26th Oct, 2018By Softmints7 minutes

I want to draw attention to one of the most interesting developments we've seen in the last five years of lane-pushing game design: the battlefield of Korean studio Nexon's recent lane-pushing game Ascendant One. It's a sphere.

This sci-fi themed game takes place on a planet: an actual 3D planet! There are six lanes which run from north to south, with bases at the poles. Gameplay takes place on the half of the planet that is "sunny" at any given time.

The planet rotates at a slow but steady pace: completing a full rotation every 18 minutes. There are usually three lanes in play at any given time: every 3 minutes one will disappear into the night, with another to emerge on the far side of the map.

The scene lighting will change depending on where your camera is positioned: illuminating dawn to day to dusk as the camera pans from left to right. Heroes that walk past the threshold of "night" will take steady damage over time: a mechanic which takes clear visual cues from the battle royale genre.

A darkened lane, with wall of crackling blue energy approaching from the east
The familiar wall of crackling blue energy...

The result is: heroes need to keep moving west every couple of minutes: to escape the encroaching darkness and be the first to capitalise on the available resources and objectives.

Image of the moon, half-illuminated and half in darkness.
Not all of a planet can be illuminated at once!

Advantages of an Axis

I really like this implementation, and I think it's worth dissecting why. Certainly the visuals are novel, but what we're seeing here actually offers tangible solutions to many previously unsolved problems in the genre.

#1 — Objective Timings are Intuitive

Map objectives are featured in all modern lane-pushing games, and typically players need to memorise timestamps or check a digital clock display (above the objective or on the minimap) to see when it will be "back up".

The minimap in Heroes of the Storm, showing a warning that Temples activate in 0:28
Some games give a 30-second warning to help players mobilise, because constantly checking a clock isn't intuitive (or fun).

With the physical metaphor of a planet's rotation to mark the passing of time, there is no need for timestamps. Map objectives become available when they rotate in, and remain so until captured or rotating out. This is a wonderful advancement that makes understanding timings so much easier for everyone.

In particular, it becomes easier for teams to coordinate around timings, because the game makes everyone conscious of the passage of time.

Planetary rotation is something of a baseline for how humans have been measuring time since prehistory, so the metaphor could not be more intuitive. The minimap itself is a timepiece! Beautiful!

#2 — Pressures Teams to Take Initiative

What is the window of time during which a map objective is available? The usual answer is something like this:

  • The objective becomes available at a certain time, and remains available forever until a team finishes claiming it.
  • Once this happens, the objective becomes unavailable for an amount of time, before re-appearing.
    • This can be made slightly fuzzier by the addition of randomness to the respawn timer (Roshan in DotA) or respawning at the chime of the clock (neutral creeps in DotA spawn at the minute mark, always).

Sometimes, an objective itself might only be available during a larger window of time, such as the Rift Herald in League of Legends, or the evolving stages of the Parasite in Dawngate. These larger windows of time are typically 10-15 minutes, and when a window ends the objective is replaced with a similar but stronger version.

The three evolutions of the Parasite, a tree-like creature that becomes bigger and more threatening with each evolution.
The evolutions of the Parasite from Dawngate: all in the same location.

What is consistent is that the presence of "an objective" doesn't go away until the players interact with it. Objective timings are player-driven.

Ascendant One offers an alternative: its objective timings are not player-driven. They become available at fixed timestamps, and unavailable at fixed timestamps (or after being claimed).

This means that teams need to think about objectives differently. If a disadvantaged team can stall, they can actually deny the objective and consider that a success. If a push does not manage to claim any buildings: that progress is lost as troop equilibrium will reset on the next "dawn" for that lane.

Fixed objective timings pressures the team with the advantage to act. It is clear why initiative must be taken: the alternative is lost opportunities.

The periodic lane resets are a feature unto themselves: they offer both teams an equal opportunity to contest that area for map control, which is a nice anti-snowball mechanic. It's harder to keep a team pinned inside their base.

Working with objective timings that are not player-driven might seem like something that any lane-pushing game could do, but I don't think it's that simple. If objectives become unavailable at fixed timestamps, there's a real risk that teams will be disappointed because they weren't checking the game clock, and didn't give themselves an adequate lead time.

It is because planetary rotation makes understanding timings so intuitive, that we can expect teams to be able to coordinate effectively around the fixed objective timings in Ascendant One.

Sins of a Dark Age had fixed timing windows for its map objectives as well. They supported this decision with special UI to communicate upcoming quests and their timings.

Sins of a Dark Age Quest Timer User Interface

However, Sins of a Dark Age had the disadvantage that only one objective would be offered at a time, which was among my biggest criticisms when I did its review. If they tried to introduce simultaneous objectives (which I think would have been a better direction), their UI would have struggled to keep up. Ascendant One won't have that problem.

#3 — Provides a Framework for Qualitative Shift

On a regular lane-pushing map, there is barely any of what I call "qualitative shift". That's a fancy way for me to say that as time advances, the value of a hero does not change much due to the circumstances around them.

To be clear: the value of a hero does change over time, but that is mostly due to acquiring items and levels, or other heroes acquiring items and levels. I want to leave that aside, and look at how the map and environment can create variance in quality over time.

Lets look at two examples:

  • As fighting moves into each team's base, the relative lack of trees/walls in that area can be a factor for some heroes. This only happens late-game.
  • The number of buildings on the battlefield will decrease with time, which can also be a factor for some heroes.

There are lots of environmental features that heroes can find advantageous: narrow choke-points, brush, or being beside walls. Usually a lane-pushing map must distribute these somewhat uniformly, to ensure such heroes don't end up being situationally overpowered or useless.

In Ascendant One, there is no need to provide a uniform distribution. The map can have regions of mass-brush, or lots of choke-points, or no choke-points, and it's okay to let those heroes enjoy advantage in those areas — because with a rotating planet the advantage is transient.

This affords the developers the opportunity to be more flexible with their hero design and balance.

To demonstrate: several heroes in Ascendant One are flyers: they can move freely over trees and cliffs. This is an advantage, but not everywhere and on every lane. Most lane-pushing games struggle to balance flyers; Ascendant One has set things up in a way that makes that easier for itself.

Heroes skirmish at a narrow choke point between some cliffs and a bottomless pit
This is one of those choke points where having a flyer is handy!

Again, we should point out that making a success of "qualitative shift" (quality changing over time) depends on players having an intuitive understanding of time passing. Each of these design advantages is building upon the previous

If you want to read more about this topic, the related ideas are teased out in the Material, Time, Quality article.

#4 — The Qualitative Shift is Predictable

We've discussed that heroes finding advantages and disadvantages in the environment around them allows more flexibility in terms of hero design. For players, it's important for their game plan that they understand when their windows of advantage will be.

The slow and steady rotation of a planet really solves that problem. Players can easily plan for their windows of advantage, and have clear parameters for success or failure in hitting them.

Not only is the timing clear with adequate warning, the day cycle is intuitively cyclic: it repeats itself.

Heroes laning in a river environment, with minimap showing lanes 1, 2, and 3
Lanes 1, 2, and 3 visible on the minimap on the second day.

We don't see a linear progression where a hero goes from bad to good over the match, like a carry. Instead, heroes have several windows to enjoy the regions on the planet that they consider advantageous, and that will continue into the late-game.

The fact that there is always a predictable window of advantage that will appear in the future is a great perk for player and team morale.

The Log River

I've been sitting on a similar idea for some years that didn't have the "predictability" property. I think it's inferior to the planet solution in some respects, but I'll share it here for flavour. Maybe we'll actually see it some day!

The idea was to have a map where the team bases were on opposite banks of a wide, slow-moving river. Every now and then, a new "giant log" would float down the river, pushing whatever log was furthest downstream off the map down a waterfall.

Two banks of a river, with five flat planes floating between them.
The gap between logs is narrow enough to walk across in practice, assuming both logs are pathable at the same points.

At any given time there would be 3-5 logs in play that heroes and troops could walk on. Some would have lanes allowing troops to cross the river, while others would have regions of jungle, contain a map objective, or some combination of all three.

Five tiles, with various arrangements of lane, jungle, and pathing blockers.
A rough idea of what tiles could look like.

It would be possible to get two adjacent lanes, or two adjacent jungles, or a mixture: much like board games use mix-and-match tiles to lay out a play area in a way that creates a lot of replayability.

Picture of various board game tiles, connected to form a play area.
The game Carcassone. Image credit: BoardGameQuest

Occasionally, there would be opportunities to "sink" a log, essentially blowing up that lane before it got to the waterfall, and causing previously separate logs to float together and become connected. This would be a dramatic way to start engagements, or create new opportunities!

I like that logs would introduce variety to the battlefield, but I feel that having predictability would matter a lot to players. A random(?) sequence of logs might cause frustrations even with some advance warning about which logs would appear.

At the end of the day...

The battlefield in Ascendant One uses the physical, real-world metaphor of a planet to ensure that all players on a team will have a better understanding of timings. This is true both at the operational level (attempting a push or objective), and the strategic level ("I will have my item by the second day").

The result is that it's easier to coordinate, and there's pressure on players to do so because opportunities expire. That means more teamwork and potential for great moments: which I really like! Good job, Ascendant One team!

I predict that the use of physical metaphors to convey objective timings will become a genre norm in the near future. Seeing it done this way, it's hard to argue in favour of the old digital clocks approach.

For my own work on Rise of Winterchill, one of the physical metaphors we have planned is that the weather gets worse and worse over the course of a match.

For example, on one map a snowstorm starts to pick up, gradually coating the map in white. Players will know at a glance if it's early, mid, or late-game: and some objectives become stronger or paths might open/close over time.

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Use of physical metaphors can have disadvantages. One could argue it constrains designers when it comes to changing objective timings as necessary for balance/pacing — which designers want to do sometimes! This is one of the proposed changes in the latest League of Legends preseason patch.

Personally I think integrating the rhythm of the game into the environment (ideally through physical metaphor) is the way to go: and balance the objectives to match the rhythm. Look forward to more games doing this in the near future!