Interview: Cyclotrutan

Today: a special feature! Martin ‘Cyclotrutan’ Schwesinger, the developer of Darkening of Tirisfal / Crimson Coast (2009) joins us for an interview! Take a look through the review for a quick refresher, and I’m pleased to share that the map has received a substantial update after 7 years! Go check it out!

Martin, good morning! How are you doing?

Hello, thanks for having me!

I’m going to ask a bunch of questions and talk through some things; hopefully have a bit of fun while we’re doing it.

Yeah, it’s all saved somewhere in the very back of my brain because it was so many years ago, but I’ll try to have something to say about it.

To start from a very early stage: when did you first get into gaming? What kind of games were you playing?

Well, that was mainly shooters at first. I played Counter-Strike, and also used the Worldcraft editor to make maps for the Quake 2 engine. That was the first time I had got into mapping and creating my own games. Before that, when I was 6, 8, 10 years old, I was creating board games: very simple ones and I forced my family to play them with me. So I’ve done this my whole life.

When you say you were making board games, would you have got together bits of paper, drawn rules on cards, that kind of thing? Or modeled of existing board games; what was that like?

I had some cardboard and painted some fields on it: water fields and grass fields in Settlers of Catan style, and iterated on it all the time like a 10-year-old would. You can imagine what a game developed by a 10-year-old would look like.

Tell me about your first experience with Warcraft 3.
When did you pick it up, what did you think of it as a game?

I picked it up when it came out, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I played competitively in 1v1 and was in a clan; we did clan wars back then. I wasn’t the best, but was kind-of decent with Human. I went into mapping very early on, and made my first very crude maps. Later, I enjoyed Free For All a lot in Warcraft 3 because it’s actually very… it can be competitive if you play with good opponents that don’t just kill you out of spite if you attack them; stopping trying to win to just screw you over. So Free for All (with 4 players) was a lot of fun competitively. After that I played mostly custom games because yeah, that was what the game evolved into, mostly. Ladder died out and the custom game section grew.

When you started playing custom maps, wh
ich ones were you playing? There’s a huge variety out there.

Let’s see… so I enjoyed Uther Party – the minigame compilation map. The original DotA, of course. I really enjoyed the Gaia’s Retaliation RPG though that came out a little later – this was one that fascinated me, and inspired me to do the latest iteration of my own map. Element Tower Defence, and some other tower defences… but you know, you play a tower defence 2-3 times and it’s like: okay, I’ve solved it, nothing more to see, but Element TD was a cool map also, you can do a lot of fun strategies and variation in there.

Gaia’s is a huge project. But lets go back to that interaction with Eul’s DotA: I would assume that was the first AoS map that you played?

The first DotA I enjoyed a lot. When DotA Allstars came about, I really lost interest in it and that was mainly because it was too much on the custom maps section; 80%, 90% of the games on the list were DotA Allstars and there was too much of it. The other thing was that it moved into a direction that I didn’t really enjoy: it became much faster and more like a tactical shooter than what I would like in an AoS map. So when DotA Allstars came around, I didn’t play DotA anymore.

Were there any other AoS maps that caught your interest around that time?

I played a few. Tides of Blood I remember, that was a cool map. But none that I really played extensively.

At some point, you decided to start your own AoS project. How did that come about?

Well, it was just me experimenting with the editor at first. Until now I’ve had five different versions with different names of my AoS map: and always because I wanted a new terrain. It started with an ice terrain called the Frozen Blood, and then it was a forest terrain called the Forest of Blood so it was not very creative naming. Then it was Sands of Blood, and I kept improving on the mechanics and introduced new heroes, and made my first attempts at complex abilities with triggers and so on. It was when I did the Crimson Coast version that I decided maybe I should publish it on some website, and I published it on Hive Workshop where it got some good positive feedback.

And later, inspired by Gaia’s Retaliation RPG; I saw the terrain there and it was so fabulous that I thought: “well maybe I can do this myself”. I tried to do new terrain and then I renamed the map again because it was no longer a coast, and then it was the current version which is Darkening of Tirisfal.

Those early versions had a consistent naming trend, which was
Forest of Blood, Sands of Blood… was there a little bit of a Tides of Blood inspiration there, or is that just coincidence?

I think my map pre-dates Tides of Blood, so it can’t be.

One thing in my map that I think was inspired by Tides of Blood was from one of their heroes: the Blood Mage. It has this huge blood wave and blood explosion, and I made a hero the Blood Lich which also does everything like that. So that was maybe the inspiration I took from Tides of Blood.

When you say that your map pre-dates
Tides of Blood, that means it made before the Frozen Throne expansion, right? Were you doing this in the Reign of Chaos editor?

I think so. When I started there wasn’t even an ability editor in the World Editor, so what I had to do was edit the “.slk” file, this table that’s in the map archive, and it’s still in the map which is something that isn’t very efficient because it takes up a lot of data and makes the map much larger. I wanted to get rid of it, but it’s really difficult because it’s so ingrained in the map that if you take it out it just crashes.

For a map that started with
Reign of Chaos (2003), it wasn’t until quite a lot later (2009) that the map ended up in the public. That’s a six year gap! Who was playing the game?

I played it with friends and my clan and with testers. Of course I don’t remember the exact timeline, but I know WoW came out in 2005 in Europe, and during Burning Crusade we still played Sands of Blood; this was a version that pre-dated Crimson Coast. I don’t put so much focus on publishing stuff I work on; I just enjoy doing it. If someone likes it, of course that’s great but its not something that really drives me towards my creations. I do it just for fun and for creating something.

I’m also quite a perfectionist, and if something isn’t as good as I think it could be, I tend to be very hesitant to publish it because I think it will be critiqued and I can improve on it, and then maybe later I’ll publish it. So I’ll delay until I think it’s perfect. Of course it’s never perfect, but I’m obsessed with perfection I guess.

You wouldn’t be the first artist to feel that way! Apart from early
DotA and ToB, were there any other maps that influenced your work, or was this a work that evolved in isolation over this long period of time?

There were certainly some minor influences from different maps; Gaia’s Retaliation and maybe I had some influences on heroes but I can’t remember the specifics now.

One of the things I first noticed when playing
Crimson Coast was that it’s 4v4, rather than 5v5 like most AoS maps. Was there anything behind that choice?

It started as 4v4 because I think there was a cap on the number of players back then and you couldn’t do 5v5… I don’t know if I’m remembering that correctly. We never played 4v4; we only played 3v3 and the map was balanced around that, though there’s the option of 4v4. Later, someone told me that I should probably increase the cap to 5v5, but there were so many triggers and abilities that were written for 4v4 that making the shift would have been an immense effort.

In some senses,
Crimson Coast would feel familiar to any AoS player, because you’ve got three lanes, the regular troops, creep camps, and some recipe items in there as well. One of the things that makes the game a bit different is that every hero starts the game with a Staff of Teleportation item, and it lets you teleport to any allied unit after a 10 second channel time.

Right. At first it was just an item you could buy at the shop, and it cost gold like anything else. We found that everyone would buy it immediately with their starting gold, so it was really obvious that it should just be a standard item that everyone gets. Then they can buy some other item with the gold they have.

Was this because everyone needed to have a
Staff to play effectively?

I think it was very necessary. One of the tactical depths of this game is quickly switching lanes and going where the creep wave is currently pushing towards the tower. Battles are much slower in Darkening of Tirisfal, so the computer-controlled creeps need a lot longer to kill the other wave. As a result, they spend more time between the towers before they reach the tower, and when they then finally arrive: more creeps have accumulated at the tower. So you wait for this to happen on a lane where nobody is, teleport there, and use the momentum of that creep wave to push against the tower. The towers are quite far apart, so the teleport is a valuable resource.

You have to really switch quickly between the waves, because as you’re pushing, the other wave you just neglected comes up to your own tower. You have a lot of dynamic gameplay this way.

You changed the terrain a number of times over the map’s development, at least in terms of theme and setting. Were you iterating on the layout as well?

I made one change to the mid lane when I switched from Sands of Blood to Crimson Coast. Previously it was a straight line in the middle with L-shaped lines at the edges. What happened was people would always push the middle lane and the outer lanes had little relevance.

I don’t know how it works differently in DotA or League; a straight mid lane didn’t work for me, and it certainly works for them. I made this S-shaped lane so the overall length of the lanes remains the same and all three lanes have the same relevance in the late-game.

Right; the troops tend to bundle up in
Crimson Coast so lane length matters a lot. One of the other features in the game are these special passives called Runes. You can only unlock 1-2 of them during a match. How did they fit into the game?

This was something I introduced very late. Previously the level cap was just 20, and in a long game you always hit the level cap and there was nowhere to go. The way Runes work is: you can get to level 20, but the experience bar goes to level 21. If you hit level 21, you go back to level 20 and get a rune slot instead. So every time you hit 21 you get another rune. It’s another way to progress.

The runes are quite creative: one reduces the channel time on
Staff of Teleportation, another explicitly helps you destroy buildings… did you plan in advance to have them interact with so many mechanics?

I was just designing on the go. I started with a few runes, to see what different kind of effects I could do. Also, I wanted each hero to have some kind of rune that they can use. That said, often players would say, “I don’t want to spend too much time thinking, I’ll just get this one rune I get for every hero”. That was Rune of Enslavement: it gives you a summon that follows you around and shoots at enemies.

Crimson Coast has a number of what I’ve been calling chambered abilities. They’re this type of ability where you have multiple sub-abilities that are tied to the one ability slot. It’s as though you have a gun, and can choose what bullets to load it with: the bullets have different effects but the gun has a single cooldown. The idea gets explored quite a bit: how did you refer to that type of ability, and how did you think about it?

The first hero with this large number of abilities was the Shapeshifter hero, a wisp that can learn five different transformations. You can go into treant form, wolf form, etc. and they have their own abilities. You can stay in each form for only 30 seconds, and then you must choose a different form with your next transformation.

I had imagined making a hero like Shapeshifter for a long time. It was my first try at a complex hero, and working on it taught me a lot about the trigger editor. Everyone liked the result, and because it was so successful I decided to try another, similar concept.

The second one I did was Avatar of the Elements, which you covered in your review. She’s the hero whose skills have one sub-ability for every element. Some people liked the complexity and would play her from time to time, but for most people it was too much. They couldn’t remember that many abilities!

I didn’t refer to these as ‘chambered abilities’ or anything; I just saw it as ‘complexity’.

For the next hero I made, I decided to have one chambered ability which would be very interesting, and keep the other skills simple. This way, the hero would have less of a learning curve: you can select something at random on your first time playing and it will be good enough, but on the second try you can think about which sub-ability you want.

The game demonstrates a lot of variety in how often and where you can switch out your bullets: it really explores the
idea of chambered abilities in depth. It sounds like you were prompted by player feedback: by how willing people were to invest in learning heavily chambered abilities versus lightly chambered abilities.

The first heroes I made were very heavy on chambered abilities; these were too much for most players. But I had a variety of players in my playgroup, and some players just wanted to play one hero every time, and it was one of the simplest heroes.

I wanted to give them all a chambered ability and make them a bit more complex (and in my estimation more interesting) but there were players who just liked these very simple heroes. I added a bit of variation, but kept them simple so that those players would have a hero they could enjoy. And then there was the Avatar of the Elements and the Shapeshifter that were very complex, and all subsequent ones were at a middle level of complexity.

You were a player of
WoW for a number of years, and that’s a game where you have access to quite a lot of abilities. Would you consider that to be an influence on the relatively large number of abilities your heroes ended up with in Darkening of Tirisfal?

Sure; there were certainly some heroes that were heavily inspired by WoW. The Death Knight, the Shaman, and the Dark Naaru. The Dark Naaru was a very controversial hero: every time I played a game this became the main focus in the chat: it overshadowed everything else.

I wrote in the hero description that “this hero is the most difficult to play that you will probably find in any AoS map”. Still, some people who played the map for the first time would just slam the Dark Naaru and complain that it’s impossible to play and they’re dying all the time. On other hand, when I was playing the Dark Naaru, I made mistakes, but I got it under control fairly well and people were complaining that it was too powerful. It was very funny.

What the hero does is: it cannot move, and cannot attack. It can summon two voidwalkers; they can move and attack, and scale with the stats of the Dark Naaru. They have an ability called ‘Recall‘, and can teleport the Dark Naaru to their current location. You move around using them, but the Naaru itself just sits somewhere on the battlefield shooting its spells. It wants to be in the center of the battlefield, and just unleash its storm ability. If you made one mistake, you couldn’t move and would just die. So you had to be very careful.

One of the things I just cannot wrap my head around is how people played against it. Again, when I was playing the hero the complaint was always that it was too powerful. For example, if I was pushing a tower with Naaru, the opposing team might teleport in to deflect the wave. At that point I say: “okay, I have to retreat” and order my voidwalkers to back up. Every other hero could have just walked away, but because I was playing the Dark Naaru I was forced to sit there while the voidwalkers did the walking. Then, the enemy finishes with the wave and starts attacking me, but now I can Recall because my voidwalkers had a 10 second head-start.

The best way for the opposing team to look at that is “he got away”, but they don’t: they chase right across the map even though I already have a lead. Then they complain that this was imbalanced.

It’s something you have to keep in mind while testing; people are not always thinking rationally. If you want to test how people react to it, their emotions are very important. You don’t only want the game to be balanced, you also want it to be fun. If people feel that way, you have to keep that in mind: “what can you do to make them less frustrated?”. But when it comes to balance, people are very irrational.

Did you feel that the better players would pick the heavily chambered heroes and Naaru more often?

Sure. The Dark Naaru was either picked by me, or someone who had never played it and complained all game. There was nobody else. The other heroes were played quite often. There were ones that were more popular, but that just has to do with how the chambered abilities work. On some it’s a bit clunky, and for others it’s a bit better.

It’s still
fascinating to see that type of ability explored in so much depth. Were there any heroes you wanted to try but never got around to?

I don’t think so. I have one hero still left in my file; maybe I’ll finish it. I explored most of the very “out there” ideas.

I’m not an expert on the trigger editor or with the Jass language used in Warcraft 3. Every time I wanted to make a hero, I had to build workarounds and learn the things I needed to make it work. I think many designers fall into the trap that they’re doing stuff just because they can. “I have the ability to make this very complicated ability trigger, and change the terrain and have an explosion here and stuff”; all of these things happen because they’re so adept at the trigger editor and I think it has no gameplay value. It’s something that I found with many of the later AoS maps.

That’s not the case with the original DotA; it’s very focused on combat-oriented straightforward abilities. Some heroes have a special ability that makes them very unique, but it’s not something that is ever “just for show”. It really has some purpose.

I think it’s something that shows up in a number of AoS maps: you build this experience working with the trigger editor, you have this sandbox in which you can play, and
trying out “new tech” is exciting. Darkening of Tirisfal is a very refined map; the level of ‘superfluous’ is quite low compared to other games.

One thing I’m curious about is: you did indulge a bit by having Naaru in the game, because as you say: it was a hero you mostly played yourself. How do you feel about having such extreme designs in the game? Is it a good thing?

Sure, I mean you’re not forced to play it. If it’s too complex for you, pick another hero.

Of course, if you’re a professional developer you have to ask: “do you want to spend time on something that only a few players will play?” But if you’ve already spent the development and creative time on that hero and someone asks you to change it, you could just do another hero and leave the extreme one as it is.

People who like to play it can play it, and other people get a new hero that they would like to play. It’s not the case that it’s too powerful or too toxic for the game. You have to try it for like an hour offline and get used to it, and then you can maybe play it. I don’t know how it is in other play groups, because the map got played a bit by other players and I don’t know if the Dark Naaru was ever used by them.

Could you describe what was going on towards the end of
Darkening of Tirisfal‘s development? Did any other projects spring up to fill in the void?

Well, our play group slowly fell apart. That was at the end of Wrath of the Lich King, so around 2009-2010. At that time, I didn’t have any players to test what I did, so I lost interest in continuing the map.

I’ve since got into card games. I currently play Magic: the Gathering; I played Hearthstone when it came out. I still watch but don’t play. I’m currently working on my own card game called Conquest of Orion. I’ve done this for probably longer than I worked on my moba map… since 2008 almost? It’s the same style of design I described before. I have a new version, brainstorm on it, create, let it rest, and then get some distance to it so I can re-evaluate all of the core mechanics in a few months. Then I say: “Now that I have clarity on this, is this really worth it? Do I have to change this completely because this doesn’t work?” I have it in a state that I’m very happy with, and I’m still testing it but it needs a lot of work.

Nice! It sounds like people have a lot to look forward to in terms of this card game and a new version of Darkening of Tirisfal!

Around 2009, we started to see the first commercial mobas kicking off, such as League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth. What was your opinion of them at the start?

I never got into them very well, because I think they’re doing a bad job at being accessible to new users. When I watch a League of Legends or Dota2 stream, it’s hard for me to see what is actually happening there. I don’t enjoy this very fast gameplay.

Basically in esports right now you have two different games: there is Hearthstone and then there are variations of CS:GO. Of course the variations are quite different games, but they all test for the same skills. The skills that you need to be good at CS:GO for example are the same skills you need to be good at Dota2: team coordination, alertness, and motor skills. Across the entire genre, these are the things that are being tested. It seems that this is the thing that people want to see.

I think this is one of the reasons that Starcraft 2 failed: it didn’t include the teamwork component. It was just everything except teamwork. What I dislike about the new mobas is that they ask players to do something that is not very intuitive. I want to pick a hero and I want to start brawling. I want to attack the creeps on the opponents side and battle with the heroes, but that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to strafe around, wait for the last hit, and then you attack. In some games I heard that they’ve removed this, but you’re also supposed to attack your own creeps.

This is something that seems to me to be a big game design flaw, because for example in Magic: the Gathering, they had a problem for a long time where the cards wanted to play intuitively weren’t very good. People want to smash in the opponent’s face with giant dragons, and for a long time dragons sucked. Newer players would play their dragons and would get obliterated by their opponent playing counterspells and control and “you discard your hand and I gain 10 new cards”. What they had to do was change the game so that dragons are actually good, so a new player wanting to smash in the face of the opponent with a dragon could really do it.

The moment you start a game of League of Legends or Dota2, the thing that you want to do is not something that you’re supposed to do. That seems like a design flaw to me. I’m a bit confused that this isn’t picked up in the community. I think it has to do with that in Warcraft 3, the DotA community became very elitist. Maybe it’s some remnant of it; they don’t care about it… it’s very competitive so for competitive players it’s a very good game, don’t get me wrong. It’s just not very accessible; that’s my take on it. You could have the best of both worlds.

One of the things that many people like about
Dota 2 and League of Legends is that you have a large cast of heroes. That seems to have become the standard in mobas: aim for 100+ heroes, and then you have a drafting phase to produce a lot of dynamics. How do you feel about the idea of such a large cast?

I think it’s quite astounding that… I think 100 heroes were played in one Dota 2 tournament. I think it’s just astounding that they managed to do that: to get the balance so right and make the draft so tactical. I can see that this is something that’s very compelling to watch and play if you’re an expert on the game. I don’t think I could do such a large draft of heroes on my map because it would take too much time!

For Dota 2, I think the heroes are just a vessel to experience this very competitive environment with many different choices, and they’re all designed to fill a specific role. For me, I wanted to do the heroes as just an exploration into flavour and mechanics, so I didn’t have too much focus on the metagame. I think that’s just a different approach.

Have you tried any of the more recent mobas, like

I have to stress: my days of playing mobas were 7 years ago. I played a bit of HotS when it came out but it didn’t spark anything, so I lost interest in it. It’s partly because I think it’s a bit silly. The idea that you smash everything together is something that I don’t like; I would like a game more focused on flavour. You get more immersion that way.

For me, games are just a vessel to explore worlds and flavour and so on. Of course I cared about gameplay, but not in a competitive sense: more the experience of this hero and the flavour of everything coming together. When I, for example, design a card game, that’s a perfect opportunity to design a new world and translate it into a game, and let the players experience the world first-hand. It’s something that excites me about game design.

Has your work over the years with
Darkening of Tirisfal and its predecessors had any impact on your career or what you do now? You certainly put a lot of time into it!

I went to university at the time and studied physics, and I think my affinity for game design and my affinity for physics come from the same character traits that I have: I’m a very creative and analytical person. For example, I’m not as good at writing as some other people, but at game design there comes together this creativity with also this very mathy style.

Another thing is that… I’m a perfectionist type. I think the two components of perfection are striving for perfection which is positive, and there’s obsession with perfection which is negative. I think I’m extremely high in striving, and moderately high in obsession. Striving means you’re trying your best to get it right, but obsession is when you’re writing your thesis but you can’t sleep because you have one comma wrong or something. With my thesis, the day I got it printed, I saw that there was a grammar error in the very first sentence of the introduction. I had to get back there and fix it and call up again and say “NO! I NEED A NEW VERSION!”.

I think this perfectionism is something I see in my maps and I hope that other people see it: being very careful to the details. It’s something that fascinates me with Blizzard games. They are very good at it; they’re very good at having a… the saying in german is “aus einem Guß”. It means “Everything fits together perfectly”. You get the idea that everything works together in harmony; nothing seems out of place.

In general, my time mapping hasn’t affected me. I’ve never been in a professional position as a game designer, though I’m still pursuing it as a hobby and it’s something that I want to do more seriously at some point in my life.

Thanks so much for your time Martin! Where can we find you and Conquest of Orion?

I don’t have social media right now. I have a small web page at where you can find the card game. You can also find some of my fanmade MtG sets on there, and some of my paintings (but I’m a very novice painter). I am currently trying to focus on Conquest of Orion, and want to have a new site up for it in the near future.

All right. Best of luck with your projects going forward!



Weekend news

A couple of things for your attention:

  • I will be hanging out at the Galway Game Gathering all weekend! Come say hi if you’re attending.
  • For those of you who have it installed, a very committed user arsjac has reproduced the original Defense of the Ancients mod within Dota2! It’s now a full 1:1 port. I’ve been meaning to review this forever; hopefully I get to it before the end of the year… Go check it out!
  • There is a major site upgrade for lpg in the works! Despite having a lot of content, it isn’t indexed very well at the moment. Expect big changes on that front around late October. (If anyone likes drupal/d3.js development and wants a side project; get in touch!)
  • New twitter account! It will have lpg and maybe some other things too.


Review: Keys of Sealing

Preview imageKeys of Sealing (RazorclawX, 2004) is a rare example of an AoS whose gameplay is formally divided into stages: imposing a structured path to victory rather than the blurred lines of “early-game”, “mid-game”, and “late-game”. It also has a special victory condition that is more teamfight-oriented than the familiar “destroy the main base”.

In this review I’m going to cover features from both early and later versions together, as there aren’t too many differences.

We don’t see an air lane very often! It activates later into the game.

The Book of Sealing:

Keys of Sealing‘s most distinctive feature is it’s unusual victory condition. Instead of a main base that needs to be destroyed, the game gives a cinematic introduction to the Book of Sealing which is located near the center of the battlefield. This Book is protected behind a layer of barriers, and three keys must be used to remove the barriers. Once exposed, having a hero channel for 2 minutes in front of the book (without dying) bestows victory.

The Book of Sealing, currently behind barriers.

Thus, the game is divided into three stages, of no fixed length:

  1. Securing the keys needed to control when the book will be exposed
  2. Securing an advantage to expose the book at a favourable time
  3. Fighting to control the area around the book for 2 minutes

The First Stage

Each team starts with one key in their base’s vault. This is a ‘sanctuary’ space: protected on all sides and barred by a gate. It’s not impenetrable, but at least one lane of barracks needs to fall before swiping a key becomes practical.

Outside the vault and occupying a central position in the base is the team’s goalie hero, an NPC tasked with guarding the entrance to the vault. It spawns at the start of the game, and levels up over time to acquire spells and stats. If it dies, it will revive after a short delay at the nearby Altar, ready to fight some more.

The goalie hero at his altar, with a few stationary troops to defend.

That’s two keys accounted for. The third is held by a boss called the Spirit of Destruction; located near the center of the map, and who must be slain before his key can be claimed. The Spirit is quite powerful and has an army of lackeys with him, though neither those nor the Spirit will respawn after death: so whittling his forces down over time is an option. Accompanying the Spirit are two Magic Vaults which contain loot, but take time to break open (and are only vulnerable after his death). This means that a team who gets the key can still be denied of the accompanying loot if the area is actively contested.

In earlier versions, the Spirit enjoyed a private chamber underground; teleporter access only.

The keys are individual items which must be brought to the Book of Sealing to dismantle its barrier. Once presented, a key’s purpose is fulfilled and it vanishes. This can be done one-by-one, but the barrier won’t drop until all three have been consumed. Until then, they are items whose location is known to both teams at all times. They will drop if the hero carrying them dies, and each key also provides a passive bonus to the hero who holds it: splash damage, frost attack, or purging attacks depending on the key.

Thus, a hero can remove the key from their own vault right away and use it for a combat advantage… though generally this isn’t a good idea until later in the game, or at the point where the vault is no longer secure.

An NPC called the Keyseeker roams randomly across the map, and actively snatches up any keys that are left unattended for too long outside a team’s vault. If this happens, he must be hunted down and killed to reclaim the stolen keys, though he respawns immediately to continue his task.

Even when none of the three keys are in his possession, the Keyseeker still has a purpose: he drops a special item called Heart of the Obelisk which guides the bearer to an otherwise inaccessible secret shop. It strikes me as thoughtful to have integrated the Keyseeker mechanic with some other parts of the map: it would have been so easy not to. Even though secret shops are no longer in vogue, this is great flavour for a map of KoS‘s era.

To wrap up: the first stage of the game has a good rhythm. There’s incentives to push down lanes, to grow stronger as quickly as possible, and as vaults become less safe: lots of encouragement to hunt enemy heroes and try sneak the boss.

The Second Stage

Once a team is in a controlling position with keys, they have the option to try and build an advantage before dropping the barrier, at which point either team will have an equal shot at contesting the Book of Sealing. There’s lots of ways to build an advantage that can be converted to a (hopefully) decisive victory… though no promises on anything going smoothly! Of course, building an advantage can happen during the first stage as well. Let’s examine some of the options.


There are two capturable towns on the map, which will spawn extra troops for whichever team owns them. A town is captured by destroying a modestly durable building in the center of the town; the other buildings are invulnerable and simply produce troops. Any 2-3 heroes who show up and focus the building are sure to succeed in taking it.

Once captured, the building will respawn for its new owners at about 20% maxlife, so it’s still very contestable if the capturing team isn’t committed. The ‘town’ building has regeneration (it will heal to full in 100 seconds), so it can endure unfocused fire, and returns to being a bit harder to contest if a recapture isn’t attempted immediately.

The towns differ in value; the ‘strong’ town to the west produces good troops and will hold itself indefinitely; the ‘weak’ town in the east will hold, but can sometimes flip back and forth without hero intervention. Having both towns under your control is a great springboard for victory.

The strong town’s Supply Depot is… a throne packing a flamethrower. Who knew?


Of course, the best thing about capturing towns is they make pushing easier, and in Keys of Sealing losing a barracks means losing troop production on that lane. Thus, it’s possible for the second stage to extend for a while if a team feels they can force the enemy into a permanent lane disadvantage, before dropping the barriers. Once that happens, the game will be focused around the Book of Sealing, and allocating time for counter-pushing becomes more difficult.

There are still options though: players can hire mercenary units, including siege specialists that can quickly recapture a town and provide a foothold on that lane. The other mercenaries are a building-repair unit, basic ranged attackers, a caster, and a big tanky unit. Their restock time is quite long, so building up an army would have to start early.

Another option for getting a troop advantage is paying for some of the troop upgrades available in the Altar, which follow the usual trend of +damage/+armour with high cost, and long cooldowns on each upgrade. I’ve written about this implementation for troop upgrades before, and I’m not a fan (though they’re less impactful in KoS than other maps).

Gold Income:

Close to each team’s base is their gold mine; sporting a long line of busy workers running back and forth harvesting. Despite appearances, they have no impact on player income at all, but can still be raided to pick up some last-hit gold (if you have AoE damage; otherwise they’re cumbersome to clear out).

Clearing out the enemy worms, for a profit.

What does have an impact on a player’s income is their wages! Every in-game day, heroes are paid by their faction based on their performance so far. The formula gives more gold to higher level heroes, more again for total player/unit kills, and subtracts for each death. (For this reason, gold mine workers can be used as a slightly more efficient way to inflate unit kills and increase a player’s wages.)

The idea’s cute, though this system hugely rewards early kills with both experience (that leads to levelling and higher wages faster) and a kill which will pay dividends for the rest of the game. Similarly, each death causes a small but permanent reduction in wages.

In games where losing gold on death is a mechanic, wages (or generally, deferring rewards) can help balance situations where two heroes kill each-other, but one hero benefits more because they died first (losing little to no gold) and then got a kill (awarding bounty), while the other gets a kill first but then loses that bounty with their death. Generally, “dying first” isn’t supposed to be a good thing, and waiting before paying out means that the death/kill is what counts, not the order in which it happened.

While they’re nice for flavour, neither of these gold mechanics contributes to overall gameplay. Numerically, neither system offers anything better than the gold for last-hitting troops and heroes, so their existence is largely a flavourful one.


Keys of Sealing has many quests around the map, taking the form “fetch this item for me to get a reward”. They often involve fighting hostile monsters. Most quests can only be completed once, so players might end up racing or interrupting each-other’s quests if they know the map well and feel the rewards are worthwhile.

Much of the game is framed in terms of quests: collecting the keys is technically the main quest. The second most important quest, which these days would be called a map objective, is killing the enemy’s reserve hero. This is a max-level NPC hero camped outside each team’s base, usually stacked with strong items and auras. The hero will sit in place, waiting patiently for two possible outcomes:

  1. To be killed once by the enemy players, and laid to rest for all time.
  2. For the barrier on the Book of Sealing to fall, at which point reserve heroes gain the ability to revive when killed. As we’ll soon see, this turns out to be a big deal.

Sitting in reserve for now, but those auras will make a difference later.

Finally, I’ll mention that there’s creep camps scattered all over the map so farming these is also an option for building an advantage (en-route to quests or otherwise). However, their returns aren’t great.

The Third Stage

The keys are assembled, the barrier falls, and the victory condition of “a hero channels in front of the book for 2 minutes without dying” becomes open to all takers. But as the stakes get higher, the factions up their game as well:

  1. A new lane opens up: air units will start flying directly to the Book of Sealing at the center of the map to contest it.
  2. The goalie hero and reserve hero will leave their posts, and fight their way to the book to channel on behalf of their team.

This definitely raises the level of excitement! The air lane has some spawning rules: the troops stand guard at the book instead of continuing to the enemy base, and troops won’t spawn if there’s already a wave on guard. (This seems fair.)

Trying to channel, but the enemy air superiority won’t let that succeed.

The second point, about NPC heroes being willing to channel, is a critical saving grace for the game. If a human player was forced to sit and channel, I would be very unhappy about it. Instead, NPC heroes can do it (but they have to be escorted to the book along the mid lane, as they’ll try to pick fights along the way). Players can still volunteer to channel themselves, and that might be strategically the right choice in some cases.

With this in mind, the reserve heroes are clearly a big deal. The extra max-level hero with all those auras; and willing to channel the book even when your goalie hero is occupied fighting off the west lane? Very helpful. If you have key control in stage two, taking out the enemy reserve hero is a top priority. That said, teams still have their goalie hero no matter what.

The air units can get distracted by enemy troops in their base, so if the mid or left lanes have lost their barracks and no-one’s holding them off, that can impact how many fliers make it to the center. Thus, even though taking barracks doesn’t lead to taking a main base, it still contributes an advantage in the third stage.

I think this works out as a pretty exciting victory condition in cases where there’s an even fight. In an uneven fight where one team has complete map control (two towns, reserve hero advantage, upgrades, possibly up a barracks…), it may be too hard to contest and turn things around. Well, put those wages to use and don’t fall behind!

Heroes and the Safe Zone

It’s not so clear from the map, but the team bases in Keys of Sealing don’t have any fountains for friendly heroes to heal at. This is because heroes revive, heal, and shop in a separate dimension from the main battlefield, which I’ll call the safe zone.

To leave the safe zone, players step onto a teleport pad matching their preferred lane (or the base), and are instantly teleported to the appropriate exit point. There are separate exit points for each team. All exit points can be used by either team as re-entry points, and re-entry requires a short channel.

The safe zone, with pads for each lane and a separate one for the base.

It’s nice to be able to revive and immediately jump back to your lane of choice, and once the game reaches the third stage, having a reliable central access point is great. (Revive times are  For general get-around purposes, there are also waygates in the corners of the map which connect opposite corners.

There are 30 heroes available for each team. They’re customised for flavour, and later versions have a couple of triggered spells. The items for sale are weak compared to other games, though the numbers all-round are low enough that +6 to a stat feels like it makes a difference. In general, heroes will be leaning on their abilities more than their item builds.


One of the things I like about Keys of Sealing is that it recycles mechanics from the first two stages (the goalie heroes, taking barracks, and the keyseeker) and keeps them relevant during the third stage. That aspect of the design feels really clean to me.

I also like that the lanes have a clear hierarchy: the strong town is the most important and will push the fastest, the weak town is useful and contestable, and the mid lane is hardest to push with, but gains importance over time as the boss becomes viable to fight, and controlling it allows NPC heroes to reach the book. The addition of a fourth lane in the final stages is a nice touch.

If the economic system were tightened up in a few areas (consolidate last-hits and such into wages, drop exploration quests for a central shop, give gold mines a clearer purpose), I think the game would have felt really sharp and been suitable for competitive play and development.

The lesson from KoS is that alternative victory conditions are a rich space to explore, and having the ‘form’ of the game evolve with new lanes and objectives is an area with lots of potential.

Download: Here

MTQ Update

Hi folks,

This project’s still kicking! We should have some new content on its way in the coming weeks. In the meantime…

Material, Time, Quality was one of the most interesting articles on the site for me to write. It was an experimental topic, and I wasn’t fully satisfied with how I was interpreting ‘Quality’ in lane-pushing games.

I’ve now updated that article with my more recent interpretation that sees ‘Quality’ relative to the ‘board state’. It reads more smoothly now, and with the third piece finally in place, the framework is complete as a tool for assessing decisions and trade-offs which might otherwise go unexplored. Check it out!

Game Design: Armours and Resistances


The moba genre has largely settled on an equilibrium with two armour types: Physical Armour and Magical Armour. Why is this the case, and could expanding the use of armours or resistances lead to greater complexity and depth?

In this discussion we’re focusing on armour types and resistances that players interact with. The rules that decide how much damage a ranged troop deals to a catapult are “environmental tuning”, and aren’t the focus of this article.

Fixed Factors

To begin our search for answers, let’s first review what armour types and resistances contribute to the genre, and establish why the current trend exists.

At any point in time, players face a constant fluctuation of variables which provide advantages and disadvantages over each of their opponents. Maybe one enemy is close to a wall and is advantageous to engage, but they’ve also just levelled up or got a new item that puts them ahead of the curve. We can visualise this abstractly as some kind of 2D surface, which I call an advantage map:



Here, perhaps the enemy is vulnerable to our magic damage, but we are vulnerable to their physical damage. Adding more armour types and resistances would increase the dimensions of the chart, allowing more room for different contours of matchup:


Armour types have a role to play in providing long-term strategic texture. As the damage type of an ability or attack is fixed and does not change during a match, the same is true of the relevance that damage types have in the game. Their permanence makes them an important tool in the designers kit for adding long-term dynamics to hero matchups. Many factors in decision-making are constantly changing (such as proximity to a wall, or current health); fixed factors are more stable, and create opportunity for strategy.

The presence or absence of fixed factors affects the weight of long-term choices, such as drafting or a player’s overall build plans. Generally, we want a certain ratio where both short and long-term choices matter, and fixed factors are key to managing that ratio. Too little emphasis on fixed factors, and smart short-term choices won’t tie into anything and become unrewarding; too much emphasis on fixed factors and we get long-term disadvantages that are very hard to turn around, such as complete outdrafts.

With armour types, we can manage the availability of items to control the timing curves for certain heroes/damage types. Physical damage might take a lot of items to become effective, while magical damage can taper off in the late-game due to a lack of steroids. Thus, a team which picks lots of magic damage has a fixed factor in their plan (they don’t have good options late-game), and both teams can manoeuvre around that.

Rock, Paper, Resistance

If you want fixed factors, resistances are about as fixed as it gets. Unlike armours where the strength of the defensive stat can be modified in-game, a resistance system uses predetermined values.

In such a system, each hero gets an “affinity” which alters any damage they take, depending on the affinity of the incoming damage. A familiar example is the pokémon resistances chart:


Image from

Here we would say that Fire-affinity attacks deal increased damage to units with a Grass or Ice affinity, and reduced damage to units with a Rock affinity. Players can’t modify the resistances table at all; it is part of the landscape on which they battle.

Flexibility is necessary for a resistance table to be fun! Players need opportunities to leverage the resistances table better than their opponents, proving their skill and providing satisfaction. Pokémon understands this: battles involve at least twelve combatants, and swapping or using off-affinity moves is core to its gameplay. Each player gets lots of opportunities to use different affinities, and there are even dual-affinity pokémon to increase the complexity.

In a moba context, we would aim match those properties: by making lane rotations easy/frequent, multiple-hero engagements common, or letting players alter what affinity they or their damage has, so they can actively adapt to bad matchups.

On the macro level affinities might work, but on a micro level they tend towards producing solved situations where one hero’s affinity advantage leaves little room for outplays. Getting into situations like this isn’t fun for either party, and there is constantly pressure on the weaker party to seek a more favourable engagement.

Let’s consider some possible implementation details. Damage is a fundamental mechanic, and making it more complex is like making movement more complex: it potentially affects almost everything about the game. Players need to understand affinities to play properly.

Hence, we would like the system to be as simple as possible.

The smallest affinity table has three affinities: enough to make a rock-paper-scissors pattern. Adding more is an option, but we’d need to support that additional complexity with very clear aesthetics: like pokémon does by making all its Fire-affinity moves look like fire. That places restrictions on the game’s aesthetic: entangling visuals with balance, and is not an ideal choice when the genre’s business model relies on letting players use a variety of cosmetics.

For existing examples of how affinities can work:

  • In Age of Myths, hero attacks are subject to a resistances table, but abilities are not. This is done with the purpose of balancing attack range and the items available to each hero class, and it works great!
  • Master X Master implements a rock-paper-scissors affinity system, which applies to all damage to/from heroes (and some neutral units too). The system works because, like perSonas, players in MXM pick two heroes and can swap between them. When faced with a bad matchup, swapping should ensure at least a neutral matchup (unless the player picked two heroes with the same affinity, which this system distinctly discourages).
    • The text showing damage dealt to units becomes more emphasised when an affinity advantage is being leveraged, which helps build familiarity with the system.
  • Elemental Wars made affinities and resistances its central premise, offered nice ways to interact with them, and was quite savvy to the potential issues.

My verdict is that resistances are potentially a good thing, but they come with a lot of responsibilities: for balancing, making them intuitive for players, delivering on flexible gameplay, and ensuring they contribute meaningful depth.

Weaknesses and Rules

Another important role for armour types and resistances is giving weaknesses to damage.

As the primary means of clearing creeps, taking towers, and killing enemy players: damage is universally useful. In order to give other mechanics a chance to shine, we want there to be some situations in which raw damage isn’t as effective.

One way to create those situations is write rules that say “X takes less damage from Y”. A simple example would be “buildings take less damage from heroes”, which forms the beginning of a resistance table as described above.

However, there are many more rules we could write to describe when damage will be less effective. Some rules will be general game rules, while others will be attached to a specific passive or active ability on a hero or item. Some will be categorical in nature, while others will depend on some numerical values like positioning or current health.

The chart below plots four classifications of rule for damage modification:


  1. General & Categorical: A general game rule which reduces damage based on fixed types like “is the damage from an ability” or “is the damage tagged with affinity fire“. This is largely equivalent to having a resistance system!
  2. General & Numerical: A general game rule which modifies damage based on some current numbers. A simple example would be “damaging an enemy who is facing away from you always deals +50%”.
  3. Specific & Categorical: A rule specific to an ability or item, that modifies damage from a certain category of damage source. For example, an item which blocks an incoming single-target ability every 20 seconds.
  4. Specific & Numerical: A rule specific to an ability or item, which modifies damage based on some current numbers. Example: reduce damage from enemies who are more than a certain distance away from the hero.

As we know, categorical properties don’t change and they form part of the long-term strategic texture of the game. Numerical properties do, and hence they are open to tactical manipulation.

All players must abide by general game rules, making them formative of the game experience. Ninjas on has a rule where heroes are slowed upon taking damage, and this alters the gameplay considerably.

Conversely, any rules which are specific to certain heroes or items can receive varying emphasis depending on how much players interact with them, hence their being marked on the chart as interactive rules.


Of course, there is always the possibility of overlap between the rule classifications. We could have a rule that says “buildings under 50% life take less damage from heroes”; this is both numerical and categorical.

In fact, there is one specific damage modification rule that overlaps with all the categories:


Armours are an adjustable stat that modifies damage flagged with a certain ‘type’. This makes them both categorical and numerical. Armours are formative because they apply to everything in the game, but also interactive because their influence can vary on a per-unit basis. This makes them a very versatile mechanic for introducing weaknesses in damage.

To take it slowly, lets examine a game with no armours whatsoever, and introduce an armour for the first time. Having a single armour type is possible: we end up with damage that ignores armour (“pure” damage), and damage which doesn’t.

This isn’t a good arrangement, because either:

  • Pure damage is uncommon and armour protects against most things (armour becomes too valuable).
  • Pure damage is common and there’s no instrument to interact with or counter it.

This may have been the case for some old AoS maps which didn’t use magic armour. In those games, abilities would deal a fixed amount of damage, which was countered by building max health to reduce the proportional impact. Not ideal for the designer: max health has so many other uses that it can’t be tuned for countering pure damage in isolation, and players have to deal with fuzzy/overlapping choices.

Having two armour types like physical and magical is enough flexibility to allow high-damage heroes like nukers to exist without breaking the game, because while their damage is high, it has an inherent weakness: either it’s all of the same type and can be countered efficiently, or it’s of split types and becomes difficult to build for.

Tropes and Variations

The most common forms of armour resolve to a percentage modifier on damage. However, we defined armour as “adjustable stat that modifies damage flagged with a certain type”, and we could apply that stat in other ways. For example,

  • ‘Physical armour’ could offer a flat reduction on incoming physical damage.
  • ‘Magical armour’ could determine the health/duration/cooldown of an anti-magic shield that can be temporarily activated (as an active ability that all heroes have).

These have some quirks (how does physical damage over time overcome a flat reduction?), but there’s nothing wrong with doing it this way.

We’re accustomed to strong correlation between damage types and damage sources: “physical attacks” and “magical spells”. This arrangement means that heroes usually have access to both damage types, even if one is weak. These correlations aren’t a bad thing, as they establish trends, and exceptions which break a trend make things interesting.


Should stats like Evasion and Block count as armour types? Well, they can if you shift your perspective! One way to look at it is that evasion (as a counter) “defines” attacks, in the same way that physical armour (as a counter) “defines” physical damage. The equivalent for evading spells is spell immunity, which is an armour type that operates on a temporary activation basis, like we described above. (In DotA, the duration of spell immunity is a variable value!)

So if you have evasion and spell immunity as two varying stats, that’s effectively an armour system and it covers most incoming forms of damage. Anything that neither evasion nor spell immunity can block is the equivalent of pure damage. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have a moba where this was the primary perspective!

The Third Shield

armour-types-2In most lane-pushing games, the physical/magical split has a huge influence on how players draft, choose items, and use their abilities. Imagine the complexity if a third armour type and corresponding damage was introduced…

Let’s call it Runic Armour.

I’m going to pick some correlations that I think would integrate relatively seamlessly into the existing moba format. Namely, we’ll say buildings and boss objectives have minimal Runic armour, so heroes with Runic damage have an easy time taking objectives, and said objectives get back some physical armour to compensate. This fixes an unhealthy side-effect of having only two armours (which is appropriate for PvP), where heroes with physical dps or which reduce physical armour get to be effective against buildings as a freebie.

We’ll also declare that Runic damage is usually delivered in melee or close range, so heroes need to directly engage objectives to get the most of it (but maybe some hero gets to be the exception to that), and that it’s uncommon, with maybe 15-20% of heroes having native access to it. Catapults probably deal and are weak to Runic as well.

For hero combat, Runic damage would be relatively low (it deals almost full to buildings), but it doesn’t have to be worthless. We can supply items/abilities that apply negative Runic armour to heroes only, or give a high percentage of mana leech on Runic damage: giving Runic abilities the opportunity to fill niches that others don’t.

These are undeveloped thoughts, but I think they demonstrate some of the room that armours have to potentially increase depth, if they’re assigned a purpose and properly integrated.

On a smaller scale, we could define narrow-interest armours: such as a support armour which protects against supportive nukes and reduces the duration of crowd control, or a creature armour which protects against damage from summoned units. Consider a nuke which reduces a hero’s creature armour, or choosing to give towers an on-hit passive that reduces an enemy’s support armour, making them more vulnerable to usually-harmless supports.


At this point we should have a clear understanding of why the two-armour system has been the standard for so long: it adds a fixed factor that the designer can easily tune, and gives damage some much-needed weaknesses. Resistances and affinities are a high-maintenance addition, which most games have understandably chosen to avoid (for hero vs hero interactions).

Introducing new armour stats, or more generally, variable hero stats (which might not correspond directly to damage) helps to to formalise interactions, and improve players’ understanding of modifiers that are currently fixed percentages, and don’t stack intuitively. These stats typically aren’t formalised yet because they’re used infrequently, but as a game expands, having a system in place becomes more valuable. For example, Heroes of the Storm recently reached a point where using percentage-modifier buffs to apply damage modifiers was proving cumbersome, and the game has now moved to a more standard armour system.

We are in a genre where deep mechanical interaction is so important, that exposing or introducing more stats for manipulation feels like a natural progression as games expand. Whether it will be new armour types or otherwise remains to be seen!

MOBA Geography

During the summer I had the pleasure of being interviewed by esports journalist and writer Josh Calixto as part of a feature piece about the ‘geography’ of commercial mobas: addressing the question of how the ubiquitous “three lanes” layout evolved, and why it’s been so enduring. We also covered the evolution of various other map features, and mused about possibilities and constraints on where map designs might be headed next.

If you like the sound of that, check it the full article out over on Killscreen.