“It was all of those things, but all of those things scaling,” said Anna Donlon, the game’s executive producer at Riot. “Scaling was the biggest challenge for us. We weren’t sure we were going to have enough people to even play the game properly. We thought our services were in a decent place for the closed beta, services like our anti-cheat systems and tools around harassment.”
Donlon said she and game director Joe Ziegler debated over whether more players should get in. She said Riot Games never tested a game beyond just a few thousand people. “Valorant” ended up drawing almost 3 million players since the closed beta went live on April 7, and racked up 470 million hours viewed on the streaming platform Twitch. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
“All these learnings we could gain from these players!” Donlon said, seeing an opportunity. “It’s really hard to turn that down, having all these players wanting to play your game and break your game to help you get ready for launch.”
Ziegler laughed when he recalled the argument, which he called accurate. He was firmly on the side of keeping it more closed. Ziegler said Riot’s own anti-cheat software, dubbed Vanguard, ended up causing more problems as more players logged on. Players also raised concerns about whether the software was invasive.
“The act of allowing our players to get this tool but exposing them to all the flaws to the tool … wasn’t without pains on the player’s side,” Ziegler said, adding that the anti-cheat team worked around-the-clock. “So in order for us to grow that feature, we needed players exposed to it. … We got better, which was great! We’re a lot more prepared to launch."
Ziegler said his team worked hard to communicate as much as they could on what changes were being made after receiving community feedback. For what it’s worth, the Riot-supported subreddit community for “Valorant” has been mostly appreciative of Riot’s constant updates and back-and-forth communication.
“Some people say feedback in a really healthy, productive, generous way and some people say it in less generous ways, but it doesn’t matter because at its core, it’s all the same feedback,” Donlon said. “It’s, ‘your game is busted, fix it please.’ We knew that! We needed to scale it up in that way to ready it.”
All of this was against the challenge of working from home during the coronavirus pandemic quarantine. Donlon said it was hard to manage a team and see if anyone was struggling with work or home since all of these check-ins had to be done via virtual meetings. The game was always set to launch this summer, but a June release was iffy after the pandemic hit.
“I don’t recommend this,” Donlon said. “This isn’t one of those situations where I’m like, ‘Wow we could do all games like this!’ No, every conversation costs more.”
“Before I said we 100 percent trust our team, but now I can say we 150 percent trust our team,” Ziegler said. “You go through all these trials where you have to be very targeted with your communication, very narrow, and they have to work really hard to solve a problem. … We’re all in a bad situation but we’re bonding as a result."
“Valorant” is positioned as an online live service game, which will have a $10 battle pass, similar to the “Fortnite” model. While it’s a “hero shooter” with special abilities like “Overwatch” by Blizzard Entertainment, “Valorant” also requires slow, cautious tactical play, like “Counter-Strike: Global Operation,” the revolutionary shooter that’s still popular today.
Many professional esports players have now switched to focusing on playing “Valorant” instead of those two titles, which has only fueled its popularity.
Donlon said she’s proud of the work, as stressful and messy as it seemed sometimes.
“We didn’t have a behind-closed-doors, NDA beta, we had a livestreamed closed beta … where you have all of your potential future playerbase watching you fail publicly or succeed publicly,” Donlon said. “But that’s what the real world is going to be like when launch this game. So this has been a really good training for us.”