Existing lore and narrative cues established Bilgewater as a city filled with shivering timbers, echoing yarrs, and plundering pirates – certainly a locale that’s rife with opportunity for storytellers, but not unique in of itself. Though references and hat-tips are part of League’s charm, leaning too heavily on existing tropes can leave players with the impression that they’ve been to this place before. It’s easy to take a place like Bilgewater and turn it into a theme park rather than a living, breathing, part of a believable world.
Enter Foundations, a dedicated group of Rioters working to enhance the building blocks of League’s universe by exploring Runeterra’s people, customs, and the world itself. Foundations’ work isn’t focused on player-facing content; instead, its deep dives of Runeterra serve as the base from which creative teams at Riot can create content like Bilgewater: Burning Tides.
Foundations begins by exploring every imaginable facet of a location and its culture. As its artists and writers discover new ideas and expand upon old ones, they document those concepts through internal style guides focusing on art, history, culture, language, and more. The work of Foundations is the result of thinking deeply about League’s core elements and looking for ways to add compelling layers to what we already know. Internally, Foundations creates the go-to resources for learning about and understanding Runeterra.
Senior producer Thomas Vu explains; “There are many teams within Riot working within the IP, from new champions and events to relaunches and character bios, etc. Foundations make it so that teams are able to build upon a common and consistent framework without creatively constraining them.” These in-depth examinations of the world behind the game serve as the jumping-off point for League’s content creators.
Representing the combined efforts of the Foundations team, the concept art, style guides, and story cues provide Rioters with systematic overviews of the people, places, and things in Runeterra and empower teams to create content with deep narrative roots and consistent artistic themes. Everything is up for discussion, from granular explorations of iconography to detailed representations of key locales.
We wanted Bilgewater to feel eclectic; a melting pot of different cultures and backgrounds, reflecting that its inhabitants have come from all over the known world.
With Bilgewater, Foundations looked for points of differentiation from existing pirate tropes. How could we take Captain Hook and cross him with Bill the Butcher? Lead concept artist Mark Gibbons says, “We were fortunate that people like Twisted Fate and Graves were already associated with the faction. There is already a blend of cultures inherent to the canon stories that has a very American West feeling.” The groundwork was already in place for an overlap of cultures and styles that would dirty the family-friendly image of the place and replace shanty-singing pirates with scrimshaw-loving underworld tycoons.
Ant Reynolds, lead writer for Foundations, adds, “We didn’t want Pirate Town. We wanted Bilgewater to exist in its own unique space. If we see someone cosplaying as Gangplank, we want people to say, ‘That’s a cool Gangplank costume,’ not, ‘cool pirate.’”
Foundations’ work with Bilgewater is about showcasing what Gibbons calls, “the concentrated version of what was only hinted at.” It’s the stuff below the surface that bubbles up in the form of champions, environments, and the stories that connect them. Reynolds explains, “Bilgewater should feel like a living place. We should know where it came from.” Gibbons elaborates, “We wanted Bilgewater to feel eclectic; a melting pot of different cultures and backgrounds, reflecting that its inhabitants have come from all over the known world. Add in the original indigenous culture (which is highly respected in Bilgewater), and you start to have a place that feels rather unique.”
The Bilgewater: Burning Tides event is an example of how foundational exploration can inform the creative process at Riot; teams focusing on the story of Gangplank’s near-demise or working on the Butcher’s Bridge ARAM map pulled heavily from the details and themes laid out by the Foundations team.
Foundations isn’t here to erase everything players know about places like Bilgewater. Reynolds says, “Sometimes better ideas come along, or new directions actually work better, but we need to update in a respectful manner. We’re not trying to invalidate what came before, but to expand upon the things we think are really cool about a location.” Foundations takes a careful iterative approach to world building, looking for opportunities to make each region unique and interesting but still familiar to players.
Vu adds that Foundations is about giving depth to the world and champions players already love. “Players spend a lot of time playing their champions and want to know more about their champion's background and journey,” he says. “World-building allows us to create the environment and challenges for these champions to overcome along with creating a level of detail and depth that makes Runeterra a more tangible place for players to experience.”
Foundational research and worldbuilding provide touchstones for environment designers, character artists, events teams, and other Rioters involved in the creation of League’s worlds. By exploring a location or faction’s symbols, language, goals, and interactions with other places and people, Foundations helps content creators to answer core design and philosophy questions during the early phases of building new things like champions, skins, events, and featured game modes.
With the Bilgewater: Burning Tides event now sailing toward the horizon, the Foundations team is excited to see how players react to the new Bilgewater. Says Gibbons, “I’d like to think that fans of Bilgewater, fans of those champions, are thinking, ‘Wow, like, I thought it was cool before – pirates, right? But it’s so much cooler, so much richer now.’”