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Phinney on Alpha, Beta, Meta

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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Layered on top of skill, there needs to be a depth to gameplay, so that we want to return to a game again and again. Phinney is also confident that Gigantic will offer that vital element.

“I think of it in terms of a couple of different layers. […] Developing your mechanical skill, your tactical awareness, learning teamwork, and understanding the strategy of the game. When is the right time for an all-out attack; when is it better to give up map control to get a wound on an enemy guardian; when is it all 5 together, 4 and 1, 3 and 2, 2-2-1. There’s growth on all those levels.”

“Some of the tactical and positional characters – call them RPG characters – some of them also have more complex skill interactions and skill rotations, so there’s a mental skill of keeping those clocks in your head and figuring out how you’re going to manipulate those skill interactions.”

“But in addition, if you think about an individual game, you’re thinking about what character am I playing, what are my capabilities, what role does my team need based on my team composition. Also, what weaknesses do I need to shore up based on my opponent’s team composition. Taking Charnok as an example, you can take his fire breath and focus on upgrading that so it becomes really devastating offensive weapon that requires you to be in-close to use it, which isn’t nessecarily your favourite range in some situations. But there are also a bunch of upgrades you can take on it instead that increase your survivability and help you at long range. One of the upgrades will burn incoming projectiles, and so now you can play the role of defensive shield for your team.”

“So understanding the enemy team, what they’re good at, what you’re good at, and being able to upgrade your character in different ways to respond to the specific situation, and knowing how to play that character one way or the other, so there’s lots of room to grow and for your team to be playing at a higher level. A lot of these things too, we think of in terms of casual play – individual mastery and basic coordination – and then high-end play where you’re really going to specialise, and where you’re going to funnel XP to this character, and so on. We definitely tried to create lots and lots of room for a continuous sense of mastery.”

“And when I talk about getting feedback from the core players on the balance of the game, that’s one of the things we look at. It’s not just ‘does this skill do too much damage, should the cooldown on this be larger?’ It’s ‘Is the mechanical skillcap for twitch aiming where we want it to be, do we need to push this farther or is it too much?’ Also ‘Is the level of depth there? Does this need more complexity here, can that system be simpler? We’re constantly checking in with them on that and trying out new things there.”

The Microsoft Deal

Back in June, Motiga announced that Gigantic would exclusively launch on Windows 10 and, surprisingly Xbox One. But just how did the deal come about? “We’re an independent studio, so we have to look at funding opportunities, and so we’re talking to lots of different people about lots of different things all the time. Our priority has always been to do it in a way that wasn’t going to interfere with our goal of the game, where we knew we were going to have the independence to continue to make the game that we wanted to make.”

“The thing with Microsoft started as just a conversation about Xbox. It wasn’t a primary goal when we started, but as we got into it, it became clear that we were making a game that would work pretty well on a console too. It happened to be the case that our lead gameplay engineer had been doing some console shooter stuff on a previous project, and so just for fun on his own, he made it so you could play the game on a controller.”

“This was an opportunity. We were talking about ways to get funding, and looking at selling the rights, either publishing or an exclusivity deal or something to get it onto a console. It would get it out to more people and put us in a better position financially to keep working on the game. And unbeknownst to us, [Microsoft] were working behind the scenes on this big initiative to move Xbox Live onto Windows, to make Windows 10 a good gaming platform, and to most importantly unify the gaming experience across PC and console. And so, when they talked to us and saw what we were doing, they got pretty excited, and pretty soon we were talking about things that were different from our initial conversation.”

“It also has real meaning in terms of development. The things that they’re doing in order to bring Xbox Live onto Windows 10 - you can have your Xbox friends list there; you can chat with them, voice chat, whether your on PC or Xbox One - all these things are massive engineering efforts on their part. And then for us, that’s the system we’re developing into We’re not developing a bunch of other stuff right now, and the upside for us in saying that we’re going to support cross-platform play and these things – there’s engineering effort there for us. We’re solely focused on Windows 10 and Xbox One, and we see the boldness of the vision they have there to bring it all together, and that part’s really good and appealing, even as a developer.”

How has that console version turned out? It’s a mode that Phinney seems pleasantly surprised by. “We unveiled the Xbox One build back at E3, and spent some time tuning the controls and that stuff. Just getting the controls to work is one thing, but the experience playing a shooter is different on console versus PC - getting all those controls tuned was an experience. So we spent quite a while where the official playtest was just playing that. Now we’re back at the point where we do both, but gotten used to it. And it’s a good experience on console.”

“I’ve been very sceptical. We’ve said when Microsoft was very excited about cross-platform play, we’ve said we can do it, I just – shooter controls, the precision responsiveness is just different to me. I don’t know that we can really have them play together. And so we’ve hedged our bets, we’ve said opt-in cross-platform play, but we’re exploring it to see what happens. The fact is that aside from the extreme shooter-themed characters, people do just as well with either, and in fact some of the people playing the big characters like The Margrave who doesn’t have any ranged attacks and is just a melee guy, prefer.”

"We’ve got our internal rankings at the office, and our number four player, Margrave is one of his main characters. He plays him with a controller against people who are playing keyboard and mouse, and he’s maintained his ranking in the office with that.”

The Battle of MOBAs

On the PC side of things at least, Gigantic faces some stiff competition. A small number of games dominate the genre with tried and tested gameplay, while newcomers struggle to gain traction. As we wrapped up, I asked Phinney why someone should give Motiga’s game a try.

“I think the main thing – and probably anyone who’s making a game feels this way – is just try it out and you’ll figure out for yourself if you should be playing it. There are a lot of awesome games out there. I think there’s a joy to Gigantic. We’ve spent a lot of effort in terms of building the team and process to make sure we can create a game that can work for serious competition, that has depth and richness to it that you can come back and play and always feel like there’s room for personal growth.”

“But fundamental to the identity of this game is there’s just a joy to moving around in it, there’s just a joy to looking at it. There’s a fluidity, a dynamic quality, a humour to it. We get plenty worked up in the game – I think I probably dropped an F-bomb at one point, but at the same time time it’s a PvP game where the emotions and feelings aren’t all crude juvenile aggression. The things I want people to take away from the game – obviously I want them to have fun while playing the game - but I want them to come away with stories they have to tell, about stuff that happened, about stuff they did, about feelings they had when they played it.”

“And I want them to feel like their time was well spent. It’s just a game, but you come away and you feel enriched in some way from it, and I think we’re creating a game that can do that, that’s fun to play, that’s fun to watch, where you come away energised about the possibilities of what you can do next time. And as much as there are the highs and lows of competition, it gives you a range of feelings that you don’t get elsewhere. Besides that, it’s a better action game than any other game that offers the competitive depth that it has.”

Gigantic is slated to enter Closed Beta on August 28, and you can sign up on the official site. A release window hasn’t yet been announced, but I’m hopeful for sometime in the Fall/Winter season.

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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.