We’ve all been there. You just got out of a solo queue stomp when you decide to go outside for a walk to get some fresh air and reset your mental. It was a hot day and your house has gotten stuffy.
As the sun sets, the warm evening gives way to a cool night and the street lights begin buzzing away. Nobody is out—odd for such a nice night.
You make it a couple blocks when you notice a figure up ahead in the distance. It’s lurking in the sprawling shadow of an oak tree that swallows up the light from the street lamps. As you approach, you start to notice that the figure has two glimmering eyes. They seem to be looking right at you.
As you creep forward, the eyes lower closer to the ground. They seem to be aligned with the ridge of a spine, connected to four legs. It’s starting to become clear that these eyes are sitting atop a muzzle.
It’s a dog! Maybe your neighbor’s golden retriever got out. It lowers its head further, a sign of submissiveness and uncertainty. Maybe it’s scared.
You inch closer still when you suddenly notice four or five other shadowy silhouettes dart quickly from your periphery into formation around the first hound.
Your last clear thought hits you before panic takes over. The dog didn’t lower its head in fear. It’s getting ready to run. So are the others. And so are you.
Before Naafiri came to exist in all her evil glory, she started the same way as many other champions: a design goal. In the case of our new Darkin doggo, the Champions team had a very specific gameplay hole that they needed to fill.
“A while back, our champion design lead, August Browning, did an analysis of our whole roster and categorized each champ by role, class, and difficulty in order to find some opportunity areas for players,” game designer Glenn “Riot Twin Enso” Anderson reveals. “He ended up finding two major holes: a higher skill tank, which ended up being K’Sante, and a relatively simple and beginner-friendly assassin, which became Naafiri.”
On further investigation, the team also realized it had been a very long time since they released a true creature champion other than Bel’Veth who sort of straddles the line between humanoid and manta-ray-Void-monster. In fact, there are myriad monsters in League, but the team wanted to find a non-humanoid with a more recognizable and identifiable creature fantasy. And after a few ideation sessions, the team agreed that League was missing a real canine representative. Nasus and Warwick are close, but they’re more humanoid than hound.
Players should feel powerful playing an assassin, and opponents should feel uneasy and fearful of an assassin sharing the Rift with them. Few things strike the same level of immediate fear as being chased by a less-than-cuddly stray dog.
“Everybody who’s had a bad experience with a dog knows that if you run, it’s probably just gonna make things worse,” chuckles John “JohnODyin” O’Bryan, Naafiri’s principal narrative writer. “Running makes the dog more excited. They match your energy. We wanted to create a champion who sort of called back on that experience. A dog who wants things to run. When Naafiri sees things run her bestial instincts take over.”
But Naafiri isn’t just one dog chasing you. She roams with a pack—a pack that hunts together, thinks together, and survives the harsh Shuriman desert together. A pack that now shares its collective consciousness with an ancient God-Warrior Darkin.
“I remember chatting with some folks when somebody said something that really stuck out to me,” Riot Twin Enso adds. “It’s not one dog that’s scary. You’re not scared of one coyote. It’s the pack. It’s the fact that whenever your back is turned, another one is moving toward you. And so we started exploring stuff based on that.”
So how does a single Darkin find its spirit spread throughout a pack of Shuriman dune hounds?
Like all other Darkin, Naafiri’s spirit is bound to a weapon. In her case, that weapon was an ancient throwing dagger, locked away and forgotten in a desert crypt. And after a crypt-robber took the dagger, Naafiri thought she found her salvation—that the unwitting visitor might touch the dagger and expose his flesh to her Darkin magic. But he knew exactly what was in his possession. He took great care not to touch the blade or its hilt so as to avoid becoming Naafiri’s new corporeal vessel.
Ironically, that reluctance to wield the blade would lead to his demise anyway. As the man journeyed back from the crypt across the Shuriman dune sea, he was chased by a pack of starving dune hounds. They tore him, his horse, and all of his possessions to shreds—and the dagger found a new home.
Now, the Darkin spirit within the dagger has awoken within the pack, empowered by the hivemind they share. And a nod to the blade itself can be found embedded within the shapes around Naafiri’s collar and on each of her packmates’ snouts.
“When people tend to think of canines/lupines—dogs and wolves, mostly—they think of the old idea that those sorts of packs have an alpha,” explains Elan “Qulani” Stimmel, narrative editor. “We didn’t want to focus on the idea of an alpha. We really wanted to focus on the symbiotic nature of the pack.”
This is where Naafiri starts to differ from the other Darkin in Runeterra. At first, she resented the idea of her spirit being stuck amongst a bunch of dogs. But she quickly learned that the relationship they share is what enables them to survive and thrive in the harshest of climates. She knew there was something that the Darkin could learn from her new pack.
“It’s almost like evil enlightenment or letting go of your idea of self. But Naafiri is doing it for bad reasons,” laughs JohnODyin. “She wants the Darkin to become the dominant lifeform in Runeterra again. Abolishing the ego for evil is a means of getting there.”
As Naafiri’s footprints (err, pawprints?) multiplied in game, Riot Twin Enso and game design manager, Stephen “Riot Raptorr” Auker, needed to make sure she still lived up to her simple, easy-to-learn assassin gameplay hook. Naafiri’s kit had to be powerful, but approachable. And she should rely heavily on her packmates to help her secure kills. So, her other doggos needed some smart new AI.
“Making sure the other hounds behave like you would expect a pack of dogs to behave was critical,” says Riot Raptorr. “We didn’t want them to feel like mindless minions like Yorick’s ghouls or Bel’Veth’s summons. We wanted them to feel like your packmates who are helping you out, and like they matter throughout the entire game.”
Naafiri is designed to be simple to play, but sometimes making something seem easy is actually really hard. So Riot Raptorr wrote up an initial design doc for Naafiri’s gameplay needs and looked to the software engineering team for help. Naafiri needed technical solutions to tackle a unique set of challenges—all within the existing game code and minimum-spec requirements that make League an accessible game to an incredibly diverse playerbase.
“From Stephen’s document, we looked for similar features in other games and read some white papers on how herd-movement behavior is done in other genres,” explains software engineer Matteo “Riot Chibattabun” Mannino. “We knew the packmates needed to path correctly, respond to attack commands quickly, stay at the appropriate range, attack the correct target, and of course, stay out of the way of an assassin’s gameplay patterns.”
So essentially, he and the engineering team created brand new tech for Naafiri and her pack that is robust, but also malleable enough for any gameplay changes that might be necessary down the road.
“The main design difficulty was to bring the feeling of having an RTS-like swarm at your disposal into League, while also having this be a simple champion to play,” Riot Chibattabun adds. “With the new tech, we landed on something between Age of Empires-like formations to easily control Naafiri’s positions in the pack, and the quick-to-action movement mechanics in Starcraft II.”
While the idea of a pack of dogs posed an interesting challenge from a design and engineering standpoint, art director Gem “Lonewingy” Lim was excited by the opportunity to work on another creature champion after creating so many pretty humans—Qiyana, Zeri, Sett, Kayle’s rework, and Evelynn’s rework, just to name a few.
“We picked a canine because that’s a very clear creature fantasy,” Lonewingy says. “A lot of people own dogs, gamers and non-gamers alike. But we had to explore different canine archetypes and different breeds.”
During that exploration, Lonewingy and the team found that there were actually many different types of dog characters in pop culture and gaming they could reference, from Okami dog warriors to the sword-wielding Great Grey Wolf, Sif.
Early on, the team wasn’t quite sure what part of Runeterra this canine creature would call home. They played with ideas of a blade-wielding Drakehound from Noxus, a Cerberus-inspired Watcher pup from the Freljord, and a Targonian Retriever with sun and moon forms.
But ultimately, they grew attached to another one of Lonewingy’s ideas—a demon-like dog that was accompanied by its not-so-cute puppy offspring.
“That’s when it clicked and the team asked me to lean into this idea, but to go more dog-like and less demon-creature. So I started exploring some ideas for a Darkin pack from Shurima since Darkin were originally part of the Ascended,” Lonewingy reveals.
As Lonewingy went through further iterations, Naafiri and her pack began to look more like a Darkin had made its way into the body of a real-world dog… only with some sharp allusions to her dagger form. She even created a base form for what a Shuriman dune hound looks like without the Darkin spirit inside.
“I actually took a lot of inspiration from African wild dogs,” Lonewingy explains. “They sort of embodied what I imagine dune hounds to look like. And I also thought it was interesting how they use ear signals to communicate with each other and stay on-track with the pack.”
But Lonewingy knew that all Darkin have history. Naafiri had a former life, a former form. So Lonewingy added a small nod to that former life by giving Naafiri an earring. This earring used to be an ornament attached to the hilt of her dagger by its former owner, and it’s the last remaining reminder of Naafiri’s former body.
Now our Darkin doggo had a backstory, a gameplay hook, new pack technology, and a killer look, but the question still remained: What does a pack of demonic dogs sound like?
“Oh boy. Naafiri was a complex champ to figure out,” laughs voiceover producer Nick “ProfRincewind” Lanza. “From the outset, being multiple dogs pretty much required multiple voices. From a VO perspective, that’s a really unique approach. We knew we wanted to create a raw and animalistic sound without relying too heavily on digital effects or processing. This meant creating the effect the old school way—by having the actor record multiple layers of the same line with different vocal tones and performances live in the studio. Big shout out to our VO designer, Austin “Riot Puma Pet” Mullen, for coming up with this idea in the first place.”
When exploring the aural aesthetic of a champ’s voice, Riot Puma Pet looked at two main design elements: the physical and the emotional. Not only did he and the VO team have to capture Naafiri’s many dog voices (the physical), but there was also the inner Darkin spirit that helped give the pack its shared consciousness (the emotional). Naafiri contains multitudes.
“I truly believe Naafiri wouldn’t be who she is without her actor, Morla Gorrondona,” Riot Puma Pet says. “She spent extensive time with us just trying out different voices and performance ideas. The sessions with her were really wonderful playgrounds of monster sounds and explorations.”
And if you’ve got a keen ear, you’ll hear much more than just monster sounds within Naafiri’s VO. Each voice line was carefully constructed with a more human reading that carries Naafiri’s sense of leadership among the pack.
This more human-like recording was then processed and paired with a second recording in which Morla went all out with the creature fantasy.
Added together, they create the primal, ethereal, Darkin demi-dog.