Rowan Parker – Creative Director at Riot Forge – on exploring and expanding the world of League of Legends

Riot Forge’s Rowan Parker discusses creative collaborations, fan engagement and telling stories through video games.

Rowan, it’s great to connect. To kick us off, how did you find your way into video games?
It’s actually the only thing I’ve ever done – and the only thing I really know how to do! Have you played any D&D at all?

I have!
That’s probably what did it! You play D&D when you’re 13 and you’re lost to the cause. Running games for your mates, modifying loot tables, making up stories… You do that for most of your teenage years and you don’t stand much of a chance.

I’ve been at Riot for almost a decade, but before then I’d been making games in Japan. I went from Australia to Japan to make games, because back then Japan made all the games, right? Well, little did I know that when I went there, Japan was easing off on games compared to the West. But yes, I’d say playing D&D and too many Super Nintendo games led me here.

Riot Forge partners with studios to develop single player games that expand and showcase the world of League of Legends. When did Riot realise there was enough meat on the bones of this brand that it could explored further in this way?
Ultimately, the company didn’t decide it; the players decided it for us. Players tell us: “Hey, we’d love to play other games set in this world.” We want to give them more stories and more ways to fall in love with our IP.

“Riot Forge makes small, single-player, story-focused games. We can cover space that League of Legends can’t.”

League of Legends, the core PvP game, isn’t really the best place to tell stories and do deep interesting character exploration. Being able to do single player games with indie studios is a great way to do character vignettes and deep dives into our world. And these games are the complete opposite of League of Legends… League of Legends is a large-scale online multiplayer PvP game. Riot Forge makes small, indie, single-player, story-focused games. We can cover space that League of Legends can’t.

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

Can you give me an example of one of these character studies that wouldn’t have been possible in League of Legends?
Miss Fortune is a character that we used in one of our first Forge games: Ruined King. She’s a strong female leader of a pirate gang, while also grappling with the bureaucracy of the town. She’s trying to evolve her career from being a pirate to a governor. There’s a lot of colour and nuance that we add there that we just couldn’t do in League of Legends.

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

You created Ruined King with Airship Syndicate and other collaborations include Song of Nunu with Tequila Works, Convergence with Double Stallion Games and The Mageseeker with Digital Sun. What kick-starts this process? Do you identify a corner of League of Legends that you want to explore further – and then find a studio to partner with? Or do studios come to you?
It’s a little bit of both. It usually starts with me playing something really good and then reaching out the studio behind it to see if they’d like to work with us. So sometimes we’ll reach out, and sometimes it’s the other way around where we’ll bump into a studio at GDC or they’ll drop us an email.

Either way, there is no initial idea in place when we start having conversations with studios. A lot of studios expect that it might be work for hire and I’ll say: “Here’s the idea; can you go and execute on this idea?” But no, that’s not how we work. We don’t have any predetermined thing that we want to make. I want to talk with studios and learn about their studio culture, what they love and what they’d like to make. They don’t understand the IP as well as we do, so as we’re talking about this stuff, I can say: “Do you know about this part of our world because it lines up well with your studio values.” We can then start to wed together the IP with the type of game that a studio wants to make.

Ultimately, I will not sign off on any game that I’m not convinced is a good game – agnostic of the League of Legends IP. All of the games that Riot Forge makes are compelling games before League of Legends is even included. We don’t license our IP to the studio; it’s a deep collaboration between Forge – the publisher – and the indie studio that does the development.

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

Sounds like a smart approach. What do you think is key to ensuring these partnerships are successful?
Making sure the studios have creative ownership is really important to me – and it’s important to the studios. Ultimately, the studio is the creative owner of the games. They have their own creative directors, art directors and game teams. They spend three or four years making these games. We’re here as stewards to help bring them into our world, but studios need to feel a sense of control.

The other thing that helps these collaborations is being able to work with a blank canvas. Our IP is so big that Riot doesn’t have enough people to do all of it – we’ll sometimes bump into parts of the world that are empty. When we get there, the studios sometimes expect that I’ll handfeed them the answer, but instead I’ll ask: “What do you guys think should be here? Let’s fill in this blank bit of the League of Legends canvas together.” It means the collaboration really does build and contribute to the IP; it’s already happened with the games we’ve launched already.

“We just need the right game and the right setting to let a character’s story shine.”

It speaks to the authenticity that studios are getting that players can’t tell the difference between parts of the world created by Forge and elements created through these collaborations. It shows we do a great job of making things cohesive. We also have a support structure in place here. Sometimes we bring in world-building artists or writers that can support the studios so they’re not alone for this creative brainstorming. They get a lot of support from Forge.

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

Amazing. And how do you evaluate how far you can stretch the League of Legends brands through these games? Where is the line?
One advantage we have over other brands is that we have a really good pulse on our audience. We have a great dialogue with them; they can reach out, get into direct contact with our team and get answers. I think it’s a superpower that Riot Games has and is unique in this industry. So, to answer your question, players will tell us if we’re going too far – and there are players out there that have been in love with League of Legends for as long as we have. We also do a lot of work internally to build an understanding of what players understand of our characters and our world. It all gives us a good idea of where the guard rails are and we try to stay within them.

The other thing to say is that Forge doesn’t swing a lot, but when we do, we swing hard. We have a small boutique portfolio of gemstones. I would rather have a crown with a jewel in it for each game, than a huge library of varying quality. The result of that is that we don’t have as many games out as other brands, but our players can trust that when they see a Forge game, it’s going to be really high quality.

What did the core League of Legends game have that enabled it to expand and evolve in the way that it has?
I think it comes down to intent Billy. We went after narrative in gameplay with intent. We didn’t know it right at the very beginning, but as we grew and evolved League of Legends, we started to realise that narrative is a compelling lens to put onto of the gameplay. When there’s compelling personalities, backstories and conflicts for these characters, it gives them a human element that players can identify with. If you’re playing League of Legends – and having a character whisper in your ear for hours at a time – you start to build a bond with these characters.

But it all comes down to intent. We built out character biographies and backstories, players fed off that and it became cyclical. Fans told us they enjoyed it, so we did more for them. That helped to build and flesh out the vast, expansive world of Runeterra.

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

Is that something unique about telling stories through video games that you can’t do in other mediums?
There’s something special with interactive media that you can’t do with passive media, like film or TV. The kinds of stories you can tell with a game are uniquely possible because you’ve got a controller in your hands. You can walk around the world and there’s magic there and a depth to the experience.

One of the things I love doing with our storytelling at Forge is being able to take players to different parts of our world. We have this rich IP – with 166 champions – in League of Legends, and our games teleport players to the world of Runeterra so they can walk around it. They can touch and feel the world.

Each of your games creates new artwork and fresh looks for the world and its characters. Does this have a ripple effect when it comes to Riot’s licensing activity for League of Legends? I imagine some of these games create assets that could also thrive in a sector like apparel.
It absolutely does, but it’s also important to be cohesive. To help this, we use things called ‘core truths’ and ‘flexible truths.’ The core truths are the core elements of a character… Things like key elements of their visual design, personalities and backstories. These are unwavering and we work hard to protect these core truths because players won’t be happy if we changed them.

Whereas flexible truths are things like the exact proportions of a character, or a character’s costume, or the way that something happens in a backstory. These things are less critical and licensing has more flexibility here. We do all this for the fans, because they’ll tell us if something isn’t right. In that sense, we don’t have complete creative freedom because we have to pay homage to the fans that got us here in the first place.

But on the licensing front, we fold the consumer products team into things very early on. We actually sit next to them in the office. They might look over at our monitors and say “That looks cool!” The conversations lead to fashion quite a lot because we have some great fashion gurus in that team, but whether it’s toys or statues, an integrated approach is the only way to succeed.

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

Let’s dive into your most recent launch: Convergence. How does this link to the wider world of League of Legends?
Convergence is set in a part of our world called Zaun. The main character is a young boy called Ekko who can rewind time. We partnered with Double Stallion – a Montreal-based studio – for this game and they have a really strong pedigree in action platforming gameplay. They also have a great pedigree in 2D animation and cel animation art. They actually have some unique proprietary tech to get non-game industry tools working in Unity, which means they can apply their unique animation style to video games.

Why did Ekko stand out as a League of Legends character worth exploring further in his own game?
There were some interesting story threads to tug at with a character that can rewind time. How do you deal with consequences if you’re a young boy that can rewind time? If you can rewind every mistake you ever make, do you ever learn anything? Do you have the emotional fortitude, as a teenage boy, to deal with failure and consequences? Maybe we could teach this character that there are some things you can’t change. That’s not something we could explore in the core League of Legends PvP game.

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

The visuals look incredible.
The Double Stallion team crushed it. They went for a bold, bright visual style. Eric Angelillo is the Creative Director there and we spoke about the fact that Zaun looks like a dirty, dingey city – but Ekko doesn’t see it that way. He sees it as a beautiful, sparkling, technicolour rainbow that we grew up in. We wanted to show you Zaun through Ekko’s eyes in the game.

I also wanted to give a shout out to all of the studios we’ve worked with so far. They’ve all been excellent when it comes to the execution of what they’ve done, and we see that in how it resonates with players. I hope players continue to play them and fall in love with them for years to come.

Looking ahead, are there any types of games you’re eager to take League of Legends into?
The interesting thing is that there are some characters with a lot of potential that just aren’t in the right environment to really shine – because of the type of game that they’re in at the moment. Song of Nunu – a game we’re launching later this year – is a great example of that.

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

Yes, this focuses on a boy and his yeti, right?
Right – Nunu and Willump are the main characters in this game. They’re in League of Legends, but League of Legends isn’t the best place for a boy and his yeti to show off their personality. They have a warm, fuzzy, adorable friendship… League of Legends – the e-sport – isn’t the best place for that. There’s similar break-out potential for lots of other characters. We just need the right game and the right setting to let their stories shine.

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

You mentioned earlier that fans often suggest characters to focus on. Are you ever surprised by who they want more content around?
We’ve had that happen since day one! Sometimes fans will champion a character so much that they take on a life of their own. Teemo is probably the best example of that.

Yes, Teemo is an adorable yordle who’s fuzzy and wears a cute hat… And, because of his gameplay style, playing against him in League of Legends is wildly frustrating. So much so that fans started to associate him with the devil!

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

He’s the worst to play against, so fans started to draw him with little devil horns on and even though his dialogue is cute, they’d put sinister undertones behind it. We acknowledged this and leant into it back in 2017 by launching a version of him called Little Devil Teemo. It was like he’d dressed up in a little devil outfit for Halloween. So yes, we’re always surprised by how players take our world and our characters. They give it their own life and we should acknowledge that.

Rowan Parker, Riot Forge, League of Legends, Video Games

Before I let you go, one last question: how do have ideas? What helps to fuel your creativity?
I go out of my way to make sure I’m doing creative input every week. That might be watching a film, reading a book, travelling, or playing a game. I have to take the time to sit myself down and actively consume someone else’s creative to make sure I’m not just outputting myself constantly. I really believe that game designers need to have life experiences to draw from to make compelling, resonant experiences for players. I can’t do that if I haven’t gone and had compelling life experiences.

Rowan, this has been fun! Thanks again for taking the time.

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