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Behind the 'Dawngate:' Part 2 – High Noon

A Dawngate guardian.
A Dawngate guardian.
Photo courtesy of EA, used with permission.

The creation of any MOBA is one that is packed full of feedback from the community. Early on in development while almost every aspect of the game is in flux, getting as many hands on it as possible is crucial. Dawngate developers Waystone Games knew this and adopted their players into the development process early on.

“We can isolate these cores: there's gameplay, there's art, and there's community,” explains Lead Producer Dave Cerra. “But if you really look at what we've designed, including the production, they all support one another. We knew that, everything I was just saying about taking these risks, we needed the community to validate that these designs actually worked.”

“A great example of that is back in the day, the towers in the lanes - we call them Bindings - they used to respawn and that was a really neat thing. It was very different but it actually broke the game and it was a bummer.”

Cerra recalls the exact moment, “I remember our Creative Director came to me [and said], 'So uh, about those respawning Bindings that everyone loves so much...' That was really sad for a lot of us on the dev team and a lot of people in the community because it seemed so neat. But the reality was it was a neat idea that didn't work and we couldn't have found that without the community. “

“So even though there was emotion there tied to that mechanic we came up with a design with their help that made Dawngate much stronger and a much more competitive and viable game.”

MOBAs are unique in that you don't simply pay a one time fee and expect to get 10 to 20 hours of content. Rather at least that much time is required to even begin to understand some of the more intricate workings. To not only understand the game at a high level but to truly master Champions, Heroes, Shapers, or whatever the developer chooses to call them it can take thousands of hours. As such, Cerra explains a different approach is needed.

“Because we've got to make something that you're going to want to play for thousands of hours, if we don't do that, we haven't succeeded. We knew from day zero that this is an online game, this is a part of your digital identity, if we're not able to create something that communicates to you in an emotional and compelling way about the things that you like – the gameplay, the mastery, intrinsic motivation – then it's not worth it.”

“And you can't do that without your community.”

That said, not everyone plays Dawngate to be the best that there is, to many having fun alone is enough. So when it comes to feedback from players, each is weighted the same, no one skill level has more sway than another.

Along the way I've been talking about the approach that the team takes. . .every person at Waystone is...I don't want to we're all hardcore, I'm really hardcore, most are, but everybody plays, and everybody plays Dawngate. We knew from not only a development standpoint, a community building standpoint, but just a completeness standpoint, we needed to get the game into the players hands as quickly as we could.”

“Because we're like forty people and our skills range,” Cerra laughingly comments as he discusses the team's ranking in League of Legends, “I'm like Silver II [laughs] and we've got Challenger tier players on the dev team. [But if] you assemble a game with me and a Challenger player on opposite teams, that's not a real game.”

“We can test things mechanically but you're not actually seeing the game perform.”

So what was the team to do? Incorporate the community.

“We launched the game into this silent closed beta about a year ago specifically to develop with tens of thousands of people. That has totally born fruit and the game of Dawngate that you can go download tonight is the game from a year ago because of that player input specifically, we couldn’t have done this without the players. So that was very intentional.”

However, Waystone Games has had a little comfort from outside sources along the way. After all, it's not the first studio to attempt making a MOBA.

“I really mean this, we're really lucky to stand on the shoulders of people (Riot, Valve, etc) who have already waded into really deep waters,” Cerra recognizes, but it's not like Waystone hasn't been trying to innovate every step of the way.

“Probably the most fundamental thing we've been able to do is look at how the recreation of that specific game mode, in a couple different flavors works, and go, 'Okay, that is how that specific game mode has been evolving.' And that then gave us the opportunity to go, 'What is that thing made out of? What states is that game bringing its players through? What do we think is important? What do we think is not?'”

Cerra continues to explain, “For example, we think pacing is fundamental to the genre. There's got to be very clear beginning, middle, and end. The power curve for each character should feel different so that there's a reason to play different characters, but it should feel appropriate, complete, and smooth. Right? You're just constantly growing because that feels great, it's like a little RPG in a box – in thirty minutes I go from zero to 18 or whatever arbitrary number it is, for Dawngate it's 20 – so we can say, 'Great, that's working.'”

That said, Cerra is still quick to point out things he wasn't all that fond of in his competition. However, he's just as fast to remind us that there's nothing wrong with those decisions, but for his game, his passion, he had something else in mind.

“However, the way it works in 'Game X' that beginning period is often very isolated, very lonely, especially within that meta if you're in top lane you're just kind of in a single player game. And that's fine for that game, [but] we didn't want to make that game. “

“We wanted team fights to happen very early in Dawngate, we wanted 2v2s and 3v3s to happen a lot in Dawngate because those are really exciting [and] a lot easier to read than a 5v5.
“A lot of the things behind the map design are literally there - the position of the Spirit Wells, the way jungle paths cut into the top lane differently than they cut into bottom lane – are there to create those moments earlier in the game.

“We can look at the patterns that we saw in that design and go, 'Okay, do we want to take that or mix it up?'”

One of the biggest departures from the major two MOBAs on the market is the lack of mana and Cerra describes how frightening the prospect of that was.

“Another good example that I would use is something like Mana. Again, nothing wrong with it [but] for us we felt it was a tax. It was just an antiquated holdover from a different game that has become fundamental in other designs, and that's totally cool, and we said, 'Well do we want to keep it or not?'”

“And to your point about taking risks. . .that was actually horrifying for the high ELO players on the team. They were just like, 'This is never going to work. This is crazy. We're wasting time and money.' And we kind of said, '****, lets test it.' And we did! We brought in like twenty Gold and Platinum level groups and we asked a bunch of questions and had them play the games. One of the questions we asked was, 'What do you think about mana-less champs in a MOBA?'

Cerra imitates the feedback in his most dismissive Internet-y voice, “They said, 'Ah, you're dumbing it down, it's too casual, it's stupid.' [That was the] exact same thing that the high ELO players on our team said.

But what was the feedback? “After they played three rounds we said, 'Tell us about your experience.' Nobody brought up mana-less champions at all, all of them were saying things like, 'It's really fast, I don't have to go back to base as much, I felt like I could always contribute.'”

Cerra laughs before cheerfully shouting, “That's the result of having no mana!”

Perhaps the most unique thing that Waystone is achieving with Dawngate is the successful itegration of community involvement into the story of the game itself. Rather than simply posting long text blocks of lore or quick video summations, through Living Lore the developer is giving their playerbase the ability to directly influence what happens next.

Check back tomorrow as part three of our Behind the Dawngate article where we discuss Living Lore in depth and talk about what the future holds for Waystone.