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Hero Shooters: Charting the (re)birth of a genre

Hero Shooters: Charting the (re)birth of a genre

May 6, 2016 | By Alex Wawro




Battleborn. Overwatch. Paragon.

Not to mention BattleCry. Gigantic. Paladins.

These are all games slated to release this year (many are out already, in some form) that share some striking similarities in terms of design.

Each places a heavy emphasis on multiplayer team-based combat, in either first- or third-person, and asks players to select from a motley crew of characters (heroes, even!) with preset abilities. For expediency, it’s become common for many in the game industry to lump these games together as “hero shooters,” though that’s not always how the people making them refer to their work.

It’s not often we see such a diverse array of studios releasing so many games of seemingly similar design in such a short span of time. It’s very reminiscent of the MMORPG boom that swept through the industry in the wake of Blizzard’s remarkable success with World of Warcraft, or the rash of “Doom clones” that broke out after id released the first game in 1993.

Intriguingly, this year’s slate of “hero shooters” don’t all share, at least on their surface, a clear progenitor or singular source of inspiration. So let's interrogate the genre a bit: if "hero shooters" are a thing this year, where did they come from, and why?

In talking to developers on Battleborn, Overwatch and Paragon it’s become clear that there are some common points of reference, most notably the remarkable recent success of MOBAs like Dota 2 or League of Legends and the enduring appeal of characters in shooters like Team Fortress 2 and Gearbox's Borderlands games.

In fact, when I brought this up to Gearbox chief Randy Pitchford at GDC this year, he claimed Battleborn was built to both satisfy a latent desire among Gearbox devs to get back into multiplayer competitive game design and give them an opportunity to revisit an aspect of Borderlands development they really enjoyed: writing and designing characters.

“If you go back to what got us into Battleborn, it was all about the playable heroes," said Pitchford. "'Hero shooter’ was really easy to say, and said so much about what our priorities are, that we just started using that as our way to talk about this game. What's fascinating to me though is that when we started on Battleborn, there wasn't anyone else doing anything like this. And we thought we might be insane. But as everything started to happen, the angle that we came at it from, as it started to congeal, I guess, we thought fuck...how do we describe this thing?”

It starts with Gearbox in 2014

What he's getting at there is that while Gearbox didn't invent the “hero shooter”, it did help popularize the term as a genre desciptor -- in part due to an aggressive marketing campaign around Battleborn's announcement in 2014. Pitchford leaned into it on Twitter too, at one point describing a "race towards the new hero shooter genre" in the game industry.

But even now, two years later, Pitchford remains cagey (or perhaps open-minded) about what, exactly, defines a hero shooter -- or where the genre really got its start.

"For us, the focus is on the champions. The playable characters. And the idea that there's a lot of them, and you can choose between them, and mix them up," he told me. "Of course if you go by that definition, Team Fortress 2 might have been one of the earliest hero shooters."

So in a sense, what's happening this year isn't the birth of a new genre but a rebirth -- one deeply influenced by the rampant popularity of MOBAs.

Fun fact: Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2 reliably lead the list of most-played games on Steam

“I was trying to say that [Battleborn] has Borderlands in it, it has first-person shooter in it, but it also has some MOBA in it," Pitchford told me, referring to an even earlier tweet in which he tried to describe (without using the term "hero shooter") what, exactly, Battleborn is. "But I don't want to say MOBA, because that's misleading; if you think about what a MOBA is, it's not this. They're free-to-play, top-down RTS games.”

It's true that the most popular MOBAs are free-to-play games with a top-down perspective. But MOBAs are also competitive team-based games with weak AI-controlled enemies, and objectives, and characters sporting unique abilities that level up in the course of a match.

Battleborn has all those elements, and they're elements of game design that many developers seem excited to play with and build upon  -- including some of the folks at Epic tasked with making what's become Paragon.

MOBAs are a big influence

“We love MOBAs,” Paragon creative director Steve Superville told me in a recent phone conversation. “We wanted to take all of the things that are great about MOBAs: the different heroes, the different abilities you have, the teamwork and the strategy that comes along with a big map, where it's not just run around and kill something as the only mechanism for success. And combine that with what we love to do, which is make action.”

According to Superville, the Paragon team started out with roughly 10-12 people aiming to make a multiplayer game that was...well, they weren’t sure what it was going to be, other than emphatically not like Unreal Tournament.

“It's been a long time since we've tried to make a truly new PvP game at Epic,” said Superville. “We set about going, we haven't done this for a decade, let's not assume that we know anything. Let's go and figure out what other people have done really well, and learn from the best.”

During pre-production they spent a significant amount of time playing a variety of competitive games together (“wW probably spent a good two or three months doing what my mom still thinks I do, playing games at work all day. Which I don’t!”) and settled on MOBAs as the most enticing arena of game design to explore.

“The things that felt right took us closer to the traditional MOBA, where there's progression in a match and that sort of thing. So we said let's just go for that,” said Superville. We'll start with something that's familiar but different, and see if we can bring something new. So we changed the battlefield up by bringing the camera down to third-person, and it gives it a really different feel.”

Thus, Paragon is borne from the synthesis of MOBA design and an almost Gears of War-esque perspective -- something Superville alludes to in our conversation, noting that there are some Gears of War vets on the Paragon team.

So what's so enticing about MOBA design? According to Superville, it's that "dance" that often happens between players during a match as they react to their opponents, their teammates and the shifting nature of battlefields rife with AI enemies and towers.

"That's something we didn't feel like you got with a lot of the games we traditionally worked on," said Superville. "In those games it's more like you round a corner and if something moves, you shoot it. And if you shoot it, it falls over right away, and there's not really a dance that happens between players. And we were looking to capture that, that dance that happens in MOBAs, but with our camera perspective."

Superville acknowledges that the game is often lumped in with other "hero shooters" because it doesn't look like a traditional MOBA, but remains optimistic that Paragon (and presumably similar, extant games like Hi-Rez's over-the-shoulder MOBA Smite) will help expand public perceptions of what a MOBA can be.

"We want to get away from the idea that a MOBA has to be a top-down, RTS input experience," Superville said. "We're trying to do something new in the MOBA space."

It's worth pointing out that in all the games he reels off as having played to prep for making Paragon -- Halo, Call of Duty, Blacklight: Retribution, League of Legends, Dota 2 -- Superville doesn’t happen to mention Team Fortress 2, which both Gearbox and Blizzard cite as a big inspiration on Battleborn and Overwatch.

But so is Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2 was a huge influence on Overwatch,” Blizzard’s Jeffrey Kaplan told me recently, via phone. “You can see that in a lot of the gameplay. We sort of revere not only what Team Fortress 2 did, but also Team Fortress Classic and the original Team Fortress as well.”

Kaplan, who now serves as game director on Overwatch, says the game got its start when he and his fellow Blizzard developers started looking at both MOBAs and class-based shooters as they were casting about for what to do after the fall of the Titan project.

“There was this genre of first-person shooter that people love so much, and then there was the MOBA genre, which many of us had fallen in love with at the same time,” said Kaplan. “ We were kind of asking ourselves how come nobody's done this yet. Nobody's put the chocolate and the peanut butter together, so to speak. I think that's why, obviously, we weren't the only people to have that idea, but I think that's why you saw such a proliferation at the time that you did.”

So in broad strokes, we can trace the rising tide of hero shooters to the enduring popularity of class-based competitive shooters (mostly Team Fortress) and the widespread appeal of MOBA games. Paragon is more of a straight MOBA, Overwatch is more of a straight character-based team shooter, and Battleborn is somewhere in the middle. So far, so good.

But what is it about MOBAs and character-based shooters, specifically, that enthralls so many modern game makers?

“I think there are a few things about MOBAs that work. One is, the ability to very quickly feel the full capability of your character,” said Pitchford.“If you can play the character, feel the full progression, understand the performance of that progression, in a 20-30 minute session, then play another session, that becomes a really compelling and engaging loop. That's unique to MOBAs.”

The Gearbox frontman also seems genuinely excited by the prospect of creating characters, something he shares in common with Kaplan at Blizzard (as well as countless tabletop RPG players.) Both describe a process that tends to involve artists and designers bouncing ideas back and forth about what kind of movement or abilities a given character would have, and how those mechanics are balanced in a competitive arena, that almost sounds like kids trying to create their own comic books.

“When you steer in the hero direction, it's a lot of fun, I think for both players and developers, because now each expression of gameplay...has a personality built into it,” said Kaplan. “It was a lot of fun to sort of shift in that direction, and when we did, when we started to talk about that wide cast of heroes instead of focusing in on a small collection of generic classes, it actually shifted the game we were working on. Because the game we were initially working on, it wouldn't have worked with 20+ classes or whatever. So it actually made us switch our game concept...that's how we came to work on Overwatch.”

The fallibility of genre

And while Kaplan prefers to pitch Overwatch as a "team-based shooter", he says he's happy to have people branding it a hero shooter. Moreover, he cautions fellow developers (and me) against worrying too much about pigeon-holing games into a particular genre.

Kaplan says he actually got started down the path of game development by designing homemade Duke Nukem 3D levels, and the process of working on Blizzard's first competitive shooter has helped him appreciate the value of blending disparate influences -- like say, MOBAs and first-person shooters.

"There's all these things that have come to be accepted as the way that it has to be in an FPS. And I think a lot of times, it's very creatively limiting to sort of limit your mind all the time to the rules of what we've decided the FPS is going to be," said Kaplan. 

"I think FPS, as a genre, has proven that it can reinvent itself over the years, and any perceived rule that's there doesn't have to be there at all," he continued. "When new and exciting evolutions have happened in the FPS genre, it's because there's been this sort of courage from various developers to challenge the status quo, and to really try new and fun things. So you know, my one bit of advice for fellow devs in this space would be: break the rules."



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