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Little Demon Tristana: Splash Art & VFX

Demon fire, souls, research, and Teemo.

Little Demon Tristana’s been in production for a couple weeks now, and we’ve got a giant update to share with you today, including our latest progress on her VFX and splash art.

But this isn’t really the beginning of development—that happened back when we were choosing a champion for the vote and working on the concepts. We couldn’t really update you on our progress back then (spoilers!), so we’re sharing some of that behind-the-scenes work now.

Let’s kick things off by answering a question we’ve heard from you since voting opened:

Why’d We Pick Tristana?

Chelsea “Riot aeneia” Hughes, Insights Researcher: Hey everyone! I’m here to chat with you about the coolest, sexiest, most interesting part of the skin development process. (I’ll give you a hint: It involves models.)

That’s right. I’m talking DATA.

As the Insights Researcher on the Skins Team, I get a lot of questions about how our team decides what skins to make. I want to give you a little insight on how some of those decisions are made by sharing how we picked this year’s Player Choice skin. It may have seemed surprising that we chose Tristana, since the first Player Choice skin was for Illaoi: a champion with a small-but-hardcore following and only one skin to her name. But it was actually for all these reasons that we picked Tristana for the second vote.

To dig deeper, the foremost reason we chose Tristana is also my favorite reason: FOR SCIENCE! Tristana currently has 10 skins, including her base skin. We have data that tells us how many players purchase these skins and how frequently they’re used in game. These metrics can give us an idea of how well-liked each of her skins are compared to one another. Once the Player Choice Skin is released, we’ll be able to compare it to her full catalog of skins. It can help us to understand if this process—where you help us choose the design—actually results in skins that players like more. In other words, a champion with a dense catalog of skins like Tristana (compared to Illaoi) gives us a better sample size, which lets us do better science.

Second, Tristana consistently has a relatively high playrate. A higher playrate means that the Player Choice experience impacts greater gametime hours. Tristana’s new skin will have the chance to be played in a lot of games, meaning plenty of players will get to see her. We consider that a win too—we want you to be able to see the skin you helped pick.

Finally, Tristana is what we consider a broad-appeal champion as opposed to a niche-appeal champion

This means there’s a diverse playerbase who likes to play her. While playrate tells us how frequently she’s played in the game, broad-versus-niche appeal tells us how many unique players have her in their pocket. Choosing a broad-appeal champion for our Player Choice skin means that more players get to find meaning and value in the experience, which is really important to us.

Deciding the Creative Direction

Being honest here, I’m not a Tristana main. I could probably describe her kit (Speedy Uppy, Jumpy, Bomby, and Blasty), but I don’t know the first thing about what it means to be a Tristana main. So several months ago, we accessed our Super Secret Rito Records to see which Rioters mained Tristana. We then arranged a meeting with our Skins Team concept artists and those Tristana mains to jump-start some inspiration for design concepts.

Through this, we learned that integrating her weapon and its effects with the theme (like Firefighter Tristana) was important. We also learned that players see Tristana as a feisty go-getter—wholesome and positive, but still a little mischievous.

For me, the most important takeaway came from a disagreement: Did we want skins that felt bubbly and cutesy, like she is? Or should they be dark and edgy, which feels desirably different? We saw players take hard stands on either side, so we wanted to make sure our final design concepts allowed our playerbase to choose their sides, too.

Meeting with Riot’s Tristana Mains

Creating the Concepts

Jesse “Trayil” Li, Concept Artist: The most difficult part of working on Tristana’s concepts was coming up with and deciding on the three skins to present to players. In the focus group, a few Tristana mains wanted something cute and light-hearted, but most of them wanted something edgier. Flashy VFX and vibrant colors were definitely a pillar we wanted to hit on this skin, so this was heavily factored in to the ideas we came up with.

From concept spreads like the one below, we tried to figure out which elements were working and which skins might seem too similar to her earlier skins. From this spread, we ruled out “Cyber Pop” because we didn’t think it was different enough from Galactic Gunner, which we thought was the more compelling of the two.

Little Demon was a concept that people gravitated towards almost immediately since it’s different from the rest of her catalog and turns the edgy factor up to 11. We thought that giving Little Demon Tristana iridescent flames could be a way to differentiate her abilities from the other skins that use fire and explosives. We chose Galactic Gunner because her other tech skins, like Omega Squad and Rocket Girl, are more real-world tech inspired, so we thought Galactic Gunner had the potential to be significantly different. And we picked Sugar Rush since it was cute, but in a different kind of way than Dragon Trainer.

Once we had the three directions locked, we did a final pass to make sure they looked different enough from each other and her previous skins. Then it was voting time!

Where We’re At Now: Production

Janelle “Riot Stellari” Jimenez, Product Lead: For most skins, the final say in which concept we make lies with the skin’s product lead and the team, but in this case, the final say was up to you!

In a typical case, once we greenlight a concept we begin brainstorming and exploring for the thematic. Sometimes we even start production before a concept is finished, but in this case, we had to wait some time until we heard the results from the vote. The voting process actually extends skin production by several months, all said and done.

Next comes the part of making the vision a reality. Some people imagine skin production to be like an assembly line—we start with a concept, hand it off to one person, then they hand it off to the next person, and so on. But we actually try to work very collaboratively. Everyone can share ideas and insight during the concepting stage, and every member of the team provides valuable feedback throughout development. Once we’ve decided on the direction, it’s time to validate our blue sky ideas.

Demon Fire and Souls

Kevin “Sirhaian” Leroy, VFX Artist: We usually work in parallel with character artists on skins, but I often like to explore a bit in advance, as I find visual effects can help inform some of the character model elements, such as its source of power. Sound effects almost always come in later, as sound designers need the VFX to be (mostly) done so they can match the timing and feel.

Making VFX is a very iterative process: We start by creating what we call a “first pass,” which is basically a very rough in-game representation of what we want for a skin. This can be as simple as a just a few colors or shapes, as long as we get the general feel of the kit. We then start building upon that first pass, refining it and adding more details.

The first VFX iteration I did for Tristana was the obvious “demon fire” look: red and menacing, with hot fire colors and shapes, mixed with burning sparks and dark smoke. To add a little more “demonic” uniqueness to it, I also added some purple undertones and runic shapes.

I personally like to make a semi-complete kit to get the feel of an idea before deciding whether to continue in that direction, although this isn’t always possible. Some champions, like Zoe with all her sparkles or Elise with her double kit, have much more complex VFX. (In those cases, I usually focus on their most iconic ability and try to make that feel as good as possible.) With Tristana being a much simpler champion in terms of VFX, I could easily make a first pass exploration on most of her kit, as seen in the video below.

The main issue we encountered was how similar it felt to Dragon Trainer Tristana, who also features fire effects. The kit didn’t feel unique enough, even with the added demonic elements. So I scrapped it and started in a different direction. This happens often with VFX, which is why we always start with very basic elements to get the feel of the kit before committing to adding the details and love. And as you can see in the gifs below, those feelings are generated through a lot of different elements, colors, and textures which form a whole once merged together.

Making VFX relies a lot on “feels.” It’s often less about color theory, technicality, and painting than it is about making an entire package that feels good and in-thematic. We often use random words like “shinies” or “wooshies” when talking about VFX, and we also really like enacting them by making very exaggerated hand movements. Of course, never forget to make all the sound effects with your mouth! Very, very important step of creating VFX. (I’m not even kidding, it actually helps to get the timing right!)

This second iteration of “spirit fire” already felt more unique and interesting, with its blue mystic fire filled with souls and agony. It was also getting closer to how her hair looked in the concept, and it helps unify her source of power. We liked the idea, so I made a full first pass for the kit. The main idea is basically blue fire, with a hot and bright cyan core, subtly cooling down to purple tones. I also wanted to try making the effects look like ghastly ectoplasm, so I added some goo fall-off on impacts.

We’re feeling pretty excited about this direction—it feels more unique and different to Tristana, considering she already uses orange and red fiery effects in some of her other skins. Here’s a preview of some of the explorations we’re doing now, where her source of power is actually souls. The model is a proxy, which is a temporary model built using other skin’s elements and simple shapes. Of course, this is all very WIP and subject to change. What do you think?

Illustrating the Little Demon

Jennifer Wuestling, Illustrator: When creating splash art, we always seek to find the most iconic and vivid moment for the champion. It should spark imagination and let everyone connect more to the fantasy world where it takes place.

Before I start sketching, I like to do some research and gather everything that might be useful for my process. There’s always an opportunity for a story moment in every splash, so I looked into Tristana’s lore, what connections she has with other champions, and what splashes she already had to find what moments and abilities were (or weren’t) already featured.

Other artists at Riot who’ve worked on splashes with a similar theme or ones that even play in the same universe can be a great resource for feedback, so I try to keep an eye out for them too. Last but not least of course is playing Tristana, paying attention to her animations, voice, and interactions. Knowing what makes me excited about a champion can be the best inspiration—what caught me for Tristana was her lighthearted walk and how she curiously looks around, plus the cute size-relation between her and the heavy cannon :)

Based off the ideas from our splash brainstorm, I make some sketches. For the sketches I usually start super rough; it’s a way to warm up and better get to know the champion visually. This allows me to see what poses work in general and how I could implement some story.

The next step is to clean the sketches up a bit, so I can present them to the team and see if we like some of the directions.

From there, the team picked out their favorite thumbnails. I fleshed those ones out some more, adding details and light and shadow to test out the scene.

This is where we’re at now—the team is most excited about option 2 and option 9. Which ones are your favorites? You can let us know in the comments!

… And We’ll Be Back

With that, you’ve made it through what’ll (probably) be our biggest update. Next time, we’ll be sharing details on how we’re bringing this feisty Yordle from hell into the game, with updates on her character model and rigging. We might even have a sneak peek of some of the sound design.

See ya on Nexus in two weeks!

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The Penta | Saved by Scuttle – Episode 10 (2019)