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Guns, but make it fashion: more on making Valorant's stylish cosmetics

Riot Games producer Preeti Khanolkar and art director Sean Marino discuss the decisions that drive the creation of Valorant's high-tier, premium-quality cosmetics.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

July 27, 2021

8 Min Read

As more games experiment with revenue streams ranging from Battle Passes to Loot Boxes, the in-game cosmetic remains the core feature of most monetization strategies. Whether you get it from a randomized box, earn it through a quest, or buy it outright through an in-game store, the cosmetic (sometimes called “skins”) is the lure that will reward players for sticking around with your game.

Different developers pursue different production strategies with cosmetics, but Riot Games’ Valorant has made its mark by putting its cosmetic focus on the feature players spend the most time looking at: the game’s many different guns.

Producer Preeti Khanolkar and art director Sean Marino gave a talk at GDC last week discussing how their team tackled two specific challenges with creating the game’s most popular cosmetics, but we wanted to know more about what they’re doing to create worthwhile cosmetics that can fuel the game’s development. Here’s what they had to say when we caught up with them after their talk:

Gun cosmetics as fashion

Khanolkar and Marino agreed that the core of Valorant’s player design comes back to a strategy of trying to figure out who their playerbase is, and what fantasies they wanted to live out. The core design of Valorant—a tactical shooter that mixes Counter-Strike’s careful gunplay and objectives with fantastic sci-fi abilities—is able to bring players together, so the next step was about helping them stand out.

As Khanolkar broke down what she and Marino have learned about player motivations in their years making Valorant, her explanation of player motivations didn’t sound that different from discussing fashion choices.

Players are thinking “what am I saying to the world when I use this skin? What do people know about me and my tastes?” she explained. For instance, the pricy Elderflame skinset might be for players who want to peacock about their spending, or it could be for players so in love with the high fantasy aesthetic they’d trade realistic-looking guns for a set of personality-ladled dragons who spit fire instead of bullets.

By contrast, the Reaver skinset—which went through a massive redesign process from Beta to post-launch—has a dark-hued purple/black/grey aesthetic that looks like a Hot Topic product line circa 2006. (Source: I hung out with the Hot Topic crowd in 2006. It’s a very close design).

The Reaver skins are among Khanolkar’s personal favorites—she described herself as being the target audience for them; a player interested in the “edgelord” aesthetic of almost cartoonishly dark colors. But the self-awareness she described also bled into another choice she’s seen in player expression: using contrasting skin tones to mix visual meanings, like mixing the aforementioned Reaver skin with a bright-pink gun charm donut.

“What does that say about me?” Khanolkar said. “Is it that I love donuts? Or that I like to mix really cool, edgy stuff with really light-hearted stuff. I see some really interesting combinations with our players.”

Marino said designing these different aesthetics comes from knowing what players interests are outside Valorant. “From a very high level you have players who are into other games, movies, books, art, etc that may share common themes. These themes are what we try to identify and recognize in order to call back to so a player can associate what we’re making with what they might already like.”

Khanolkar described Valorant’s cosmetics at one point as “digital luxury goods,” which does call to attention their overlap with real-world luxury goods. Unlike real-world luxury goods however, skins in online video games can fulfill fantasies that aren’t as easy to recreate in real life.

High-priced sneakers or well-assembled thrift shop raids evoke certain fantasies about wealth and culture, but if you’re a dragon person, it’s pretty hard to carry around a fully animated dragon with you wherever you go.

Playing with power (or not)

The touchiest point about in-app purchases with any game or software is the perception of “pay to win,” or the perception that spending money is an automatic guarantee of power. In the world of cosmetics, Khanolkar and Marino said they spent more time battling the notion of “pay to lose.”

“But Bryant,” you write in the comments. “How can cosmetics—which don’t directly touch gun damage or abilities, be considered over or under-powered?”

Great question. In Valorant, Khanolkar said one gun skin sound effect had to be axed because the whirring noise it gave off turned out to be just the tiniest bit of useful information that players who bought the skin would have access to that non-purchasing players wouldn’t. (It would warn them that their aim was off and they needed to draw off on the weapon.)

But for “pay to lose” weapons, Khanolkar explained that during playtesting they found that a lot of premium effects meant to make weapon skins feel cool and unique sometimes damaged player performance because they were distracting. “A cloud effect obscuring too much of my screen might slower—I can’t tell when a weapon’s ready to fire if [a sound effect] is too loud.”

There’s an extra layer of stress on these cosmetics with Valorant’s weapon drop system. Dead players drop their guns on the ground, and other players can pick them up. When they do, they display the skin selected by the original user. “I don’t want players to pick up a gun and go ‘I lost this trade because of this stupid-ass skin,’” she explained.

Marino said the goal with skin and weapon effects is to try and feed into the positive emotions players feel when they score kills and win games—he even thought one gun he’d shipped improved his own performance: a fully upgraded Phantom from the Oni skinset. “I could've sworn that I was ulting because of how much more powerful I felt with that skin,” he said.

“That was all because of the killbanner audio. The cosmetic feedback of me having done something well played into my own emotion in the moment and during that round I was sure that skin made me play better.”

Helping players feel confident and emboldening them to make more aggressive plays is part of what makes Valorant’s evolving skins work. But it’s a fine line between perceived power and real power. Players will still go on social media and claim certain weapons offer a power benefit, but for Khanolkar, Marino, and their team, the goal is to make sure that benefit is superficial, not literal.

Meeting the Metaverse—maybe

At some point in the last few years some amalgamation of Ready Player One’s cinematic success and comments by Fortnite’s creators that they want to see their game as a place where different universes can coexist gave birth to a new version of the word “Metaverse.”

It’s originally a reference to the virtual world in Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash, but with the word popping up among investors and studio pitches (to say nothing of the cryptocurrency pitches we get), it might as well mean “enhanced product placement.” For better or for worse, companies outside the video game space now see a lot of financial viability in offering their products as digital luxury goods.

The obvious touchpoint here is Fortnite, but with Warner Bros. offering its DC Comics characters in Tencent’s fantasy-themed mobile MOBA Honor of Kings, and Riot Games’ prior collaboration with fashion brand Louis Vuitton for League of Legends, it was worth asking the pair if any such collaborations are in Valorant’s future.

Both Khanolkar and Marino gave variations on the phrase “it depends,” but their answers offer some insight on what their end of Riot is thinking about. “Other games or brands get kind of memed on for their partnerships either being over-the-top, too frequent, or just out of place,” Marino observed. “For Valorant, I wouldn’t want to just slap a brand on something because someone threw a bunch of money at us.”

Khanolkar pointed out that the Valorant team has begun dipping its toes in these waters with the Ruination skinset, inspired by a League of Legends event centered around “The Ruined King.” “That isn’t just for League, it’s not for League players, it’s for Valorant players,” she said. “If you’re a Valorant player who knows and cares about League, it’s even cooler, but for a Valorant player who knows nothing and is like ‘what’s that other game Riot makes?’ they still are like ‘this is a sick skin.’”

“I think it’s really opportunistic in terms of what’s going to make sense for our game and for our players.”

In their talk and our conversation, Khanolkar and Marino said that their team’s goal was to push the boundaries on what was possible with weapon cosmetics. The Elderflame skin went from “gun with a dragon on it” to “gun that is also dragon,” in a move that justified charging almost $95 to purchase it.

It’s fair to say that if outside brands come calling, the pair will probably look to upend expectations again. And if any developers are looking to surpass or learn from Valorant, looking back to their interest in what kinds of lifestyle choices players want to express from outside their in-game lives is probably the way to go.

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