Sitting next to me in a small, private bar in Los Angeles is Simon Bennett. He’s the director at Roll7, makers of Not a Hero and the OlliOlli series. He looks absolutely wrung out.
One reason why could be that this time around he’s elected not to adjust to the time difference between here and London. So, while I’m just getting over my post-lunch sluggishness he looks ready for bed. The other reason why he’s so tired is because he’s finally unveiled a project he’s been working on for no less than four years. It’s called Laser League, and he’s hoping that it becomes the next hit indie game. You can get a taste of it in the teaser above.
Imagine the light cycles from Tron mashed up with the class-based gameplay of Overwatch and the arena-like environment of Rocket League and you’ve only begun to scratch the surface.
In the next room a group of six journalists are playing it on a PlayStation 4 and absolutely roaring. The louder they get, the bigger Bennett’s smile.
“I was fat before today and now I’m light on my feet,” he tells me, rubbing his eyes. There was a bit of a technical snafu getting the presentation going, but in the end it went alright.
“Getting to this stage and delivering today’s PowerPoint, and the clusterfuck technical nightmare that it was, was awful. Regardless, I didn’t care that it was going wrong because it was so nice to finally talk about this game. We literally had it on the tip of our tongues for so long and to be able to actually see people playing it now and to know that come E3 we’ll actually be able to talk about it as a studio is fucking awesome, man. It’s a release.”
Laser League started as an idle project back in 2013, or maybe even earlier. At first it was a two-dimensional game that looked a bit like multiplayer Geometry Wars. The original title was Cosmic Ultra Neon Tactics, a cheeky name which he now openly regrets. It managed to get people’s attention even without the offensive acronym.
In Ultra Neon Tactics, as it became known in more polite circles, players moved from node to node activating them to create spinning patterns of neon laser lines. When the opposing side touched those laser lines they would die, and the last team standing won. It was an addictive combination of bullet hell shoot-em-up, couch co-op and multiplayer team sport.
But it was always just a toy. Roll7 would trot it out behind closed doors, mostly for other devs at conventions.
“We had it at E3, at PAX, at GDC, at Rezzed,” Bennett said. “Other developers from all over were invited. A lot of the Devolver Digital crew saw it. We would bring it along, and it was just our fun little thing that we would do after the show.
“We’d all sit around and play Cosmic Ultra Neon Tactics, and we just really enjoyed playing it. And there was never really a conversation as to building this big 3D pseudo-commercial title out of it. It was just this fun thing for so long.”
But the years stretched on, and every once in awhile creative director John Ribbins would come into an important meeting — before a milestone mid-way through OlliOlli, for instance — and mention that he’d become sidetracked with it again.
“He’d be like, ‘Guys? I’ve been making some changes to the Ultra Neon Tactics thing,” Bennett said. “And we’d be like, ‘What the fuck are you doing playing with another game when we’re busy with this and we’ve got Not A Hero Coming? What are you doing?’”
Little by little, they tried to make it into a commercial product. Bennett says they burned up a whole host of concept artists trying to move the game over to 3D. Finally, he told me, it was the success of Rocket League that helped crystallize their vision.
“We were sat at two o’clock in the morning playing Rocket League,” Bennett recalls, “it was just John and I and we were on the phone together playing it and I said, ‘What if Ultra Neon Tactics had cars?’ And he said, ‘No, that’s a stupid idea. Let’s not do that.’ And we read a bit into Psyonix and we were like, ‘Wow. They were quite a small team, just like us.’”
Inspired by their success, Roll7 dove head first into learning Unreal Engine. They signed on another concept artist, and by Christmas of 2015 they settled on the look of the game that you see today. Once the port began to take shape, things began to really click.
“We were watching people play it in testing sessions,” Bennett said, “and just seeing them at the end of the sessions being like, ‘Can we stay on for a bit? Can we grab some beers or whatever?’ We had to kick them out. You know you’ve got something at that stage.”
One of the later additions were the game’s six classes. There’s Smash, who carries a shield and can charge through other players, pushing them into laser beams to destroy them. Blade wields a short laser sword, and if they catch an opposing player in the open they can cut them down. Shock gives off a blast of electricity that stuns nearby players for a moment. Snipe drops a ball down on the playing field which they can teleport back to, setting up ad hoc traps and destroying any players in the way. Ghost can move through laser walls for a short period of time, while Thief can flip walls back from the enemy color to their own.
In motion, each class has natural counters, while good teams will work to create combos. Shock can stun players for Blade to finish off; Ghost can back quickly through a laser wall just as Smash lunges forward; Snipe can set a trap while Ghost creates the kill zone. It’s fast, brutal and addictive.
But while Ulta Neon Tactics was a fun party game, Laser League is very clearly intended to be a kind of esport. Even putting the word “league” in the title is a bold move, considering the game’s inspiration.
“When we first started thinking of names we were instantly like, ‘Let’s call it Laser League.’ And we thought, ‘No. Don’t do that. It’s just maybe a bit too much like Rocket League.’ We went around for about a year, and we just kept coming back to it.
“No offense intended, they are a massive massive influence on this game. And we are by no means trying to step on their toes. But the name makes sense to us. There might be some ruffled feathers. I hope that people who play Rocket League enjoy Laser League too, but yeah. There’s nothing but adoration.”
Laser League enters Steam’s Early Access program this summer on PC. The plan is for an eventual launch on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as well.