Interview: moonliterhythm

It’s another interview; this time with moonliterhythm, the developer of perSonas/Arkana! I used to share a forum with him many years ago, so this was a surprise reunion. I’ll skip the introductions and get straight to the questions:

Softmints:
So what was your first introduction to mobas/AoS; where did you start?

moonliterhythm:
Let’s see… we started off, I was in college, it must have been 2005, my roomates and I were pretty bored, and we liked playing Warcraft III once and a while to play melee against each other, but that was getting pretty boring because two of us were really good, and two of us really weren’t. We knew there was a huge modding community, so we just started trying out maps. And one of those maps was DotA Allstars.

I remember my first game; it was two of us playing against one, and my hero was Troll Warlord. We had no idea what we were doing at the time; I remember looking through the items and seeing Divine Rapier, and thinking: “this looks like the best item in the game, I’ll try to get that!”. After I finally got it, I died instantly, and there was my item, on the ground. I had no idea it could drop, so I was staring at it in disbelief… The enemy Banehallow picked it up and that was that.

We played LANs for a while, usually 2v1, and eventually figured out that the lone player had an advantage because of the extra gold they got; though it often depended on the hero. We eventually started looking around online for games, trying out new strategies, and we had a lot of fun with that. I remember one of my favourite tactics was taking Troll Warlord and rushing Maelstrom, activating my ultimate, and killing heroes in a few seconds. Most people hadn’t figured out stuff like last hits at this point, so we were winning most games pretty easily.

Later we ended up playing in Clan TDA (an inhouse DotA clan on Battle.net), which was a bit of a mess with its bureaucracy, but we still had a lot of fun. We played themed games sometimes, where everyone would pick a “knight” hero, like Dragon Knight, Rogueknight, Chaos Knight, and we’d roleplay them. Someone would charge up to an enemy creep, and say: “Halt, wench!” in vent, and charge in to use his spell on one creep before backing off. Or we’d pick all invis heroes and get Dagons, and signal our victim using a flying courier. We had a great laugh with that. The Inhouse Leagues was where the real competition was at; the IGS was great. I met a lot of friends there, many of whom are still playing pro League/Dota to this day.

Soft:
So what led to perSonas?

moon:
Well, it was fairly early in my DotA days, before any of the pro stuff got started, and while I really enjoyed DotA, I still had a few gripes with it. For anyone who’s played as long as I have, it probably came as a surprise that DotA is now known as the most unforgiving and difficult game to get into, because that wasn’t our experience back then. But it makes sense; DotA has a lot of unintuitive mechanics. So I had some ideas and was considering making something of my own.

The swapping mechanic was actually inspired by Pandaren Brewmaster’s ultimate. You’d be in a fight, and suddenly there’s this big moment where there’s three of him! Of course it’s kinda messy because now you have to control three units, but that “moment” was what got me thinking. I was talking about it with my friend Bengal_Tigger, and we started theorising a game centred on a mechanic where you change heroes. I had a mac at the time, and the world editor didn’t run on macs, but luckily I was just about to get a new computer, and ended up using that to start working.

PerSonas was a pretty successful map. People came, and tried it, and they liked it. The heroes were all a little bit crazy: that was intentional. Each hero was almost stupidly good at one thing, so at the beginning of the game, you picked the two things you wanted to be good at, and went from there. In one of the versions, I think it was b12, we put a notice on the loading screen saying that we would be hosting the next version at a certain time and date two weeks from now. That’s how maps were distributed back in the day, you’d host them on Battle.net and people would join and download directly.

We worked hard on that version; we added about 12 heroes, and finally the day came, we were ready, and we hosted. The remaining 8 slots filled up instantly! Here we were in a lobby with a bunch of people we’d never met, talking excitedly about our game. We were using alternate accounts, so it was very validating to watch that organic interaction and enthusiasm. It felt like our work was really going to be a success. The stats on mapgnome.org (a stats-tracking site for Warcraft III maps at the time) showed that perSonas was the #2 hosted map, a distant second to DotA of course.

PerSonas was quite unusual in the AoS scene because it was inspired by DotA Allstars, which most developers seemed to want to avoid at the time. I had personal experiece with what was making DotA successful, so that influenced me greatly. That probably helped us when it came to making a game that could become popular.

Soft:
So what happened next? How did Arkana come about?

moon:
Well, Blizzard released a patch that deprecated almost every custom map out there. I think there was an exception made for DotA because it was so big, but it knocked perSonas off the list. And here’s where I made a big mistake. What I should have done was made the necessary fixes and re-released perSonas immediately. But like any creator, you only see the flaws in your work. I’d been planning some big changes for a while, and I felt that now was the opportune time. After all, my previous work had become popular because it was fun. The same would happen again, right?
Sadly, not so. It took me 9 months to release Arkana, and since they couldn’t play perSonas in the mean-time, our old player-base had mostly forgot about it. Battle.net’s population was dwindling after many of people’s other favourite maps were broken as well. There wasn’t much hope for a resurgence.

Soft:
Why change the name?

moon:
Haha, well “personas” is the spanish word for ‘people’. You can’t search for it! But we also wanted to represent some of the changes we’d made. We were toning down the chaotic side of the map, because people would play it, but they’d get bored after a little while. There wasn’t much depth. So we wanted to address that; we focused on balance, on making heroes simpler, easier to learn and use, we removed mana and replaced it with shields to make the game more forgiving and encourage action. Simple heroes can be a great thing; I remember that for the first full release of perSonas I was rushing to get 20 heroes in, because you need 20 heroes for a 5v5. I whipped up basically a copy of Sniper from DotA in about 20 minutes, he had a long-range damage nuke with a long cast time (you could dodge it by swapping), a range increase, a passive crit: really simple spells. I was thinking I’d have to apologise because someone was going to end up with such a dumb hero, but he ended up being the most sought-after hero in the game! I learned from that: simple isn’t necessarily bad.

Part of Arkana was that it was a huge labour of reduction. The reason the abilities were much simpler than they could have been, the items were much simpler than they could have been, was because we needed to make it easy to play. We were worried that the concept of having to learn and play two heroes was already so overbearing that throwing anything else on top would be too much.

Soft:
It’s fairly easy to appreciate the depth having double-heroes adds to the picking phase, but how about in practice? Did it work for the gameplay too?

moon:
Swapping was the key: the fact that it would dodge incoming abilities: that’s what made the game work. If that didn’t happen, I would argue the game sucks. It’s the one thing I’m really stubbon about: you have to switch. It creates pivot points: really important pivot points. Swapping is a pivot point, activating a bkb is a pivot point, Roshan is a pivot point. You might have a plan for what you’ll be doing for the next 8 seconds, but then Spectre uses her ult, and you have to switch gears! That makes the game unpredictable and exciting. We used to battle it a lot initially, we were trying to figure out how to “fix” projectiles missing a hero that had been swapped out. But we eventually realised: this is what makes the game amazing.

Some people didn’t like swapping, and I can kind of see why. They asked: can you make this game again, just without the swapping? You can actually play like that and it’s not terrible, but it’s not the same game.

Sadly, there wasn’t enough feedback at the time to continue developing the game. It’s still a concept I’m very proud of though, and I’d love to see it realised some day.

Soft:
How do you feel about the modern mobas?

moon:
Well, I’ve played most of them. Dota 2 obviously gets a bunch of my time, though actually I play League of Legends more these days. I didn’t like League so much when I was starting out, but after playing it and playing it and playing it, I eventually grew to like it even more than DotA. It’s tough to explain why though; it’d take a while.
Dawngate is nice, they seem to be refining League’s formula, but they’re just not offering anything new. I can understand why they removed mana, since most of League’s new champs don’t have it anyway, and I like their choice to consolidate damage output into ‘Power’ since League doesn’t really offer much choice between AP and AD anyway. You can’t build hybrid; you have to choose one or the other.

Soft:
Right, since AD scales linearly with attack rate. Your sixth AD item adds much more than your fifth. They used to have Master Yi being able to build AD or AP though?

moon:
Yeah, and they removed it. So if you’re not going to offer choice in the first place, might as well call it Power and not have duplicated items. But still, why play Dawngate when League is there with 5 times more champs, and is just overall better?

Strife is interesting; it’s like if HoN and League had a child. I liked that it has some things that League doesn’t, like mana ring and ghost marchers, though after a while it stopped being fun. The out of combat regen mechanic seems like a good idea to begin with, but then you realise you can cycle regenerating on a dual lane. If the game is balanced to allow for solo lanes, then a cycling dual lane is going to crush. Also, there’s too much focus on gpm. It feels like games are about getting and maintaining a gold advantage until you slowly suffocate the other team. If you have better items, you will win. That’s all there is to it. The enchantments on items as well…

Soft:
Those were removed actually, pretty recently. I think that was a positive step.

moon:
Oh, cool. Yeah, I didn’t like those. Still, you have to check every opponent’s item to see what stats they have, which is a pain. Smite I like because it feels very crisp to use. There’s definitely something to be said for a third-person perspective.

I think all the existing mobas are bringing something good and new to the table; we’ve seen that the games which don’t die off really quickly. So hopefully we’ll continue to see more of that.

Soft:
It’s been great to hear from you again and see that you’re still a fan. Good luck in your future matches!

moon:
Thanks, it’s been great catching up!

~ fin ~

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