How PROJECT Champs Transcended Humanity

By Cactopus

No great idea gets into League of Legends without being examined, challenged, and mutated by our collaborative process. When Marco “Wendigo” Silva, an artist from the São Paulo office, dreamed up “Cyber Yi,” he knew it’d be put through that creative gauntlet.

Silva wanted to fight hard for his idea, so he put together a team of concept artists and animators and created a 50-page presentation detailing how a legendary Yi skin could fit into an entire universe inspired by classic cyberpunk films. The first few Rioters who saw the pitch sent it around to others, and it spread virally through the company. People started piling aboard Silva’s cybernetic hype train.

My first reaction was like, ‘whoa, this is ridiculous,’” recalls lead concept artist Larry “The Bravo Ray” Ray. “I was impressed.”

Still, there were obstacles Silva hadn't considered. While the Cyber Yi concept was still being pitched, a team at Riot’s Santa Monica office was independently working on a cybernetic-themed skin called PROJECT: Yasuo. Our artists thought that Cyber Yi might complement the new Yasuo skin, but first they’d need to figure out the artistic direction for PROJECT: Yasuo — and for any other champions that might fit into that world.

Cyber Yi would need to evolve.

PROJECT vs. the Robots

Two other futuristic, techy skin lines existed in League of Legends at this time: the hulking "Mecha" skins (featuring Malphite, Aatrox, and Kha'Zix) and the fiery, monstrous "Battlecast" army (starring Creator Viktor and his mechanized mutations of Kog'Maw, Vel'Koz, Cho'Gath, Urgot, and Skarner).

Battlecast, says visual effects artist Adam “Riot AdamUnicorn” Kupratis, “is like what the Vikings would build if you gave them combustion engines." There's black oil, hot sparks, pistons, a fuel source. "Everything's on fire and it's gonna hurt to be near it.”

In the Battlecast designs, all the armor and weapons are forward-facing. "They're not worried about what's behind them because they've already killed everything in their path," says Larry Ray.

Mecha, on the other hand, pulls influence from Giant-Robot/Monster-Attacking-The-City movies and animes. The sensitive parts of the mechs are covered up and painted, bringing form and function together to create a gigantic machine that looks like it could fit a whole family of yordles in the cockpit.

Artists decided to keep PROJECT skins people-sized, though the champions have fused and augmented their bodies using some big, crazy technology. “In order to become PROJECT you have to surrender your humanity," says Lisa “Saiyaka” Thorn, a visual designer. "The technology takes over your soul."

PROJECT champs aren't just soulless husks, though. Little clues point to their human origin: Yasuo's leather glove, Leona's exposed jaw, Master Yi's wuju-sculpted washboard abs. These aren’t robots—they’re just seriously tricked out people.

Shaping Up

Using certain shapes and colors can unify skins in subtle ways. Cold, teal-tinged steel defines Mecha designs, while fiery bursts of orange and red light the unpainted Battlecast bots from within. Most of the PROJECT champs also sit somewhere on the spectrum between yellow and red, says Kupratis, but the skins “play with subtractive elements.” By this he means other colors peek out of the PROJECT champions' gear, but are muted by the surrounding light.

In the Battlecast skins, cylinders spring out of every joint and opening: Cho'Gath's mandibles are replaced by tubes, and a slew of pistons bursts out of Kog'Maw’s muzzle. Hexagons dominate the Mecha skin line. They show up in the honeycomb-like texture of Kha'Zix's wings, but also the shape of his head, the bend of his arms. Artists call these sorts of defining details “shape language,” and clearly determining the shape language for each champ and skin line creates a sort of visual consistency that’s easily understood and recognized by players.

To determine the shape language for PROJECT Skins, we had to do more than differentiate the skins from Battlecast and Mecha. Paul “SpaceW0mbat” Hoefener, the concept artist behind the original PROJECT: Yasuo skin, sees it as a combination of digital (think hardware, fitted with chips and carbon casings) and ethereal, intangible effects. “The way the particles dissolve feels magical,” Hoefener says, “but it's still tech.” To dig deeper into this idea, the art team wrote a complete definition of what “PROJECT” means.

PROJECT: is the perfect fusion of one’s supernatural essence with advanced weaponry and body augmentation. This linking of technology and energy allows extraordinary hosts to channel their essence into physical manifestations and, in rare cases, transcend the corporeal plane. Only subjects possessing extremely focused inner essence and exceptional physical attributes can unlock the true power of PROJECT.

Ultimately, PROJECT is about transforming the “mere human” forms of champions using technology, and the shape language the artists used reflects that. ”When champs use their heightened PROJECT powers, it’s through shapes and geometry that fit their unique characteristics,” says Thorn.

Fiora, for example, is graceful yet sharp — it looks like it might sting if you bumped into her. Lucian is defined by sleek, speedy-looking parallelograms, and his W bursts into a compass rose. Designers wanted those elements to peek through even after the champs fused their souls with technology to become PROJECT. So, PROJECT: Fiora’s pointy triangles became digitized. PROJECT: Lucian’s bursts got brighter and burstier.

From Brazil to the Rift

Players loved the PROJECT concept, but it took time to figure out how to integrate its themes and ideas with the potential suggested by Marco Silva’s pitch for “Cyber Yi.” Size, color, shape, purpose, personality: each of these elements had to be carefully considered and toyed with to turn PROJECT into a full-blown skin line.

Hoefener says that the long, multi-faceted design process PROJECT: Yi went through is all part of what defines League of Legends’ artistic sensibility. “By the end of the process everybody’s put their personal spin on it,” he says, “and that’s how it gets League-ified.”

For Silva, seeing his “Cyber Yi” idea evolve into PROJECT: Yi is like a dream come true. He says he's still a Master Yi main, “but now there'll just be a lot more particles flying everywhere when I gank people."

4 years ago

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