A visual update is supposedly good news and an event too look forward to. When they are effective they can rejuvenate a champion and make them shine by reigniting the dimming light they once had. Some updates are more extensive than others but in all cases they should feel as an upgrade. It was like that initially, the first visual update, for Kayle, and subsequent ones until Master Yi were quite effective in polishing the visuals while keeping their style intact.
With the updates successes and the growth of the game it became evident that a more organized approach was necessary. That prompted the birth of the visual upgrade team. It’s not clear when they were completely established but looking at the visual upgrades there is an evident change in their approach. The process was optimized to make the most of the classic appearance and that’s an aspect where it has largely succeeded. Sadly, the visual update of skins feels like an afterthought. All resources go to classic and the skin updates seem standardized so as to do the minimum necessary with the least possible. The turning point was Master Yi but as he had mostly old and cheap skins they largely benefitted from the update. Not Headhunter though and that was the first indicator. The next visual upgrade still is the most eloquent example: Garen.
The Effects of Standardization
A quick look at Garen’s visual update reveals the improvement on his classic look: more polished yet perfectly recognizable. On the other hand, his skins, except for Steel Legion, turned into retouched versions of the classic incarnation. For former re-textures, like Sanguine and Desert Trooper, it was an upgrade but for those that were full re-models the adherence to the classic style has taken away part of their unique identity; Dreadknight and Rugged are good examples. Therefore, while Classic Garen might as well be upgraded some skins can seem downgraded.
When dealing with human champions it’s understandable that their physiognomy won’t be altered significantly but the clothes and weapons should seek as much variation as possible to make up for it. The small modifications of the classic armour leave the skins feeling too similar as if produced serially. It makes them less satisfying as a result of not communicating their message as clearly as they once did. It also means that opportunities are missed to make small but relevant and desirable changes to skins that can considerable help in making them stand on their own. For instance, Bewitching Nidalee’s received bat particles after the visual upgrade; though the model didn’t get better when comparing with the old one.
Things have improved a bit lately as Miss Fortune’s visual upgrade demonstrates. The classic human base is clearly familiar but the clothes have tried to set each skin concept apart. There’s still a noticeable influence of the classic style on the other skins. Road Warrior was notable for skewing high heels in favour of more practical boots which were more suitable for a wasteland. The visual upgrade returned the high heels even though the sexy angle is clear enough without them. In general, while the skins may not be considered improved strictly speaking the refinement of the looks is appreciated and none have actually gotten worse.
The evolution seems to go on, or so it’s expected. Gangplank’s skins not only make radical changes to his gear but also dare to touch his human body and make some minor but welcome alterations to better present each skin concept. Perhaps it’s due to the notorious transformation that Gangplank suffered that his skins managed to receive deeper changes. Whatever the reason, it’s a certain step in the right direction. Maybe not all skins really improved but some definitely did and in all cases none lost any features. That’s something that should never happen whether by offering less model changes or reusing particles.
Zombie Brand was never the best example of how to make distinct particles but the wavy flames and their gaseous feel gave the abilities a unique style. It was nothing groundbreaking but it showed that some care went into making a legendary skin feel different in all aspects. Come Brand’s visual effects upgrade and all that is practically gone. There are some traces left but Zombie Brand’s particles look almost the same as Classic and so it goes down a star in its rating.
Ghost Bride Morgana also suffered from a similar issue. Her particles were the base for the VFX update and so it no longer looks as special as it did; which made the skin lose a star. It’s agreeable that in general terms the look of Morgana’s abilities is better. However, part of what set Ghost Bride apart was lost but not simply because its particles were used as a base. The real problem is that the other skins copy the visuals too closely and don’t differentiate themselves enough from it: they merely repaint them for the most part.
It could be that Headhunter Master Yi was the first example of a skin that lost particles after a visual update: Wuju Style no longer has flames and Alpha Strike looks flatter. This is a serious matter because we are not only talking about paid products that lose features but also about the fact that it’s not an isolated occurrence. It affects normal 975 RP skins just as it affects Zombie Brand, an expensive legacy and legendary skin. These skins, among others, have practically lost its special particles, a relevant feature, and that is unacceptable. Besides, the fact that for some time skins have been losing features in the name of visual updates makes for a bad trend and a poor irony.
It also raises some eyebrows that just after special particles are removed from the most expensive Brand skin a new one comes offering exactly that. While Zombie Brand particles were never revolutionary they felt different enough so as to have a different style and not be just a re-colour like Cryocore’s. Now Spirit Fire arrives to feel the void of new particles in Brand and at 1350 RP to boot. Even if it’s a coincidence, as a legendary skin Zombie Brand shouldn’t have to be treated like an average product that can lose features without anyone batting an eye. In fact, no skin should.
This trend is particularly undesirable to players but also to Riot because it makes skins less desirable in two ways. First, if you own a skin you can never tell for how long a feature that you like will remain until and update removes it or reduces it considerably. Second, if you don’t own a skin you have to consider liking more than just one feature as it could be removed at any time. Therefore, it affects past costumers but also future buyers equally.
In the end, features in any paid product should never be lost. We can argue about how much of an improvement a visual update manages and there are examples of some that are better than others. In all cases, if a skin has special effects a visual upgrade not only shouldn’t remove them but should improve and accentuate them. It’s the ideal chance to make a champion more interesting but also the skins more attractive.
For a small, indie developer, as Riot was in its beginnings, cutting corners is excusable. For the most played game on the planet, one that reaches to millions of players and that has access to vast resources as demonstrated by their tournament excesses, well, cutting corners becomes a little bit more difficult to justify. Tournaments can and should shine but so should the game itself; in all aspects.
References: Champion Update Schedule