Riot’s latest dev blog delves into the process of how in-game characters are reflected in their stills:
That’s how players described the reimagined Malphite splash art, which saw the hulking horned creature barreling toward Helmet Bros futilely staging a defense. His old splash also depicted a solidly-built rock monster, but gave off an action figure toy vibe too—like your dog might pluck him out of the drawing to bury him in the yard. The new version of the Shard of the Monolith would have Fido running scared, tail between his legs.
The positive reaction from players was a fist bump to the illustration team’s evolving approach around League splashes, the culmination of an 18-month journey challenging their assumptions around what splashes should accomplish. The team’s goal became using splash to tell strong, fantasy-driven stories of champs for players, building windows into League’s IP. Malphite’s splash, unleashed in spring of 2014, was the planting of a flag.
Splash art’s been part of League since launching in 2009. Back then, the illustrations drew inspiration from character select screens in classic fighting games, the kind you’d see in the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series. Fighting game rosters could hit 50 characters, all tightly packed into an array of thumbnail portraits. Only by hovering over the thumbnail could you get a fuller look at the fighter.
League splashes played a similar functional role, communicating to players exactly what champ or skin they were about to choose. The game started with just over 40 champs, before adding another 24 in 2010. Splashes helped players decide which champs to play, and the team drew up a set of rules for creating a cohesive feel for League splash art. Andrew Silver, who leads the illustration team, recalls “aspirational” as a major buzzword the team often threw around.
Champs always held either “heroic” or “action” poses back then, with viewers always looking upward at them. Their source of power had to be prominently displayed, and their abilities looked as they would in game. Essentially, splashes were near-literal translations of the in-game experience, because that’s what the illustration team assumed players wanted. But while the splashes technically rocked, the player response didn’t pan out as the team had expected.
Take Elise, the Spider Queen, who dispatches exploding spiderlings at enemies before ambushing them from above. Upon release, she had two splashes. One, for the Death Blossom Elise skin, showed the champion dramatically mid-attack in a storm of action, fitting the conventional rules of splash. By comparison, her base splash appeared muted with her simply seated on a throne, patiently looking out—yet this marked a major departure for the team. “There were actual debates asking questions like, ‘If she’s sitting down, can she really be aspirational to players?’” recalls Silver.
(Left: Original base splash for Elise. Right: Death Blossom Elise splash)
But when players saw the two, they preferred the base splash, taking the illustration team by surprise. The illustration team realized maybe their rules needed a rework. Silver thinks the base splash received a more enthusiastic response because Elise’s posture represents her regal nature as a queen. “Why does a queen have to get her hands dirty with killing me?” he asks. “The viewer’s already dead—they just don’t know it yet.” The split response to Elise’s splashes drove home that viewing the in-game model as the starting point for splash was too limited. The team began to understand the champion as something more diverse than that: “Yes, the model was an important factor in the identity of a champion for players,” says Silver, “but their perception of a champion is an amalgamation of all content we create.”
For example, the champion Nami’s identity isn’t just in her model, or even her splashes, but includes her whirling and playful theme song too. And Jinx’s anarchic mindset shines in the “Get Jinxed” music video. All these experiences cumulatively suggest a champion’s identity. “Ultimately, the true champion lives in players’ minds,” notes Silver. “This character doesn’t really exist in real life. Players can’t go and meet Jinx. Our job as game developers is to do our best to accurately represent the character we want players to see in their imagination.”
Knowing this doesn’t mean the illustration team can now set their approach in stone, nor that every splash art they create will be a home run. The evolution is continual, especially as the champs themselves continue to change and grow. What can be said is that successful splash art goes beyond the technical element: the use of shapes, symmetry, perspective, movement, and the hundreds of other major and minor elements that make a work of art visually attractive. The bar for splash is earning that moment of recognition looking at the illustration that, yes, it captures the sentiment players feel for a champ. “It all leads to building a complete fantasy,” says Silver. “So when you’re in a mess of a teamfight and abilities are being dropped, you still understand what it should feel like as opposed to what it looks like.”
This returns us to Malphite. Initially, the new splash caused hesitation within the team because of how far it departed from in-game, especially since Malphite is one of the smaller models in League. How could they then show him 8-stories tall? The team worried that players might freak out: maybe representing the model was key to maintaining the fantasy. But, in the end, the response proved they could trust their gut. “While we create Malphite in-game to fit inside the gameplay space,” says Silver, “Malphite’s core thematic is the unstoppable force—we need to be able to understand the reason for him being unstoppable.” Turns out that’s pretty badass.
From the champion’s bear paw of a hand reaching out to players behind a mammoth shield, to dawn breaking over the snowcapped mountains behind him, the finished splash painted a vivid story of Braum, legend and hero. “We wanted the splash to embody hope and warmth,” says his illustrator, Josh. “He’s the first warmth of winter.”
To nail the core of Heimerdinger — something like a fine blend of Nikola Tesla and a cyborg Doc Brown — the team examined how a mad inventor would likely react in a scrap. What else would an inventor do but assemble things even while in battle? “Heimerdinger doesn’t need to be looking at the battlefield to know that the fight is going the way he wants it to go,” says Silver.
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