ImagineFX heads to California to see the huge new home of Riot Games, the team behind League of Legends
We head to California to visit Riot Games’ new home.
Standing guard near reception are life-sized statues of Annie and Tibbers, the Dark Child and the Shadow Bear. On the walls around them, a rogues’ gallery of official and player-created art, characters with names like Amumu the Sad Mummy, Warwick the Blood Hunter and Gangplank the Saltwater Scourge. These champions and the 67-odd million monthly gamers who play them, helped League of Legends (LoL) become one of the biggest, and best loved, video games of all time.
ImagineFX is in west Los Angeles, at the offices of the team behind LoL. Except Riot Games doesn’t call this place an office or a studio, or even its headquarters. This is a campus. The name fits: not just because it’s sprawling, but because an important part of the work that goes on here has to do with learning, with striving.
In case you’ve been in a cave for a bit, League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena game. A really big one. Released in October 2009, it remains Riot Games’ only title. A couple of gamers, Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill, founded the company in 2006, and it’s since grown into not only one of the most bankable game developers around, but also one of Fortune’s 100 best companies to work for – debuting at number 13 in 2015.
the Grand tour
Strolling around the campus, it’s easy to see why. Walkways lead through the site’s sprawling quad, among drought-friendly plants, past a giant chess set, with fairy lights leading the way overhead. There’s a
basketball court between the canteen and cafe. Inside one of its wings, an old-school arcade room and a modern PC bang. There is, in fact, almost 300,000 square feet of space, housing well over 1,000 employees. When Riot moved here a year ago, The LA Times reported it as the “biggest new office lease in southern California in five years.”
On Adam Murguia’s first day, the studio art director called his new team into a meeting: “I said, ‘Look, there’s a lot about the game’s look that’s great. It’s original, it’s super, super broad, but it’s really inconsistent when it comes to quality and consistency across the board and that’s one of the things I think we need to fix’.” He braced himself for a backlash. But the team, to his surprise, agreed with him.
In the four years since, Adam has grown the art department from 20 staff to more than 200, a kind of dream team of digital artists. The campus on which they work is a flexible space, one designed to adapt to Riot Games’ collaborative approach.
Walkways go past a giant chess set. Fairy lights lead the way overhead
We just say, ‘We need an awesome champion. Go do what you need to do to make an awesome champion’
“Our focus turned to the product, to holistic product quality,” Adam says. “So all of these desks, they’re all on wheels, they’re all plugged into the hubs, and literally the configuration is different week to week. Teams self-organise. One of the things we hire for is adaptability.”
Everything on campus is carefully thought-out: champion-themed conference rooms sit in the centre of workspace areas, so teams aren’t interrupted by Rioters rushing in and out of meetings. The Korean-style PC bang – the kind of large gaming room where many fans play League of Legends – is where work and play overlap. Nearby machines vend endless snacks. There are bars and cafes, and almost 100 breakout rooms.
“We’re not the company to say, ‘Hey, concept artists, do 10 concepts by Tuesday,“’ Adam says. “We just say, ‘ We need an awesome champion. Go do what you need to do to make an awesome champion.‘”
In League of Legends, you play an unseen summoner. You control a champion who has unique abilities and battle against a team of players or computer-controlled champions. The Riot team, or Rioters, can take around eight months to create and complete a champion. As many as 100 from various disciplines are involved in that process. Adam says there are over 120 playable champions and each can have multiple skins. Skins range from simple costumes to full thematic overhauls. They don’t boost the character’s stats, just changes their appearance. Paid-for cosmetics are where free-to-play League of Legends generates much of its money.
anyone for esports?
‘League’ also has a huge competitive element to it. Regional competitions culminate in the annual World Championship, which in 2015 offered over $2m in prize money and attracted almost 40m online viewers.
“Our audience is hardcore gamers,” Adam says. “We hire hardcore gamers, so we’re also very critical of the products we’re creating. We’re critics, man, we really are. And when something’s resonating internally, it’s a good sign. We’re very collaborative, we’re very competitive, we’re achievement driven, we’re a team. We’re not a family, you know. The distinction being that you can’t fire your grandma. We’re very plain spoken. Somebody’s not carrying their weight? They’ll know about it.”
Recent ImagineFX cover artist (see issue 131) Alvin Lee was recruited by Riot’s Splash Team just over a year ago: “Splash is basically just a name for an illustration team, which went from working almost as a standalone team to following the rest of the company into being more integrated. If I jump into
working with another person, hopefully both of us will level up.”
Around the campus, you hear terms like ‘ level up’ and ‘ force multiplication’ used a lot. Evan Monterro, an illustrator on the Champ Team, is one of Riot’s newest employees. He explains what these terms mean: “I was sort of a generalist. I had a good amount of knowledge about a wide range of things. They want someone here that is a 10 in the thing we’re hiring for, and a three in everything else. Not fives across the board.”
Once they have the job, Rioters bump those threes up to 10s by collaborating, which is how they level up and force multiply. There are also on-site sketch
groups, life-drawing classes and craft classes taught by Riot artists.
So how do you get a job at Riot Games? “Skill gets you in the door,” says principal artist Moby Francke, “but more important is you’re a cultural fit.” Moby’s remit is broad. “I work with everybody. I’m making characters sometimes, I’m doing paint-overs of somebody else’s work, marketing, art direction for an event. Most things take six or seven months. This is a dream job for a lot of people. They let you take chances. They let you fail catastrophically, as long as you learn something from it. You’re not just pigeon-holed. You’re not a widget. We’re extremely anti-widget at this company.”
Never clock in again
“They don’t hire guys who come in for a pay check,” concept artist Chris Campbell says, “they look for the people who are passionate. My team’s goal is to make a new character that’s going to change the game. It’s gonna fundamentally blow everyone’s minds and be the kind of experience that gets people excited to play. If it doesn’t reach a level of excitement with us, we just don’t put the character out.”
Working at Riot Games is like working on an aeroplane that’s being built in mid-air
Chris’s job on the Champ Promo Team, he says, is to develop the nuances of a champion: who they are and what motivates them. “It’s never some solo project. It’s open, a communal gathering of thoughts and ideas.”
Senior concept artist Trevor Claxton says working at Riot is like working on an aeroplane that’s being built in mid-air. And that’s not to everyone’s taste. “I’ve seen people come on-site and work like that for a while and just not be happy. They need peace and space to create the best work they can possibly create.” It seems working the Riot way may not be right for everyone, and could even upset its specific culture.
League of Legends is a game of great scope, built on meticulous attention to detail. The Riot Games campus is exactly the same. A lot of care is taken to create what appears to be a care-free working environment. And the results speak for themselves. “We are always trying to push, push, push,” says skins illustrator Chengwei Pan. “In other companies you might get a week or two to produce an illustration,” he continues. “When other artists hear that they’re like, ‘ What? It takes you four weeks to do one illustration?’ But we’re not wasting time. We have more iterations, more narrative talk and a lot more feedback than other illustrators get. That’s why the quality of the illustrations keeps growing. Riot has a fantastic culture.”
Location: Los Angeles, US
project: League of Legends
Other projects: Blitzcrank’s
Poro Roundup (mini game)
There’s a riot going on in this epic ‘splash’
by artist Suke Su.
The Bilgewater Brew enables Rioters to get caffeinated for the day.
With its organic culture of creativity, Riot is a unique games studio.
The art department transformed, and grew, four years ago when Adam came on board.
Some concept art from the Summoner’s Rift map. It’s the most viewed game maps in LoL and that’s saying something!
This ‘splash’ of Miss Fortune by Jason accompanied a story event, aimed to enrich the existing character for Rioters and fans.
A detail from Jason Chan’s Poppy comic, a release to give backstory to the revamped champ.
PC bangs are a common sight in Asia, and so Riot built its own in-house to keep Rioters connected with their gamer audience.