One year in, 'Valorant' is changing the game and eyeing new platforms
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By Mikhail Klimentov
When "Valorant" first launched, Riot Games' tactical shooter was best described by comparison: "Counter-Strike" plus "Overwatch." Just one year later, "Valorant" has matured into something identifiable and unique.
"It's a very, very creatively focused tactical shooter," "Valorant" game director Joe Ziegler told The Washington Post. "The level of creativity of what our players can do with all the tools that we've made have brought it to its own vibrancy and life."
The game's ambitions, even in its (technical) infancy, are evident. Riot's biggest title, "League of Legends," is undeniably the premier esport, and the company aspires to a similar trajectory for "Valorant." ("We're trying to take a multiyear, decade-long view when it comes to where we want 'Valorant' esports to go," said Whalen Rozelle, senior director of global esports at Riot, in an interview with The Post last year). Updates are released at a steady clip, often dramatically changing how the game is played and drip-feeding snippets of lore that hint at a broader universe and underlying narrative. With just one global competition in the books, story lines have emerged around players, teams and regions. And coinciding with the game's first anniversary, Riot announced that a long-rumored mobile port of the game was in development. That's not all: The company is experimenting with bringing the game to other platforms, including consoles, Ziegler told The Post.
A month ago, the picture didn't look rosy, however. The game's meta - a term that describes the optimal and most popular way to play - started to hinge on using abilities to delay progress, frustrating some of the game's biggest personalities. The in-game ranked mode, where players are sorted into skill tiers based on wins and losses, was the subject of particular ire.
One of the most prominent critics was James "hazed" Cobb, a professional player for TSM, whose critique was thrust into the spotlight when a clip of him discussing the meta's shortcomings on stream began to circulate on social media.
"They're trying to make something unique and I appreciate that, but in my opinion, in a competitive FPS game, the focus should be on the gunplay and the utility should just be that - utility. It's just become so overbearing that it doesn't really feel like an FPS game sometimes," Cobb told The Post.
After a few days in the spotlight, Cobb was wary of being misinterpreted. "It's not what I prefer. I don't want to sit there for a minute throwing abilities at each other - but some people might love it," Cobb said. "If that's going to be the style of 'Valorant,' then that's fine. I just feel as though [Riot] should have been more up front with the intentions of how the game is going to be played moving forward, because I feel like that's not what we were sold."
Ziegler, the game's director, had heard Cobb's feedback. There were parts he agreed with, and parts that - diplomatically - he said the team was "trying to understand better." Ziegler explained that the team had been revisiting the game's core pillars; as he enumerated them, it became clear that Riot's vision wasn't actually so far from Cobb's.
For starters, Ziegler said, "we really want to make sure we keep the gun as the star of the show. . . . Realistically, in 80 percent of the interactions inside of a game, we want the gun to be the core way that a person decisively ends an engagement." The team also wanted ability use to be thoughtful, and not the sort of thing you could simply use in the middle of an engagement to get out of any situation. Goals needed to be set in advance, pitting one team's creativity and cleverness against the other's.
For Cobb, a former "Counter-Strike" player, it was frustrating to play practice matches in which both teams spent the beginning of the round just idling.
"At the first minute of a round in some of these scrimmages or matches that we're playing, it is about nothing but abilities. No one is actually shooting at each other, there's no aim duels," said Cobb. "When the round starts, you're keeping track of how much money do they have, how many ult orbs have they gotten? How fast are they charging their ult? What part of the map are they favoring? What utility are they using on certain parts of the map? How can we counter that utility? What do we need to save for later? There's just a lot that goes into it . . . It's just very overwhelming."
The game's third episode - which comes out Tuesday, bringing with it a new playable agent who can restrict the use of abilities, as well as several foundational changes to the game's economy and systems - has been heralded as a salve. The update, Ziegler explained, would implement a number of changes to shift the game away from what he called "spaminess."
"Are abilities to easy to purchase? Are they too expendable? Is it just too easy to basically have your entire kit, and do you not have to think enough about acquiring something and then using it during the match?" asked Ziegler. "I think we're doing some exploration into whether some of those problems could be resolved by [changes to ability prices.]"
On Friday, Riot released a statement gesturing at the upcoming changes, pleading with players to be patient. "Game-spanning changes like these can be painful as we are asking you all to relearn many things that you're now comfortable with," read the statement, attributed to co-lead designers Max Grossman and Sal Garozzo. "There will be times when you are forced to make harder choices about what you bring into battle each round or forced to engage with an opponent differently - but just know that your enemies are facing the same challenges."
In our conversation, I described a pet theory to Ziegler: that most ranked games reliably fell into three categories. One of every five games would be bad. A player might start using slurs, or go AFK at round 3, or coordination would break down completely. These were irredeemable experiences. Three out of five games would be just okay, not particularly memorable. These were the matches in which individual players just didn't feel like they had an impact. And then that final game out of five would be the good game. Win or lose, the experience was positive, and the vibes were right.
Ziegler wouldn't concur with the exact ratio, though he said that Riot was developing tools to encourage good behavior and punish bad, starting with recording voice communications.
"We're really trying to make sure both we create a lot of protective tools, but also finding better ways to incentivize players to just behave and be good sports," said Ziegler. "The reality of it is that teams that actually have more sportsmanlike behavior almost unilaterally perform better. . . . If you want to win that match, the best way you can do it is actually just try to be a good teammate."
Part of the problem is that ranked brings together a variety of players seeking different experiences. "[We're] thinking about features in the future that we've already begun building toward that help us separate some of those problems out a little bit more, and provide spaces for different players of different types," Ziegler said. "If you're really focused on playing as a group, or really focused on playing as a solo, what does that mean? How do we highlight around those things? Right now, I honestly think a lot of [problems arise] because it's all sort of in one space."
Episode 3 will also introduce a new agent, KAY/O, to the game. His ability set, which includes a rechargeable ability which can disable other players' utility, feels tailored to someone like Cobb, though Ziegler said that development on KAY/O began six months ago, well before complaints arose about the game's current meta. Agents aren't designed to counter issues that arise in recent patches, rock-paper-scissors style.
"There are no real hard counters. It's going to be a lot more like, there are different strategies we can employ, different strengths and weaknesses we'll have from a defensive and offensive side," Ziegler said. "How do we create better chess out of the different tools that we're introducing?"
News of a mobile version of the game - as well as tests to possibly bring it to other platforms - might discourage PC gaming fans, who view the precision of "Valorant's" gunplay as a characteristic only achievable by way of mouse and keyboard. Reassuringly, Ziegler insisted, fidelity to the core "Valorant" experience is the key requirement for work to begin on a port to a new platform.
"It has to play like 'Valorant,' even if you're using a touch screen or using any other device, like the controller," said Ziegler. Thus far, only mobile has cleared that bar.
For now, at least, with the update on the horizon, the tenor of the conversation seems to have changed. On Friday, Cobb tweeted a message that was short but to the point: "Man, i love this update."
The Washington Post