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Behind 'Dawngate:' Part 1 – Daybreak

The 'Dawngate' logo.
The 'Dawngate' logo.
Photo courtesy of EA, used with permission.

The flood of multiplayer online battle arenas has been well documented since both League of Legends and DOTA 2 rose to prominence. Countless developers and publishers are constantly looking to make significant inroads where major sources of revenue are available and the huge success of both Riot Games and Valve only sweetened the pot.

That said, it's not easy to match those two marks. And while some have criticized Riot for not monetizing their title enough, the fact is the game has become its own sustainable economy complete with a highly active community and an eSports scene, the likes of which are unrivaled in the entire world.

So when word broke that Waystone Games, a developer owned by Electronic Arts, would be launching their own MOBA, many assumed the worst. Surely the title would exemplify what not to do in the genre. But in essence, people had already failed to understand that Dawngate's catchphrase is planted much more firmly than in the gameplay alone. When Waystone Games said, “Break the Meta” it meant to do so right down to its core.

“Dawngate has really been designed to make a contribution to what we believe is a genre,” says Lead Producer Dave Cerra. “If this really is a genre, we should be able to break it down and bring some new things to the table.” He continues, “That's kind of why we created Waystone inside of EA, and this is a credit to the team, not to me, but the thoughtfulness that these guys bring to their work is the best team I've ever had the pleasure being a part of. And it's super humbling to lead these guys.”

The entire team believes in the notion of “breaking the meta,” something that Cerra says has been a central point since day one. “One of the core design things that we're trying to, I don't want to say solve, but just work on, is the notion of the metagame and the static meta that games like League have. . .There's always going to be a meta game, [it] is just the most optimal way to play so by definition there is going to be one.

“But if we could succeed in moving it off of the game itself, somewhere else, that seemed like a really interesting challenge from a design perspective.”

What Waystone came up with was something that had never been done before in the genre. Cerra explains, “We've moved [the meta] onto the match that you're playing, based on your team composition. We created a unique role system, so when you play a game of Dawngate you pick the character you want to play (we call them Shapers) and then you pick your role and that's totally unique.”

“The other games can't work that way because they've baked the design of how the character scales over the match and earns their income into the design of the character kit itself. And that is literally what contributes to that static meta.”

But this point wasn't reached without some concern, Cerra admits that it didn't sit well with the team at first.

“So when we came up with this idea at first, we were like, 'Seems kinda like a ham-fisted way to do this, seems really blunt,' he says as he bangs on the table. “What we found is: it's actually kind of an elegant way to do it because it makes that fundamental concept visible to players, which is important if you're trying to get into this sort of thing. And more importantly, like I said, it moves the meta game off of the game, onto the match you're playing.”

And what this does is give players more freedom when it comes to the role they play in each match. Rather than be stuck with a certain champion pool depending on which position your team needs you to fulfill, Dawngate lets people take their roles into their own hands.

Cerra demonstrates the situations where this becomes advantageous saying, “You break away from that weird dissonant experience of, I wanted to play that character but somebody locked in Support so now I can't, now I gotta go Carry or whatever it is.”

“You can play the Shaper you want, the way you want.”

“So that role system was for us a design exploration that's really turned into a fundamental difference in how Dawngate works. And it's kind of grown in concert with the design of the map: so you've got these two lanes, spirit wells, massive jungle in between. . .combined with that role system and also the way items work in our game, it just opens up tons of different strategies that are viable.”

“So every game of Dawngate can just kind of slide around and be different in a way that other MOBAs don't. I actually think that DOTA can do this more than League can do this, until you get to really high play and then it becomes a game of counterpicks, but I digress.”

Innovating isn't an easy process, Waystone has gone through tons of iterations of every mechanic in the game and each and every step is one filled with hesitation.

“There's doubt everywhere. It's hard and it's scary,” Cerra admis. “There's doubt in the dev team and there's doubt - not really in our own player base because those are people that have chosen to go on the adventure with us at this point,” he interjects. “But I think that a part of our challenge and anyone working in this space is that as you're turning people on to the entertainment thing that you've created, you're also trying to educate them that it's not actually just a copy of something else. I think that's the core of this question, that's where the doubt would be, right?”

“Honestly, this stuff is hard and that's why you see that same game cloned over and over again. . .We have built literally close to a hundred different MOBAs to find this thing that we call Dawngate. If you come to the studio you see the big old map of the Dawngate and then Dale, our lead level guy, he calls it the graveyard, there's just all these little images that ring it. And you look at them and you're like, 'Oh, they're all little maps.'”

“We tried things like asynchronous gameplay, attack and defend MOBA modes, we tried ten v. ten, and these things just hit the cutting board,” Cerra sternly states as he simulates a knife hitting the table. “They just weren't fun. We tried getting rid of laning, because we were like, 'Well that will be way different!' And what we found was the mechanic of laning solves like three really hard design problems in that one elegant mechanic and we were making a weirder, more byzantine, and complicated game by having these other things do what laning does. [So we decided] that's in the genre.”

“It's an iterative process, we took it as far as we could internally for about a year and that's when we said, 'Okay, this is going to be horrifying guys but we're letting people in.' So we started really small and we throttled it very intentionally and that process was invaluable.

“It's profound, we could not have made Dawngate without the players.”

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our Creation of Dawngate article where we focus on the community and show exactly how “profound” of an influence they've had on Waystone Games.