This episode, we speak with Michael “IronStylus” Maurino, formerly of Riot Games and currently of Wavedash Games. Michael speaks with us about his process, how he got into art, his philosophies on art, advice for younger artists, his time at Riot, and his personal drivers.
Michael worked extensively on League of Legends, concepting champions Leona, Diana, Quinn, Graves, Talon, Xerath, and Skarner, and champion updates Master Yi, Trundle, Sejuani, Sivir, Fiora, and Poppy. He has been a part of the games industry for over a decade.
Michael’s Twitter: twitter.com/Iron_Stylus/
Michael’s ArtStation: www.artstation.com/ironstylus
Frank’s Twitter: twitter.com/PhoenixRed
Kristen’s Twitter: twitter.com/MiniWhiteRabbit
Music by TheFatRat – “Fly Away feat. Anjulie”
Supplemental Thoughts From Frank:
As IronStylus, Senior Concept Artist Michael Maurino was once one of Riot Games’ most prolific and visible communicators at the company towards the League of Legends playerbase, but talking about how that’s sort of made him famous in some circles, you wouldn’t think it from him.
“It gave me a platform to connect with players, as I was fond of doing…[but also] to generate a level of questionable authenticity mixed with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome,” he says, laughing as much at himself for what he calls his “D-List celebrity” as with the idea of his moniker being recognizable to the point of being asked in games if he’s “the real” Ironstylus. “It’s comforting and charming.”
This kind of self-effacing, humble attitude typifies a lot of how Michael approaches the impact he’s had in his career. He’s known for visualizing and bringing to life some of the most iconic characters in League of Legends, from Talon to Xerath to Quinn to of course, Leona and Diana. His occasional art streams, where he’d share tips, thoughts, and ideas with his viewers as he displayed his talent for conceptualizing characters drew a bunch of fans and admirers who were impressed by both his openness and his skill. But that doesn’t stop Michael from telling me, after I asked about how the art process works, that it isn’t ever a one-man show, but a team effort.
“It’s never this egocentric ‘oh, he’s the one’ kind of a thing,” he says, emphasizing that as if it’s a completely foreign concept for art teams in games. “It’s always gonna to have a ton of feedback involved in it – which is a good thing, because usually as an artist, you might come up with something and it might be pretty cool, 75% of the time, 50% of the time, but beyond that you’re kinda like ‘guhhhhh’…you absolutely have to leverage the people around you to push it over the end to make it special.”
Personally, I have trouble making people see that I’m drawing things as simple as stick figures doing things, so when the questions turn to how Michael’s individual workflow, I listen with a huge amount of interest. Michael’s artistic creation process is an intriguing mix of inspirational research (mostly through his own research and reference points that he stores in places like Pinterest) and then constant iteration. Calling a lot of what he does when he starts out with doodles and drawings as “vomiting from the wrist”, he works at something until he can feel satisfied at what he’s produced, even if it seems repetitive. “I’ve found that’s at least the way that I can do it most comfortably, without so much pressure on myself. I’ve had to forgive myself for my own stupid processes, but they at least work for me,” he explains.
The results, of course, speak for themselves, even if they have to be driven forward by nothing more than desire and willpower to create something cool and interesting for players. Such as it was with Michael’s recounting of the process to create Diana, Leona’s mirror and other half, in the League of Legends world. Sidestepping or pushing through much of the existing process at the time, Michael and a couple other co-workers completed Diana and got her out in the game through a combination of hard work, harder selling, and an attitude as inevitable as the iceberg hitting the Titanic, all while following an artistic process that didn’t compromise quality.
That implacable nature behind Michael’s desire to be a great artists reveals itself as we chat a bit about Michael’s career trajectory. The journey takes him from New York to the West Coast, to tons of meetings and chance encounters and associations that get him to work on Power Rangers, to Riot, and now to Wavedash working on a completely new entry in the platform fighter genre in Icons: Combat Arena. Throughout his accounts, he’s quick to point out how fortunate he’s been, whether it was supportive parents who brought him materials from work to stimulate his young artist’s brain to friends and relatives who financially supported his move out West, to chance encounters with mentors and friends that led to opportunities. Making friends and networking, Michael says, is “more important than drive, more important than talent”, and is nothing but good for someone in a burgeoning career in games.
As I play multiple clips in which Michael is interviewed, filmed with fans who’ve made him stuff like Leona’s actual sword, and who ask him to wish others a happy birthday (a small fraction of how fans have appreciated his work), you can see the result of his ability to make friends, and how his easygoing, affable manner has won him a lot of respect and admiration from others. I realize this is a running trend with him, and is the source of the notoriety he’s acquired. It isn’t because he craves it. It’s not because he revels in it and tries to participate in socializing for personal gain. It’s because Michael, despite his reluctance to accept credit and spread it around (a constant in every interview he’s given by the way), is good at making people feel welcome, talking with them as peers and equals and not Senior Artist to aspiring illustrator, and making sure they feel included, a sort of social collectivism that starts everyone, at least with him, at a level where they feel like their opinions matter. That’s not nothing, and is a rarer skill than you’d think among the more experienced, seasoned, and battle-worn members of the games industry.
Incidentally, as a community professional in games, it’s what I respect the most about Michael, aside from the obvious talent he has as an artist and the mark he’s already made in the games industry. Advocating a “stepping out from behind the curtain and embracing of personality” approach that connects with fans and players, it’s pretty clear that Michael’s proven the benefit of having done so, and navigated some pretty thorny ground in the process. Nobody can doubt the impact he’s had building up the idea that games industry professionals can come down from self-imposed ivory towers to talk with fans and players about what matters to them, nor can they argue with the results of his contributions to the places he’s been at in doing so. That kind of legacy and agency to be a person that, in his words “enjoys the thing and wants to have others enjoy the thing with him” is something that will persist long after Michael stops drawing, and has just as much life as the character concepts he’s brought to the forefront and which are still prominent fixtures in the games he’s worked on today.
But I have a feeling Michael’s going to be “vomiting from his wrist” cranking out good art for a long time to come. Responding to an old story I’d heard about an elderly Picasso attributing value to even the most mundane napkin art doodle, he says, laughing, that he “can’t wait until I’m 65, and be like super-grizzled, drawing power armor on a napkin”.
Something tells me he’ll be at it for a while, making many friends and helping many careers along the way.