It’s a great time to be a fan of shooters. First-person or third, solo or team, objective-based or deathmatch, annualized releases or "game as a service," you can choose from every flavor of action by established stalwarts and an impressive stable of smaller challengers.
Of course, this also means it’s never been tougher to launch a multiplayer shooter, or design one that will stand out in such an environment. It’s a challenge that became one of the core design tenets for Dan Nanni, the lead designer of the multiplayer shooter LawBreakers, and the rest of the team at Cliff Bleszinski’s new studio Boss Key Productions.
“If we made decisions that made the game play too similarly to one of our key competitors, we knew we’d get overshadowed,” Nanni says.
“If our competition was moving heavily towards special abilities, we’d keep focusing heavily on gunplay. If they remained mostly on the ground, then we’d keep pushing hard to put our players in the skies. The focus on gravity being a central gameplay element and blind-fire being a combat mechanic were ideas from the very beginning. The original seed of LawBreakers was more about theme than about function.”
Toying with gravity was a core idea that became integral to LawBreakers' DNA and a way for the game to stand apart from the herd, and the result is a game with a heavy emphasis on mobility. Players rocket around at incredible speeds and, as they discover and experiment with their abilities, they learn how advantageous attacking from different elevations can be. But the original conception of blind-fire morphed dramatically as the team iterated on early prototypes.
“Blind-fire never really turned into a core combat mechanic," says Nanni. "Instead, it evolved into a core movement mechanic, and it played very nicely with our low-gravity system as it allowed players to use their weapons to gain bursts of high speed with ammunition as a form of fuel resource, which in turn played around with combat balance.”
These abilities that enhance player mobility feed into a number of systems designed to amp up the speed of LawBreakers and keep players moving. From the low-gravity environments, weapons and skills that make traversal fast and changing elevation trivial, to firing patterns that tend to forgive poor aim by covering broader areas, LawBreakers feels like a game built from the ground up to keep players moving. Nanni says the pace is the result of early design being refined repeatedly with speed in mind.
"Toying with gravity was a core idea that became integral to LawBreakers' DNA and a way for the game to stand apart from the herd."
“The Assassin, who could swing around the map on a Spiderman-like grappling hook, and Vanguard, who essentially flies around like an F-16, set the bar of mobility for us early on," he recalls.
"We knew that all highly mobile characters had to embody similar enjoyable characteristics, but in new ways to keep them different. What really cranked it up to eleven for us was our alpha test back in 2016. We thought the game was fast enough, but our alpha players wanted more; more speed, more ability usage, faster projectiles.”
But as any designer knows, amping a game’s speed isn’t as simple as pushing up a couple of sliders.
“As a developer, you know the waterfall of repercussions that can come from such a blanket statement – role rebalance from scratch, animations redone, sounds redone, map size changes, game mode changes. You name it, it gets worked on," says Nanni. "But it was the right call to make and we embraced it. Not only did it make our players happy, but it also further differentiated us from our competition.”
As much as Nanni aimed to ensure LawBreakers was distinct, he readily admits being influenced by his contemporaries (particularly those that members of his team had worked on).
"In the streaming era, making your game a pleasure to view can be nearly as important as making it fun to play."
“It’s a natural part of game development,” Nanni says. “Whether it was from Battlefield, Unreal Tournament, Call of Duty, Planetside, Killzone or Team Fortress 2, our team had collective experiences that spanned shooters and several other genres over two to three decades. It’s not just about what we learned to do, but what we failed to do, or didn’t get a chance to do."
"Sometimes, though, that doesn’t do us any favors. Just because something failed in a previous situation doesn’t mean it will fail now. It’s also easy to fall back on something that feels comfortable, simply because it worked in the past.”
“But that’s the challenge of being a game developer," he adds. "Games evolve and players want new, different experiences. We’re not working on an iteration to a franchise with an established player base, or on a game that has a known IP tied to it. As a new company working on a new project, we need to take our experiences and inspirations, but offer players something fresh. We have to give them a good reason to spend their hard-earned dollars.”
Another inspiration came from a very different source: pro sports. Nanni says his team wanted moments in LawBreakers as compelling and watchable as the highlight reels that anchor Sportscenter. Those kind of adrenaline fueled, high-octane sequences are not only fun to watch but, ideally, inspire new players to jump into the fray," he notes. "In the streaming era, making your game a pleasure to view can be nearly as important as making it fun to play.
"Verticality defines a lot of our gameplay, and while it’s not something we expect players to come out of the gates embracing, the game naturally evolves into something that plays on all axes."
According to Nanni, LawBreakers’ vertical design amps up both the play experience and the viewing experience of the game, and one of the team’s biggest challenges was figuring out how to get players to engage with it. “Verticality includes gravity, map designs and mobility as a whole. How can we encourage – not force – players to be more aerial?," he says.
"How can gravity affect a map or give players unique ways to interact with one another? What clever combinations of mobility, map design and gravity, gameplay can players discover that ultimately lead to those highlight reel moments we’ve set out to achieve under competition? Verticality defines a lot of our gameplay, and while it’s not something we expect players to come out of the gates embracing, the game naturally evolves into something that plays on all axes.”
For Nanni, building a new IP around some fresh ideas was a novel experience, especially at a brand new company still searching for its identity.
“I’ve mostly worked on previously defined IPs and established franchises, and starting at the ground floor with a new company is also a new experience," he says. "It’s not just about creating a game, one without predefined boundaries, but also creating a studio and a culture.”
One of the major differences Nanni discovered at Boss Key was one of the most defining elements of any studio: work flow.
“Unlike other projects I’ve worked on, we spent a lot of time prototyping and iterating on the core loop of LawBreakers before we moved on to anything else," he notes. "If we discovered a better, more interesting solution, even if it didn’t quite match the initial direction, we decided to embrace it rather than abandoning it because it didn’t match what we originally typed onto some document.”
Other projects in Nanni’s past had been much more rigid, where ideas were established early and then fully implemented before being properly tested, meaning there was limited opportunity to change and tweak them. “By the time they made it into the game, there wasn’t a lot of time left to adjust them. It ultimately led to games that didn’t quite find their fun-footing until late in the project.
“With LawBreakers we didn’t really start in earnest until we knew exactly what the core loop would play like; a defining map, with a defining mode, and a handful of defining roles. We knew what the game would play like once we achieved those samples, and those examples became our point of comparisons for fun-quality.”
This did mean that a lot of waiting while core features were fleshed out, but it’s an approach Nanni says panned out in the long view.
“The rest of the team had to wait until gameplay was strongly defined before we could push towards final art, UI, sound, FX, etc., and that was a lot of work to do for a company as small as we were. But it removed the concern as to whether we thought our game was ultimately a fun experience.”