking for ways to add new options for less popular champs without taking up as much in the way of creative resources, so changing the model and texture but not the other bits.

It works for some champs but not others because it relies on those changes marrying up well with the existing visual effects, animations, sound and so on. Essentially you can make them look different but it doesn't bring the same level of change as the full treatment where you can create a whole different mood and all the supporting elements work to that end. According to Anna "Supercakes" Donlon, a project manager at Riot and the author of the blog post, it ended up feeling cheap and fans felt shortchanged, plus with some champs it flat-out wasn't possible:

"Zyra is a good example here. She was way overdue for a skin, and the team was passionate about getting her one. Her play rate for the last two years has been pretty low (especially when we started the skin, though she ended up having a good season), but anyone who plays Zyra is incredibly loyal to her, and they have been starved for content. She's also a particularly challenging champion to make skins for. She has so much… stuff. How do you pull off a great fantasy for Zyra without touching particles, animation, and audio? Truth is, you can't."

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She ended up getting the full skin treatment which seems like a reasonable investment on their part. A loyal fanbase for the character would, I presume, mean a reliable source of enthusiasm and expenditure. Cassiopeia, Viktor, Yorick and Illaoi are all in line for skins over the next year - I'm particularly interested in what they bring out for Illaoi and her ghostly tentacles.

Themes are another element, so it becomes about figuring out whether a character fits with a concept or an event in an appropriate way. The blog phrases it very diplomatically but I'd imagine it might be code for "OH GOD THIS DISCUSSION MAKE IT STOP":

"We have a skin in development right now (to be released later this year) that has the team divided. Some people feel it's a slam dunk. Some feel it's not the most obvious fit, but a risk worth taking. Others feel adamant that it's a bad fit. At the end of the day, you will either decide to pick it up because you love it, or you won't because you don't."

I was wondering if they would address the money side of things at all, because skins are a significant part of League's business. They sort of do but only in a vague fashion in the sections about quality. That bit is noteworthy more because it put something into words which I hadn't thought about consciously in League:

"It's not enough for us to say, “Hey, if they don't like it, they won't buy it.” Because that purchase decision is not exclusive to the player who buys the skin. Every skin we make changes the game in some way. Even if you don't buy the skin, you are likely to engage with it in a game where someone has."

I think that's something I feel when I'm watching games more than playing them. Good skins bring something cool to the game, or at least don't disrupt it. Bad ones can chafe and irritate. It can also make it harder for a newcomer to decipher the action if a champ looks markedly different to their basic incarnation or their spells change significantly.

I say I hadn't thought about that consciously in League mostly because League (and Smite) has always been a bit happier to diverge from the basic form of the character with skins. You get pool party versions or Christmas versions or whatever. With Dota 2 Valve were a lot stricter about adhering to the basic shapes and colour palettes of their heroes so when the particle effects and wizard hats started getting noisier it's been more distracting.

I should probably do a longer post about skins and splash art at some point because it performs some interesting functions within the game and runs into some specific problems but that's not for right this moment.

Something I'd be interested on ending with here is to ask which character skins are your favourites? I'm curious as to what has resonated with you and why? Or, if you don't play LoL, what has made you pick up a cosmetic item in another game?

In Dota my weakness is couriers. They're the little things which bring items to you from the shop. I have a ridiculous collection of them but my two favourites are the Oculopus (an octopus who wants to be an astronomer because OF COURSE I WILL LOVE THAT) and Faceless Rex (a dinosaur version of one of the heroes of the game which started as a joke by Valve but was then made real by a team of artists and cost my partner a ridiculous amount of money as he tried to get me one as a random drop).

Alice likes the Naked Greevil which runs about with its clammy bum out.

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