Throughout the genre's history, lanes have served us well and there's no doubt this will continue. At the same time, I foresee new variations on lanes emerging which will challenge perceptions.
In this article, I describe a mechanic called pseudolanes, of which lanes present a specific case. I also offer the following definition:
A lane-pushing game is a game which ensures continuous and meaningful availability of pseudolanes.
This is my vision or "thesis" for the genre and its broader potential. I hope to see many new games make use of or take direction from these ideas and push boundaries forward.
A pseudolane is a region on the playing field which has four simultaneous properties:
- A player who is inside gives up meaningful strategic information to the other team.
- There is a constant combative tension between opposing players.
- There is an always-desirable incentive for individual players to participate in the region.
- The region undergoes transformation in a way which represents the narrative victory.
To make things more concrete, lets examine the most familiar case: which is of course a lane.
Our first observation is that pseudolanes are regions. On a lane, the pseudolane is the point at which troops clash. At that moment, there exists a region where:
- Information is shared to each team because each team's troops provide a radius of vision.
- The size of the region is tuned such that players will be within combative range of each-other.
- Players who participate are rewarded with experience and/or gold: resources which align with their character's progression and are always-desirable to that player.
- The position of the region (where troops clash) can change over time, and reflects progress towards overall victory or defeat.
These things happen simultaneously, which confirms that our four properties are being met.
So, why these four properties?
Our first property about giving up meaningful strategic information supports the idea of a strategy game. Teams and players have decisions to be making, and there needs to be some minimum of information available on which to base those decisions. The key information is enemy positioning, so we need to convince players to regularly show on the map.
The second property about constant combative tension is important too. Attacks and abilities are key verbs of the game, and players want an excuse to be using them rather than playing defensively. When they do so, it stirs up the status quo and creates richer situations from which ganks and team-fights may eventually emerge.
The always-desirable incentive is necessary to compensate players for their participation. The savvy player is eager to conceal their location and hoard resources like health. The incentive is there to lure them out: and it should do so by aligning with their individual interests and progression.
The alternative, where each player does not personally benefit from participating, is that some players will happily hang back and let others take all the risks. We don't want to encourage that!
One of the powers of the incentive is that it allows us to know that if a player is not showing: there's a reason. This allows for layers of strategic interpretation based on who's visible and where.
In the case of lanes, narrative victory in the region (when your troops win over the enemy's) causes the point at which troops will next clash to move. That is a transformation of the region: it has changed location in a way that reflects success or failure.
Over time, the pseudolane on a lane slides back and forth along a fixed path, in a way which represents the overall narrative victory. If your troops push into the enemy base: you're on the brink of winning. If the enemy pushes into yours, that's not so good. The metaphor for overall progress is clear, and is the sum of smaller steps from participating in pseudolanes at the atomic level.
The unifying value of narrative is of particular importance in a team-based game, where we want all players aligned towards the same goal.
Obligation of Availability
In the case of lanes, we've described a pseudolane as the point at which troops clash. However, there are regularly moments between the waves when troops are not clashing. In those moments, the pseudolanes have flickered out of existence.
This is perfectly normal. I use the wording "continuous availability" of pseudolanes to reflect that they don't need to be permanent.
Rather, we are interested in playing inside a structured ecosystem where pseudolanes serve as the heartbeat of strategic information, personal progression, combat encounters, and narratively meaningful advancement.
As long as the heart beats and there are still pseudolanes, players won't be lost for how to make progress in any of these four areas.
Lane-pushing games involve many complex systems and interactions. Players occasionally find ways to "break the game", and one way to do this is to interfere with the availability of pseudolanes.
Here are some examples of how that can happen:
- "Skipping" behind troop waves so that pseudolanes never form becomes a prominent or prevailing mechanic.
- Victory can be achieved independently of the pseudolanes. This could happen if:
- Backdooring is a prominent or prevailing mechanic.
- There is an alternate victory condition, such as "first to X hero kills wins", or "collect Y points".
- It is possible to end up in a situation where the flow of pseudolanes stops. This could happen if:
- There are methods to permanently stop troops from spawning, or block them from leaving the base.
- There is a situation where the incentive for a player to participate in pseudolanes becomes totally ineffective. This could happen if:
- There are a large number of competing objectives which draw teams away from lanes.
- Players have accumulated so much wealth and resources that additional wealth is no longer an incentive.
- Participating is exceedingly risky relative to the available reward.
- A player's presence or absence from a pseudolane is determined by factors other than meaningful strategic intent. This could happen if:
- The placement and timing of pseudolanes is too random or unpredictable, meaning players tend to participate only when convenient.
Games often take specific steps to discourage these situations, such as adding rules like "backdoor protection" or making it impossible to obstruct lanes. Experience has been a great teacher!
The exact frequency and distribution of pseudolanes is a decision for the level designer, and should be tuned according to how much information opposing teams need to know about each-other to make informed strategic decisions.
It is worth noting that while there is an obligation to ensure a continuous flow of pseudolanes, there is plenty of room to explore how they are delivered.
Here are some thoughts to consider:
- The number of pseudolanes need not be fixed: see Keys of Sealing which adds a fourth in the late game.
- The type of pseudolanes need not match: see Eve of the Apocalypse (Verdant Falls) where occasionally a random lane is replaced with a participatory contest point.
- The pseudolanes need not be of equal importance: see Eve of the Apocalypse (Kedge's Landing) which has one large and one small lane.
- The pseudolanes need not remain for the entire match duration: see Ascendant One which has six lanes on a rota.
- The narrative transformation need not be the fixed sliding back and forth of a lane. It could take place on the z-axis, involve temperature or colour, the scale or rotation of the region, etc.
Use your imagination and consider what kind of battlefields we could create!
We have mentioned four properties of pseudolanes. Collectively they have some implications on the game rules and systems:
- The idea that "participating in a region gives up meaningful strategic information" is enriched when there are many potential participants: as a gradient of information may be discerned from which appear where. This strongly implies compatibility with multiplayer gameplay.
- Constant combative tension requires that there are continually enemies to fight. We cannot end up in a situation where all enemy players are dead and aren't coming back. Therefore, enemy players must flow back onto the playing field over time: they are a dynamic material.
- The definition for dynamic material can be found in the MTQ article.
- Given the need to ensure continuous availability of pseudolanes, any pseudolane which involves material will generally involve dynamic material as well (for example: troops).
- To have a reward for participation that is always-desirable for individuals, there must be persistent character progression of some kind. Non-persistent rewards like ammo or health will have situations in which they are not worth revealing the hero's location to pick up.
- The incentive is only as useful as players' individual willingness to engage, so having progression which is impactful and allows choice and expression is highly valuable, if not mandatory.
- To ensure that the transformation of pseudolanes to reflect progress towards the narrative victory remains consistent with the player's actual victory: there should be a singular victory condition.
- Speculatively, a second type of pseudolane could represent and reflect progress towards a second victory condition, but I don't know of any examples.
- There exist examples of lane-pushing games with multiple victory conditions, but none where I felt they were a net positive for the game. (See Alternate Victory Conditions for more.)
Lane-pushing games are overwhelmingly multiplayer, they allow heroes to revive and buy equipment (talents/items), and have one main victory condition. The reasoning behind these features can be traced (at least in part) to pseudolanes.
We can observe that features like towers, jungles, and map objectives are not essential to the genre, though they do complement pseudolanes well. Towers help to structure the experience and contribute to narrative and strategic progression. With jungles and map objectives, there is value to having at least one thing to do which isn't a pseudolane. It creates space for players to make judgement calls about players who aren't showing. Are they coming to a lane, or are they busy? Better yet: which thing are they busy with?
When we talk about lane-pushing games, the fundamental experience is not the lanes, but rather the structured and narratively consistent environment for gameplay that they create. The concept of pseudolanes generalises this idea beyond the consistently (and deservedly) popular implementation of lanes, and opens our scope to discuss new opportunities within the genre.
It is also the key concept needed to offer a rigorous game design definition for lane-pushing games: something which I think we can all agree is long overdue. I will quote it again as a closer:
A lane-pushing game is a game which ensures continuous and meaningful availability of pseudolanes.
Agree, disagree, or otherwise: I would be happy to hear your comments.