Interview: How Riot Forge crafts stories from beyond the rift

Liam Ho
Riot Forge Header

We interviewed the creative director of Riot Forge, Rowan Parker, to learn all that goes into crafting not only new stories for some of League’s most iconic characters, but doing so in entirely original games to boot.

Riot Games has long been one of the biggest gaming developers out there. With monster titles like League of Legends and Valorant dominating the industry, Riot has taken hold of the multiplayer market in a number of genres.

It all started out with League back in 2009, with the company slowly fleshing out its repertoire, with League now at over 160 playable champions. These champions have become fan favorites, with many growing deeply attached to the character’s abilities, art, and lore. Thankfully, Riot has blessed the community with the introduction of Riot Forge, a publishing arm that coordinates with indie studios to produce games surrounding the LoL universe.

Dexerto had the opportunity to speak to the creative director of said Riot Forge about all things storytelling through games.

Rowan Parker Headshot
Parker has spent many years working on League’s game modes before moving to the Forge.

Having started out with Riot almost a decade ago, Parker has ample experience when it comes to League, previously working as a lead designer for the game’s litany of modes. Along the way, he also helped found the Riot Forge initiative in 2018.

“We work together with external studios to make games with the world and characters of League of Legends,” Parker explained. “To date, we’ve released four games, we have a fifth game coming this year.”

While on the League team, Parker spent much of their time exploring alternate gameplay fantasies through their many game modes like Doom Bots and Star Guardians. However, the developer’s love for storytelling and narrative in games could only go so far in these playlists. Naturally, it pulled him towards the Forge.

“Eventually, you know, after years of doing it on League of Legends, I wanted to get back to storytelling. To be honest, personally, I love storytelling and narrative in games.”

Parker understood that League was limited by its engine, and so Forge would be a perfect opportunity to make bigger experiences and games with new indie studios onboard to lend a hand.

“There was going to be a limit, you know, what we could ultimately do inside the League of Legends engine for those modes back at that time. Part of founding Forge was exciting for me because it means we were going to be able to make bigger games and experiences with these indie studios. But also stretch our legs for storytelling and doing narrative work, and really showcasing different aspects of the champions that we can’t do inside League of Legends.”

Riot Forge Banner
Riot Forge has already released several titles.

When translating a champion’s different aspects into a new game, Parker is always sure to be clear on what a champion’s identity and fantasy really are.

“The first thing to do is be really clear on what is the fantasy of the champion? What is the combat identity? Or what is the aspirational fantasy of the champion? And having a really clear understanding of that from a game design and gameplay perspective but also from a player expectation point of view.”

Rowan utilized the recently released Convergence starring Ekko as an example of this. A game that leveraged one of LoL’s more popular champions but showcased him in action from an entirely new, “side-scrolling 2D platforming angle,” as Parker explained.

“There are millions of people out there who are very familiar with Ekko and they have a certain expectation of how Ekko feels and plays in combat. So we’re trying to make sure we live up to the expectations of players who know the champion, but also build on his power set and extend it.”

With that being said, the Forge has no preconception of which characters they plan on using, starting from a completely blank canvas to work with the studios best suited for the task at hand.

“I think sometimes studios probably expect we come to them with an idea and are like ‘Hey can you please build this game idea?’ But that’s not how it works at all.

“When we first approach studios because they have great games released or they have a great pedigree of game development, it’s more questions of like, what kinds of gameplay do you guys want to explore? Or what themes and story notes matter to you as a studio or your studio culture?

“Some studios want to tell stories that have strong ecological themes or have strong female protagonists or things they care about and blend it with their gameplay. And then we can start discussing, ‘Okay, are you aware of these six champions, they kind of match the gameplay you’re talking about, or this area of the world of Runeterra might match the kind of environments you’re talking about.’”

Riot Forge Hextech Mayhem
Riot Forge often asks studios questions about what sort of title they’d like to create, rather than the other way around.

Furthermore, Parker also touched on Riot’s decisions to stray away from focusing on particular characters based solely on their existing popularity. While a champion may be top of the charts in LoL, it doesn’t guarantee they’ll be next in line for a standalone gaming project through the Forge.

“We don’t just pick characters based on popularity,” Rowan shot down. “We pick them based on who would be great to tell compelling stories, who would be great characters and champions to go on an adventure with and, you know, learn more about them and have like a heartwarming compelling story. So it’s not just a popularity check.”

Parker did disclose that while we have seen plenty of League of Legends champions over the years, with the roster now in triple-digit territory, it’s not entirely off the table that we see some original Runeterran characters appear thanks to these standalone titles.

“I think it’s not something that you go after with intent, it’s more if it makes sense for the story, or if it makes sense for the gameplay, that’s when we’ll explore doing it.”

Mageseeker Sylas at his hideout
The Mageseeker showcases characters from outside of League of Legends.

Beyond the characters themselves, a helpful selling point as Forge titles look to encourage LoL players to visit these new experiences, devs under the Forge umbrella are also keenly aware of the broader world of Runeterra beyond them.

Not only do these indie-led titles look to share new insight on the key champions in focus at any given time, but so too the lands of Runeterra they inhabit.

“I think for people who play the games and see the environment and the spaces we’re making… I think we’re doing well,” Parker said with a smile. “Players are telling us that we’re doing a good job on building out and expanding the world.

“Using Convergence as an example, we had to make a lot of new suburbs and boroughs of Zaun to fill out the game. I think a lot of players maybe don’t even realize that they’re new, which is a good sign because it means that we’ve been authentic and we’ve managed to keep it like really accurate to Zaun.

“And so as we go through, as gameplay needs, we’re filling in blank canvas and building out new areas and regions and parts of the world. And that sometimes means making new characters as well. And you know, just adding to the environment.”

Carnival in Convergence
Areas in Convergence were specially built to fill out Zaun.

In closing, Parker outlined the team’s broad goals with the Forge initiative, reaffirming that “Forge Games are a love letter to our lore community and to League of Legends fans.

“I think for a lot of people that maybe don’t want to go and play an online game necessarily or like a super hardcore PVP game, Forge games are a great entry point into our IP. They’re also the only place you can explore the world. You, you can’t really run around in Zaun anywhere else other than in Convergence. You can’t go and explore the countryside of Demacia except in the Mageseeker.”

Riot Forge’s most recent release was Convergence back in May of 2023. Their next title on the horizon will feature Nunu and Willump in Song of Nunu later this year.