Continuing from Part 1...
Dawngate's approach to items is a well-considered one. There are three categories of item: Basic items can upgrade into 2-5 possible Advanced items, each of which can upgrade into 2-4 possible Legendary items. Naturally, upgraded items carry the bonuses of their components, as well as gaining new stats and abilities.
Upon first entering the shop, we are presented with the six Basic items: which are conveniently those affordable at the start of the game. Once we've selected or bought a Basic item, its available upgrades reveal themselves, allowing us to consider what to buy next, based on those items in which we've already displayed an interest. Shopping continues using this step-by-step process, allowing players to fill out their inventory without ever being overwhelmed by options. The menu cleverly conceals a total of 60+ Legendary items. In a more abstract sense, there's a resemblance to the classic recipe system first seen in Dota, but thanks to a great interface, most items being "categorised" by the Basic items, and standardised tiers for upgrades, Dawngate achieves a much more elegant result.
All items in Dawngate are passive, though many are situational passives that trigger, and then go on cooldown. I respect this decision, as both shaper abilities and Spellbook spells are enough to keep players' fingers occupied. Also worth noting is that shapers have two dedicated slots for consumable potions, though these are such a minor feature that I'd almost be inclined to remove them for simplicity.
Much as League of Legends has its Summoner Spells, Dawngate has equips shapers with a Spellbook, an auxiliary equipment offering twelve spells which are almost exactly the same as those available in League. However, there are three spell slots, which become available at levels 1, 10, and 20: making spells fit better with a shaper's match progression. It is also possible to exchange a spell by paying a modest sum of gold, which stops certain spell slots from becoming redundant later in the game. I like these changes; they do remove a degree of commitment (and the information that conveys to both friend and foe), but the gains in user friendliness and more natural character growth make up for it.
For out-of-game collectibles which have an impact in-game, League introduced runes and masteries. Dawngate has a similar twofold system, but with a very different presentation. When entering a match, players equip their shaper with a loadout, granting permanent passive bonuses throughout the match. Each loadout is represented by a square grid:
While in the client's loadout menu, players can place blue blocks (called Spiritstones) onto the grid. There's a wide range of blocks available to unlock, featuring different shapes and bonuses. Small and simple blocks give small and simple bonuses, while larger and more complex shapes tend to offer unique passive abilities.
As we can see, there's a good variety of bonuses available. The strongest bonuses tend to be attached to the largest shapes: Vigor takes half the grid, while Health takes 1/16th. There is some formulaic balancing behind the scenes here, ensuring that a healthy relationship is maintained between the various bonuses and the amount of space they consume. Also worth noting is that some configurations of blocks can't fit on the same grid together. This is an intuitive way for the player to see what combinations of passives the designers aren't willing to allow.
The blocks have circular slots on them, which can be filled by little gems (called sparks). The gems boost basic attributes, and are categorised by colour: offence, defence, and utility; the familiar categories from League. The slots on each block indicate which colour gems may be inserted, with some slots being "prismatic" (any colour allowed). A very defensive block like Vigor might insist that only utility gems be inserted, so that players can't over-specialise. Gems provide either flat bonuses which are valuable in the early-game, or percentage bonuses which are more beneficial later. Of course, players can choose to use a mixture of both if they like.
Despite being a fundamentally roundabout way to let players 'edit' their hero, loadouts are very nicely presented. They are easy for players to use and experiment with, and the supporting interface is excellent. A modest grid size ensures that relatively few "noteworthy" blocks can be used in each loadout, keeping the bonuses few but powerful. This is a good thing; we'd like to see the number of out-of-game factors kept to a minimum. When viewing another player's loadout, it might be possible recognise their passives based on the more distinctive shapes, but I don't think this would continue to be true as more blocks are added. The system also limits the ability of designers to declare which block combinations should be allowed due to the physical shapes involved, which might have proven troublesome in the long run. I prefer not to see any account progression which affects gameplay, but I can't blame a company for trying it out in a beta. It should be noted that Waystone Games took a reasonably ethical approach by providing new players with viable starting loadouts, rather than leaving them empty-handed and forced into a grind.
One of the most interesting innovations that Dawngate brings to the table are Roles, a pre-game choice which affects a player's economy throughout the match. We've seen economy-affecting mechanics appear on items in other genre-games, but Dawngate is the first to declare economy as an important enough gameplay component to deserve an equipment in its own right. The equipments article is worthwhile background reading for this section. At the start of each match, a player must select one of the four available roles:
- Gladiator: Bonus gold from last-hitting lane troops.
- Tactician: Bonus gold for harassing enemy shapers, bonus gold for lane troops dying nearby.
- Predator: Bonus gold from killing enemy shapers, and bonus gold for killing workers at spirit wells.
- Hunter: Bonus gold when killing jungle creeps, deal bonus damage to jungle creeps, and heal after killing jungle creeps.
Dawngate presents the mechanic as a means to let players try new things with their shaper, such as jungling with a shaper that wouldn't normally succeed in the jungle (perhaps due to a lack of sustain, which the Hunter role provides). A player's Role has a large influence on where they will be on the map at any given time: a Gladiator should almost always be on-lane, while a Hunter should almost always be off-lane. Anything else will be inefficient, though not necessarily wrong (such as joining the lane for a push). All player roles are known to both teams, which is potentially valuable information when considering enemy movements. In a loose sense, this makes up for some of the depth lost by having two identical lanes and poor persistent vision, since we do have some information about what the enemy wants to do. However, a match-long commitment seems too abstract to usefully infer what an enemy might be doing now. It also makes non-role tasks feel inefficient and risky: keeping players mostly confined to whatever role they selected. Nonetheless, this is my favourite feature from Dawngate, because it's an ambitious mechanic, and I appreciate its motivations and potential. At the (hypothetical) highest level of play, role composition could have been a huge part of the game and broader strategy. It is a shame we won't be seeing those possibilities explored any time soon.
Dawngate does a pretty good job of what it set out to do, which is refining the League of Legends gameplay experience. When it comes to Dawngate's slogan of "breaking the meta", did it succeed? The introduction of roles, allowing players to exchange their spellbook spells, a new approach towards stats for items, and a diverse system of loadouts mean that an individual shaper can be augmented in enough ways to outfit them for almost any purpose. I'd say that counts a lot towards decoupling shapers from "roles within a meta". Promoting build flexibility is great, and Dawngate is the first commercial title to really push in this direction. I'm not completely happy with the implementation: the inclusion of stat ratios feels like an awkward compromise, and while it's possible that sacrificing flexibility in that one area is better for the system as a whole... I think there are better approaches. Regardless, the broader range of viable build options is certainly a big improvement from League. Despite the positive outcomes, I feel the principle of "breaking the meta" held too much sway in the game's development. Any strategy game will develop a meta; the question is whether it's a good meta. My interpretation of Dawngate is that in order to avoid putting its players under the pressure to conform, it happily sacrifices having a good meta to prevent a meta from forming at all, by keeping its players confused. The relatively large number of objectives, the poor reliable/mutual vision, the economic priorities changing every game, and the huge number of customisation options make Dawngate a tricky problem for even a large community to optimise. That's not to say that all of those mechanics are bad. Rather, that the philosophy reflected in those mechanics is responsible for many of the game's weak points, particularly the map layout. It's also possible that the lack of structure was harmful to the game's player retention; we know League initially thrived on the structure provided by fixed laning positions. Ultimately, the biggest mistake Dawngate made was trying to beat League of Legends on its own turf. In a competitive market delivering games as a service, even the biggest companies remain agile. Anything Dawngate did that could have eaten into League's market share could be assimilated into League within a year. A refinement was never going to cut it, and EA correctly recognised this. It's a shame to see another game which showed promise die, but at least it'll be among good company in the archives. Further reading: Official Site, the Dawngate wiki.