Breeze, inspired in part by creative director David Nottingham's time living in Trinidad, unleashes "Valorant's" agents upon a tropical playground. Cozy shops and eateries bake in the sun, nestled between a bleak colonial fortress and the wreck of a massive cargo ship. The husk of a bleach-white villa spectates from its perch on a nearby mountain. ("Valorant" dabbles in themes of haves versus have-nots, corporate versus authentic). Look up; are those seagulls hovering overhead?
Breeze is a far cry from the most recently released "Valorant" map, Icebox, the reception of which was chilly. Built like a rat's maze, Icebox's spate of angles and unusual elevation ranges - both experimental points of interest for Riot's maps team - rubbed some players the wrong way. Compounding the displeasure was the map's setting: a frozen-over shipping facility, stocked with shipping containers.
"We tried to make [Icebox] pretty, but it still was kind of cold and blue," said Devon Fay, art lead for "Valorant" maps. "We were all kind of excited to work on something more tropical."
As the first map developed entirely after "Valorant's" launch last year, Breeze is an experiment, asking whether players can handle more: skirmishes over longer ranges and sites that are broader and less structured than any in the game so far. But it's also the culmination of a year of Riot observing player behavior. Now, with the anniversary of the game's public launch on the horizon, Breeze is a showcase for the developers' ambitions, and the blueprint for where "Valorant" goes next.
- - -
Tactical shooters can be unforgiving of clumsiness and imprecision, and maps are carefully constructed to test players' accuracy. But the process that kick-started work on Breeze was informal. First, the team decided on a few premises to test: wide open spaces and longer sightlines chief among them. Then, Salvatore Garozzo, level design lead at Riot, started cobbling together a rudimentary 3-D model.
"Some designers prefer to do sketches on paper . . . but I find that I'm more efficient in the 3-D environment, just using very, very large grid sizes and primitive shapes just to get a sense for what the space might feel like," Garozzo said. "You just get something down, which is very helpful, because then you're able to run around and start to get a sense of how the space feels to play in."
Rendered mostly in grays and browns, this early phase of development (known as "greyboxing") is designed to test gameplay, which extends beyond mere questions of movement and shooting. The sounds footsteps make on different surfaces and the permeability of pieces of cover - meaning, whether a bullet can pierce a wall or not - are all mapped out early, setting helpful parameters for concept artists and designers later down the line.
In early versions of the Breeze greybox, the map's long ranges and wide chokepoints were longer and wider. For about three months, Garozzo and one other level designer, along with testers from across the "Valorant" dev team, homed in on the map's final proportions. Variables often taken for granted by players were manipulated to find the right balance between the attacking and defending sides.
One crucial example was the placement of pre-round barriers, which restrict players' access to the map during the buy phase. The barriers' positioning helps determine which side gets access to what territory and when; the placement can change how much utility needs to be spent by each team off the bat. Early on, Breeze skewed in favor of the defending side; attackers had a hard time gaining a foothold in even the earliest parts of the map. Garozzo moved the defensive barriers back and pushed the attackers forward. Those updates changed the tenor of the attacking side's strategies, allowing them to move around more comfortably and allocate players to cover flanks.
Then there was the difficult question of accommodating differences in play style, communication and skill range. One distinction that drove some of Garozzo's early thinking was coordinated play versus solo play.
"How can we provide interesting experiences for teams to coordinate around while also making the maps enjoyable in that secure environment where maybe people aren't even on comms with one another, or maybe not everybody's being completely cooperative toward the same goal," Garozzo said. "It's a pretty complicated equation there."
The mid lane, for example, used to be much more complicated. It gave attackers more opportunities to flex their strategic muscle, but the result was less fun when the coordination was not there, said Garozzo.
"The margins for error were razor-thin, and it was pretty difficult to coordinate around, especially if not all five players were on the exact same page. And even then it was still difficult," Garozzo said.
Those first two to three months of sculpting in the greybox are make-or-break for the map. The gauged its confidence in the direction the map was taking. If things were not jelling, they would have jettison the project and picked up work on a different greybox.
Breeze was a no-brainer. "We felt pretty confident making the decision to move forward with Breeze just because we felt like what it would introduce to the game is fresh and exciting, and it's just going to help us learn a lot about the limits of the combat spaces," Garozzo said. "How far exactly can we push sightlines in terms of distance? How wide can we make spaces?"
But push the playerbase too far and it might push back. The reaction to Icebox, which similarly aimed to broaden the boundaries of what a tactical-shooter map could do, caught the team off guard - and informed some of the decision-making around Breeze.
"There were points through the development of Breeze where we'd have a bunch of different interactions on the map and we would think, maybe there's just a little bit too much going on here. Maybe this is a little bit too complex," Garozzo said. "Can we simplify this a little bit while still retaining the aspects that we really want to push for Breeze, the aspects that we think are critical for the map?"
- - -
Once the greybox is mostly in place, Nottingham and the art team get to work deciding on a theme and setting. Coming off Icebox, a warm, Caribbean setting felt like an obvious next step.
"Then we start what we call the blue sky concept phase, where we just unleash the concept artists, like, go HAM [wild], don't think about readability, don't think about if we can even do this," said Fay, the art lead. "Let's flesh out the coolest possible idea of this thematic that we've created."
Images of boat graveyards - scuttled hulls as far as the eye could see - and old rum distilleries pleased the team. And the designers' experience handling old-world styles (think the Venetian structures of Ascent) led to fruitful ideation around abandoned colonial forts.
"One of the first big concept paintings had a giant boat crashed on it," Fay said. "That was immediately something that we were like, that's cool. How do we iterate on that to make that look good?"
For the next two to three months, the concept artists worked on filling out every space on the map. Many took screenshots from the engine and drew over them, moving section-by-section and refining their ideas. This process was easier for some sections than for others. On some maps, like Icebox, the core theme informed the greyboxing; much of the map is built from stacked shipping containers. Breeze was open to interpretation, giving artists lots of flexibility.
Building the fort that makes up the map's B site was easy. The team was working off fairly cut-and-dry reference material. On the opposite side of the map, though, the team was tasked with inventing a miniature city with a ramshackle look - but infused with stolen modern technology.
"Some of the concepts coming back, they had some bigger structures that didn't look like they were just made kind of randomly. They looked like they had big steel structures that made us think, well, how did that get on this tiny island and how would they put that together?" Fay said. "And then once we kind of overcorrected, then everything looked random. Then you're like, well, no one would ever live here. Like, this is complete chaos."
By the time the 3-D artists get to the map, there's little ambiguity about how a space should look and feel. That's when the "art block out" process begins, and the team starts inserting rough art into the map. At this stage, everything is mostly still in greyscale. Gameplay is paramount - a phrase Riot's developers repeated in interviews - and art block out allows Garozzo to intervene early and often if a piece of art has broken a sightline or changed the pace of play.
Once art blocking is done, "confidence is through the roof," Fay said. "Now we just need to make it look even more pretty." Artists start grabbing areas they're excited about, and through a process of iteration, finalize spaces throughout the map. In the background, tests are always running, and minor changes are constantly being made in service of gameplay. Minor assets are moved around or even cut to keep the game running smoothly. The workflow is fluid, and artists are deputized to be creative.
"We will literally just say 'this needs a call out' and then one of our artists will just be like, 'yeah, I'll put a giant fan in the ceiling,' " Fay said, describing a room at the top of mid on Breeze. "It's not prescribed. Every one of the artists on the team really puts their own fingerprint on it in a really cool way."
Examples of this approach abound across the maps already in circulation. On Slack, a designer shared a drawing of a bicycle his son had made; Fay copied it into the game, and now the drawing can be found on the map Split. On Ascent, Garozzo needed a unique callout for a catwalk (now commonly known as "speedway"); as a joke, he sketched a picture of a dog and threw it onto a nearby wall. Now, the infamously bad drawing serves as a marker for lineups in-game. On Icebox, a throwaway joke about an "employee of the month" displayed on a screen in the map's kitchen area was so well-received internally, it spawned a series of player cards, sprays and in-game models.
"We loved it right off the bat," Fay said. "It was just random. [Our designer] had a task to get something to go on a screen. He came up with something funny and we were just laughing about it. It kind of took a life of its own."
- - -
David Nottingham, "Valorant" creative director and keeper of the lore, was trying to be helpful in our interview. But he also did not want to give up Breeze's secrets.
"I'm trying to walk that line of not wanting to get too explicit about the story because it's something that we really want the players who enjoy digging for that stuff to find," Nottingham said.
Nottingham's tack in our conversation mirrored his approach to "Valorant": Don't just give the player everything; make them a participant in the puzzle. It's a style of storytelling - the mystery box - popularized by director J.J. Abrams, and recently taken to its cultural apex by TV shows such as "Westworld" and "Wandavision."
"I love thinking about how do we give people a rich world, both in the play experience and from a narrative point of view, that can give them those ingredients to be able to go and just craft their own theories and then create their own stories and run with it," Nottingham said.
This lighter, hands-off approach to narrative started out of necessity. In the lead up to the "Valorant" launch, there was a "pretty intense push, all hands on deck" to tie up loose ends regarding the game's universe and setting. At that stage, the team prioritized setting a solid foundation to sustain future exploration into the "Valorant" world.
Maps- and the environmental clues scattered across them - are prime mechanisms through which "Valorant" doles out morsels of story.
"[Breeze] is set on an island, and it's an island with a history," Nottingham said. "There's all these storytelling clues we'll build into the map. Like, there's a mansion off in the distance. Who lived in that mansion?"
There are other approaches, but most of these (such as forcing players to sit through cutscenes) were deemed too obnoxious and counter to the game's main goals. "Everything is about getting people into the game and not getting in their way," Nottingham said.
If Icebox had a chilling effect on some of the map team's design ambitions, it had a wholly different impact on Breeze's development from a narrative perspective. Yoru, one of the game's newest agents, and Icebox were being developed at the same time by separate teams. As creative director, Nottingham bounced between work on Yoru and Icebox and link the two through environmental details scattered across the Arctic base.
Riot will look to "ritualize" this process, in part by designing spaces across maps that can be changed in service of happenings across the "Valorant" universe. One example is the streetwear style shop on Split, which teases upcoming skin packs, agents and events.
"[Split] sort of reaffirmed something, which is something that we're going to be investing more in, in the maps going forward, including Breeze, which is starting to bring in some sense of persistence or change over time, which is how the players can learn a little bit more about the world," said Nottingham. "We're not thinking of a map as a static, frozen-in-time element."
This can be easier said than done: some spaces on the maps are sacred to players, and used exactingly to craft lineups for utility usage. Still, Nottingham hinted that the team hoped to make Breeze a living space, with dynamic storytelling areas similar to the busted containment chamber on Icebox, which teased Yoru's release. Still, no space, or time, is really out of bounds for storytelling.
"I think a lot about how when you first drop into the game, you've got that time before the bubble comes down," Nottingham said. "This is a great opportunity for players to express themselves, for giving players more tools to interact with a map or each other, for things that are going on in the world that are more dynamic, that you can explore and interact with during the pre-round."
"Those are the types of things that I get really excited about and I want us to build over time, so that players really do start to feel like every time they're going to drop into a map, there could be a new surprise, or something else that they'll see that deepens their understanding of the world, or just is another fun way for them to communicate and express themselves to their teammates."
Published : April 27, 2021
By : The Washington Post · Mikhail Klimentov