Game Design Deep Dive is an ongoing Gamasutra series with the goal of shedding light on specific design features or mechanics within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.
I’m Peter Ilves, one of the co-founders of Stunlock Studios and the Game Director on Battlerite, as well as Stunlock's previous titles Dead Island: Epidemic (Epidemic) and Bloodline Champions (BLC).
I would best describe my role as a wild combination of a producer, game designer, and programmer.
I started my career by studying game design at the University of Skövde in Sweden back in 2006. I eventually made some friends at university and together we created a game as part of a development-course. This project eventually turned into Bloodline Champions (BLC) and me and 13 other students that developed the game founded Stunlock Studios.
Battlerite is the spiritual successor to Bloodline Champions, a team arena brawler that is best described as a mashup between World of Warcraft Arena and a traditional fighting game.
As I’m writing this, Battlerite has been out for less than 3 weeks in Early Access and have already reached an audience of 250 000+ players.
At its core Battlerite shares a lot of the DNA of BLC. We determined that the lack of success of BLC was partly due to factors outside the game itself and partly due to the game not being approachable enough. These include:
Stunlock Studio's Battlerite.
Bloodlines Champions was a passion project. A group of 14 students coming together to create the best possible arena game out there. Our ambitions were sky-high: a PvP Game with a dedicated server network and a focus on eSport long before the eSports scene exploded. With almost no budget, we started developing everything from our own graphics engine to our own network-solutions. Personal loans and people working with “real” jobs on the side funded the project.
Late in the process, we signed a publishing deal with Funcom that enabled us to eventually launch the game. BLC is an extremely hardcore game but it was critically acclaimed and we managed to build a small but dedicated community.
We received our first paychecks and continued to update the game post launch with new content and new features but BLC never really took off. After more than a year of struggling with making the game fly people were starting to lose confidence and eventually we had to move on to stay alive as a studio.
We were able to sign a deal with Deep Silver and started working on zombie-slasher Dead Island: Epidemic. Everyone was super excited and for the years to come there were very little talk about BLC.
Dead Island: Epidemic was eventually canceled. Having a game canceled after 2½ years into production was frustrating but at the same time, I think it was a relief for many. It had been a stressful project and in the end, it was a work for hire.
Dead Island: Epidemic
I remember how we sat down with the studio, asking everyone what he or she wanted to do next.
I was surprised by the result; we had not talked a lot about BLC during Epidemic but all of a sudden, everyone wanted to do a remake. Everyone still believed in the core values of BLC and what we started back in 2008.
Nothing similar had come up on the market over the years; nothing remotely similar to BLC at least, and we believed there to be a spot on the market for our type of game.
Everyone was aboard, and we were confident that as long as we can make this game on our own conditions we could make it into the best arena PvP game out there. We would not let a publisher hijack this project and thanks to our friends and investors at Coffee Stain Studios, we were able to develop the game on our own terms.
I believe Battlerite’s success is down to the following key points.
When working on BLC we experimented with different types of gameplay, movement, game modes and so on. We did not really know what game we were making to begin with. For Battlerite we wanted to keep it straightforward, easy and approachable.
We took the core of BLC and decided to stick with that for the entire project. Focus on the Arena and the Champions, nothing else. Instead of investing resources into trying out new game mode ideas or trying to create new types of Champions, we took the best pieces from BLC and iterated, iterated and iterated.
As we knew we were going to have an extremely iterative process we set a technical goal from day 1 – Zero Iteration downtime. This was a design goal that permeated every part of our content pipelines.
The toolset we have used to develop Battlerite is built from scratch for this project. We are using Unity as our render-engine while gameplay related elements as collision, network, AI, are all custom-made. We have developed a tool with the fancy name “Game Tool” in which we basically create the entire game.
The Game Tool is used to define objects, constant data, stateful data that change during gameplay, references to graphical assets and scripts as well as relationships between objects. Scripts are attached to objects and can then access the data and state for those objects dynamically, with changes to all of these available instantly without restarting. Scripts are compiled on save, constant & state data is changed in the running gameplay process as they’re made.
We embed a standalone Unity player process into a Game Tool window that we feed with the game state for rendering. Artists import assets (models, SFX, particles, animations) into a separate Unity editor project where they’re immediately built into bundles and made available for usage in the Game Tool and its embedded Unity process. Artists and coders can add content in an incremental fashion without having to restart, reload or compile unrelated assets or code, which we believe is key to our iteration process. Iterate, save, test, iterate.
Without this toolset, we would never have been able to create the Look and Feel that we aspired to when we set out.
When comparing BLC and Battlerite the difference in visual quality and presentation is obvious. What is not as apparent but maybe even more important is how different the game feels. This has been one of the biggest challenge to us marketing-wise. The game looks like a RTS MOBA but once you get your hands on it you understand the vast differences.
Controlling your Champion with WASD movement is a huge difference and we’ve put a ton of effort into getting the gameplay feel just right. A video cannot sell you on that feeling. We ended up branding it as a Team Arena Brawler (TAB), basically creating our own genre.
This is the biggest improvement when comparing both games. Moving around, striking down your enemy, firing your guns, charging into combat. These are just a few mechanics in the game but we have worked so much on making them feel smooth and satisfying to pull off.
BLC has a more “choppy” feel to it, every time you use an ability you have to stand still to perform the action while in Battlerite we’ve tried to make combat more fluent. Many attacks allow you to move while using them and every attack has individual settings for how much it affects your movement. How much your champion slows down, different timers for acceleration/deceleration, different amount of post-attack time before you can perform a new action. It certainly has similarities to a fighting game.
As a player you probably will not even reflect on these settings but when balanced correctly it creates a very satisfying flow. This along with the many improvements in presentation (art-style, HUD, animations, SFX & VFX) makes the game more approachable and attractive.
BLC is a very latency dependent game and we did not have the server infrastructure to support it. Many players were unable to enjoy the game because they resided too far away from our server locations.
Supporting BLC with a good server infrastructure was however not our obligations at that time. We had signed a publishing agreement and this area of responsibility was on the publisher's side.
With Battlerite we’ve been able to support the game with a worldwide state of the art server solution. We are fortunate to have had the chance to work with great partners that have enabled us to launch the game on a global scale already during Early Access.
When BLC launched we had one server in central Europe and one server in US East and that was it. These are the server options for Battlerite, 3 weeks into Early Access:
Battlerite's current server selection.
Beside server infrastructure, we have also put a lot of effort into optimizing and developing solid net code. With 7 years of experience working on top-down multiplayer games, we had a good understanding of how we wanted to develop the net-code for Battlerite.
Our goal from the start has been to make Battlerite available to as many as possible. For the netcode, this meant being able to handle a large variety of network environments like high packet loss, highly variable latency as well as just constant high latency. In BLC, the netcode would fall over if a player had even slight packet loss and it wasn't a great experience to play with more than 100ms latency. In Battlerite, a large amount of systems are designed around the reality of networks around the world.
Our current server infrastructure and a more refined net-code is probably the second biggest reason for the success of Battlerite, especially in regions with developing infrastructure.
BLC launched as a Free-2-Play game with a similar business model as League of Legends. There was a free champion rotation system. Players were able unlock new champions by earning and spending virtual currency and you could purchase a champion or a bundle of champions for real money.
What we realized too late was that this model was fundamentally flawed for a game like BLC. A MOBA free-2-play model did not sit well with a game like BLC. BLC is all about the champions while I would argue that a MOBA is more about the game mode. By limiting access to Champions we made an already content-thin game even smaller. New players could pick up one of four champions and would ultimately face other players with the same champions as everyone had the same rotation.
It grew stale and repetitive very quickly and players quit early as the grind for a new champion was too big.
The Battlerite Early Access grants you access to all champions as well as all future champions for $20. We have not yet decided what model we will use when the game fully launches but know what we want to avoid.
I’d say that our current price-point is a great deal. It is also worth considering how players will react to how you price your game and what reputation you want to build as a studio. We have been taking a few hits over the years due to the pricing of both BLC and Epidemic. Pricing of some items in those games have been on a ridiculous scale but those decisions were often out of our hands.
With Battlerite we are independent and we can right some wrongs from the past and rebuild some trust. A fair pricing model goes a long way in that regards.
With BLC we tried hard to build a strong community. At that time, we were still 14 people developing our first multiplayer PvP game and we still took time aside to create webpages, we developed and branded our own community forums, we hosted community events and tried our best with the limited resources we had to stay active with the community.
Many people in the studio felt that we let everyone down when we weren't able to keep this up due to both political and economical reasons.
With Epidemic it was easier. We were actually not allowed to interact with our players via forums or other media. This is another story of course but one of those interesting aspects of working with a publisher. The good side of this was that we had more time developing the game and we were less emotionally attached to the community (which was a good thing for us when Epidemic was canceled).
For Battlerite we are solely responsible for building our community and this time around there are no political reasons keeping us away from our players. We believe in transparency and as we are still a small team (25 people) everyone that can and wants to is able to help out. Answering posts on forums, doing write-ups that explains a features or a decision, helping with support and so on.
Everyone in the studio is allowed to talk to our community. This sometimes results in miscommunications (especially in language as we only have one native English-speaking person in the office) but so far the positive side far outweighs the negative side of this approach.
During our launch week, most people in the studio spent almost all their time helping people out that had technical issues, answering questions on forums and streams and relayed important topics to our coders so we could fix it ASAP.
There are always unforeseen technical issues that will occur once you get a lot of people into your game but we were prepared for it and communicated any issue directly via our in-game messaging system. During the launch week we worked around the clock and I think our ability to respond and fix issues quickly were very much appreciated by our community.
I would say that the most important part about developing Battlerite has been our team spirit and production mindset. We’re constantly iterating on our processes and refining our toolsets to enable everyone to work as efficiently as possible.
Throughout the project we have been comparing ourselves with the biggest competitive games and we never settled for less. We didn’t have the manpower to create this type of game with the level of quality we desired. We had to come up with solutions that enabled us to work as efficiently as possible. Not only am I proud of the game but I’m proud of the toolset and pipelines we’ve developed.
Iterating on a game can be tedious and I think that’s why many settle with mediocre results. Perfecting small variable differences within a game can be very time-consuming if you don’t have the right processes. When you have powerful tools it’s more fun to work and you never end up asking yourself if a change is worth the time investment or not, you just do it.
In the end, I believe that the commercial success of Battlerite is mostly due to how much better we were able to realize the game on our second try. Battlerite is the result of 8 years of iteration, iteration and iteration on a top-down action multiplayer game.