Video Games Issue 2021
'Valorant' gun buddies: Mining the hidden depths of this clever collectible
“What am I saying about myself to the world when I use this item?”
Preeti Khanolkar, Premium Content Producer at Riot Games
You’ve just come out of a blazing firefight in Valorant, and your teammate tosses you their gun at the start of the next round, hoping it might turn the tide.
The skinline coating the weapon attracts your attention first, but then you’ll immediately check to see what gun buddy they have on it. Like so many other cosmetics, that little keychain dangling near the trigger sends a strong message about what they’ve accomplished in the game, all without the need for voice chat. This small item has just made you even more invested in the match as a result.
Even the most minor details in video game development have a ton of thought and work put behind them, and the gun buddies of Valorant — Riot Games’ popular first-person shooter for PC — might be the most complex and interesting of all the game’s cosmetics.
Though some players might never give them a second thought as just another random battlepass cosmetic, gun buddies are the product of a surprisingly intense creative process. They’re more stylish than other cosmetics and allow for more player expression and Easter eggs. With gun buddies, developers do everything from tease upcoming content to shout out their favorite snacks.
Inverse spoke to Valorant Premium Content Producer Preeti Khanolkar and Premium Content Art Lead Sean Marino to learn more about what inspired gun buddies in the first place and the intense creative process behind them.
Gun Buddy: Origins
The idea for gun buddies started out as an experiment with a little Totoro buddy that would perform tricks as players did different things in-game. This version would have been more like a Fortnite pet than a Call of Duty charm. Due to technical constraints, they became a bit simpler. But the name stuck.
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The team returned to the idea in early 2019 after affirming that they did not want gun skins to be the only unlockable. “The very first gun buddy that we made was actually a Poro from League of Legends that we just slapped on a gun,” Marino tells Inverse. “There were issues. The thing was freaking massive and clipping into the gun.”
Khanolkar calls this first attempt at a gun buddy “horrendous.” Wonky physics and models that “clip,” or unintentionally phase inside, the gun are two of the most common issues that the development team runs into when crafting gun buddies. Early attempts like the Poro gun buddy and others taught the team to keep those issues in mind when pitching ideas. What sorts of shapes and sizes might cause problems from a technical standpoint?
“In the same way that we prototype skins, we had to go through kind of that same thing for buddies,” Marino recalls.
As gun buddies were being prototyped, the team ran into another problem: Most of their good ideas were based on food. Where else could they seek inspiration?
“We realized after Act 1 that we did a lot of food, and we deliberately tried not to do food, but then it became really hard,” Marino says. “Then we were like, ‘What’s a spray that we did in act 1, let’s try and make that buddy in the future…’ We had to plan things out and determine that we could have some food-related items, some trolly things, but let’s also try to incorporate some of the Valorant brand-related things.”
For Khanolkar, player expression is one of the most important things to remember when designing a gun buddy or any unlockable item in Valorant. Other players will see these little trinkets, so it’s a small but clear means of self-expression.
“The question we ask with any item we make is, ‘What am I saying about myself to the world when I use this item?’” Khanolkar explains. “Some people like to color code. Some people like the stark contrast. One of our coworkers puts Viper’s poison vial on guns because she loves Viper. So it's a statement about who you are.”
That realization has granted the dev team a better understanding of what makes a “good” gun buddy.
Riot also isn’t afraid to delay a good idea so it can be more cohesive with a future skinline. Khanolkar and Marino revealed that gun buddies and other unlockables are confirmed about six months before their release. Several dozen are in various development stages at any given time.
For the most part, gun buddies are a mix of random ideas or imagery developers and/or players like, references to other Valorant skinlines or characters, or in-jokes that the community will appreciate. “We are thinking about a lot of things when we make these considerations and like what's going to be exciting and fun,” Khanolkar explains. “And one indicator that is like it's our team excited about making this thing.”
In the future, Riot will lean into the weird gun buddies that include Easter eggs that expand Valorant‘s potential.
No strings on me
Live service games like Valorant have a tendency to unveil intricate lore and narratives gradually over time through trailers, animated shorts, and in-game items. Unlike other collectibles like gun skinlines, cards, and sprays, gun buddies have the liberty of getting a bit weirder. Marino, in particular, likes sneaking Easter eggs into the mix.
“I have been starting to pepper Easter egg content into buddies, and some players pick up on it,” Marino says. “Every time I do an Easter egg, my goal is that it'll take players like three months to find, and they immediately find it that day.”
Players have discovered that the Ancient Mysteries Revealed gun buddy, which is based on an octopus, will change color when equipped on Omen’s Ghost skin. Marino also teased that a gun buddy from Episode 3 Act 1’s battlepass also has an undiscovered secret.
Marino’s hope is to one day have gun buddies change depending on a variety of factors: the gun or Agent being used, the map, or even different gameplay situations. Such effects would be little discoverable secrets for players.
“I think it's the Easter egg aspect of it, and the little teasers are the thing that delights you because you weren't expecting it,” Khanolkar explains. “If we told you exactly what to do, it’s just less exciting.”
Marino and Khanolkar are chasing those moments they remember from games like Halo: Combat Evolved, when players could discover astonishing hidden secrets left by the developers. But gun buddies are also a way to tease future content as well.
“The little teasers are the thing that delights you because you weren't expecting it.”
Episode 2 Act 3’s Breeze map was teased via a gun buddy. Marino and Khanolkar have also hinted that an upcoming buddy is yet another tease for what’s to come in Valorant. However, they wouldn’t say which one exactly this applies to.
“We’re trying to use buddies because they're non-intrusive to your gameplay,” Marino says. “I think they give us a lot of opportunities to do things that guns can't because there's no gameplay actually tied to them.”
In a game where lore, gun, and character designs have to fit specific molds, gun buddies can provide a breath of fresh air for the development team. They don’t have to worry about an intricate narrative with a little dongle hanging from a keychain on the player’s gun, yet the gun buddies still play a vital role in the experience of Valorant.
Buddies for Life
Khanolkar and Marino believe that gun buddies have come a long way in the year since Valorant launched.
“Buddies have just gotten better over time,” Khanolkar says. “If you think about what the early ones were like, the new ones just look better.”
Looking at the Episode 3 Act 1 battlepass, one of the standouts is the “Island Dreams” gun buddy, which is a little drink inside of a coconut. As a food item, it looks leagues better than the food included in Episode 1 Act 1’s battlepass, like the “Cheesed” gun buddy that is just a wedge of cheese with nothing special to really help it stand out.
The team is clearly getting a lot more wild with what they’re doing with gun buddies, even when it comes to the more simplistic ones. “I think we have a lot more fun with it now,” Marino adds. “We don't feel as restricted. And so now the restriction is that we have so many ideas, which ones we actually choose?”
As gun buddies evolve over time, the developers are also considering returning to that original idea of something a little more interactive.
“We can make buddies cooler, but what could we do that’d be even better than that,” Khanolkar says. “What if it wasn't a buddy? What if it did something else that's not even a buddy anymore, but it's the same idea as having a friend or a pet?” These are all just ideas at this point but that they are constantly thinking about what could excite players.
Maybe one day, the Riot Games team can return to that original Totoro idea that inspired gun buddies years prior. Surprisingly, gun buddies are one area of Valorant where the developers seem to have the most creative freedom. In turn, the small collectibles are some of the most boundary-pushing and enjoyable features of the game. And they’re only getting started.
“We can do a lot more with these,’ Khanolkar says. “It's just a matter of what are we not doing?”
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