Review: Scars of War

Age_of_Myths_PreviewScars of War (Skar, 2009-2011) is an unusual combination of a relatively recent map using 2005-era scripting. It draws loose inspiration from DotA, and is mostly comprised of minor to moderate twists on familiar ideas. The map includes more features than it needs, and many of them aren’t integrated well, but among the clutter lie a few interesting concepts.

Mmm, symmetry. Well, mostly.

Map Features:

It must be said: the most immediate thing anyone will notice upon playing Scars of War is its garish visual style. Just about everything in the environment sparkles, glitters, glows, or flaunts an unusual colour palette. While the use of models is creative, the constant visual noise makes simple tasks like “trying to find a shop” needlessly difficult.


Left: some flowers in front of a shop. Right: terrain around a creep camp.

The main bases for each team are a bit more appealing. Soldiers can be seen training in the background, there’s workers busy with repairs, and best of all, the bases are surrounded by thick walls which may be climbed upon. Neat!


I’m not sure this is a practical place to defend from, but it looks cool.

Out in the lanes, each team’s towers are accompanied by three defenders and a Garrison building. The defenders are always the first to fall to a push, but as long as the garrison stands, slain defenders will come back to life after 30 seconds, and continue absorbing damage that would have otherwise reached the tower.


Protected by attackable walls and defending mages.

While troops will naturally focus on the enemy tower during a push (since it’s attacking), a hero or its summons can try to take out the garrison first, which will make subsequent pushes more effective. Garrisons have approximately half of a tower’s life, making this achievable, though still difficult.

The bottom corners of the map are occupied by side-bases, each housing a Gold Mine. Despite their close proximity, these side-bases are separate from the lanes, and troops won’t try to enter. Instead, they must be invaded by heroes, and upon razing the gold mine (and the surrounding base), the enemy’s supply of passive gold income will be cut off, and the faction’s troops will have their damage permanently increased.

Periodically, a random pair of runes will be spawned at two points on the upper side of the map. These give the familiar bonuses from DotA, and are hamstrung by impractically short durations given their placement and the size of the map.

Scars of War has a troop upgrade system, but unfortunately it is of the “mandatory gold-sink” variety that I have dismissed in previous reviews, so we will skip past it.


Bosses:

There are three bosses in Scars of War, which have a rather complicated relationship.

  • Galvron: The weakest boss, in the middle of the map. Drops an Emerald Shard: a single-use reincarnation consumable (aegis from DotA) which has no time limit. The first team to kill him gets an extra ‘Galvron’ troop for the rest of the game.
  • Dragon: Powerful boss, drops a (useless) Burning Heart. Combining this with an Emerald Shard creates an item that generates extra ‘dragon’ troops. This item doesn’t stack.
  • Harpy: Powerful boss, drops a (useless) Storm Heart. Combining this with an Emerald Shard creates an item that generates extra ‘harpy’ troops. This item doesn’t stack.

Defeating Dragon/Harpy will permanently improve the damage of the killing faction’s troops, which is a considerable bonus. However, the full reward requires a Shard from beating Galvron as well to get the extra troops on-lane. Hence, despite not being the strongest boss, Galvron remains the most pivotal. All three of the bosses will respawn several minutes after dying.

The boss fights themselves are a bit unusual. As can be seen on the birds-eye map above, the “pits” for Dragon/Harpy are exceptionally deep. A team which is contested while fighting a boss will have absolutely nowhere to run except fighting their way out. To acquire both of the valuable troop generation items, a team will have to defeat one boss deep in the enemy side of the map, where being contested is very likely.

Each boss guards a “roost” building, which remains invulnerable until the boss has been slain. It is upon destroying this reasonably sturdy roost that team gold is distributed, and the reward item is dropped. This means a team can wait until the enemy has just finished the boss units (and hence is at their weakest) before pouncing to steal the prize, since there is guaranteed to be time before the enemy can crack open the roost. The combination of these features makes taking a boss very risky against attentive opponents.


The red dragons and their roost.

A final note on the bosses: I am not fond of how the Galvron “first-kill bonus” works. Having to deal with extra lane pressure for the rest of the game is pretty harsh, and I don’t like that there’s no way to even things out later. It would be much more bearable if the troops were awarded to the most recent Galvron kill, or some other limit was applied. But, enough about bosses.


Powerups:

When a hero kills an enemy troop, there is a chance it will drop a powerup which will stay on the ground for 20 seconds before vanishing. Picking it up will grant the hero a minor bonus until their next death. There are three types of powerup:

  • Gold: +2 gold per last hit
  • Time: -2 seconds from the hero’s death timer
  • Attribute: +2 to the hero’s primary attribute

A hero may accumulate at most four stacks of each powerup, such that a hero who has been laning for a while will have +8 gold on each last hit, -8 seconds shaved from the timer for their next death, and +8 to their primary stat. It’s not a huge amount, but these powerups give a unique reward for time spent laning that can’t be acquired anywhere else.


An enemy could snatch these away; have to be quick!


Items:

Scars of War has approximately 120 items. Regular permanent items comprise most of the roster, but quite a number of sub-categories exist, each with their own twist. The most familiar of these will be recipe items, though there are merely 5 (excluding the boss drop items).

Set itemMany of the regular permanent items happen to be listed in one of the Item Sets. A partial bonus is granted for wielding at least 2 items from the same set, and a full bonus is granted for wielding all 4 items from a set. The bonuses are substantial, and the full bonus will often include new abilities, or upgrade items in the set, making them even more effective as a reward for commitment. Generally, set items are expensive, so buying two cheap ones to get the partial bonus “efficiently” isn’t practical.

One shop sells a number of Pushing items. These are relatively cheap, and have active abilities which affect only allied troops. Buying several of them can substantially boost a hero’s pushing power, by reviving fallen units, healing them, increasing attack damage, and so on. They offer no stat padding whatsoever, making them purely an objective-motivated purchase.

Cursed itemIn a departure from the rest of the pushing items, there’s a single-use consumable that can be bought from two of the shops in the middle of the battlefield, and it has a restock time that applies to both teams. Hence, if one team buys it from a shop, neither team can buy it there again for 2 minutes. It’s expensive but powerful, and (other than the bosses) is the only item in the game that’s contestable in this way.

Cursed itemAlso available are Cursed items, and as typical of their presence in other AoS maps, there are only a few. In Scars of War, the stronger cursed items have respectively the highest bonuses in the game for their stats, which helps them compete for viability with regular items. Among the cursed items is the only item in the game that can increase exp gain. I still feel that opportunity cost is more than enough when it comes to making items a trade-off, and that even if cursed items turn out to be balanced, they aren’t healthy for the game.

A category that I enjoyed seeing were Evolution items: a type of item which starts out weak and cost-inefficient, but pays off later in the game. An example is the item Common Bracer, which costs 500 gold and gives +5 strength. By fulfilling its evolve condition of holding onto it for 10 minutes, it will level up into a +15 strength, +5 agility, +5 intelligence item, which is excellent for 500 gold. Keep it for a further 15 minutes, and it will evolve again, gaining more stats and a special passive.

Evolution items can produce very efficient results from a small investment of gold, but they do have downsides. In particular, dying will undo some progress of the evolve condition, such as setting the Common Bracer‘s evolution timer back by 3 minutes. If this happens too often, the game might have moved beyond the point where the item could bear fruit.

There are 9 evolution items in the game, most of which have 5 levels, and a different evolve condition to fulfil at each level. Below are some examples:

  • Cast 35 hero spells
  • Kill 50 enemy units
  • Kill 3 enemy heroes
  • Deny 20 allied units
  • Deal 5,000 damage to enemy units
  • Deal 6,000 damage to enemy heroes
  • Witness 4,000 mana being spent by nearby enemies casting spells
  • Be the target of 25 enemy hero spells
  • Take 10,000 damage
  • Walk 100,000 distance

The conditions roughly match the purpose of the item: being hit by spells helps to evolve a tanky item, while walking around evolves the boots item, etc. The boots item is an interesting case, because when fully-evolved, it grants the highest speed bonus in the game. Hence, no-one has to pay more than 500 gold to have competitive movement speed, though relying on this item means opponents can kill a hero to stop them from “catching up”. It’s also possible to buy other, more expensive boots items, which have active abilities and will temporarily outpace the still-evolving evolution boots.

While it’s not explored in much depth, one item has two separate evolution paths: an idea which presents some cool possibilities for item progression. In theory, some heroes might be able to meet one condition faster, but prefer the other evolution path, and have to play differently or sub-optimally for a while to get it. (We assume players aren’t forced to take the first condition they meet; that could lead to abuse.)

SoW_2Maxed-out evolution items have special abilities, including valuable counters like mirror image (self-dispel), mana flare (anti-caster), and the best evasion item. This creates an interesting dynamic where heroes need to be thinking about counters very early in the game, since waiting 10-20 minutes to complete the appropriate counter item might not be an option later on.

The premise of evolution items is pretty cool. It presents players with optional “mini-quests” they can attempt, and also presents enemies with a clear way to foil them: by killing the hero. Packaging all that potential interaction into the existing item system is surprisingly tidy, and avoids introducing extras like a ‘quest master’, a means to track progress, and all the other baggage that full-fledged quest systems entail.

Permanent itemThe item effects are only lightly scripted, and will be familiar to most players. There are some creative ideas in use though; I quite like Hindirus (right) for how it gives the otherwise untouched neutral creeps a bit of relevance.

There are a lot of item sub-categories in Scars of War, and I find the lack of focus problematic. One player might be working towards a recipe item, another accumulating the items of a set, a third is busy with evolve conditions, a fourth building around cursed items… there are so many different forms in which heroes can progress that the game loses cohesion and clarity. What is the enemy’s plan? Well it could be any one of 4-5 different types of plan, before we even get into specifics.

I would prefer to see two well-populated categories (regular + evolution items), than have them spread so thinly across different ideas. A simpler system would make it easier for players to make and interpret decisions, and could absolutely retain the same depth if done well.


Overview:

While I’ve described the game’s mechanics one-by-one, section-by-section, a player of Scars of War would actually discover things like “the first team to kill Galvron gets extra troops” through the Achievements menu, since completing the Galvron Rusher achievement is (according to the game) what actually gives a team the ‘Galvron’ troops. Similarly, the consequences of destroying the enemy gold mine are rewards from an achievement, rather than a normal mechanic of the gold mine.

The achievements menu seen in in Scars of War would not be a healthy feature in any game. If a game element does something, it is much clearer to just say so, rather than putting crucial information in a separate place. Those achievements which aren’t describing how a game element behaves, are of the “snowball” variety: further rewarding players who were already the “first to do X”. I am not a fan of this at all.

Overall, Scars of War is a pretty decent map if considered as being from 2005. Its heroes, items, features, flaws, and ambitions all match what I would expect from that era; which is just fine if your players have been around awhile and are accustomed to that style. A contemporary audience wouldn’t be so forgiving though!

Download: Here

Review: Desert of Exile

Comfortably one of the most refined AoS experiences in the genre, Desert of Exile (Rising_Dusk, 2007-2009) is 6v6 map built on the premise that simple, elegant systems can produce complex and engaging gameplay when their parts are allowed to interact. It is the first AoS to adopt this philosophy seriously, and it is executed with confidence and discipline. There are no half-baked systems, nor any peripheral mechanics that don’t quite tie in with the rest.

The game features a fresh approach to hero design, clear and satisfying objectives, and a unique flavour of teamwork and synergy that distinguishes it from its peers.

The central lake is walkable, aside from two deeper patches in the middle.

Map Features:

Desert of Exile is true to its name: featuring a barren wasteland with nothing to see but the bases and some stray merchants selling items. The terrain is largely flat and unobstructed, save for carefully moulded cliffs which enclose each team’s base and side-bases.

In the absence of any distractions, the main “map objective” is collecting Faction, the familiar resource from Advent of the Zenith which was awarded for hero kills, and here is also awarded for participating in destroying enemy structures.


Taking out an exposed outer tower with a large push awards Faction.

Like it’s predecessors, Desert of Exile has four lanes, with a Keep spawning the troops on each lane. If a Keep is destroyed, troop production will permanently cease on that lane, allowing enemy troops to advance onto the primary structure. Additionally, losing a Keep in one of the side-bases will give the enemy team control of its adjacent healing fountain, and cause one of the two healing fountains in the main base to deactivate! If both side-bases have been lost, a team will have no fountain healing inside their main base.

Losing fountains is a very “suitable” reward for taking out side-bases, as it makes attacks on the main base more effective: particularly the loss of the front-most fountain which makes defending the mid entrance sustainable. I really like the natural progression that this mechanic carves out for players.

Keeps are also the place to buy extra units, which will be queued up and march with the next troop waves that spawn. There are eight available unit types, including cheap backup, specialised attackers, and heavy pushing tools. Below are the Hallowed Order units; the opposing faction has functionally identical ones with different names.


The (×2) denotes that one unit of that type will be queued for each of the next two waves.

The most expensive units cost Faction (which is considerably more scarce than gold), but that’s fair considering that used effectively, they can take out buildings and help pay for themselves. The cheaper units have fixed pricing brackets, which I like a lot because it lets a player’s choice of units be strategically motivated, rather than picking the best thing you can afford.


Long-ranged ‘Vagabonds’ whittling a tower from a distance.

Anyone on the team can buy extra units at any time, which allows reinforcements to be queued remotely for distant lanes. Keeps can spawn at most four extra units per wave, limiting how much lane pressure can be applied at once.


Conditions:

Integral to hero design and combat are conditions: a selection of 8 negative buffs loosely modelled on those in Guild Wars, which are shared and re-used by the entire cast. With almost no exceptions, these are the only afflictions that may be placed on enemy units:

  • Bleed: 10 physical damage per second
  • Burn: 20 magical damage per second
  • Blind: 90% miss chance on attacks
  • Cripple: 50% movement speed slow
  • Knockdown: Stunned
  • Maim: 75% attack speed slow
  • Mute: Silenced
  • Ruin: -10 armour

One immediate advantage of this system is that it makes efficient use of information. New players don’t have to adjust to different damage-over-time values on graphically distinct buffs from all the different heroes; there’s just burn and bleed. Similarly, there is exactly one slow at 50%. This efficiency carries into the hero ability descriptions, which can be concise because they don’t have to explain the specifics of each debuff, only its name and the duration for which it will be applied.

Individual heroes range between having all eight of the conditions at their disposal, to having none of them (typically it’s 2-3 each). But even heroes and abilities which don’t inflict conditions directly still have a lot of interaction with them: perhaps a bonus effect if the target is blind, increased healing against a bleeding target, or more damage for each burning unit nearby. The limited number of conditions in the game makes them relatively frequent in the hero pool, hence many heroes can synergise particularly well with each-other by providing the right conditions at the right time.


Two burn-lovers working in harmony.

Other abilities interact with conditions in a more general way, such as transferring them to chosen unit, extending their durations, cleansing them, rewarding the presence or absence of any conditions, or reacting to new conditions being applied. Desert of Exile’s custom buff system is the most advanced of any Warcraft III map, and it’s utilised to the fullest to create lots of interesting dynamics, all with effects that are (as an added bonus) easily described in plain English.

To give a sense of condition-based combat, I’ve listed some hero abilities below:

  • Abolish: Damages enemy units in the target area, and knocks down blind foes for 3 seconds.
  • Dragonbane Hide: Reduces all incoming damage by 10% for each condition this hero suffers from.
  • Upheaval: Channel to deal damage each second to foes in a target area, and cripple them for 4 seconds. Damage is doubled against knocked down units.
  • Martyr: Heals allies in the target area, and transfers all their conditions to the caster.
  • Epidemic: Spreads all conditions on the target unit to all nearby foes, with 150% duration.
  • The Prevailing Winds: Upon being inflicted with a condition, this hero deals 50 damage to nearby foes.
  • Twister: Sends out a slow-moving sandy cyclone which deals 20 damage per second, and applies 3 seconds of blind per second.
  • Absolution Aura: If a nearby ally is suffering from no conditions, they take 40% less damage from all sources.

There is a lot of diversity among the heroes. Some are proactive, trying to apply certain conditions to set themselves up for a good fight. Others are more reactive, moving conditions around or extending them. Meanwhile, there are heroes who are happy to be in the thick of things, tanking conditions and triggering bonus effects as they do.

Since the negative effects of conditions are fixed and shared by all heroes, durations and ability cooldowns end up being the key to balancing them. Durations are chosen to be whole numbers (2, 3, 4) for simplicity, and easy addition and counting. Some spells have particularly long durations, such as Scarlet Maiden‘s 45 second bleed, which emphasises the importance of having condition cleansing or transference available.


While condition-based combat has many perks, it has a few disadvantages as well. For example, while each individual ability might be simple and elegant, their high dependence on interaction with other abilities means that players need to know how all the abilities in a fight work before they’re playing the game properly.

Systemically high interactivity comes at the cost of a (mildly) steeper global learning curve. This works out as a very acceptable trade-off for Desert of Exile, but we must remind ourselves that there is a trade-off taking place: one which could be problematic for a more modern game. In particular, a steeper global learning curve might alienate spectators, or make life difficult for casters who are trying to explain what’s going on without regurgitating the entire game.

A related concern is readability of the game state, which is largely an issue due to Warcraft III limitations. As it stands, there is no way to see the remaining duration of a unit’s conditions, nor is there any visual representation of conditions moving from one unit to another. This makes combat more difficult to follow, particularly for players joining the fray mid-fight. This problem is solvable though, and its resolution might assist with the learning curve issue discussed above.


Trebuchets:

In earlier versions, each team had two Trebuchets isolated on a cliff behind their main base. These enormous wooden war machines were invulnerable, had global attack range, and their sole purpose was to fling rocks at the enemy non-stop! In practice, this meant that every four seconds, a pair of rocks would be fired at the nearest visible enemy units, dealing damage in modest area wherever they landed, possibly hurting enemy heroes in the process. Having some serious artillery on the back lines definitely feels cool, though the mechanic was a bit awkward in practice, since it exclusively hindered melee heroes, affected how lanes would push in a somewhat unintuitive way, and incoming projectiles were not indicated in advance.

Trebuchet rocks were later changed to land at a random point near their original target, opening the possibility of hitting ranged heroes. They were also updated to apply a random condition (cripple/ruin/maim) on-hit, making them potentially devastating to get caught out by. The thinking behind this might have been to “mix up” the conditions on any given lane and reward quick reactions, but in practice randomly getting hit, slowed, and dying to an enemy hero proved neither fun nor satisfying. Not long thereafter, Trebuchets were removed for good.


This is what global range looks like. Or, at least it used to.


Items:

Desert of Exile’s items can be divided into two categories; Regular items and Faction items. The former category consists of ‘cheap’ items which can be bought in each team’s base. These comprise:

  • Potions, which provide non-combat healing or mana regeneration over time, as well as an instant ‘cleanse conditions’ potion. Potions cannot be stacked, and are bought as single-dose or double-dose (the latter being more than twice as expensive, since it’s slot-efficient).
  • Permanent stat-padding items which each cost a modest 200 gold, and offer minor stat boosts such as +2 strength, +4 attack damage, +10% attack rate, etc. It is possible to buy several of the same item, but heroes are of course limited by having only 6 inventory slots.
    • One of the items grants +15 movement speed, but has the disappointingly fair downside of -2 armour. This item can be bought several times, but the negative armour will stack too, making the extra speed a risky choice.
  • While they’re not exactly items, it’s possible to buy a cheap flying courier to ferry items around, and workers which can repair buildings at the cost of gold. Workers are very important for maintaining bases, as tower life is relatively low, and towers will slowly burn down if left unattended on low life!

Faction items are so-named because they cost a whopping 8 Faction each! Bought from the shops situated on the battlefield, they are substantially more powerful than basic stat-padding items, though they do little stat-padding themselves. Their effects are situational, clever, and let heroes significantly change how they interact with the game’s other systems. Here are some examples:

  • Power Inverter: All damage this hero deals with spells is made physical if magical, and magical if physical.
  • Crown of the Ages: Increases durations of conditions the hero causes by 25%, and decreases durations of conditions the hero suffers by 33%.
  • Heart of Rendabi: Causes any magical damage you deal to ruin foes for 4 seconds.
  • Phylactery: Adds mana regeneration, and restores 15 mana to the hero each time it is inflicted with a condition.
  • Spectral Shard: Increase the damage of any conditions you inflict by 50%.
  • Devil’s Thorn: Returns 50% of the physical damage you receive to its source.

While it’s not directly emphasised by most hero abilities, the distinction between physical and magical damage becomes important once items are involved, as half of the Faction items react exclusively to physical damage, or to magical damage. Hence, whether a hero’s abilities naturally deal physical or magical has a major impact on how they can itemize. The other half of the Faction items affect or interact with conditions in some way.

In practice, it was rare for a hero to buy more than two Faction items, due to their expense and specialised applications. Players tended to pick the 1-2 items which worked well with their abilities, and filled out the rest of their slots with stat-padding items like +2 armour, which were favoured over having a Faction item with conditional or inconsistent benefits. This implementation was effective at rewarding players who earned Faction, but didn’t achieve quite as much build diversity as I expect was planned.

Faction items seem like they would have been better off as upgrades. Warcraft III’s limited UI would have made that impractical, but theoretically it solves the problem of Faction items competing for inventory space with regular items. I also would have liked if upgrades had multiple ranks: allowing players continue to specialise their hero without making them uniformly “more powerful”. Even if the higher ranked upgrades weren’t cost efficient, simply having them available relieves players of feeling “maxed out” before a match is close to ending.


Hero Design:

Like Dusk’s previous work, Desert of Exile involved collaboration with a number of artists to create unique, desert-themed characters which fit into the game’s distinctive setting. Lore was less of an emphasis compared to Advent of the Zenith, though it was far from neglected: with historical accounts available for each character in the hero-select screen. There are 30 heroes in the game, and the standard game mode is asymmetric, with 15 heroes in each team’s hero pool.


Reskinning the naga as sand-lizards was a personal favourite.

The heroes themselves have only four abilities: three regular and one ultimate. Each ability is intentionally kept simple: typically dealing damage of a certain type, and having some degree of condition interaction, just like the examples cited previously. Rather than being powerful and fight-deciding on their own, ultimates are often channelled or utility spells, and/or have some dependence on conditions.


That’s not to say ultimates can’t spill any blood…

By design, each hero is limited in what it can individually accomplish. Its own abilities probably have 1-2 workable synergies, but beyond that, teamwork is necessary to unlock each hero’s potential, and that depends greatly on which heroes are in play. Similarly, opposing heroes will have different ways to deal with conditions or apply their own, making for a complex web of possible interactions in any given combat scenario. Add all the possible item effects to the mix, and the potential depth that’s the crux of the game should become apparent.


Overview:

Desert of Exile is one of the few AoS maps that has a timeless appeal: it has a clear central idea, and explores it rigorously and in great depth. Not only this, but conditions are given a suitable stage on which to shine: clear and reinforced map objectives direct players’ attention directly to combat, and there’s no clutter like a jungle or shops with recipe items for players to get lost in. The combination of both its clever idea and disciplined execution is what made Desert of Exile such an excellent map, and a fine example for the rest of the genre to follow.

Download: Here
Further reading: Interview with Rising_Dusk

Game Design: Three paths to victory

As a follow-up to the victory conditions article, I thought I’d briefly share an arcade game which has a few parallels to mobas, as food for thought regarding victory conditions. It’s called Killer Queen, and it’s played 5v5 on a 2D platformer-style battleground, with short 1-3 minute rounds.

The game loosely models two beehives at war. One player on each team plays as the powerful queen, while the rest play as workers. There are a number of ‘gates’ around the screen which workers can use to upgrade themselves to soldiers, gaining wings and an attack, but losing the ability to help complete objectives. Teams must find a balance between military presence, gate control, and progressing towards one of the three victory conditions:

  • Economic Victory: Fill your hive with berries.
  • Military Victory: Kill the enemy Queen three times.
  • Snail Victory: Ride the snail into your own goalposts.


Blue is way behind on berries, but Gold’s queen is on her last life.

Having three ways to win is the core of the gameplay, and the result is very dynamic, with a variety of rush strategies, slower positioning games, and sudden upsets. All three victory conditions are viable individually, and can also be used as distractions or threats while working towards a different victory. Knowing when to pivot, and when to go all-in is part of the strategy and fun.

The challenge of having three unrelated victory conditions is trying to assemble some sort of narrative that players will understand, otherwise they won’t know why they lost. This proves tricky, and Killer Queen employs a few different ideas.

Firstly, at the start of each round the game flashes the three victory conditions to all players:

killer queen victory condition splash

military victoryThis is a good starting point, to make sure players know that there are multiple victory conditions

Secondly, once a team wins, the game will zoom in on the finishing blow (in whichever form it took), and say exactly who won and how. This is effective because rounds are short, and players can learn quickly from the directed feedback.

Finally, the game borrows familiar symbolism from other games. The goalposts for the snail victory are depicted by a soccer net, while the queen’s remaining lives are represented by a row of eggs from which she hatches to revive. Neither of the above is consistent with the “bees and beehives” setting, but they make the mechanics easier for players to grasp.

Uniting 3+ victory conditions into a singular cohesive narrative would be a struggle for any game, and it’s easy to see why Killer Queen chooses to rely on external reinforcement and familiar cues when getting its message across. An arena game taking inspiration from Killer Queen might find success with a similar approach.

I would be less confident trying to have multiple victory conditions work in a lane-pushing game. With longer match durations, a clear narrative is important to keep players focused, and each additional victory condition starts to fragment that. We don’t want players to feel that their progression throughout the match was worthless, because now the team is moving towards a different goal. Trying to find a balance where pivoting is viable but not necessary would also be a challenge. Having multiple paths to the same victory condition is the “tried and true” approach in the genre at the moment, and I don’t expect to see that change any time soon.

If you’d like to observe the game in action, check out some of the links below.

Further reading: Killer Queen official website, Competitive gameplay footage

Review: AoS Sunken Ruins

In a world of mobas which are aiming for the skies, it’s nice to see a project that executes well with a smaller scope. I was recently introduced to AoS Sunken Ruins (Quillraven, 2008-2010), which manages to provide a surprisingly complete AoS experience despite having less heroes, items, and supplementary mechanics than its peers. The simplicity of the map objectives, and transparency of gold-spending options make Sunken Ruins a game to be played, rather than solved.

Lanes, with a single map objective in the middle of each. No distractions.

Temples of the Tides:

An invulnerable temple stands in the centre of each lane. Temples initially belong to neither team, but heroes may capture them by standing near them and channelling for 40 seconds. If several allied heroes channel together, the countdown is accelerated. It is possible for heroes on both teams to channel a temple simultaneously, with the capture being awarded to whichever completes first. Taking damage will interrupt a hero’s channelling, and if no other heroes are channelling, progress will immediately be lost.


The beginnings of a capture attempt at the mid-lane temple.

The range for channelling is generous: heroes can stay in fog of war or behind their troops, forcing the enemy to come to them. Capture attempts are both visible and audible, and the temples also show the location of any channelling heroes through fog of war using a purple beam (though this doesn’t give vision or show which hero’s channelling).

Having lane control helps with, but doesn’t guarantee a capture. The enemy can choose to dive past the troop line to harass during any capture attempts, but it’s dangerous and they’re likely to miss out on experience.

I like this system of mechanics for capturing an objective. It allows any hero to force a response from the enemy team (or get a free temple), which is great for player agency. The forty-second channel time is long, but that has some advantages:

  • It gives the enemy team time to form a meaningful response, rather than having to drop everything and rush over to deal with one hero (which would make temples a chore).
  • Threatening a capture drives the gameplay and makes things happen, which makes it feel less like “standing still waiting for this thing to complete” and more like actively applying pressure.
  • Capturing with team-mates is now much more valuable, not because it’s safer, but because it saves a lot of time.

Capture attempts are easily punished if done thoughtlessly, but they can also be a useful tool for setting up traps. This wouldn’t be possible if there wasn’t a generous capture radius, which means the enemy has to venture a little out of their safety zone.

Once captured, a temple spawns additional troops on that lane, and grants a global aura to the owner’s team. The temple auras are:

  • Top lane: +100% armour for all friendly units and heroes.
  • Middle lane: +20% attack damage for all friendly heroes and units.
  • Bottom lane: +25% attack damage for all friendly towers.

Both the extra troops and the auras passively increase lane pressure, which makes finding time for recapture attempts more difficult. This can be tough to deal with early-game, while heroes are relatively weak compared to troops, and lane pressure is still a burden.


Structures:

The bases in Sunken Ruins are wonderfully efficient. Every building in the base is worth destroying, there are enough that there’s a sense of progression when doing so, and there is no wasted space.


The entire base: no walls, ramps, or long walks between lane entrances.

At the centre of the base is the Altar. It serves as the primary structure, and is also the location where heroes revive. Sunken Ruins does not have any safe-zone in which heroes may rest: they get 8 seconds of invulnerability upon revival, and that’s it. The surrounding Coral Bed buildings each have an aura that heals nearby friendly heroes. If all four are destroyed, heroes will have to rely on consumable items for healing. There is only a single tower defending the inner base. The buildings’ close proximity means that freshly spawned troops from each lane will retaliate against attacks on adjacent lanes, which helps somewhat when defending.

The remaining buildings in the base are all unit factories. Each factory contributes one unit towards a troop wave. If a factory is destroyed, then the corresponding unit will no longer spawn, and if all three factories on a lane are destroyed, then that lane will no longer have troops. Coral Beds have a dual purpose as both fountains and unit factories. (One of the four Coral Beds does not produce units, it is presumably there for symmetry, or as a backup fountain.)


One troop from each factory building, each of a different type.

It’s a small thing, but I enjoy that there are three “barracks” instead of two. It adds just a little more progression to destroying a base.

The lack of a safe-zone turns out to be surprisingly acceptable. Without any spare buildings for troops to get tangled up with, being in a position where you could spawn-camp is equivalent to being on top of the enemy’s primary structure with your entire army. Any effort to spawn-camp would equally be an effort to end the game, so there isn’t any “drawing it out” or associated negative behaviours. This approach also saves map-space, and cleans up the minor narrative issue of having technology powerful enough protect the safe-zone, but not using it to protect the primary structure.


NPC Heroes:

Each team starts the game with three (dead) faction-controlled heroes, and these may be individually revived at the Altar for a fixed gold cost. Upon returning to the land of the living, they will march down a lane of the player’s choosing, pushing as far as they can until slain again.

The NPC heroes are similar to regular heroes, with the exception of having incredibly high maximum life (for a hero), and no inventory. They gain experience, and both their stats and abilities will automatically level up as they do. For this reason, reviving them as often as possible is advantageous in the long run. There is no cooldown on reviving NPC heroes, which (unfortunately) means that a team with gold to spare can maintain almost 100% uptime on these powerful creatures, without putting much thought into defending them. They’re not unbeatable, but applying this tactic puts a losing team under a lot of pressure.


Defending towers against a pair of giant NPC heroes.

It is possible to revive all three NPC heroes at once, and they can be sent down separate lanes, or all put on the same lane. They don’t synergise particularly well, and their damage isn’t enough to push quickly, but if left uninterrupted in the latter case, they would almost win the game on their own, since only heroes have enough damage to kill them.


Behemoths:

I say almost, because there is one curious mechanic which prevents this from happening. The “Shrine” unit-factories in each team’s base pack a special surprise: when destroyed, a super-powerful monster called a Behemoth will pop out and start marching down the corresponding lane, as a last hurrah.


Once it spawns, this Behemoth (Sea Giant) immediately brings the push to a halt.

Behemoths can handily slay NPC heroes, and thanks to their cleaving attack and high regeneration, will cut through regular troops and even towers with barely a scratch. Left alone, they will only die after killing an enemy Shrine and unleashing a higher-health enemy Behemoth upon themselves!

I consider this mechanic to be a “for fun” addition. It buys time for a winning team just as much as it does for a losing team, and may even cause players to hold off on pushing until they can deal with the Behemoth that would be released.


Items:

The items in Sunken Ruins are simple, but fulfil their purpose nicely. They are split into two categories: permanent items, and consumables.

The permanent items are crisp and simple: no flavour text, and no more than 2 effects per item. There are also some recipes which package the effects of their component items into a single slot. The available bonuses include increased spellpower and spell-vamp (which helps to improve build diversity), and a handful of active effects such as silence and restoring mana to allied heroes. Hero abilities scale with agility/intelligence/strength, which opens up some different uses for stat items.

Consumables have a surprisingly large impact, and each one contributes something unique to how the game can be played. Some examples:

  • Staff of Teleportation: Teleport to any point on the map after a 3.5 second cast time. Incoming teleports display a graphic at the destination point. Probably unfairly powerful at interrupting capture attempts, since nothing can stop such a hero from landing an attack and running away (unless there’s enough friendlies to secure a kill on the out-of-position hero).
  • Staff of Shadowweb: Snares the target unit for 3 seconds, making it unable to move. The target cannot be webbed again for 5 seconds.
  • Tome of Summoning: Summons three powerful troops at your location, which will march down the nearest lane. Expensive, but makes pushing past a temple to try and capture it more practical. Can also substitute for lane troops if unit factories have been destroyed, though it’s not sustainable.
  • Wand of Decay: The target enemy unit cannot regenerate life by any means for the next 15 seconds. Great for pinning enemy heroes inside their base.
  • Repair Kit: Instantly heals the target building by 220 life, has a 35 second cooldown, and must be used at melee range. Buildings have an unusually low amount of life for the genre (1200 for towers, 500-900 for factories), which means that Repair Kits and regular maintenance are important for keeping buildings above the “easily killable” threshold.

Each of these consumable items unlocks a strategic opportunity, which means that there’s a surprising amount of contenders for a player’s gold. The fact that these opportunities are contained within a single item rather than being entirely separate mechanisms is neat, and sets a precedent which makes adding new game-changing consumables quick and easy. It’s great to see a game where spending gold for a short-term gain can be so routinely interesting and powerful.

Gold is distributed equally among the team for each enemy troop that dies, no matter where it happened on the map, or who witnessed it. Thus, both teams in a 1v4 would receive the same amount of gold over time, except for any extra earned due to hero kills. Experience is gained only by heroes who are near a dying enemy unit.

It’s worth noting that all items can be sold for a full refund, allowing players to rapidly convert their permanent assets into consumables or switch to a completely different build.


Heroes:

There are eight heroes in Sunken Ruins, which limits the game to 4v4 (though there were plans for two more heroes, to support 5v5). Thus, every hero will appear in every match, but not necessarily on the same teams.

Heroes have three basic abilities, an ultimate which becomes available at level 5, and a global aura which is available at level 10. Mana costs are standardised at 10 mana for basic abilities, and 20 mana for ultimates. Those heroes with lower cooldowns can burn through their mana faster than others, though a hero’s maximum mana will grow from 100 to 150-200 over the course of a match, which is generous compared to other genre games. The abilities are pretty, have a nice level of complexity, and make the heroes fun to use.


A short clip of hero combat in action.

The level 10 global auras only affect non-hero units, so assuming they are balanced evenly, the first few heroes to reach level 10 will enjoy a small window of applying some passive lane pressure, and thereafter the system only kicks in while enemy heroes are dead. The auras aren’t varied or powerful enough to be worth picking heroes over, and if they were, that would be a problem unto itself for placing so much emphasis on a reward for simply being alive.


All the troops end up with thick blue aura indicators beneath them.


Overview:

Sunken Ruins does a fine job of solving one of the issues which has plagued many an AoS: stopping matches from dragging on. Allowing unit factories to be destroyed, rewarding both map control and killing enemy heroes with a lane pressure advantage (in the form of global auras), the lack of defensive base features like walls or a fountain, and the “healing freeze” consumable all combine to snuff out losing teams fast. The result might be too damning, but numbers are easy to adjust once you have the right systems in place.

While it’s easy to pick up and play, the game suffers from a lack of replay value. Each hero is fun, but they all fulfil essentially the same role, and there aren’t enough items to facilitate build experimentation. There are different ways to approach this problem: declare it’s beyond the map’s scope and doesn’t need solving, add more content, or diversify the existing heroes to the point where they have roles within the team, and players can learn the different roles.

I’m not sure which is “best” for the character of the map, but one thought did occur to me: this is a rare case where reducing the hero inventory size from six items to four might be a good idea. It would limit a player’s ability to have all the relevant items they would like, and creates harder decisions among the existing items (particularly when it comes to carrying consumables). It also fits with the map’s philosophy of doing a lot with less.

Overall, Sunken Ruins stands out for delivering an engaging and tactically interesting game by making use of relatively few, but carefully chosen and efficiently implemented mechanics.

Download: Here

Game Design: Alternate Victory Conditions

This article was prompted by a discussion among the FantasyStrike.com community, which was aimed at exploring alternative victory conditions in MOBAs .

Just about every commercial MOBA shares the same victory condition of “destroy the enemy base”. Isn’t there anything that could be done to introduce some variety?

Before we begin, the word MOBA is used more inclusively by some people than others, so for clarification we need to divide the answer into two cases: lane-pushing games, and arenas.


Lane-pushing games:

The “obvious” way to describe a lane-pushing game is to describe the lanes: they are paths connecting each team’s main base, troops spawn periodically and march along them, there are towers placed along the way, and so on. But, these details are implementation-specific. What we’re really looking for is whether the game has abstract “lanes”, which satisfy the following three properties:

  1. They provide a heartbeat of information about enemy movements.
  2. They motivate constant PvP tension.
  3. They create a consistent narrative around the victory condition.

To understand why these properties are important, we first need to establish what principles will serve as the foundations of the game we want to make, and build up from those. The first principle (or requirement) I’m going to propose is that we want a game where players are able to make informed strategic decisions. Not every game wants to emphasise that property, but here, we do.

To make informed decisions, players need information. Not necessarily complete information, but they need “enough” that they can infer what the enemy’s plans might be. We need this information to be reliable and updated frequently, or it fails to be stable enough that players can make meaningful inferences from it. Hence, I call it a heartbeat.

The particular information that’s important is the position of enemy heroes on the map. To know an enemy’s position, we (usually) need vision of them. But since information is so valuable, heroes really don’t want to give away their position. We need them to do it anyway, otherwise there’s no heartbeat for the enemy team to work off. Hence, we need an incentive for heroes to show themselves. If an enemy hero is ignoring the incentive, then we can still infer something from that behaviour.

The incentive needs to be always-desirable, because we need the heartbeat to be steady. If sometimes there’s no incentive show up, then we’d learn nothing from their absence.

It turns out that having a source of income on-lane is perfect as an always-desirable incentive: everyone could always use more resources! I am going to assume that all valid incentives are sources of income (for some resource) for simplicity.

Despite seeming like a valid contender, pushing doesn’t count as an always-desirable incentive. In most games, a single hero can’t make significant progress against an enemy tower, and it’s safer and more efficient to wait until later when towers can be tackled as a team. Thus, the hero isn’t going to try pushing now, so the incentive doesn’t work.

To recap, our abstract “lanes” must be:

  • Consistent
  • Visible to one team
  • A source of income for the other team

Now, the above doesn’t require that the “lanes” meet. A minimal implementation of a game which has a heartbeat might look like this:


A concept game with permanent “income zones”.

The red circles are visible to the red team, and give income to the blue team (and vice versa). That’s enough to supply a heartbeat of information, but still sounds like a pretty terrible game: since players are actively encouraged to be nowhere near each other.

To make the game fun, we need to bring in a second requirement: we want constant PvP tension. Introducing this is easy: give players on both teams an incentive to be in the same place, and they’ll start fighting! If the incentive/reward is constant, then the PvP should be relatively constant too.

If the PvP reward is ultimately awarded to only one team, we’ll start to see a problem. Players will sometimes conclude that they won’t be able to contest the location enough to get the incentive, and withdraw, resulting in less PvP. Hence, we need to at least partially reward participation.

So far, there should be some persistent places on the map which supply the heartbeat of information by being visible and a source of income, and some (other) areas on the map which motivate PvP by offering a reward to both teams for being there. Lets draw those PvP areas in purple:


The purple PvP zones aren’t persistently visible to either team.

We can go one step further: the natural union of these two game design requirements is to have places which are equally visible for both teams, and income sources for both teams. Such a location will then qualify to have PvP tension as well, and we can draw it below:


Income and PvP together.

Our abstract “lanes” are now:

  • Consistent
  • Visible to both teams
  • A source of income for both teams

There are far more qualified people than I to discuss the importance and function of narrative in games, but I’ll run through the basics. Essentially, the narrative is “framing” the player’s experience of the game, and just like a story, it encapsulates the beginning, the middle, and the end, and makes them fit together and flow smoothly. The player should intuitively know where they are along the journey, and what they need to accomplish next. Pragmatically, the narrative provides players with a sense of structure and direction, and a well-implemented narrative will also improve the readability of the game state. Having a narrative is our third game-design requirement.

The particular narrative we implement is necessarily going to depend on the game’s victory condition. We can’t construct a cohesive narrative which suddenly has a different ending.

One meaningful victory condition for a PvP game is achieving 100% map control. If the enemy controls the entire map: you lose!

None of our game-design requirements so far have specified that our abstract “lane” locations need to stay in one place. We could actually have them move around if we like, and in particular, we could slide them around to represent progress towards the victory condition (how much map control each team has). It makes lot of sense that something about the “lanes” represents progress, since being “on-lane” is what players are doing for a large part of the game.


Oh… this looks familiar…

At this point, what happens next is obvious, and we might as well bring in the RTS terminology. “100% map control” is a parallel for “destroying the main base”. Our abstract “lanes” are actually the points on-lane where troops clash, and they move back and forth depending on each team’s map control. When the troops converge on the enemy main base, that represents 0% map control, and eventual defeat.

The “lanes” are now fulfilling all three of our game-design requirements, and the union of these three principles in a single mechanic is what for me, defines a “lane”, and forms the foundation of the genre of “lane-pushing games”.


Arenas:

Gosh, that was a long section! I’m glad the arenas one is short: they’re just anything that doesn’t have lanes (as defined above).

That is not to say that arenas can’t try to meet the same requirements, of informed strategic decision-making, constant PvP tension, and narrative structure, but that they don’t rely on a single mechanic which unifies the three. I believe there is plenty of room for exciting arenas which are pretty close to lane-pushing games in spirit, just with slightly different mechanics.

But in general, most arenas don’t even come close. They don’t have the broader resource management necessary to be strategic games (I would consider them to be games of tactics instead), and use short narratives like “capture this flag” or “fight to the death” to create variations in their PvP tension.


Alternate Victory Conditions:

It almost seems like time for an afterword at this point, but actually all of the above was necessary for us to even discuss victory conditions! I am going to focus on lane-pushing games here, since arenas are pretty trivial.

Earlier, I claimed that victory conditions like “100% map control”, or its less abstract parallel “destroying the main base” were meaningful, but that doesn’t exclude other victory conditions from being meaningful. Nintendo’s recent game Splatoon has a mode where majority map control at the end of a countdown is the victory condition. A new game could experiment with almost anything.

Once we’ve settled on a new victory condition, we need to adjust the “lanes” so that they fit into the new narrative. There are plenty of ways the lanes could change to represent progress; perhaps they move in a different pattern, or teleport around. They might not move at all, and instead certain lanes start having bigger or smaller incentives depending on what’s happening. What’s important is that they remain consistent with the narrative, and players can visibly see their progress towards victory or defeat as part of what they spend most of their time doing.

With this done, we have a new “lane-pushing game” which satisfies our game-design requirements, and probably plenty of fresh new mechanics and corollaries to consider. I would like to believe that there’ll be plenty of twists and innovations of this type popping up in the next few years, and I’ll be excited to see them when they do!

Further reading: The original thread