Now this is the story all about how the Rift got flipped-turned upside down. And we’d like to take 20 minutes, just sit right there, and we’ll tell you about how the Rift became a designer’s nightmare.
… just kidding. Well, kind of.
Preseason is usually a time for big and necessary changes to fix things that aren’t really working. But heading into 2019, the Summoner’s Rift team thought the game was in a pretty good state. Combine that with League’s fast-approaching 10th birthday, and the gears started turning: Could the team kick off the second decade of League in a big way without making players learn tons of new stuff?
A change this big takes a lot of people to ensure it’s done right. Game designers. Artists. Sound designers. Playtesters. And… you.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.
The backdrop for every League match has stayed pretty constant for the past 10 years. There are three lanes, a jungle, Baron pit, dragon pit, and two bases. You know Baron spawns at 20 minutes, some dragons appear, someone runs it down, better jungler wins. The only map variance from game to game was “Which type of dragon is gonna spawn next?”, but even that didn’t really change the way you played. It had been years since the Summoner’s Rift saw any monumental changes, and the SR team was excited to play in that space (and at that scale) once more.
So in early 2019, the Summoner’s Rift team—aka the group of devs that work on balance, preseason, and all of the other juicy Summoner’s Rift changes—met once a week to brainstorm ways to change the Rift. At that point, nothing was off-limits and every idea was worth exploring, as long as it’d make each game feel unique without completely overhauling everything players knew about the game.
“This stage of game design isn’t necessarily focused on finding what’s good,” explains senior development manager Olivier “Riot Kazdoo” Ged. “It’s to focus in on what’s bad and failing fast. We want to get that out of the way. Then we can go back to what’s good and ask ourselves why it’s good.”
Here’s some of the stuff the team got out of the way.
“We had an idea to improve upon first blood,” shares game designer Daniel “Riot Rovient” Leaver. “The way it worked was if you died, brush would spawn at that location. But it ended up kind of weird. For example, if you died under your own tower, you had this lovely brush you could safely farm under tower from. It didn’t feel great to play against that.”
Another early iteration granted players the ability to destroy walls by destroying towers. And another covered the base in brush once inhibitors fell. While these hit some of the goals the team had, they left the map feeling overly chaotic and took control away from players—something the team wanted to avoid.
The team was also interested in exploring new ways to fight against the existing monsters in League.
They tried creating smol baby dragons that gave players smol baby buffs (or big, game-changing ones). Another exploration allowed champions with Baron buff to “enlist” the services of defeated jungle camps to form an undead super army. And in another iteration, Baron would leave his pit, seeking fights if he was ignored for too long—essentially shouting, “1v1 ME BRO! IT’S ALL BARON PIT NOW!”
“The problem was that fighting against non-players in League is really only good if you’re crushing them,” says lead game designer Mark “Riot Scruffy” Yetter. “The game’s about fighting players, so enlisting creatures didn’t really work.”
No matter what the team explored, they kept coming back to dragons. Something about them just felt… right. Dragons already existed in League. Players knew what they did. And their current buffs weren’t super exciting. So could the team use dragons to hit their initial goals? And what could they use from the designs from the great purge to make that happen?
By following this approach, the team was able to narrow in on an amalgamation of the terrain changes and the PvE elements to create the core of the Elemental Rift update. The map wouldn’t change constantly, players wouldn’t have to fight dumbed-down monsters, and there wasn’t a bunch of new stuff to learn. The game wouldn’t be reinvented—there’s no time to re-learn the basics in the climb to Challenjour.
But before the team started creating a bunch of new maps, they needed to make sure they weren’t completely insane. Four versions of SR with unique gameplay-impacting designs? Players would love it, right? …Right?
“As game designers we like to think everything we do is good,” admits Riot Kazdoo. “When we love an idea, we really love it. And when we start to follow an idea we want to make it permanent.”
But the SR team’s small. Like, less than 10 game designers, a few engineers, a dev manager, and a few other odds and ends. That’s nothing compared to the millions of players who’ll let us know if things aren’t good. The team needed to know if the ideas they were pursuing were actually worth it before they invested the time into making it look and sound nice.
So they sent the changes over to the Playtest team, which is a group of ~10 high-Diamond to Challenger players who work with the designers to make sure changes actually meet their goals. Oftentimes the best way to see if something works is to just… play a bunch of games. Every day. Multiple times a day. And because the team wanted to change the ENTIRE Rift, this was especially important. They needed to know how high-ranked players would use these changes.
The Playtest team was a thumbs up, but that’s still not everyone. That’s not even 5% of players. Actually, it’s almost nobody. That’s when the SR team called in the big guns: actual players.
In April a bunch of players from different ranks and roles came to Riot to playtest the evolving Rift preseason changes.
“Sometimes players think we don’t listen to them,” explains game designer Riot Rovient. “But we really do. Their feedback is really helpful. If we’re ever on the fence about a feature, we want to know what players think.”
Even if we’re not on the fence, these feedback sessions with players matter. If everyone who tries a new gameplay change hates it, then there’s a pretty big chance that it dies right there. And because the preseason changes were so big, the team wanted to make sure they were headed down the right path.
And the results from the playtests were… pretty positive!
Some changes didn’t make it, like brush taking over the base after structures died (this was just annoying). And some changes needed minor tweaks, like the alcoves. But overall, players said they liked the core theme and direction of the Elemental Rift update.
With the players’ blessing, it was time to bring these maps to life.
“Creating four new maps was quite an art challenge,” explains associate art director Danny H “Riot Danky” Kim. “We’d updated Summoner’s Rift a few years back, and it was a big undertaking. It took two years for a giant art team to make, and we didn’t have eight years with a 40-person art team.”
The 11-person art team had, in fact, around four months.
“Because of the timeline we had to work very smartly,” explains RiotDanky. “We had to look for small things we could do to make each map feel different.”
“Early on, the art team discovered some clever modeling changes to make the maps feel unique and alive,” says Riot Scruffy. “One of the concept artists added flowers in the brush on the Ocean map, and it became a huge inspiration for everything moving forward. We kept asking, ‘What’s our flower in the brush for this element?’”
Infernal was the easiest map to get right, with its destroyed walls and scorched brush (also it was red). Mountain was intuitive as well; it created new walls to play around. And Ocean had water flooding the jungle and the flowers in the brush. But Cloud…
“Cloud was the biggest challenge because there were a lot of gameplay elements in it,” explains Riot Danky. “Clear gameplay communication was our top priority, and if you add too much art it can cover up what the gameplay experience is supposed to convey.”
The team wanted the Cloud map to feel more… cloud-y. They created see-through crevasses across the map that replicated the speed zones within the jungle. But players avoided the zones because their size made it easier to be hit by skillshots—the opposite intended effect.
They also tried giving the map a foggy overlay, but that caused the fog of war and the speed zones to become difficult to see.
“Gameplay-wise Cloud is really strong,” says Riot Rovient. “There are lots of cool opportunities for outplays and dodging skillshots. These can change a teamfight drastically. I just wish we’d been able to find the thing to make the map feel cohesive like the others. But there’s still time. We’re not done adding things.”
The art team added the finishing touches, but the Rift was still so… quiet. So they looked to the audio team to fill the hungering void.
There’s nothing quite like listening to rain fall outside with thunder rolling in the distance. It sets a mood, and that’s precisely what lead sound designer Brandon “Riot Sound Bear” Reader sought to emulate.
“Rain is really loud,” explains Riot Sound Bear. “There are all of these droplets coming down and it’s just… noise. I had multiple recordings of rain to play with, so I sifted through them to find the ones I liked. I collected six of them and after some editing, I landed on the final rain for the Ocean map.”
The Mountain map booms with the sound of shifting rock, Cloud sings with whispering wind, and Infernal ignites with the crackle of flame. The maps were finally finished. Well… almost.
While the Rift was getting a makeover (or four), the designers kept working out one of the missing details of the update: Elder Dragon. They wanted to ensure that the powerful late-game behemoth wouldn’t be outclassed by its lesser cousins, so they gave players who defeated it a game-ending execute.
“During a really late playtest, Riot Sound Bear asked what we thought of Elder’s execute sound. And we didn’t really notice anything about it, so we didn’t have much to say,” admits Riot Rovient.
“Originally I had this standard laser sound that had some organic, but fiery filters. But it didn’t stand out enough,” explains Riot Sound Bear. “So I went back to the drawing board and I went… a little crazy.”
The end product is Riot Sound Bear screaming into a microphone mixed with the sounds of squealing pigs. Yes, pigs.
“Many of the sounds you hear in movies—like dinosaurs, orcs, or other non-living creatures—are a mashup of different animals, often including pigs. Their grunts and squeals lend themselves very well to sound design,” Riot Sound Bear shares. “I chose pigs because I needed something to cut through all the frequencies going on in a fight. So I had to think about what I could use. It’s a pig… and me.”
The completion of Elder wrapped the sound up in a pretty pig-shaped ribbon. So that means…
The team looked at the Rift, they were finally there. To gank and to roam, with that Preseason flair.