Will Cook first realized that he had something special on his hands with Atlas Reactor when he put the game on an office television.
"We put on a 6v6 bot match with no victory conditions and no time limits," Cook, the game's lead designer, says with a laugh. "We just put it on, and it lasted for days at a time. Thousands of kills. A couple of us walked over, and a crowd started gathering, and then someone said, 'Ten bucks on blue team to 3,000.'"
The office betting pool continues to this day.
a different kind of turn-based
Atlas Reactor comes to us via Trion Worlds, a developer primarily known for massively multiplayer games such as Rift. While Atlas Reactor is online-focused, it's not massive in any sense of the word. It's a game about teams of opponents fighting on mostly symmetrical maps, not unlike Dota 2 or the aforementioned League of Legends. It is, in almost every sense, a change of pace for Trion.
It's also turn-based.
Here's how the game works in what is currently Atlas Reactor's primary mode: At the start of a match, each player picks a hero character (known as a "freelancer") to control. Teams can be made up of as few as two players or as many six on each side. Trion is still tweaking balance and figuring out what feels best.
Matches consist of turns where each player plots out the action they want to perform. But unlike most turn-based multiplayer games, each player is taking their turn at the same time in Atlas Reactor. And although turn-based often translates as slow and contemplative, Trion wants games to move at a good clip, so there's a tight time limit to how long each turn lasts — in the match I played, it was 30 seconds.
it's astounding how quickly the visual language of Atlas Reactor clicked
When each player has finished inputting their choices for the turn, everyone's actions play out simultaneously. That may sound messy, and it certainly could be in practice, but Atlas Reactor handles it smartly by splitting actions into a number of distinct phases.
Remember, again, that actually inputting actions is its own segment of gameplay. When those actions play out is determined by which of the following phases it falls under.
First is the prep phase. In this phase, players can put buffs on their team or debuffs on the enemy team, or lay traps that can catch players in the following phases. In my game, I played as a gunslinger named Lockwood, who was able to toss down mines during this phase to catch unsuspecting opponents off guard.
The dash phase comes second. In most cases in Atlas Reactor, attacks take place before movement. However, if you know you're about to get devastated by an enemy attack, you can activate a dash ability to hop out of the way before an attack goes off. These abilities tend to have a cooldown time of many turns, so they can only be used sparingly.
In the third phase, known as the blast phase, attack abilities are activated. No attacks in Atlas Reactor are targeted; rather, everything is aimed in a general direction, meaning well-placed attacks can often hit multiple enemies, while a poorly-executed blast could miss altogether.
And finally, after everything, is the move phase. Every character can perform one action and one "move" per turn, with different characters being able to move across the map at different speeds.
This may read complicated, and it can be overwhelming in the first 10 minutes or so. But what's astounding about Atlas Reactor is just how quickly the visual language of the game clicked and made sense to me. Within minutes of putting my hand on the mouse and keyboard, I was blowing through my turns rapidly, figuring out clever ways to trap the other team in a major attack or dodge out of the way of an enemy bombardment.
That is to say, I felt smart from the start.
depth, mastery and watchability
Cook and team first revealed Atlas Reactor a few weeks ago at the Penny Arcade Expo. The initial reaction from Trion fans, as you might expect, was one of shock and confusion.
"A lot of people were stone-faced at first," Cook says. "But then they got it. They said, 'Holy crap, this is different.'"
That certainly mirrors my own reaction. I went into this appointment skeptical, uncertain that it would even be worth covering. Another hero-based online competitive game? And from a studio that normally just makes MMOs? It sounded desperate. And then, within minutes, I was turned around.
On the studio level, Cook says the game only made it to this point because it was playable from its earliest days.
"Our original prototype was just made of blocks," says Cook. "It didn't have simultaneous turns right off the bat. But it was always fun. It was fun to get two teams going at it in turn-based combat. It was fun to play. That's why it survived at Trion."
Executive Producer Peter Ju says that where Trion has previously sought to master the MMO marketplace, it's now turning its eyes toward a very different type of game development. The development of Atlas Reactor began with the team asking a single question: Why are competitive games fun?
"There's two reasons we figured out," Ju says. "One is improving your raw skills. Any time you're grinding a combo in Street Fighter or figuring out a better way to last-hit in League of Legends or figuring out better decks in Hearthstone, you feel like you're getting more mastery of the game.
"But the other thing, what most people generally say when they're really into a game, the thing they love the most is when they outplay their opponent. It's when they learn enough about a game's nuances to know that an opponent is going to move in one direction, so they move in a different direction and outguess them. That high level of play, that's what's really fun about a competitive game; you just have to get through all this other stuff to get to that point."
Ju says Atlas Reactor was designed to make players feel smart from the start.
"A lot of popular surprise success games don't follow normal game design rules," Ju explains. "If you look at DayZ or Minecraft or League of Legends, they're complex. They're hard to get into. There's a lot of learning before you get anything interesting out of them. And yet people really enjoy them."
Cook began the Atlas Reactor project completely baffled by this style of game design.
"I didn't understand that depth of learning element at first," he says. "But now I get it: The more you learn, the more you invest in something, the more you're having fun. The thing I always value in a game is new gameplay experiences. Well, it makes the game new again when you learn a new technique or learn how to play better."
With that focus on depth, Trion is also looking at supporting serious competitive play with Atlas Reactor, although the developer stresses that it's not going to try to force that.
"We firmly believe that you can't just make an eSports game," says Senior Producer James Karras. "What I mean by that is, you have to have this passionate community. You have to have people who love the game. It has to grow organically into an eSports game."
Rather than just assuming it will be a success in that field, Trion is focusing on making the game what Karras calls "eSports-compatible." This will include replays and a spectator mode, but also the freedom to make sure the game feels fun for more casual players. Some of those elements came surprisingly naturally.
"We lucked out on one thing," Cook says. "Because Atlas Reactor has a resolution phase in which all the players are spectating anyway, we had to make it watchable just to understand it."
Thus how quickly I figured the game out just from watching it. Thus the office betting pool. And thus the creation of a very promising new competitive game.
As has become standard for hero-based competitive games, Atlas Reactor will be free-to-play. While Trion says it's still figuring out precisely how its model will work, the developers are focus on making it fair and focusing sales on cosmetic items.
One major cosmetic that players will be able to purchase, for example, is taunts. As of right now, each hero has one taunt for every main ability they have. When you choose to use an ability, you can also decide to tie a taunt to it as a flourish. If you do so, the game will play a mini-cutscene — no more than five seconds or so — as the power in question goes off.
Think of it like the player emotes in Hearthstone, except tied to a cooldown and connected to specific plays rather than usable at any point.
From the few I saw, taunts seem like a brilliant addition to Atlas Reactor. They're brief enough that they don't slow down the game, goofy enough to add a lot of character and just mean enough to add a little sting when you pull off the perfect attack.
There's a counter to that, as well. Ju says he wants there to be consequences when a player attempts a taunt but misses their attack. That should be extra-embarrassing.
Trion also has major ambitions for expanding Atlas Reactor and allowing players to do more than traditional hero-based competitive games. There will be a co-op PvE mode as well as the ability for players to create their own custom game modes.
"I would stick with other competitive games longer if they would provide me with more things to do"
"Our designers are really excited about variant modes," Cook says. "So many games today, there's only one way to play them. We want to make a robust game with a lot of options so people can discover new ways to play it. I would stick with other competitive games longer if they would provide me with more things to do from time to time."
Cook gives a few examples of custom modes Trion has come up with internally, such as allowing a single player to control every hero, or a mode where turns only last five seconds. But what they really want is to see what players come up with when given these tools.
He likens it to StarCraft's custom game mode, the birthplace of the earliest forms of what eventually became Dota. It only makes sense for Trion to pay homage and see what new creations might be birthed from their own game.
"We think of Atlas Reactor less as one way to play a game and more as a new kind of game to play," Cook says.
Cook and team have a ways to go until Atlas Reactor is ready for public consumption. But if what they've shown us so far is any indication, this is indeed a new kind of game to play, and one I'll be spending a lot of time with in the coming years.