When Riot Games decided it wanted to create a first-person shooter, the team's developers found themselves faced with an oxymoron.
Their small crew at the time had grown up with tactical shooting games such as Counter-Strike 1.6 and others of the ilk, and they hoped to chase something from their adolescence with their new game. At the same time, they wanted to evolve the first-person shooter genre instead of playing it safe by copying what they loved from the past. The developers wanted to create something that hearkened to days gone by but was also forward-facing, a game that could stand the test of time as their flagship title, League of Legends, has done over the past decade.
Those opposing philosophies smashing together, fusing into a slick but familiar package, is how VALORANT was born.
"We wanted to discover how to bring this feeling to a new era of gaming, to a more experienced audience of players, the players of 2020, and incorporate the creativity they can bring to such an experience," said Joe Ziegler, the game director on VALORANT at Riot Games. "This, we felt like, could be a great new experience -- and still do."
The team, knowing what the best first-person shooter games of their youth felt like, started with the foundations that were familiar to the designers. First, a shooting game needs to elicit a satisfying reaction when a player connects with a target. If there's no spark when a player gets the better of an opponent, then no matter how great the rest of the game is, it's bound to be a disappointment.
After figuring out the gunplay, the development team needed to build on that by making an impressive play feel like something important. Be it in the final match of an international tournament in front of millions of viewers or at home as a low-ranked player messing around with friends, getting an elimination needed to feel great and to matter.
"In VALORANT, having a good round, a clutch moment, a great play makes you not only feel smart but also stylish and creative in your own way," Ziegler said, "and we sought to bring that to life through the visuals and music of the game and media that we've shown."
On the surface, VALORANT closely resembles the current king of first-person shooters in the world of esports, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Make no mistake, Riot doesn't hide its love for the Counter-Strike series: Developers and designers of VALORANT grew up fans of the competitive esports scene, which now spans two decades. Senior game designer Salvatore "Volcano" Garozzo was a professional CS player and a mapmaker for the game before his current gig, overseeing the creation of maps in VALORANT with Riot Games. The game's premier sniper rifle, the Operator, is a not so subtle homage to Counter-Strike's high-risk, high-reward weapon, the AWP.
From the variety of guns to the economy system used to buy them, the similarities between the two games are ample.
That base gameplay, though, is just the springboard for what makes VALORANT what it is. The makers wanted to recreate the perfect shooter from their youth but also break the genre open, combining the pure gunplay and tactics of Counter-Strike with a dose of Riot creativity to take the game further. This is where VALORANT'S agents, the specialized characters with their own equipable abilities and powers, come into play. The addition of character selections allows players to take the old-school gameplay and turn it on its head with double jumps, artillery airstrikes and bendable walls of fire.
The tagline of VALORANT is "Defy the Limits," and it's more than a catchy slogan. It's a mindset the developers want every player who loads into the game to have when they explore the sandbox they've created.
"The statement 'Defy the Limits' comes from a feeling that in our game, we are asking you to go above and beyond what you've known before and break our game, to create strategies and tactics that defy the odds and overcome your opponents," Ziegler said. "We want you to take the tools we've given you and innovate, create and exceed your own expectations of what you can accomplish. This game is not a game we've made to play only the way we've envisioned it. We know players are clever and intelligent, and we want to see how far they can go."
Riot saw some of that outside-the-box thinking March 27-29, during a three-day online playtest session for VALORANT that included esports pros, gaming influencers and media members. There were moments when a player would figure out an exploit or a strategy with a specific agent that the creators didn't think was possible. Although the developers don't want to create a situation that is imbalanced or outright broken, innovation that comes from understanding the game and the tools given to them is what they expect. The caveman strategies created during the early days of the beta and release, if things go the way Riot hopes, will be relics of a nostalgic past in the coming years, as the best players in the world warp what is believed to be currently capable in VALORANT.
Riot Games wanted to go beyond its usual borders in another way with VALORANT, too. Unlike their flagship League of Legends, which is set in a high-fantasy-like world with demons, wizards and monsters coming from fictional lands, VALORANT takes place in an alternative universe to our own, with the various operatives in the game coming from countries such as the United States, Morocco and South Korea. The game is geared at a global audience, from its style to its beats.
The in-game music, a thumping electronic beat that greets you as you sign in, along with other head-bobbing tracks, is characterized as "unapologetically global" by Ziegler. That carries over to the agents: Riot set out to give each one a distinct personality and style that harken to their country of origin, and the creators got voice actors from an agent's country to make each character as authentic as possible to players from the region.
Phoenix, a smooth-talking and show-stopping duelist with a vocabulary to match from the United Kingdom, is one of VALORANT's most popular characters early. His ultimate, called "Run it Back," involves the confident (sometimes overly so) operative rushing into battle and rising from the ashes if the time out during the ability runs out or if he is killed within the time limit. He doesn't only revive, though, respawning from where he activated his bold maneuver. Phoenix is nonplussed, returning to the battlefield by tugging on his popped jacket collars and ready to go back into the fray.
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It's those small moments that create the overall style VALORANT is aiming for. Most shooting games either are gritty and dark with muted colors and gratuitous violence or go for a kid-friendly approach, with flashy gameplay and lighthearted fanfare. Riot, seeing both sides, decided to go down neither route with VALORANT. The game doesn't shy from the things that made the FPS genre popular, but it is meant to appeal to a wide audience looking to play the game for thousands of hours. That extends to how the maps of the games were designed.
"I know from a visual [point of view], there was clear intent that maps [shouldn't] look oppressive," a VALORANT developer said in a Q&A session during the three-day online bootcamp. "Hopefully after 1,000 [hours] of play, our maps still feel like places you want to spend time in. In line with the overall creative direction on the game, we are trying to not be too dystopian. It also supports the gameplay needs, as a vibrant, stylized approach helps us put readability uppermost."
The inspirations for the style and feel of the game included popular culture items such as fashion lookbooks, Adidas World Cup ads, graffiti and modern poster art. For a game that hopes to become as internationally relevant as League of Legends, the VALORANT team has taken all the necessary steps to make this game appeal to a worldwide audience. Although it might lack the ultra-high graphics of a series such as Call of Duty, VALORANT makes up for what it lacks in fidelity with style and attitude, allowing the player base to enjoy a competitive-oriented game to a high level with minimal lag from graphics stuttering.
At its core, VALORANT is a love letter from its developers to the shooting games that shaped their childhoods, with an imaginative twist to allow the future generation of gamers to create long-lasting memories.
"The challenge for us was to take these inspirations and translate them into something that covered a wide range of goals for us," Ziegler said. "[Those] being international and reflecting the wider tastes of our global audience, creating a vibrant style that didn't feel immature and being stylish but also leaving room to allow for the playful and trolly moments of gaming."
So far, the new shooter has impressed, stylishly and emphatically entering the scene, with more than a million viewers tuning in on Twitch for a chance at an elusive golden ticket to play the game during the upcoming beta phase.
Now, as VALORANT gears up for the next phase of development leading into a scheduled summer launch, its creators will have to answer the all-important question: Can they stick the landing?