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Dawngate: Breaking the Meta at PAX East

Interviews By Michael Bitton on April 15, 2014

While the MOBA genre is young, it’s quickly becoming a crowded space, which makes Waystone Games’ Dawngate interesting because it does a number of things to set itself apart from the pack. We had a chance to all those things and more at this year’s PAX East where we sat down with Dawngate lead producer Dave Cerra and creative director Hunter Howe.

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We kicked things off discussing the genesis and general overview of the game. Dave explained that the original team had worked together in the past and wanted to stay together, so they pitched the game to EA. Dave compared the state of the MOBA genre to the early state of the first person shooter, where we saw tons of clones before the genre really began to express itself. To that end, Waystone’s plan was to “break the MOBA down to its component parts and build a new MOBA up.”  The result is a game “intentionally designed to look and feel very familiar, but to let you as a MOBA player express gameplay mastery, just in a completely different way.”

Hunter elaborated further:

“We chose to push gameplay in a number of different directions to make Dawngate uniquely ours. We definitely wanted to change up the map, because the map is really the star of any MOBA game. It’s the thing you spend thousands of hours strategizing around and building up your action response instincts to.

We ended up with after iterations on dozens and dozens and dozens of maps with a two lane MOBA map that still has five players and at the same time we built in something we call the role system that allows the game rules to change based on however you want to decide you want to get income. It allows our game to be really flexible in how you come up with team strategies. You can run two lanes of two and one person in the jungle, a tri lane and a double jungle strategy; we really wanted it to be fresh. We were seeing a lot of criticisms of other games in the genre, in that they don’t let you break the mold and break the meta in a lot of different ways, so that sort of became a catchphrase for us. We want the players to be able to play the person that they want in the role that they want, so we specifically made the mechanics of the game support that, and we made a two lane map that allows you to run all those different variations.

We also built economy into the map by bringing back some of those RTS roots that the genre comes from. It’s really fun to watch a game of StarCraft and see an economy get harassed and a bunch of workers get razed. We want to capture that moment; we want to bring that back into the MOBA. So we have these spirit wells that create a PvE objective that drives PvP. It creates a lot of action around controlling those points and allows teams to get revenue off of these control point objectives.  Everything we added was to speed up the pace, allow for more player options, and motivate PvP in the most action oriented way that we could, so we shifted the mode around to achieve those goals.”

Dave added on that the game is certainly not done and that the team went into closed beta specifically to make sure they could tune things to reach their goals. “We want to create a 1000 hour game that targets core gamers, that’s got a very high skillcap while bringing the barrier entry down as low as possible without dumbing the game down.”

What if despite all of Waystone’s efforts to give players tools to ‘break the meta’ players ended up settling in some sort of meta anyways? Would that be something Waystone would consider as a failure and view as an issue to respond to? Hunter admitted that they would indeed see this as a failure, “We would want to fix whatever root cause is causing that to happen. We’ve got a number of things working for us. The 0 CS support meta is borne from there being four sources of income for five characters. The role system allows us to always have one source of currency for one player. Things like that we’ve seen cause trouble for those other guys’ games, and they’ve embraced it, that works for them, but for what we want to achieve, we haven’t seen it break down yet, but I would totally want to fix it if it did. And that’s why we’re still in beta. I don’t think we’d leave beta if we were not sufficiently meeting that goal.”

One thing we noticed was that Dawngate’s Shapers (champions) seem to be resourceless as a rule, with a few exceptions. While the team initially found the notion of going this direction a bit daunting, we learned that the overall goal was to increase the pace of the game and optimize fun. Hunter explained that having to decide if you can or can’t use an ability isn’t really fun, but they’re also aware that being resourceless can cause balance issues with certain kits, which is why some Shapers have their own special resource restrictions. For example, Waystone wanted to give a high-damage character like Freia a hard CC, but they didn’t want her to be able to spam it, so she has to build up Rage through basic attacks first before she can lock down a target. This keeps her balance in check while allowing the team to build a game mostly around resourceless characters.

With DOTA 2 on one side of the spectrum and League of Legends on the other, where does Waystone intend to position Dawngate? Dave took this one, explaining, “In a competitive marketplace that everybody is trying to get into, you can measure on different axis, and one of the axis that I find very useful is expected and well understood mechanics and presentation versus another axis that’s intersecting with that which would have to do with rigidness versus flexibility.

What I think what we’re trying to do with Dawngate is not create something that has been done before, that you can go and find in other places. Something that isn’t as rigid in terms of the meta game as some other MOBAs are. I don’t want that word to sound overloaded or negative, it’s just a descriptor.  These guys have leaned into their game at this point, I love that game. But with Dawngate, that was a place we felt like we want to make a game for core gamers, so this is not a casual game. Players if they want to, can push the skill cap, ideally, infinitely high. They just keep getting better and better at it, but it deviates in meaningful ways from the guys whose shoulders we, frankly, get to stand on, by introducing new strategic depth to the way you’re able to express your gameplay mastery.”

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB

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