Paragon, Epic Games’ take on the MOBA, is doing pretty well so far, especially for a game that hasn’t officially launched, says the main designer at the studio.
More than a million people signed up for the beta. The studio, keeping to its promise of regular, significant updates and new content, has rolled out 14 updates and has released a new hero every three weeks. It has heroes roughed out into 2017.
On Aug. 16, the open beta kicks off for PC and PlayStation 4 and all of the game’s heroes will be free.
Things are looking good for Paragon, only they’re not. Not really.
Project lead Steve Superville just isn’t happy with some aspects of the game, and he doesn’t think players are either. There are a slew of tiny problems he sees in the flow of gameplay, things maybe players don’t even pick up. And matches are running too long. While the median length of a match is 37 minutes, just two minutes longer than the team’s goal, the matches that are skewing the numbers higher can run nearly an hour long. And they can become boring, stilted slogfests.
"That’s the stuff that makes those games painful," Superville said in a recent Skype interview. "We have ideas for how to make the game still feel like Paragon and not have these issues. But we need to figure out the right way to implement [them]. There’s a bunch of things that gets us to that state."
On June 21, Epic will roll out its latest hero, a melee fighter dressed in skins, wielding twin stone axes that can pounce on targets. Khaimera also has an ultimate attack that summons a spirit animal to double down on his damage.
But more importantly, the team will begin rolling out significant changes to the way heroes level up in a match, the way experience is dispersed and how minions, the game-changing Orb Prime and Inhibitors work. There will also be tweaks to hero types and the process of matchmaking.
And those are the small changes. Later this year, months out, the big changes hit, completely reworking things like fast travel, teleportation and card purchases in match.
The game’s many, mostly tiny, problems can be summarized in one major issue: the deathball.
Back in April, the Paragon development team spelled out exactly what the deathball was and why it was such a significant problem for the game’s balance and play.
Essentially what happens is that the team breaks up early on to clear jungle camps for buffs, then breaks into smaller teams to start taking out weaker opposing characters. Once the team has gained enough card points — which are used to unlock Paragon’s take on gear — the team groups up and wipes the field of minions and of opposing players and of heroes.
This is doable because under Paragon’s current rules, the card points earned by players are shared equally. So players don’t all have to work toward a single goal to get those points. And once the deathball gets rolling it’s nearly impossible to stop because of the game’s movement system, which makes it very challenging to escape a team of five once you’re caught out.
Enter the myriad tweaks and fixes.
"Paragon is always evolving," Superville said. "We said that the online tests, the early access, the open beta would be a chance to discuss what players want and present changes.
"We’re sticking to what we said and we’re going to do that now: Evolve the game."
The goal is to bring a more MOBA feel to the title. What that means to Superville is that players will be forced into more choices that require a commitment. That, he belives, will lead to more strategic choice making in-game.
The first wave of changes, most of which will hit on June 21, will be significant.
Card experience will no longer be evenly divided between players. This is being done mostly to help deal with the deathball issue.
"Deathball is counterable, but also it’s too easy a strategy to use," Superville said. "And it’s only counterable by a very organized team."
After the update hits, the last person to hit a hero, object or minion and take it out will get 100 percent of that experience. Everyone who assisted in taking out the target will split another 100 percent of experience.
So, for instance, when three players get together to attack a minion, the player with the final, killing blow will get 100 percent of the experience and the other two players will split another 100 percent of the experience.
Experience earned in the jungle will only go to the last hitter, moving forward.
Hero leveling is also changing. Currently, when a hero levels a player has to choose what to level up between their basic attack, special attacks and ultimate. Now the basic attack will auto level and instead players will focus on leveling up their special attacks and ultimate.
The max levels for each ability are also being tweaked. Now the basic attack will be the same level as the character while the specials will max out at level four and the ultimate will max out at level three.
Minions will no longer spawn in groups of six; instead they will spawn in groups of four, making it a bit easier to manage attacking them and getting the last hit in as a hero. The minions' damage to heroes will be increased and their damage to towers decreased to make sure that a hero-free lane doesn’t topple to minions.
The game’s inhibitors are no longer going to respawn when they are taken down. Currently, a timer kicks in when they are destroyed and eventually the com back. The problem, Superville said, was that when a team lost an inhibitor it would withdraw back to that location and play defense until it respawned, slowing down matches.
Now when an inhibitor goes down, a team can’t wait out the respawn clock. That tweak creates a new, significant challenge.
The team is making a change to the way the Orb Prime works to help mitigate that a bit.
In Paragon, the Orb Prime is a ball protected by a large creature in a special jungle camp near the middle of the map. Currently, when you kill the creature and take the orb to a special return location in enemy territory, the seventh card in every players’ hand is activated, giving the team a substantial buff.
"You had to go in, kill the guardian and dump the orb at the alter," Superville said. "That means you had to win two team fights to get anything out of it.
"We wanted to add a bit more."
So, now when the guardian is killed the carrier of the orb gets their prime power immediately.
That player then can decide whether they want to try and dump the orb at the enemy’s alter to give the entire team their prime powers, or just hold it to keep their own active.
A third choice allows a team to dump the orb at their own alter, which causes all of the team’s inhibitors to respawn.
It’s a significant change that could lead to a major shift in the way the game is played.
Finally, the upcoming slate of changes will impact how some heroes are played.
Casters will now have a longer range on their abilities so they can out-range the ranger class.
"It makes them more effective and allows them to trade blows with a ranger," Superville said.
All passive abilities tied directly to a hero will also now be removed. Some will shift to be tied to a button press, doubling up what certain abilities can do, and some will simply be removed.
Kallari’s ultimate will no longer dash forward. Instead, she will be able to see damage levels of all enemies on the map and then choose which one of them to teleport to.
"Kallari had some issues," Superville said. "She was very hard to balance, a very all or nothing character."
Finally, the upcoming changes will change matching to feel more like a draft mode.
When a player goes to start a match now against other players they will be dropped into a group of nine other players, which will then be sorted out to make the teams evenly matched.
Then each team will take turns picking a character. So the first player on team A will pick one character, and then the first player on team B and the second player on team B will pick a character. This goes back and forth until everyone has chosen different characters.
The lobby will also allow players on a team to chat about which characters they want before selection starts, in an effort to mitigate players dropping when they don’t get their choice, a big problem with the game’s matchmaking right now.
Superville also walked me through future plans for the game. Changes that he says are months out.
At the top of the list is dealing with the game’s travel mode, which is essentially the ability to sprint in the game.
"Travel mode causes a lot of issues on the player and the design side," he said. "On the design side, characters with special mobility built-in are less important. Gideon has teleport, but everyone has travel mode."
And in the case of that roving deathball, it’s often impossible to get into travel mode because a hit can knock you out of it and the enemies are usually sprinting when they come upon you.
"It also means that matches often go longer than they should because players can be just about everywhere all of the time and defend everything," Superville said. "You can get to all of your inhibitors at any time."
When team fights happen, they rarely are fully resolved because of travel mode.
"When one team loses a hero, everyone splits up, goes off in different directions and enters travel mode," he said. "It’s much more difficult to do team wipes."
So the developers started investigating ways to limit or possible remove travel mode.
The solution turned out to be removing travel mode completely and replacing it with teleport.
"Heroes will be able to teleport to friendly structures, but there is a 90 second cooldown," Superville said. "You can teleport to a friendly tower or a harvester and can rotate smoothly around the map. But that cooldown does make you commit to your choices."
While a teleport takes three seconds to cast, it can only be interrupted with a stun attack.
"So you can make narrow escapes with this," he said.
The team didn’t want to create a system that had players using this new teleport mechanic simply to buy their cards, so it created something called drop pods.
The drop pod is like a courier system. It is available every minute and is used to purchase cards in the field. The pods can be destroyed by enemy heroes in the field and when that happens it triggers a three minute cooldown to call down another pod.
"This adds some really cool cat and mouse games," Superville said, "and it has allowed for teams to make a surprise come back."
Finally, the team is working toward supporting more competitive play in Paragon.
"We will be working toward a set of rules for tournaments," Superville said. "So everyone is competing on equal footing. We’re introducing ranked play in the relatively near future also, once we feel that the hero roster is up to a decent size."
He said the team is also working on improving the games replay creation and spectating modes.
"I feel like all of this is going to have a really good impact," Superville said. "A lot of the things that new players have to learn are made harder by how things work now, like how cards work."
While Superville is sure that players will be happy with the changes (he says early play tests have been met only with enthusiasm), he’s not sure the changes will actually fix the game’s problems.
"We don’t know," he said. "This is designer theory land.
"But I think this is the path to success. I think our path to victory is with our frequency of change, delivering major updates and brand new heroes."