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Phinney on Alpha, Beta, Meta

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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When I checked in with Motiga at Gamescom to look at Gigantic, the team were on a lunch break. But, instead of putting their feet up, they were eagerly cramming in a few matches of their own. I don’t know if they sensed fresh meat, but I was ushered into a seat next to Creative Director James Phinney and told to buckle up.

For the next half-hour, I’m battling through some intense team-based action. I chose to play Charnok, a draconic sorcerer with a penchant for setting people on fire. After a quick intro, I’m starting to get the hang of Gigantic’s third-person combat, and start following Phinney’s instructions on where to move on the map. And then we hit the enemy team. In that moment, as I’m throwing down fire and trying to rack up the damage, I realise I’ve got a lot to learn.

There’s a lot of inspiration in Gigantic. The ageless art style and fast-paced maps remind me of days spent playing Team Fortress 2, but there are plenty of other ideas that have been thrown into the mix. A blend of high-fantasy and near-future heroes form the opening roster from which we pick our team of five, which feels straight out of a MOBA. And there’s the flexible third-person viewpoint, which should feel familiar to anyone who’s played MMO-based arena combat.

Looking beyond that, Gigantic is very much its own game. Each team is backed up by a – gigantic – creature or Guardian, which will surge forward into battle or cower in defence, depending on how their team performs. And, once a Guardian is mortally wounded, the game escalates into a Clash. It’s a chance to deliver a decisive victory, or turn the tables and cut down an enemy’s unprotected patron. And, as I found out, it can be when the whole game changes into an epic finale.

A New Kind of Multiplayer

We’ve been looking at Gigantic for some time now. Our very own Franklin Rinaldi went hands-on at PAX Prime a year ago, and closed alpha began shortly afterwards. Even though the game brings a new style of multiplayer that feels familiar-but-fresh, I was interested in finding out just want was taking all this time. With closed beta starting from August 28, Phinney brought me up to speed on how Gigantic had developed over the past year.

“The project’s – let’s say it’s approaching three years in development – and I’ve been there for most of that time. Pretty early on they knew they wanted to do something competitive, and they wanted to do something with giant monsters in it, and I came in and tried to make sense out of those things.”

“Basically, I had a couple of weeks after I came on board to see where things were and suggest the direction. Things came together pretty quickly as far as that went. […] For me, looking at what they had, and then talking with the team and seeing what was there, there were a few things that came together very quickly.”

“One was going back to the original Team Fortress mod for Quake. I always wanted to do a class based shooter, and in particular wanted to try and tackle the challenge of mixing fantasy elements, and fantasy combat things – spellcasting and melee – with shooting. I felt like it was a thing that I hadn’t seen done well before. Games would sometimes bring those elements in, but usually it’s a real compromise on one side or the other, like the melee’s very limited or rigid, the spellcasting is just shooting with different graphics on, that sort of thing. We wanted to try and do something where we really did all three of those. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for maybe about ten years.”

Then There Were Guardians

“If you look at the game structure of Gigantic, the abstract is very strongly based on Guild Wars 1 Guild versus Guild combat. One of the things I wanted to do very early, even just fitting it together, was bringing back VOD. It was a thing that used to be in Guild Wars 1, where the guild lords, 45 minutes into the match, would march out and yell ‘Victory or Death!’ and the game switched into this heightened intensity. In Gigantic we start with the Guardians at the far ends of the map, and then, when the Clash triggers, they both come out to the middle, and every match ends that way. There were things that were balance problems and gameplay problems in Guild Wars 1 with regards to the VOD that caused us to pull it out later, but building [Gigantic] from the start, we were able to get it.”

With that in mind, I was curious to find out if Phinney had received much feedback from Guild Wars players. “We’ve got a mix of random people in the alpha, and then we’ve got smaller groups who are part of our core group as we call it, and especially our competitive core group, which are more serious competitive players that can help us figure out play balance, things like that, and some of them come from a Guild Wars background.”

“At this point, as much as I’ve drawn from previous projects, Gigantic has taken on a life of it’s own. The focus is more on what’s working, what isn’t, how do we make it better.”

That alpha itself has been running for almost a year. I asked Phinney what had taken up most of the time, with Closed Beta only just around the corner. “The technical challenges. The game uses Unreal 3, and that gave us a huge leg-up early on. But if you look at the melee combat, and the fluidity of movement, we were able to get enough of a feel for what we were trying to do early on, but things were either hackable, or we had dsyncs that decreased playability. We actually had to rewrite a lot of the details about networking in order to support the kind of game that we were making, so that’s a many-months project. You have an engineer or two who’re focused on that, but then you have the guys focused on gameplay features, which then have to be redone to work with the new system that’s going to perform better, not be as hackable, and not have dsyncs that cause popping, rubber banding, that sort of stuff.”

“We have had a luxury, in that it is true because the core pieces of the game aren’t that numerous. We’ve been in this state, nine months before alpha, where we were able to playtest every day and have fun in the game. From there, there’s a lot of tuning you can do, experiment with different gameplay ideas, things like that. The fact that the number of overall systems in the game were simple, so that even if we had times where melee combat was broken so you couldn’t release it that way but it’s good enough for internal playtest, meant that we’ve been able to refine it a lot over the last two years, even while getting stuff technically up to snuff to actually release it.”

Fermenting the Meta

After having a look through the roster of heroes, some being more shooter-based, while others are more AoE or support focused, it became clear that there were different ways of approaching Gigantic. Was Phinney working on a skill-based shooter, or a more tactical and strategic RPG-style MOBA?

“It’s both. The way that we chose to tackle that is it’s both depending on what kind of hero you take. There are characters that are explicitly made for shooter players. In the game that we played, the enemy tame had Imani, and she’s a sniper, and she plays like a sniper – you can zoom in with your scope and make these very precise shots. She’s about your actual shooting skill – you still need tactical awareness; you still need to be in the right spot to pick things out.”

“She still has some abilities that, if you’re making a pure shooter, she might not have. So she has a smoke grenade that can weaken enemies that get hit with it, and can give invisibility to allies that are in it. Instead of just focusing on killing people, you’ve got this utility and support ability. She doesn’t have as much as other characters, and from a thought process standpoint you can stick more to a shooter mind-set, and from a mechanical skills standpoint it’s very much shooter.”

“And so there are characters like that for that kind of player. And you can make a very competitive team composition that has her on it, or that doesn’t. You then have other characters like Charnok, where you’re still aiming to some degree, but you can go down upgrade branches where there are some big hit AOEs, so it’s less about precision aiming, and it’s more about the thought process and timing. It’s about zoning as much as it is about damage.”

“And one of the other things about the game is the branching upgrades, where you’re taking a skill and maybe just making it stronger, or changing how it works. Taking Hot Hail as an example, one line does much more damage than the other, but one slows enemies that are in it. And so, depending on whether you’re really trying to be tactical and thinking of zoning, control, and helping your teammates out of a jam, you may go the slow route.”

“Usually I talk about dividing it into three categories – an action brawler skillset, a shooter skillset, and a more tactical and positional skillset. In all cases there’s some amount of aiming and awareness of where your allies are and whether you’re trying to attack as a group or not, but the skillset required varies a lot between characters.”

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Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.