Massive Chalice director Brad Muir has been playing a lot of Dota.
Muir is a member Potato Day, one of the participating teams in the recreational not-for-profit Dota 2 tournament The Rektreational. To say he has been playing a lot of Dota may be an understatement; there are still a handful of matches to go and the tournament itself began on Aug. 1.
With the Rektreational and Massive Chalice development ongoing simultaneously, it's not unbelievable that Dota 2 may have some influence on Muir's creation. As a game designer himself, one of the biggest takeaways Muir has taken from his time in Dota is that "it's okay to be fucking hardcore."
"If this thing that is basically impenetrable to a normal human can be so popular and suck in so many players, everything we've learned as designers about AAA games, about usability and having a hand-holding tutorial ... It makes me think about soccer games where they don't keep score," Muir told Polygon in a recent interview. "I think a lot of AAA game design has gone in that direction, super-handholding thrill-ride experiences, and Dota is the exact opposite of that."
Muir said the success of games like Dota 2, Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy prove that there's an audience for games that are unabashedly hard, with high barriers of entry and a labyrinth of systems to navigate. These games may be hard to get into, but they're still popular, meaning there is still fun to be found. Usability is obviously important, Muir thinks, but there doesn't have to be any hand-holding.
"We can focus on making the game really badass and later we can try and make it a little more useable and stuff," he said. "It's been inspiring for me. Dota is such an absurd beast to try and learn — and there is an audience for it."
"Dota is such an absurd beast to try and learn."
Muir has also been inspired by the way Valve handles special abilities in Dota, some of which can be used on both enemies and friendlies with varying results. Muir described a character called Disruptor that has the ability to teleport players back to where they were three seconds prior. This can be used on enemies teleporting into battle or used on teammates to help maneuver them into a better position.
"In the hands of someone who knows what they're doing, it's very interesting," Muir said. "I've taken that [lesson] to heart — using abilities on both friends and enemies opens up the game to more decision making on players part."
Keepin' it badass
Rather than nix design ideas early on in an effort to keep entry barriers low, Muir said designers can learn from Dota by saying "yes" more often, being more open to try new things. Aiming high and seeing how things unfold makes for a more interesting game; you can always tweak things later.
This philosophy also played into Muir and his team's decision to launch a backers-only beta for Massive Chalice, which is available today. Through the beta, Muir is hoping players will be up front with Double Fine on what they like and don't like, giving developers a chance to change and polish Massive Chalice into the game players will enjoy.
"When we put the Kickstarter up a year and a half ago, we did a lot of research on what other people were doing," he explained. "We launched Broken Age and that opened the gates to all these other high-profile game Kickstarters that came after us. They were all learning from what we did, but also trying new stuff. We're all learning from each other."
Muir explained that once you launch a game, you can't go back and change very much of it. The benefit of launching a Kickstarter, however, is that it puts you in touch with the community and creates an open channel for feedback. Muir wanted that opportunity to collect criticism from backers and respond to it directly by tweaking Massive Chalice accordingly. Using Kickstarter also adds transparency to the development process, depending on how many behind-the-scenes goodies you choose to share. This, according to Muir, is one of the better ways to teach an audience about what goes into game development.
"Massive Chalice is a really good example of this. You can go back and look at our streams from the first week where we just have some concept art and that's it, and you can follow it and see it develop with placeholder assets in the engine," he said. "We talk about the process, we talk about production spreadsheets — I'm really excited about that educational piece of it. It's giving a really in-depth look at it and it's really cool.
"Most behind-the-scenes products are also just bullshit; they show finished games," he added. "Kickstarter is a really honest look at how we make things, and you get to see the game when it was just beginning."
Of orcs and men
While Massive Chalice is a fantasy game, there are no fantastical races to play as. No orcs or elves, just plain old humans. Muir felt that adding fantasy races would not only prevent the game from feeling grounded, it would mean making complicated design decisions in terms of marriage and procreation. Massive Chalice allows for same-sex marriage and even adoption, but throwing a handful of races into the mix would turn the gene (and programming) pool into a bit of a circus.
"Kickstarter is a really honest look at how we make things."
"A goal of mine was to make a fantasy game that feels a little more grounded in reality, and I knew we'd have to tackle weird, real world problems like with aging characters, marriage, and birth and fertility rates," he said. "Things like these feel out of place in a fantasy game, I would say. Those things are pretty rarely approached in fantasy games. [Massive Chalice] is still a fantasy game, but I think there's an approach you can take where you can make it feel more grounded on the human side.
"One of my other goals was, I want people to think about the themes of the game, even if they're only thinking about them subconsciously," he added. "I want them to think about the legacies they leave behind. My biggest secret design goal is, I want people to play the game and then call their grandma, like when they see older characters pass away. I want to see that feeling bleed over into somebody's own life, where they're thinking about this."
Muir himself got married during Massive Chalice's development, and thoughts of children are very much in the forefront of his mind. He hopes that players consider their characters in the same way they would themselves or their own families, in terms of retiring older characters from the battlefield and nurturing younger ones.
"I want people to play the game and then call their grandma."
"If the two characters were orcs having kids, I don't think it would have that same impact," he added. "Because they're orcs. I don't think people would as readily draw a comparison to what they're seeing in their own day-to-day lives."
In Massive Chalice, players will get the chance to watch entire generations grow up, from cradle to battlefield to grave — if they survive to old age. Elder warriors can be retired to keeps, where they can marry, have children and live out the rest of their days without sword and shield. Muir said that while he wants players to get "super attached" to their procedurally generated characters, he doesn't want anyone to feel paralyzed by the aging system. Growing old and dying are part of life, and he would rather players celebrate their dead than mourn them — or restart their game to get them back.
"I think it's remarkable that my strongest connections to video game characters are in games with procedurally generated characters. I'm getting attached them to through gameplay rather than narrative," Muir said. "Like XCOM. I'm more interested in games that go down that road and try to get you invested through mechanics rather than the narrative of the game, that pulls you along and gets you attached to the specific character."
Making love... and war
By introducing aging and familial systems, Muir wants to avoid situations like those created in XCOM and Fire Emblem titles, where players will lose characters in battle and then restart missions in order to save them. Massive Chalice encourages what are commonly called "organic playthroughs," where you stick to the trail of achievements and death you create without going back for do-overs. Muir affectionately called Massive Chalice's aging system "my first permadeath," since it introduces natural death as a (necessary) option.
"The permadeath isn't there to punish you," he said. "It's there to make your game more interesting. If you're playing Final Fantasy Tactics and you only use the same five or six characters, you're missing out on this incredible experience when one of the pieces of your tactical puzzle is suddenly removed and you have to train up a different character with a different class and stats to take their place. With natural aging, I'm trying to force players into this situation where almost everyone's battle and party will have slightly different makeup."
Muir also hopes that by having an aging system, players who lose characters in battle will be more willing to solider on with their game knowing they would age and die anyway. The system adds poignancy and meaning to death in combat and teaches players unfamiliar with permadeath what make the feature itself interesting.
Players will have to balance growing bloodlines and winning battles if they don't want to lose their kingdom. The way Massive Chalice's systems are set up is meant to encourage those who are maybe more interested in making children than they are making war — or vice versa — to invest in both areas. Retiring older heroes to keeps and having them make families that in turn go to war keeps both areas tightly interrelated, and players can also choose to not retire older warriors and let them live out their lives on the battlefield. Do this too frequently, and you could end up with some bloodlines dying out. Retire too many good warriors and you may lose battles immediately, but several generations down the line you may have a score of smart, powerful warriors. It's all about balancing immediate wants with an eye towards the future.
"It's super deep in ways I don't quite understand yet."
But there is a way to royally screw up, dead-ending your playthrough and forcing you to start over, Muir said.
"There's so much randomness in initial group of heroes given, it really does take playing through in a different direction very time to learn it," Muir said, noting that current playtesters have shown an eagerness to start over when everything falls to pieces.
The game's enemy, a "creepy miasma" called the Cadence, is eating away at the kingdom's borders. Players must choose which areas to defend and respond to, sometimes leaving other pieces of the kingdom to fall. Players have to also keep ahead on characters' experience, marrying bloodlines for more powerful children to combat these darkness. Fail on this regard, and you can lose entire bloodlines or the entire game.
"It's super deep in ways I don't quite understand yet," Muir said of Massive Chalice, noting there is little precedence for a game so entrenched in both family ties and military strategy. "There are no real comparisons for stuff in the game. There are lots of games that do generational stuff and are more narrative driven, like Phantasy Star 3. But we're making Massive Chalice more fluid. It's like a simulator of every day of a 300-year timeline with things like fertility rates and inception rates to care about.
"It's been hard to balance, but it's in a good spot," he said.
Full disclosure: The writer of this story has a personal relationship with an employee at Double Fine unrelated to this project. You can find information about Polygon's ethics statement here.