MOBA, if you didn’t already know, stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. To me the acronym has always seemed woefully inaccurate in that the games it covers never include true arenas.
It seems more appropriate to call a game in which eight players brawl in a trio of isometric lanes whilst another two scramble through a tightly packed jungle “Bemusing and Almost-Linear Labyrinthine Skirmisher”, but that title would undoubtedly have presented its own problems.
It’s for this reason that the first images of Paragon immediately caught my attention. Epic’s third-person entry into the MOBA field is sprawling in scale, capturing a sense of vast, multidimensional space and physicality which its lo-fi brethren have so far eschewed. When catching up with the aptly named Steve Superville, project lead and head designer honcho at Epic Games, I was keen to extract how far the gaming veterans intended to drift from the much-adhered-to magic MOBA formula.
Existential Gamer: Epic has consciously produced action-centric games like Gears of War and the Unreal series in the past. Why create a MOBA?
Steve Superville: A couple of years ago we knew we wanted to make a new competitive multiplayer game and the decision really came down to what we were playing – we were all playing MOBAs. The stories that we came in and talked about each day after playing the night before were all from that genre.
EG: What were you playing exactly? DOTA 2 and League of Legends?
SS: Some were playing DOTA 2, others League of Legends. I don’t really dig top-down things so was playing SMITE, but the universal constant was that everyone came back telling stories. People would say ‘You should have seen this play that I made!’ and we came to realise that the pace of MOBAs allows for this special player interaction and in turn for strong memories to be created. I’ve spent many hours playing games as a games developer – it’s ‘research’ – but the amount of memories I’ve retained that are sticky come largely from MOBAs rather than shooters or story-driven games.
So we asked ourselves what we could bring to the genre that would be unique. We’re Epic – we’re known for action. Initially we began by creating some heroes and imposing rules on their development. Firstly, each hero had to have an ability that allows another player an opportunity they wouldn’t normally have. Secondly, we wanted to keep things as physical as possible, so instead of zapping an energy ball at opponents, Rampage [a mobile tank hero in Paragon] picks up and hurls a giant rock that explodes.
Finally, we knew that some people had rejected MOBAs because of their top-down perspective, so we opted to make Paragon third person.
EG: Did you ever consider top-down as a possibility? Combat in SMITE is often far less readable than its isometric cousins.
SS: We believe we can support more action in first-person or third-person. Originally we tried first-person but it just didn’t work because players had no situational awareness. You’d get hit with something from the side and think ‘I have no idea what that is’ and by the time players turned to face it they were dead. Another problem with first-person was that it lacked physicality so it wasn’t fun to do a giant leap where you smash the ground. Players want to see how their actions impact the world around them.
As soon as we brought the camera back to third person everything was more comprehensible. Players would recognise when Rampage was throwing a rock at them from the jungle and could think about responding because the information (direction, hero) was clear.
EG: After my play session I was impressed by Paragon’s gameplay clarity, but the move to third-person also necessitates a degree of crosshair aiming absent in League of Legends. Are you worried this will raise the skill cap above that of traditional MOBAs?
SS: I’m not overly concerned about that. We have a UX lab where people come in once a week or so and test and we see them pick it up really quickly. There’s always an adjustment period after exposure to a new mechanic but we’re not a traditional shooter; we’re explicitly a traditional MOBA. You won’t find any jumps followed 180-degree-turn-scope-sight headshots here. Skirmishes aren’t resolved in milliseconds by players snapping the crosshair on target and clicking a button.
By the end of a match, maybe two, people start to get the idea, especially if they stick to the same hero. In the game lobby we even highlight recommended starter heroes for each class except assassin because that is, rather notoriously, the most difficult class to play.
EG: Paragon is part of a ‘second wave’ of post-League of Legends MOBAs. What lessons did you try and learn from the first generation?
SS: We wanted to keep things like team awareness; as soon as you change the camera to third person you run into a problem because the viewpoint is limited and the camera is unable to scroll away from the player’s hero. To tackle this we found creative ways to let players know what their team is doing such as shaping the map into a giant bowl. Where you enter each lane it’s possible to look across the map and see fights starting – from there individuals can formulate a plan during transit, much like in other MOBAs. Players can decide how they want to engage the enemy by, let’s say, holding back their ultimate till they arrive. The vantage is also useful because it’s possible to keep track of new targets who enter the fray.
EG: I see what you mean. After playing on Agora I was struck by the map’s sense of verticality. That’s something you don’t find in any other MOBA.
SS: Indeed, the lanes are tiered: the left lane is high and the right lane is low. We wanted players to be able to look down across lanes so that as they’re transitioning they have an idea of where they want to go and why they want to go there.
Initially we started designing a map where the jungle was raised because trees grow high, right? As a result players lost a lot of their ability to make tactical predictions, so we inverted that arrangement. The jungle is now depressed between lanes and covered by a canopy.
Agora now has this nice mix of big open spaces in between claustrophobic jungle where players are reasonably sure of their safety because they can look around and say ‘I don’t see anybody’. This way players can actually watch the lane in front of them, but if they want to transition into another, they have to take the gamble of traversing the maze-like jungle.
We’ve seen people pull off ganks from the jungle using its less-obvious exits, especially when using our melee assassin, Kallari. People double flip out of the jungle, go invisible, hit their opponent with slowing dagger mid-air to have them turn and face, go invisible again, and then when they land on the ground engage their ultimate. That’s a story.
EG: Third-person perspective, and the lack of map awareness it implies, makes effective communication imperative in Paragon. Even League players sometimes struggle with smart pings and a fully viewable environment. How are you planning on compensating for this?
SS: That’s yet to be determined. Let’s start with the baseline: like a lot of other games you can type, but we know it’s hard to type. We’re also including other comms tools like a hot-menu of commands such as ‘attack left lane’ or ‘defend here’. You can effectively coordinate with your teammates just by using that but we’re going to grow it to include the ability to ping the minimap by putting [controllers] in cursor mode. That won’t be as fast as the stuff you can do in combat but it’ll be pretty quick: bring up the cursor, click, and then go back to fighting.
Because we’re aiming for cross-play [between PC and PS4] we haven’t solved the voice over IoP stuff yet and because we’re in alpha, currently players who are friends will find a way to voice chat anyway. They’ll use Vent, Teamspeak, or they’ll get on Skype on their phones and talk if they’re cross platform.
EG: Cross play has been highly problematic when implemented in other twitch-based games where PC gamers have a distinct advantage. Why won’t the same woes befall Paragon?
SS: I think that players on both platforms will be on a pretty equal footing in our game. The people in the office who prefer to play with PS4 are just as competitive.
What it comes down to is having good skill-based matchmaking. Nothing is ever ‘always equal’ so we need skill-based matchmaking that tracks your MMR, your ELO and gives you a healthy match that you’re likely to win fifty percent of the time. We have thousands of players each weekend and we get to see whether our matchmaking worked and what the numbers look like. Each week we make tweaks and keep [iterating], that’s one of the most exciting things about this whole process – our engaged community is already shaping the game week after week.
EG: MOBA ecosystems are notoriously hard to balance, what’s the strongest feedback you’ve received from your alpha testers so far?
SS: The biggest one is that players find broken heroes really quickly through combinations of things that are not in-balance. You’ve played MOBAs, there are so many variables that come into that: what items you have, what your level is compared to everyone else’s, late-game transition, not stacking armor when you should have and so forth.
That’s okay because it’s not a boxed product yet and it’s not like we’ll get round to patching it three months later when things have moved on – changes happen mid-week and players get a new build the following week.
EG: Speaking of balance – that’s a MOBA’s greatest challenge and one which only increases with the size of its hero pool. How many heroes can we expect to see in Paragon at release?
SS: The current set is thirteen and we have a large number in the pipeline. These will be coming out at an aggressive cadence to get us to the spot where Paragon is a ‘true MOBA’ with all the associated options. We know we want include things like draft mode, which doesn’t make sense with thirteen heroes, so we have some work in front of us.
EG: Thirteen is a miniscule number compared to League’s 129 champions, and DOTA 2’s 113. That’s quite a mountain to climb.
SS: I don’t really feel that we need to equal those totals yet. I’ve heard a lot of people say that they haven’t started those games because they don’t know where to begin in a game that’s been established for seven years and has nearly 130 characters. It’s kind of a nice place to be with a more reasonably sized bank of heroes that people can play with and understand.
EG: With hundreds, possibly thousands of MOBA champions out there already, there are a lot of places to look for inspiration. Is there a particular dynamic you’ve seen elsewhere that’s made you stand up and take notice?
SS: I don’t know – there are so many! In League of Legends I play a lot of Ashe. I also love Braum, Braum is my new support hero. He doesn’t get played at the really high levels all that much – he makes an appearance and he’s not a staple like Akali or Katarina, but for my skill level he is so engaging. He very much fits our model of providing opportunities for other players on the team and he just tries to make everyone around him better at what they do. I’d much rather go 0-2-25 than try to go 25-2-0.
EG: Catering for a variety of playstyles and skill levels, be that beginner or expert, will be vital to Paragon’s success. Are you prepared to satisfy an influx of seasoned pros as well as MOBA virgins?
SS: I think right now we’re probably skewed more towards easier to understand heroes, but each one has some tricks that can be performed with the kit and a lot of them are situational picks. As an example, Howitzer’s E is a depth charge that can knock people away including himself. This means that it can be used aggressively, kind of like Ziggs in League of Legends where you can bump yourself forward or put it down between you and an enemy to disengage. My favourite thing to do is to put it just outside my turret and as my opponent is trying to nudge closer I press E and bounce them into the turret’s range. Then it’s just a case of hitting them with slow grenades.
EG: I hate Ziggs.
SS: Yeah, because he’s awesome!
We also make a lot of good use of our verticality where other MOBAs can’t. Howitzer, for instance, elevates during his ultimate, and if your opponent is playing a melee character that’s really beneficial because you can touch them but they can’t touch you. However, if the other player has chosen a ranged hero you become a stationary target hanging in mid-air. Windows of opportunity is what MOBAs are all about. Murdock (the space marine with the rifle) fires this Lux-like beam that fires half way across the map. If you’re Howitzer and you use your ultimate you’re practically asking for him to strike you down.