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/dev: Illaoi in Project L – Riot Games

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Hi all, I’m Shaun “UNCONKABLE!!!!” Rivera, associate game director and gameplay design lead for Project L, Riot’s upcoming 2D fighting game. You just got an update from Tom Cannon about our aspirations and current focuses as a development team, and I’m super excited for us to be able to provide a small update on Illaoi, an upcoming fighter (or champion, in our game). Before the team working on her shares some early insight into her development, I wanted to talk a little bit about the dev process in Project L overall.
We start off by deciding which champions we want to pursue. Our ultimate goal is to have a diverse and inclusive roster where everyone can find a champion that truly speaks to them. There are a ton of considerations such as, but not limited to, fight fantasy, theme, archetype, team synergy, race and ethnicity, personality, identity, size, etc. Once we have a champion in mind, we plan out when we’ll begin working on them, and then create a pod which consists of folks across disciplines such as design, narrative, art, engineering, tech art, QA, production, and audio. 
At a high level, we have a few phases we move champions through in our champion pipeline, but today we’re going to focus on the first: DNA. If you’ve seen any of our character development stories from League of Legends or VALORANT, this term might look familiar. At this stage, our Designer, Narrative writer, and concept and animation Artists (get it? DNA) focus on exploring possibilities—inspiring each other with cool visuals, thematics, and kit ideas until something exciting emerges.
From there, using some extremely rough models and kits, we get the ideas into the game. Once we’ve locked down a direction, the team expands to include the rest of the disciplines that’ll be working on the champion. But that stage is something we’ll cover at a later date.
 
 
As to Illaoi in particular…
We have an overwhelming number of champions to pull from League of Legends. There are beefy juggernauts, agile assassins, and powerful mages, to name a few. Still, we try to be thoughtful when deciding who to bring to Project L.
We want to make sure we’ve identified champions who can both improve our gameplay and be enhanced by being in our game. In short, we want to elevate their fantasy. The juggernauts should be beefier, the assassins more agile, and the mages more powerful. But beyond that, they should still feel true to who they are. We still want players who know and love these characters to see what they expect, and to give them a little more.
Essentially, we want players to see a champion in Project L do something they’ve never seen before, and think “Holy shit, they did what? Of course they can do that…”
Our narrative director, Scott “Jaredan” Hawkes, was the one to pitch Illaoi as a member of our starting roster. When thinking about my experiences against her in League, especially after a well placed ult, listening to him talk about her story and theme, experiencing her amazing role in Ruined King: A League of Legends Story, and chatting with the team about a number of ways we could really elevate her champion fantasy in Project L, I was beyond stoked to include her. It felt like we could really create something special while paying homage to all of the Illaoi fans out there. And I hope you all feel that way once you get done reading.
Scott “Jaredan” Hawkes, Narrative Director:
Our goal with each champion is to not just deliver what players expect. Instead it’s to reach higher and deliver what they deserve, and Illaoi is no different.
Our work on Narrative began during ideation by defining Illaoi’s core truths: Who she’s been, who she is now, and who she could be in Project L. Our goal was to answer one question, “Why is she a champion that we absolutely need to make?”
Illaoi was released in League of Legends nearly seven years ago where she’s been a staple (or nightmare) of top laners ever since. We’ve also seen her overwhelm her enemies in Legends of Runeterra and save the world from Ruination in Ruined King. 
 
 
With support from our central IP Strategy team, I wrote a champion brief that sums up what makes Illaoi special, and what it is that players across the world love about her.
Illaoi is the Truth Bearer of Nagakabouros, the deity of life, ocean storms, and motion, who is often depicted as a colossal kraken. Illaoi and her people come from the Serpent Isles, an island archipelago that includes Bilgewater and her home island of Buhru.
In League of Legends, Illaoi's gameplay focuses on testing the worthiness of individuals using the golden artifact known as the Eye of God. Wielding the massive idol, she rips souls from their host bodies, and summons spectral tentacles to repeatedly slam into them.
In our story world, those who survive Nagakabouros’ test are deemed to be on the correct path and can move forward to pursue their true purpose in life. While those who fall are left in no uncertain terms that they are failing in their duty to move their own lives forward, and are hindering the flow of the universe. An experience that not all survive.
Using all of this information, we defined Illaoi’s core truth as: “A powerful and charismatic spiritual leader who inspires others to be their own unstoppable force.” She turns heads and dominates a room with her physical presence and confident, purposeful swagger.
Then, using the brief, I worked with the other discipline leads—like design and art—to create a north star for her development. This way we ensure that Illaoi is instantly identifiable, even in a genre we’ve never seen her in. And, even more important, we used it to look for opportunities to grow her legend. Because a fighting game is the perfect place for Illaoi to shine.
With a clear picture of her in our minds, we can make sure that anyone who already knows Illaoi beyond the surface level also finds the character they love, while still empowering the development team to delight even her most devoted followers with a version that will blow the doors off. Or, in her case, rip the doors off their hinges with magical tentacles and beat you senseless with them.
On a personal note, I’ve loved who Illaoi is and who she could be since we developed her for League back in 2015. And although she’s not one of the more popular champions in League, I think it’s easy to see how Illaoi’s combination of bruised knuckles, devout heart, and joyous swagger (combined with all the new experiences we can put in players’ hands) can make her a superstar in Project L.
Mike “zatransis” Henry, Creative Director:
Once Narrative has given us a good understanding of who a champion is, we move into their visual direction. You can infuse so much more into a champion when you know who they are, especially when we compare all of their visual representations—which Illaoi certainly wasn’t lacking.
Some of our champions lend themselves well to being altered quite a bit, whereas for others it wouldn’t make sense for them to drastically change their appearance. When we started on Illaoi, it became clear she would be the latter.
She has a really iconic look: Tall, muscular, and imposing. But more than that, she’s joyous, spirited, and believes in challenging others to live their lives to the fullest. And all of these things needed to be reflected in her appearance.
Illaoi’s physical build is pretty unique in the roster of League of Legends champions, and we referenced a lot of athletes with a focus on weightlifters and shot putters. Mainly women who spend a lot of time lifting things as easily as Illaoi lifts her massive weapon.
 
 
Her clothing is very purposeful—she’s not exactly the type to keep up with the latest Runeterran fashion trends. So we decided to keep her outfit and color palette similar to what most players have come to associate with her, while altering the blocking a little to make it fresh and capitalize on Project L’s perspective and overall art style.
From her weapon to her bracers to her earrings, we put a ton of thought into the small changes we made to her design to make sure she still felt true to her base form in League and her people.
 
 
We also needed to think about how Illaoi would move. To do this, we use something called movement studies. Fighting games are really dynamic, and in order to explore movement really fast in the earlier stages of development, our concept artists drew Illaoi in various poses for the animators.
Illaoi has an extremely unique fighting style (a heavy golden idol and spirit tentacles combined), so these motion studies helped sort out some unknowns even more than if she were to use a sword or axe. We want to nail how her tentacles work and move, how her power is felt by her player, and how absolutely devastating it is to be hit by her.
 
 
Once the movement study was complete, the animators worked with an early version of Illaoi to see how her size and proportions felt in game. Using the movement studies, they were able to take the poses in game so we could see how Illaoi’s proportions looked in the context of a fighting game.
Once that’s locked, it’s on to game design to figure out her kit and how it’s implemented in-game!
Caroline “Riot Shyvana” Montano, Game Designer:
I mained Illaoi top lane in League, so I know her gameplay very well and was super excited for her to be in Project L. I feel honored to be able to work on her design in our game!
When we started the DNA phase for Illaoi, we did a deep dive into her lore and existing moments to find her core champion fantasy. We drew inspiration from all of her iterations, and even from watching players play Illaoi. We really wanted to grasp what makes her feel powerful.
One of the main things we identified early was that she was going to be a big body: A huge hurtbox, massive hits, and slower movement, with a simple-to-learn, hard-to-master kit.
Illaoi is a strong and muscular woman who attacks with a giant totem, so it makes sense she would hit with her own physical strength, as opposed to hiding behind the power of her god or magical abilities.
We also needed tentacles. Illaoi’s god, Nagakabouros, is a tentacled sea monster, and there needed to be some aspect of that in her kit. But beyond empowering her attacks, Nagakabouros also gives Illaoi the strength to steal her opponent’s soul.
When figuring out which part was the “dominant” power, we decided that Illaoi would be the source of power and that Nagakabouros would have her back—especially when you take into account how effortlessly she wields the giant totem.
 
 
Using all of this research, we developed Illaoi’s goals and guardrails, which help us determine what direction to go with her kit and what is venturing too far away from her core truth.
Illaoi’s Goals:
Illaoi fights alongside her god. Nagakabouros is a constant looming threat that Illaoi feels supported by and opponents fear.
Slow, but always in motion. Illaoi is always moving, and she punishes those who are motionless. This is one of the key beliefs of her god, and we wanted to represent this through her gameplay. 
Overwhelming pressure. Once Illaoi puts the opponent in a position where they get hit or need to block, she is relentless, forcing her opponent to make a move on her terms.
Illaoi’s Guardrails:
Illaoi is the powerhouse, Nagakabouros has her back. Illaoi’s physical strength is her main source of power and the tentacles from her god are there to assist, not replace. Nagakabouros is not the star of the show.
Simple and straightforward. Illaoi’s power fantasy comes from heavy semi-short hits, heavy long hits, and simultaneous/staggered hits from tentacles. But not from the complexity of managing the state of many entities.
Not a puppet master. Illaoi shouldn’t feel like she is ordering around her god. She can control the tentacles from her totem, however any independently spawned tentacles should feel like gifts, not privileges. Illaoi doesn’t get to spam these without earning them.
Not a zoner. Illaoi doesn’t want to keep away the opponent with tentacle hits, she wants to create openings to allow her to leap in and deal damage herself.
When it comes to what archetype I’d use to describe Illaoi, it would probably be a “Big Body Juggernaut.” An overwhelming battering ram who has the power of a god behind her. Illaoi’s a heavy-hitter who dominates when it’s her turn in the mid-range and destroys her enemies with immense pressure. 
When we felt confident about the goals and guardrails, we started to design and implement early prototype specials and normals. The first version focused around Illaoi’s ability to spawn a tentacle at different ranges: A close tentacle with fast startup, a mid-range tentacle with medium speed startup, and a long range tentacle with long startup.
While it was fun to play, this type of design made Illaoi feel more like a puppet master or zoner, things that went against her goals and guardrails. It felt like the damage was focused on Nagakabouros using tentacles from the ground when what we really wanted to highlight was Illaoi bonking people with a totem.
We’re still super early and still in development and exploring our options, but the direction we’re headed is to have the tentacle spawn a fixed distance away from Illaoi. And tentacles come out only when she successfully hits her opponent (on hit or on block). 
This small change has already made a huge difference in her gameplay in our playtests. Instead of summoning tentacles from far away and controlling them at will like a zoner, Illaoi now gets in her opponent’s face, and when she does, there’s ALSO a tentacle slapping you around.
One really strong image I had throughout developing her kit was that Illaoi should be able to hit an opponent into a tentacle, have them bounce back into her and she should be able to clothesline them like she’s a pro wrestler and the tentacles of Nagakabouros are like the wrestling ropes.
Project L is in active development, and Illaoi’s still pretty early on, so we’ve got more work to do! But we’ll check back in later on in her process with devs from areas like animation, visual effects, and audio to see how everyone’s favorite big bodied, spirit tentacle-using juggernaut is shaping up. As for how we’re doing overall, look out for another update from Tom before the end of the year.
And until then, let us know what you think.
 
Luckily for all of us, Illaoi found the dev team worthy of Nagakabouros’ favor. Now they spend their time working to ensure Project L’s worthy of yours.

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