24th Apr, 2018By Softmints12 minutes

The first lane-pushing game to experiment with the z-axis, Paragon introduces us to a variety of new takes on familiar 2.5D mechanics. It also flaunts some of the best graphics of its era: a rare treat in the lane-pushing genre!

During its early days, Paragon's gameplay took place on a map known at the time as Agora. A year later, the battleground changed to a new map and associated features called Monolith. We'll be examining both in detail.

Moss-covered rocks and ruins border a relatively straight path to a monument in the distance
Early concept art of Agora.

Unfortunately, something about the Paragon formula didn't click. New players weren't sticking around, and the game's core community seemed to be in a continual state of unrest over development decisions. The team was very aware of Paragon's potential, but executing was proving difficult.

Having iterated for two years without finding its audience, the project was cancelled, with servers to close a few months later on 27th April 2018. Poor player retention was cited as the leading cause.

Welcome to the Third Dimension

Paragon challenged itself to explore and find good middle ground between having the structure of a lane-pushing game, and delivering on the expectations and fantasy of immersive 3D combat. That's no easy task!

The lane-pushing genre so far has been entirely two-dimensional, mechanically speaking. Cliffs, flying units, and spectacular leaps are visual embellishment for games that are unfolding on a plane. There is a lot of precedent for 2D genre understanding, and a lot of 2D solutions for 2D problems. Dive too far into the third dimension, and you might have to invent your own solutions.

But who can say no to a spectacular leap?

Three potential issues when transitioning into 3D stood out to me:

  1. Positioning advantage becomes more polarised. We're all familiar with the idea of good positioning and bad positioning. In 3D, it becomes possible to have very very good positioning, and very very bad positioning. This is exciting in a short term engagement, but potentially outweighs all the good strategy and build decisions that led up to said engagement. That would be upsetting.
     
  2. Zoning loses reliability. In a typical team fight, teams would be delighted to unload their damage onto the enemy's squishy backliners. Of course, that's not trivial because there are some frontline heroes standing in the way: occupying the space. In 3D, there is suddenly a lot more space available, and it becomes more feasible to "punch through" to the backline, and the idea of a "formation" holds less meaning.
     
  3. Communication loses precision: The primary tool for keeping an eye on macro strategy has long been the minimap. Until we get 3D minimaps in VR, the best way to ensure the battlefield remains comprehensible (and pingable) at a glance is to ensure it "maps to 2D".

    By "maps to 2D", I mean that a hero on the minimap never has ambiguous elevation - so no bridges, tunnels, or multi-storey buildings.

Maybe recognising some of the above, or with other reasons in mind: Paragon chose to dip slightly into 3D, but not much. The familiar formula is mostly intact, with verticality having a modest impact on manoeuvrability in certain areas. The battlefield "maps to 2D".

Note that in the early concept render above, there are bridges and tunnels! We can assume that these features were iterated away from. I expect the tension there was with melee heroes. If you have them, combat involving "platforming" (as seen in say, Team Fortress 2) isn't so attractive. Half the cast don't have the ranged weapons to participate! And unlike team shooters, we can't "expect" that a more suitable class will be nearby at all times.

So we end up with "slightly 3D, mostly moba". The question is then: can "slightly 3D" be enough of a hook for Paragon to stand out?

Veni Vidi Vici

To better understand the game, it will be worthwhile to re-examine some of the basic verbs as they apply in Paragon.

Getting Around

Movement receives a similar treatment to how it's handled other action games: strafing, back-pedalling, or attacking while moving incurs a minor slow. These rules are more forgiving for melee heroes, which makes sense as balance generally shouldn't allow ranged heroes to kite favourably forever.

An important feature of course, is the ability to jump down from cliffs. There's no option to climb, so getting back up requires either a suitable active ability, or a brisk walk. On arrival I was a little unimpressed with the heights I was allowed to reach: you can't get more than 1 storey above anyone!

Mechanically speaking, one storey is the same as six if you can't climb it, but part of me was hopeful for a greater sense of scale.

Kallari's triple jump isn't so bad though.

In Agora, all heroes have access to two handy abilities for getting around. The first is Recall, a no-cooldown active which teleports a hero back to their base after an 8 second channel. If the hero takes any damage during channel, it interrupts.

The second is Travel Mode. This no-cooldown active can be initiated at any time, and after 4.5 seconds the hero enters "travel mode", gaining increased movement speed (roughly +25%) and lets their player enjoy a cool camera effect.

Gideon also gets a sweet animation during travel mode.

Any non-movement action will cancel travel mode, and taking damage while in it will cause the hero to be rooted in place momentarily. That isn't much of a threat, as initiating an action drops travel mode immediately, which can be used to dodge the root.

Unlike the bike in Ninjas on Battle.net or mounting in Heroes of the Storm, heroes are free to move during travel mode's spin-up time, which makes it exceptionally good for chasing. This is compounded by the third-person camera: a player either flees facing forward (and cannot see behind them to dodge or disable the enemy's travel mode), or tries to backpedal with speed penalties.

Then, we have to factor in multiple players. If two heroes are chasing, they can alternate attacks and entering travel mode to ensure they can keep up: making disengagement very difficult. This behaviour became known as leapfrogging.

In a game with this mechanic, being in enemy vision and taking a non-travel mode action (such as hitting troops, or placing a ward) leaves players exposed to a reliably executed gank. The unhappy result was that in general, acting became less favourable than reacting, and gameplay leaned towards passivity.

With this problem in mind, why was Travel Mode introduced? Agora is a big map with many spaces designed for combat, and experiencing it in the third-person makes travel time feel longer. There isn't the convenience of panning the camera to examine other areas on the map while en route, since players have to focus on navigation and not walking into things.

Travel mode responds to that by leaving the map's dimensions untouched for the purposes of combat (where size and height are important for a good gameplay feeling), and lets players navigate through areas quickly when combat isn't a factor.

It sounds good on paper, but the particular combination of no cooldown, free movement during spin-up, and a sizeable speed bonus led to unhealthy gameplay.

There's a number of ways that travel mode could have been tweaked, and maybe some of those would have been okay. Another option would be a different mechanic for global mobility, such as teleporting to towers (the Paragon team mentioned considering this), or altering the map layout (which the team concluded was necessary, and eventually led to Monolith).

Vision and Perspective

Paragon comes much closer to the immersion of an action game by using action controls and a third-person camera. This has some consequences for gameplay.

Players can only see in one direction, so "sneaking up from behind" is a tactic. Aside from the minimap, players generally can't see much of the battlefield due to rocks and cliffs. To help with locating heroes, it is possible to see their outlines through obstacles, providing your team has vision of them.

Notice the blue ward, which keeps vision on this stray Sparrow as she tries to get away.

Speaking of vision, Paragon does have a mechanic for getting off the radar. The jungle contains a number of Shadow Pads, which cause heroes on them to switch to the Shadow Plane, where they become invisible to anyone still on the material plane.

A shimmering ghostly circle can be seen partially obscured behind some trees and rocks
A mystical shadow pad, close to lane.

Shadow Pads create "I can see out, you can't see in" asymmetric vision, and of course the response is Shadow Wards, which can be bought and placed by any hero, and reveal both the material and shadow planes in a radius around them.

The Shadow Plane is quite cool, and several heroes can enter it using abilities (becoming able to see each-other because they're on the same plane!). It is much more thematically interesting than most invisibility mechanics.

Attacking

Attacking is an essential verb of the genre. For melee heroes, it's as simple as swinging your weapon, and watching the thing in front of you take damage.

Melee heroes have a slight cleave on their attacks (around 10%): a token gesture to ensure that attack animations that seem to pass through an enemy actually do produce damage numbers. This keeps the game feeling responsive.

Steel packs more of a punch than most.

Ranged heroes don't have it so easy. To preserve the general structure of a moba, Paragon has to insist that heroes show up on lane, and don't try sniping from a distance. Thus, attack ranges are quite low, relative to how far a gun or a longbow would normally fire.

Unlike the third-person camera in SMITE, which moves and tilts relative to a flat plane, Paragon is in full 3D and shots are always fired "into the vanishing point", where it is hard to track a projectile's distance and build familiarity with it.

To help out, the game turns the targeting reticle red on valid targets, but I still found ranges hard to get used to.

A ranged hero is on the move, and a pink line is drawn between the hero and the targeting reticle at the center of the screen
It can be hard to get a sense of where along this pink line your projectiles will stop.

Vertical Hierarchy

As we enter the third dimension, map layout becomes a more complicated affair. Most lane-pushing games dabble in one-way vision, but rarely one-way mobility like jumping down from a cliff: and certainly not on a mapwide scale. With high ground being an advantage, we have to consider what features and regions of a map deserve to be at what elevation.

Agora makes a wonderful statement: answering this question with a clear hierarchy. The lowermost regions are the jungles, which have distinctively narrow, twisting pathways, and are sheltered from above by plentiful pink foliage.

A narrow passage is shown through some undergrowth, with a canopy of spiky pink leaves overhead forming a tunnel
So pretty!

The foliage only blocks vision, so if the enemy has the area warded (allowing a hero's outline to be seen through obstacles) or otherwise notices your presence, they can drop in from above at any time. I like how this arrangement counterbalances the otherwise "off the radar" nature of jungling, with a substantially increased risk of ambush if you get caught. It feels more like a jungle than the spacious open-plan forests we're used to.

At a medium elevation are the lanes, which are mostly open-air and free spaces for duelling while whittling away enemy minions. Their elevation varies and interweaves with the jungles: most of the time you can drop into the jungle from lane, but there are plenty of access points where a jungler can exit onto the lane from cover of foliage.

The highest elevation is reserved for bases, which gives something of a "natural advantage" to the defending team. The base layout is like a wide shallow cone, with the Core at its peak, and a few slight bumps that advantage the defending team.

A wide angled staircase leads to one team's healing zone. Halfway up is where the core would be situated
Monolith's core (above) has roughly equivalent placement.

I am not a fan of this spatial design for the cores. Why take the most epic moments of the game (the final ones), and make the venue for them the least three-dimensional space on the battlefield? The least distinctively Paragon?

The cores are maybe the only location where we could waive any responsibility to ensure the battlefield maps cleanly to 2D. If an enemy is anywhere near the core, that is going to get pinged and responded to in-person; we don't care what elevation the enemy is at.

I think the cores had an opportunity to be the most three-dimensional space in the game. Spawn friendly players on a cliff way above it, and have them glide down. Place it at the top of a spiral staircase. Maybe it's at the bottom of a pit? Surrounded by a moat? Do something! The worst place it could be is "only accessible from a 60 degree cone on one side". I can't imagine how it ended up there other than sheer precedent.

Towers

Few mechanics are better established among lane-pushing games than the tower, and Paragon debuts the world's first example in 3D.

My shiny power source? Please don't touch that. PLEASE DON'T TOUCH THAT.

The result is visually impressive: a shimmering crystal powers the energy cannon of an enormous tower forged into the side of the lane. Each direct hit on the crystal causes it to throb and undulate, while a giant laser shines from above to single out its next target.

The three inner base towers also function as Inhibitors: losing them will grant the enemy improved troops on that lane.

A glowing orange crystal sits atop a circle carved into the ground. A tall thin tower with glowing orange orb at the top floats immediately above the crystal
A free-standing inhibitor tower.

The reality is, towers aren't much different to the towers of League of Legends: a single, isolated structure fires infrequent high-damage shots according to strict aggro rules.

I don't think this is the right way to do towers generally, and it really shouldn't have been used in 3D. One thing to consider is: "How much UI was needed to try and make this mechanic fit?" Towers get:

  • A dedicated on-screen life bar that pops up when you're near them.
  • A counter for how many opposing minions are under a nearby tower.
  • The tower's attack radius is etched into the ground.
  • A glowing indicator around the circumference changes colour to warn that you're now its target.
  • Strong audio cues kick in as a warning as well.
The active hero is almost dead and taking fire from a tower. Various UI elements are highlighted with pink arrows for being relevant
Monolith's towers look different, but they have the same collection of band-aids. Why can't tower behaviour be intuitive?

All this UI makes sense if your game absolutely must have "classic" free-standing moba towers. But did Paragon have to have them? I would say probably not, and that 3D warrants a different solution.

As a casual suggestion, I think lining the lanes with pairs of machine-gun turrets would have worked out better. That is to say, 8-12 pairs of them would be spread over the length of lane that is currently occupied by two towers.

There are three motivations for this. Firstly, the turrets are providing continuous rat-tat-tat fire at head-height from several directions, which means their behaviour is easy to understand, no matter which direction a player's camera is facing.

Secondly, we space the turrets so that troops only occupy the attention of the first pair of guns they encounter. The next pair of guns is slightly too far away to attack. Now, if a friendly hero were being chased along the lane, the first pair of guns might be busy with troops, but the second pair of guns can't reach the troops, and would be able to focus on a hero that tries to dive.

This behaviour substitutes for how a "classic" tower aggro retaliates against friendly heroes being attacked, without the silly aggro rules. That means we can drop the silly aggro rules and have a more intuitive experience!

Thirdly, we can address turrets having too much control over the space by using the fact that the game is 3D, and saying turrets don't shoot up. Thus, skilful use of abilities and the surrounding terrain will allow some degree of diving, with a more intuitive "bounding radius" on the turrets' attacks than circles carved into the ground.

I am sure this machine-gun turrets idea would have its share of problems, but I think the direction is better than trying to stick to classic towers.

Harvest Season

Dotted around Agora are seven Harvesters. These are control points which gradually accumulate gold over time while owned, until they are full.

Friendly heroes can stop by any time to collect whatever gold has been stored so far, and this will be evenly distributed to their team.

A freestanding stone altar-like structure has a small circular hole on the ground in front of it. A little further forward is a circular platform for heroes to stand on
A harvester, with capture point in the foreground. The fan spins while it's harvesting!

A less friendly (read: enemy) player can attack the harvester, and enough damage will cause it to spill its coffers and revert to neutral control. The Harvester will then enter stasis for 30 seconds, before being put back on the market and available for capture by either team.

To claim a neutral Harvester, heroes need only stand at a marked point and channel for 30 seconds. (That is a long time.) Alternatively, if they have a Key item in their inventory, that channel time can be brought as low as 3 seconds (though a Key can only be used once before needing to recharge in the base).

Key items offer less stats than non-Key alternatives, so often players are forced to choose between rapid Harvester capture and better overall performance. For a hero spending most of their time in the jungle, Key items are a necessity. For side-laners, it's a toss-up.

There are some differences among Harvesters, depending on location. The jungle ones become available for capture at 3:00, the outer lane ones at 6:00, and the centre-most one at 9:00. The outer lane Harvesters have the same capacity as the others, but they fill at a reduced rate: taking 10 minutes instead of the usual 5.

Harvesters are an important economic asset, and they pressure teams to keep at least some control over the map at all times. Even a team that wants to turtle will lose in the long run if they can't keep even on Harvesters, and for this reason they do a good job at motivating fights.

As capture points, they are still a bit of a chore. To recapture one requires attacking, waiting 30 seconds, and then a (short or long) channel... time that players would rather spend doing something else!

Aside from the general problems with travel mode (including leapfrogging), I would say Harvesters and travel mode have a positive relationship.

  • The ability to respond quicker means that capture time can be shorter on principle (which is good).
  • The capturing hero is at a disadvantage if they're caught: travel mode stops them from disengaging for free.
    (Disengaging for free would mean someone had to travel to the harvester, and didn't even get a fight out of it. Not a good trend!)

Without travel mode, a similar behaviour could be introduced by saying that an interrupted capture slows the would-be capturer for a short time.

Having an odd number of Harvesters is a good choice. Teams are discouraged from settling for their half of the Harvesters, and spectators can more easily see "who's winning" from a glance at the minimap.

Jungle Inhabitants

Like most, the Agora jungle is peppered with creep camps. "White" camps are commonplace: rewarding experience and gold. Several buff camps are to be found as well, including the Red buff (movement speed and damage), the Blue buff (cooldown reduction and mana regen), and a singluar Black buff (attacks leave a damage over time on enemy buildings).

The buffs physically drop, appearing as a coloured orb on the ground which can be picked up by walking over it. It gently orbits the hero using it, and if that hero dies, the orb will drop on the ground for another hero to pick up.

The boss on Agora is the Prime Helix Guardian, a feisty robot that grows stronger over time, and generally takes a team effort to defeat. It has several abilities, including slamming in a cone, a roar that knocks nearby enemies away, and a swarm of homing missiles that distribute themselves evenly among all nearby targets.

A hulking purple and silver creature sits menacingly in a stone cloister
The Prime Helix Guardian on Monolith.

Like the buff camps, it drops a Prime Orb on death which can be picked up by walking over it. It drops on death, or when the bearer uses Recall (handy if you want to pass the buff around).

However, this pink Orb doesn't do anything on its own; it must be delivered to an Altar. There are two Altars on the map, one owned by each team.

  • Delivering to the friendly Altar will resurrect all friendly Inhibitors. This is known as a "defensive dunk".
  • Delivering to the enemy Altar will give all heroes on your team the Orb Prime buff ("OP buff") for 150 seconds or until death. The OP buff does not drop on death, it simply vanishes. This is known as an "offensive dunk".
The purple orb is brought to the altar, and inhibitors come back online.

Personally, I like the option of a defensive dunk. Inhibitors don't respawn naturally, and this mechanic for getting them back can be a real game-changer.

In practice though, the OP buff was true to its name, and was much more popular than its safer alternative. OP Bonuses include hugely increased damage output, out-of-combat regeneration, and an aura that increases the maximum health of nearby allied troops. The aura stacks, which can turn pushes into tower-felling shoves.

Furthermore, each hero has a special "Prime" item slot which only provides its benefits while having the OP buff. There are only three items that can be used (+75 attack power, +75 ability power, or +1000 maximum life).

We see that players get layered options to customise the reward they get from completing an objective. This is a design direction I'm a big fan of!


Stay tuned for Part 2, where we'll look at Paragon's heroes, items, and the newer map Monolith.