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Developing Dark Star Thresh

A Legendary is born.

Teaser Art for Dark Star Thresh

For years, players have been making #lcsbigplays and #bronzebigplays with Thresh, and the community’s love for the Overlord of Hook City has consistently placed him on the list of top-ten globally played champs. Thresh had everything a champ could want in his kit, but he lacked one thing: a Legendary skin.

A Dark Star Rises

On a cold (for Southern California) February afternoon, product owner Paul “Pabro” Bellezza received a special request: “Could your team make a Legendary Thresh skin?”

Pabro introduced the new project in his next team meeting. “Thresh is a pure evil, psychological sadist who mercilessly collects souls,” Pabro said. “Whatever skin we make should multiply these characteristics by 100.” He invited the team to spend one week developing concepts, but before they dispersed, Pabro dropped the real challenge: The crew would have about half the time normally allotted for Legendaries to complete the skin.

The following week, about twenty people returned with a wide range of pitches. Beekeeper Thresh was briefly considered, but he somehow failed to evoke the fear and dread Pabro was looking for. Instead, a different idea hooked their attention: Dark Star Thresh, an ancient space lord who manipulates the laws of time and gravity while collecting his victims’ souls in a black hole. When they took a vote on their favorite pitches, Dark Star emerged with nearly unanimous support.

Beekeeper Thresh and Dark Star Thresh

Delightful Agony

After choosing a direction, the next step was to explore who Dark Star Thresh really was. “Basically, we gathered in a room and started asking questions like, ‘What motivates Dark Star Thresh? What’s his source of power? What is he made of?’” says creative lead Matthew “Popstar Urf” Manarino.

Countless discussions and whiteboards of ideas later, they unravelled the story of Dark Star Thresh. “Thresh’s black hole is a separate entity he’s feeding, and his goal is to end all of existence—not just to be a dick, but so he can die, too. For him, that moment when all of eternity is fed into the black hole is like rapture,” Pabro says. Locking down the story elements helped the team push through to the nitty-gritty of design and in-game integration.

First Round of Concept Art, by Hellstern

Concept artist Elena “Hellstern” Bespalova started drafting concepts for Dark Star Thresh around this time. In her second round of drawings, a swirling galaxy emerged around Thresh’s head, but it was unclear if the celestial cowl would look as stellar in-game. Hellstern says, “It presented a real challenge because Thresh is kind of old, and his model is a bit clunky.” Hellstern joined up with 3D and visual effects artists, and together, they combined rudimentary models of Dark Star Thresh with swirling space matter. After a few practice trials, they determined  it was possible to bring the design to life.

Second Round of Concept Art

Four weeks into development, Dark Star Thresh’s visual direction was locked.

Flesh is a Prison

Hellstern and character artist Ryan “Ribtibs” Ribot combined forces to start turning Dark Star Thresh’s  2D concept art into 3D terror. Character models are made of a bunch of polygons, and Ribtibs says, “It’s our job as modelers to put these polygons in the right places. It sounds technical, but it feels more like manipulating clay.” The duo created over twenty versions of Thresh’s model before finally landing on one that hit the right mix of recognizable Thresh and celestial horror.

Early and Final Versions of Dark Star Thresh’s Model & Polygon Layover on Painted Final Model
Early in development Dark Star Tresh was painted with an array of reds. This color scheme was changed to distinguish him from his Blood Moon counterpart.

Thresh’s model was still a work in progress when technical artist Jue “Kaolala” Wang started prepping the sinister star for animation. Kaolala created digital bones and chained them together inside Dark Star Thresh’s body. Once Thresh’s bones were in place, Kaolala connected them to the model so they’d know which body part to influence. Now, when animators moved a bone in Thresh’s arm, the model’s arm moved with it.

Dark Star Tresh's Bone Structure

Redoing every animation is the most time-intensive part of making a Legendary skin, and with only two months left for development, time was hot commodity. This led to some thought-provoking questions: If auto-attacking doesn’t feel as important as hitting a Madlife hook, should they put equal time into both? What are the moments that feel the most impactful? After much deliberation, the decision was made to polish Thresh’s existing animations instead of recreating them from scratch, with special focus on moments that could feel out-of-this-world.

Dark Star Thresh’s Legendary status merited an updated recall and new “emotes,” the technical term for a champ’s BM reservoir of taunts, jokes, laughter, and dance skills. These features are unrelated to mechanical gameplay, so animator Drew “sandwichtown” Morgan used them to further Thresh’s destructive, omnipotent persona.

For example, when the Sinister Star returns to base, he throws his hook through a portal and pulls himself towards the unknown entity it connects with. But, instead of using an existing portal, he transforms his black hole into a private one, demonstrating his complete command of the universe.

The Brink of Infinity

Dark Star Thresh has a ton of visual effects (VFX); turn them all off and all that’s left is a body with a floating head. It can be pretty difficult to distinguish between the 3D model’s animation and VFX at first glance—one way to spot the difference is to compare Thresh’s lantern in the base model to his black hole in the Dark Star skin.

Base Thresh's animated lantern and Dark Star Tresh's VFX black hole

Thresh’s original soul vessel is a 3D model animated to sway predictably. Dark Star Thresh’s black hole is a visual effect made of tiny, hand-painted particles that can be individually manipulated. Using VFX grants the artistic freedom to create dynamic, swirling colors in Thresh’s black hole as well as in his galaxy cowl, left hand, tentacle head, and ability particles.

Nothing in League of Legends resembled a black hole, so VFX artist Adam “Riot AdamUnicorn” Kupratis looked towards other games for early inspiration. He began by mimicking black-hole type abilities to better understand how black holes function in video games, and this gave him a strong starting point for Thresh’s black hole. AdamUnicorn started painting and rigging during the early weeks of development, but Dark Star Thresh’s black hole wasn’t finalized until a week before the PBE release.

AdamUnicorn says creating Dark Star Thresh’s VFX was extra challenging because, “We were working with huge ideas—concepts bigger than the Milky Way. Making that look cool on a much smaller scale was beyond complicated.” 

The Sweet Tones of Misery

Dark Star Thresh was looking like a cosmic horror, but he didn’t quite sound like one. Using the VFX for guidance, audio designer Boon “Boondingo” Sim searched Riot’s sound libraries and his collection of sound-generating software for material to create the sounds to pair with Thresh’s auto attacks and abilities. It was easy enough to find cool sci-fi sound effects (SFX), but the trick was to modify them so they were recognizable as belonging to the Chain Warden.

“Gameplay is our primary concern, so everything still has to fall into the same pattern. Players have to know what’s happening, based on the sound,” Boondingo says. At review meetings, the team also listened for anything that sounded too similar to other skins or champs. Their feedback ensured the space vanquisher didn’t accidentally steal Vel’Koz’s sound effects (along with his soul).

We were working with huge ideas - concepts bigger than the Milky Way. Making that look cool on a much smaller scale was beyond complicated.

To finalize Dark Star Thresh’s voiceover script, the skins team collaborated with a few writers (PBE release was, at this point, six weeks away). Boondingo then spent the day at a nearby studio, recording the voice-over with Thresh’s original voice actor and a voice director. After this session, Boondingo listened to the recording and evaluated the delivery of the lines, choosing the strongest versions.

For some reason, the voice actor sounded far too human. Drawing inspiration from sci-fi villains and horror films, Boondingo started layering distortion effects over the original recording, transforming it into the voice of an otherworldly horror:

  • Original, humanoid recording:
  • Deepened voice to sound extra villainous:
  • Reverb (similar to an echo) and delay added to sound like he’s echoing in space:
  • Gradually deepen the fading reverb to make it feel like being sucked into a black hole:
  • Reverse the end of the reverb and put it at the start of each line, so it sounds like his voice is pulling players in:

Every villain needs a diabolical soundtrack, and composer Edouard “Ed the Conqueror” Brenneisen started working on Dark Star Thresh’s musical accompaniment early in development. Follow Ed the Conqueror’s progress in the the video below. Listen to the final composition.

Annihilation Awaits

It’s now four weeks from from Dark Star Thresh’s PBE debut. Thresh’s base model and animations are complicated, and Dark Star Thresh’s model and animations are even more complicated. Because of this, quality analyst Brittany “Riot Galetta” Gleiter started playtesting the celestial terror before his VFX, SFX, or voice-over were finalized.

Galetta partnered with a quality assurance organization to run structured tests searching for any bugs that impacted gameplay. Some bugs emerged here and there, but everything was fixable with minor modifications.

Aside from uncovering glitches, Galetta also tested the quality of Dark Star Thresh as a skin. She answered questions like, “What do you love about this skin, and what do you feel is missing? Would you feel happy purchasing this skin?” Galetta’s feedback helped guide the final hectic weeks of development until Dark Star Thresh was ready to bring devastation to the world of Runeterra.

Dark Star Thresh debuted on live servers on June 16, 2016.

The Universe Grinds to a Halt

The next day, the Dark Star Thresh team headed to a pool party to relax for an afternoon. Shipping a Legendary skin on a truncated timeline was exhausting, but they had managed to achieve the impossible. Dark Star Thresh now terrorized the Rift, and it was time to celebrate.

The party didn’t last long. Shortly after heading out, Pabro received a call from the office: “Have you seen the Dark Star Thresh bug?”

A lot of players purchased Dark Star Thresh, and as the skin found its way into millions of games, it soon became obvious that something was fundamentally wrong. Whenever an enemy player first saw Dark Star Thresh after Thresh died and respawned, the player’s screen would freeze while the VFX loaded. This issue primarily struck players who didn’t have powerful video cards—Dark Star Thresh’s swirling terrors were pushing some machines into frame rate oblivion.

Within 24 hours of release, Dark Star Thresh was disabled.

The outing was cut short as the crew returned to the office. They’d never encountered such a severe bug that only occurred on the enemy team, and it was surprising that it slipped through quality testing. They worked through the weekend, optimizing Dark Star Thresh’s VFX to make him less demanding on video cards. Four non-stop days later, Thresh was back to seeking the total destruction of the universe.

Even after finding the solution, a feeling of frustration and devastation remained. “Dark Star Thresh was such an aggressive undertaking, and for this to happen after everyone’s hard work just felt awful,” Galetta says. Still, they are proud of the accomplishment. By working on multiple aspects of development simultaneously, the team created a Legendary skin in almost half the time as previous endeavors. It was tough, draining, and more than a bit stressful—but they did it.

“Overall, it was like trial-by-fire,” Pabro jokes, “but we really challenged the way we made skins and pushed ourselves as a team to think outside the box.”

Artist Victor “3rdColossus” Maury wanted to capture the hopelessness of planetary destruction in Dark Star Thresh’s splash art. The changes made in early renditions reflect the skin’s tumultuous development. Thinking back on the process, 3rdColossus says, “It was sometimes painful, but we took a big risk. We’re proud of that, at the end of the day.”
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/dev diary: On Preseason Learnings