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Paragon’s Monolith reinvention reaps big rewards

5M players and growing

Paragon, Epic's ever-evolving MOBA-like action game, is suddenly seeing a jump in interest and play, the developers told Polygon this week.

The number of weekly active users is up 44 percent as is the number of new players, said John Wasilczyk, executive producer on the game. Existing player engagement, which the developer define as a person who plays more than four days a week, is up 13 percent. And the number of returning players is up nearly 200 percent.

Those jumps all happened after the release of the Monolith update, the latest iteration of Paragon that is more reinvention than patch.

The update, which went live earlier this month, completely replaces the single map in Epic Games' free-to-play title. It also changes many of the basic rules, speeds up the play, reworks cards and tweaks most of the characters.

Monolith’s new look
Epic Games

The result has been, besides more players playing more frequently, a jump in average play time by 16 percent, matchmaking time dropping, average game length shifting down by 7 percent and, perhaps most telling, a 40 percent drop in how often people quit out of an active game. Epic declined to give Polygon any raw numbers like the number of weekly active users.

"Games are more competitive," Wasilczyk said. "Players are enjoying it more and they're sticking around."

Evolution or revolution

Paragon isn't simply Epic's take on the massively popular, massive online battle arena sort of games like League of Legends. The title is also a key example of where Epic Games sees its games and the entire industry headed: Video games can't be, shouldn't be static, boxed releases anymore, they need to be titles that evolve to meet the demands and the needs of its players.

Technically, Paragon is still in beta. Just in beta might be a better way to put that. The game was released in early 2016 as a closed, private alpha. It launched in early access beta for folks who paid for that privilege, and some nice add-ons, in March. And finally in August the game hit open beta.

Over the past year, while all of this was going on, the game also underwent some major changes with the promise of more to come. All the while, the developers also kept a steady stream of new characters hitting the game.

But it wasn't until Dec. 5, when the game's Monolith update, went live, that the developers really shook things up.

Nail-biters

"Getting Monolith out there was a very big push for the team," Wasilczyk said. "It shows our commitment to work-in-progress and early access.

"We're looking forward to how it does, but so far, so good."

Perhaps, that's an understatement.

Monolith concept art
Epic Games

In my time with the new game, I've found matches to be much more competitive and the chance of an upset victory or loss much higher, even leading into the final moments of the games.

To put it another way, Paragon's Monolith delivers a lot more nail-biting moments than I've seen in all of my time with the pre-Monolith Paragon.

The goal of having slightly shorter matches also seems to have been achieved, with most of the ones I've played lasting 30 to 40 minutes.

And that time flies by, unlike in the older version of Paragon, which often had long periods of running around trying to find someone to engage or something to do. Or even longer moments of knowing you were going to lose and that there really wasn't anything you can do about it.

Monolith jungle
Epic Games

Going into Monolith unprepared, its easy to think you've made some catastrophic mistake early on in the game, or that you're doing so well you're assured victory. But once you've played a number of matches, you start to realize that a loss or a win shouldn't be counted on until the game is over.

Despite all of the work, despite this massive change, Wasilczyk said the team knows the game isn't done.

"We know we still have a lot of work ahead of us and the game is still in beta," he said.

The sweet spot

Going through my first week of Monolith play made it clear that Paragon — the Paragon you may have read about, or watched in action or even played — wasn’t really Paragon.

That was simply a testbed.

That Paragon was OK, I played it a bit, sometimes maybe even a little obsessively. But even at the best of times it always felt like there was something just not clicking about the action-based MOBA.

Matches could run too long, well past the point where both sides were sure who was going to win and who was going to lose.

The distance between fights, between home and where the action was, between just about everything, was grating. I spent far too long running or hoping to go from a fast walk to a run.

Paragon’s cards system, which was the game’s item system, was too complex.

The characters all seemed just almost right.

The action, wasn’t action-y enough. At times I felt like my character was wading through mud. I knew what I wanted to do, but my character simply couldn’t react quickly enough.

That sounds like everything, when you stop to look at it. And I guess it is a lot, but there was still something there, something I really enjoyed about the core idea driving Paragon.

I like that this was a game trying to reimagine the MOBA, to make it faster and a bit more twitchy. But the result was a game, stuck high and dry between two genres.

Sevarog takes on Grim.exe in the new map
Epic Games

I’ve met with and spoken to the team working on Paragon a few times. They told me about small changes, how the game was very much a work in progress. Paragon was, in many ways, meant to be a perfect example of what developer Epic Games wants all of its creations to be: living works, bits of entertainment that can evolve until they find an audience sweet spot.

But the changes, no matter how many, always seemed like baby steps for a game in need of much more.

Monolith

The Monolith update essentially changes everything a little, and somethings a lot.

The biggest, most noticeable change is the map.

The team tossed out what it’s now calling the Legacy map for one that they call Monolith. It’s much smaller and obviously meticulously designed around the year of player feedback the team has received. There’s nothing wasted in this map, no stretch of rocky terrain, foggy pathway or encounter path that isn’t there for a very specific reason.

Legacy map
Decoy11 screengrab on Epic Games forum

On some level, the map almost looks like a distorted Yin-Yang symbol. The right and left paths of the map counter-balance one another depending on which side you’re playing. The center is designed as a path for fierce one-versus-one play.

The jungle that fills the gaps between the paths are a maze of tight turns, minions and walls of fog. If you play the jungle (my new favorite role in this map) you have to balance the need to feed your team card experience (or Amber) for purchasing card upgrades, with the role of constant agitator and instigator along the paths.

The left path is designed for a player to defend towers against two attackers. The right path is designed for two attackers to try to take down towers defended by one player.

Of course, all of this is in a perfect world where no one goes against the tactics (and there are other tactics that one can use in the game). Stuff tends to get ugly quickly. But not in the way that the old game did.

Monolith map
Epic Games

Players more used to the legacy map or more traditional MOBA games may be put off by how small Monolith is, how twitchy it can feel. You can, for instance, avoid attacks if you're quick enough, or take down a character, who on paper should be able to knock you down, simply by being better at the game.

I find this new take on the MOBA and Paragon not just refreshing but sort of hard to put down. It's a breath of fresh air in a genre that has, through fear of not staying competitive or losing fans, grown banal.

Legacy

Legacy, the name the developers gave the original map, is unlikely to reappear in Paragon anytime soon or maybe even ever.

For the foreseeable future Monolith is Paragon and the work the team does to improve the game and its play will all be done on the new map.

"We're planning on focusing everything toward Monolith," Wasilczyk said.

Starting in 2017, the developers will once more release a new character every three weeks. They also plan to continue iterating on the game over time. They want to see what players do with this map, how they treat it and what they like and don't like about it so they can make it and the game better.

TwinBlast’s Shadow Ops skin
Epic Games

Already, just a week after the release of the map, the developer rolled out a new crafting system for the game's cards. It's a little rough, a little clicky to get around in and use, but it's a start.

And Wasilczyk tells me that the user interface team is constantly doing passes on the interfaces to "try and freshen things up and smooth out the rough edges."

"I think Monolith is a great foundation to build on," he added. "We'll see how people react to it as they get more time with it.

"But it feels like a really solid foundation."

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