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Guardians of Middle-Earth: the perils of MOBA

Monday, 3rd December 2012 15:39 GMT By Dave Cook

Guardians of Middle-Earth is the incoming MOBA title from Monolith Productions. VG247′s Dave Cook speaks with the team to learn how hard it is to craft a perfectly-balanced MOBA.

“You could clearly see the steely concentration and unwavering expressions on their faces. These guys were firmly plugged into the pinnacle of twitch gaming, where the slightest break in focus would most certainly spell disaster. There was no mucking about here, this was pro-gaming at its purest.”

There was a massive crowd of people sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring in awe at an impossibly large HD screen. Every so often a flurry of movement would prompt polite, reactionary shouts from the audience. The throngs of people sitting there were diverse in age, but they were all hypnotised by the common spectacle unfolding in front of their eyes.

Underneath the screen were two clear-walled rooms and within them were some of the greatest MOBA players to walk the Earth, but I honestly couldn’t have told you their names. This was Valve’s ‘International’ competition at gamescom last year, and the players in the glass booths were sat there playing DotA 2. It was a new scene to me, entirely foreign at the time.

You could clearly see the steely concentration and unwavering expressions on their faces. These guys were firmly plugged into the pinnacle of twitch gaming, where the slightest break in focus would most certainly spell disaster. There was no mucking about here, this was pro-gaming at its purest.

I stood there next to the glass rooms, looking up at things I couldn’t even begin to fathom on the screen, a myriad of complex and intricate game mechanics that I couldn’t even pretend to understand, let alone follow with any degree of coherency. But I glanced over at the crowd again to see their eyes darting around, following the action as it unfolded on screen.

The door behind me opened after a good 20 minutes of waiting, and trying to understand what was happening on screen ahead of my interview inside. I had a one-to-one chat with Gabe Newell booked, and it was to specifically talk about DotA 2. Even though I had researched the game to the best of my abilities, I was still trying to come to terms with the phenomenon that is ‘MOBA.’

I slunk inside to a lush back room, decked out like a fancy lounge and the interview began without hesitation. But while we spoke about DotA 2′s legacy, conception and the involvement of IceFrog, Newell’s concentration kept on breaking, and he continually looked away whenever something big kicked off on the screen next to him.

He’d look away, and behind me, outside, I’d hear roars from the crowd as the match entered its eleventh hour. Someone was losing. I couldn’t tell who, but it had grabbed Newell’s attention. So I sat there, politely waiting for my turn to speak again as he became utterly absorbed in what he was seeing, eyes darting around as if they had a mind of their own.

Then he’d turn to me again and ask where we had left off, like a hypnotist’s guinea pig being snapped out of some kind of waking dream. What is it about MOBA games that has – quite rapidly – hooked a large cross-section of the PC gaming public? Right now DotA 2 is the most-played game on Steam, and more MOBA titles are popping up with each passing month.

Newell’s fixation is a fitting testament of how the gaming populace is becoming absorbed in this gruelling, highly competitive genre. The next MOBA game to launch is Guardians of Middle-Earth, a Lord of the Rings title by Monolith Productions that will attempt to bring the top-down MOBA experience to PS3 and Xbox 360 this week.

As it is predominantly a PC genre, I simply had to ask Monolith’s producer Bob Roberts and senior producer Ruth Tomandl why the team chose to launch Guardians of Middle-Earth exclusively on consoles, and forego the keyboard and mouse set-up that has become almost symbiotic with the genre.

Presumptions

As competitive as they are, any MOBA title worth playing need to have a balanced playing field. Without it, exploits and top-tier characters can run amok, coercing ‘win-all’ strategies and giving players an unfair advantage during matches. Monolith knew about these dangers all-too well, and decided to hire a group of local MOBA pros to help them balance their Guardians and item-set.

Roberts explained to me that when Monolith first let its hired pros loose on the game code mid-development, they very quickly tore it down and began finding balancing problems. They then offered solutions of how the studio could improve the project, underlining just how vital a fair balance is when developing a MOBA game.

“We targeted a bunch of guys who were really competitive MOBA players in the area to come by and just be full-time balance testers for us on this game. We’ve never actually done that before, and it was absolutely critical to feeling as solid as we are about the game being balanced right out of the gate.

“No matter what the testers figured out to be the best possible strategy that they could think of, and was over-powered for a couple of days, someone else on the team would figure out a counter to it. That strategy would then become dominant for a couple of days, and it cycled around like that whether or not we changed any balance.”

He added, “They definitely had things right out of the gate that they were immediately creating hilarious, mocking imagery for, and messing around”, in reference to archer Legolas, who was in the top-tier when development began, easily trumping the rest of the game’s character roster. As such the testers created internal memes at the studio, essentially mocking him to the point of re-balancing.

Regardless of the good-natured barbs being slung around the office at Monolith’s presumptuous balancing, the studio took the pro players’ feedback fully on board, as these were guys who had lived and breathed MOBA games for a good few years, and if anyone knew how to fix a balancing issue, it was them.

One of the biggest complaints from was Monolith’s decision to forego an in-game store – a common feature in other MOBA titles. Roberts explained the studio’s choice, “I think that they came into it with one idea, and at this point we’ve all developed a better idea of what exactly the bones are that really make this the deepest genre that most of us have played.

“For example, at the start everyone was nervous about not having an in-game store like the other MOBAs do. But by the time we got to this point of balance, they realised how much better they could counter and strategise with the elements that were there, and the items being purchased between matches.

“They ended up not really missing that, as it feels like it has every bit of depth as the games they were playing in their free time.”

It makes sense of course, as creating too many purchasable items is the same as adding in a wide range of game-changing variables, and if anything that would only serve to tip the games balance too far in either direction. Monolith’s strategy was to keep things pared bad but not necessarily dumbed-down.

I likened it to Dishonored developer Arkane Studios, who often spoke with the press about why Corvo’s skill set was so limited. The rationale given was that the studio could get more diverse use out of a focused range of abilities rather than a sprawling move list full of tacked on features that felt weak by comparison.

The same thought process applies here, and both Roberts and his team were committed to working alongside the pro players to create a game where every character and item had a counter, and where no one element or mechanic trumped the rest without reprisal.

Balance

The team then entered a long, iterative process of simply playing Guardians of Middle-Earth for many weeks and fixing new cases of unbalance as they emerged. Roberts talked me through the process, “The basic idea is that, if they can sink time in and really practice a particular combo – say five guardians that really compliment each other really well , and the perfect item build – that there is always a counter for that.

“So no matter what the testers figured out to be the best possible strategy that they could think of, and was over-powered for a couple of days, someone else on the team would figure out a counter to it. That strategy would then become dominant for a couple of days, and it cycled around like that whether or not we changed any balance.

“That’s the point we got to where it feels like a good equilibrium for this type of competitive game, because with any competitive multiplayer, you want it to not be about individual champions or items. It’s got to be something that where the community will find emergent counters to strategies, and keep things cycling around on their own.”

“We did also build a system for having a lot of our balance database saved in cloud storage, that you’re going to download every time you launch the game. It’s a very small, quick update that doesn’t have to go through certification, so we can update it every day, every week – however often we need to if we see critical balance issues.”

It went on for many weeks, but with each passing session Monolith was getting closer to attaining the balance it needed to get the game on par with other MOBA titles. Roberts explained, “Every week those guys would rank all the guardians in buckets like, ‘These guys are all the top-tier, these guys are middle-tier, and those guys are in the bottom-tier that no one ever wants to play.’ By the time we’re shipping, everybody has evened out. There’s no one in the bottom tier any more.

“But just in case, we did also build a system for having a lot of our balance database saved in cloud storage, that you’re going to download every time you launch the game. It’s a very small, quick update that doesn’t have to go through certification, so we can update it every day, every week – however often we need to if we see critical balance issues.”

This method of pushing updates to PSN and XBLA foregoes the need for certification. Because if a new, unchecked instance of unbalance is discovered, gamers simply won’t stand for it, and will want it fixed as soon as humanly possible.

The cloud method allows for quick updates when needed, and is becoming increasingly popular among developers on both formats, as Tomandl told me, “There are other developers that have done it, and I know that other XBLA games have done it. But I know there are also other game where, players have run into issues or glitches that could not be fixed by patching in data, so we were careful so that anything involving numbers or any sort of guardian strength could be tweaked using that patch.”

Roberts added, “It’s really the same system as ‘Message of the day’ feeds. It’s really just using that same technology that people have been using for a long time. I think a lot of developers realised they could but more interesting data in there”.”

It’s a smart system and it helps to convince me that Monolith is up to the task of delivering a rock-solid MOBA experience. But given the nature of the Lord of the Rings license and the character therein, it seems as if each Guardian is forced into a particular class by association of what we know from the films.

Roberts agreed, but these presumptions from the Peter Jackson’s movies actually helped keep character design strict in the name of balance, “It was just so iterative. There’s the license to consider as well, so really the starting point was two-fold right off the bat. The first question was, ‘What classes and general roles do we want people to play on the battlefield?’ and then making sure we never designed two guys within that class to be alike. This genre is about the individual feeling different.

“The second consideration was the IP and making sure that ‘that guy’ feels like the specific character that he is, and that everyone’s familiar with. For example, making sure that Gandalf doesn’t feel like a giant melee attacking character”

Tomandl added that character creation was a company-wide process at Monolith, as a large consensus was needed to ensure that the team got each Guardian’s skill-set and behaviour nailed down.

“One of the first things that happened on the project back when it was three people working on it, was that the creative director sent an email to the whole company and said, ‘Hey, if you were playing a Middle-Earth MOBA what kind of character would you like to play, and what would their abilities be?’ That led to a lot of brainstorming and I think that was one way to start – to just get opinions – and people had a lot of ideas.”

Roberts also said, “We started by making characters actually feel like the character they are, and then once we had that settled in it was all about the balance team and iteration, the daily grinding and just playing for many, many hours.”

But even as Monolith got closer to striking a solid balance, the pros were still unrelenting and honest in their feedback, as Tomandl suggested, “They were an outspoken team too, and I think that helped as they said something whenever they felt an area could be improved, who their favourite character was, and what they thought of them.”

Battle

We had been talking for a good 20 minutes and while I was starting to understand MOBAs a little better, I still wanted to know more about how a typical battle plays out, and how that cycle compares to other MOBA games out there.

Roberts offered me a basic scenario, “The battle evolves over the course of the match. Matches are between 15-20 minutes in length and they have distinct phases that you’ll get familiar with. If you’re familiar with other MOBAs, there are similar levels that are on ‘fast-forward’ in our game, so matches won’t last an hour.

“The early game is going to more about one-on-one or two-on-two battles, so you’re going to find the character on your team that best compliments your abilities.

“It’s got all the hallmarks of a classic five-on-five MOBA structure, such as figuring out what the major team roles are, the need to spread out your damage between close and ranged – so that whatever the enemy strategy is, you’ve got a counter for it.”

“So if you play like a guy like Gollum – who skulks in the bushes, jumps out for a quick strike, then runs back – then he’s going to pair really well with someone who can stun enemies or root them in place. That’d be someone like Galdriel or Éowyn who has good healing or co-op team buff abilities. That’d work really well.

“Legolas is a pretty good character to solo with, as he has range and a lot of abilities that speed him up as we as slow down his enemies. He can use those aggressively if he’s in a good position, or use them defensively if he’s trying to escape.

“That’s the early game – one-on-one, two-on-two – but once you get mid-to-late game, you start rallying a bit more and teaming up to engage in larger battles. That’s when it gets crazy, and you have to make sure you’ve got a more balanced team composition across the board, and that everyone knows what their roles are.

“So if you have someone who’s going to absorb a lot of damage, the big warrior type, then that person should basically go in first and try to absorb as much damage as they can, while Legolas stays at the backlines to pick off people from a distance.

“It’s got all the hallmarks of a classic five-on-five MOBA structure, such as figuring out what the major team roles are, the need to spread out your damage between close and ranged – so that whatever the enemy strategy is, you’ve got a counter for it.”

“I think a lot of MOBAs are still finding their feet, and still figuring out how the while pro tournament works. It’s certainly a huge scene, and we’ll see what happens, but we certainly held some small tournaments at E3, PAX and gamescom.”

It’s clear that there is so much to consider when playing a MOBA game, so much ad hoc thinking and twitch control that demands your full attention. It’s an intimidating scene make no mistake, just as something as fiercely competitive as Call of Duty is to someone who never plays shooters.

Regardless the genre is booming, and I ask Tomandl why Guardians for Middle-Earth is launching right now, at this time, and why Monolith feels the genre is receiving increased notoriety as of late.

“It definitely appeals to people who really like feeling competent,” Tomandl suggested, “and really like being competitive. I think it gives them a perfect balance to do both, because it’s really skilful. It’s like in shooters, which are about your skill at aiming, your skill in knowing the map, at your skill at understanding classes.

“There’s also that connection to your character, as I think there’s a lot of genres where you don’t really get that. You do somewhat in RPGs, but in RPGs you have about three to seven classes to choose from. But there’s a lot in picking a unique character.

“I think that with some of the more recent console shooters that have a lot of depth, there haven’t been a lot of console games with that level of depth and competition, and so I think MOBAs will give console gamers another option to play that type of game.

“I think a lot of MOBAs are still finding their feet, and still figuring out how the while pro tournament works. It’s certainly a huge scene, and we’ll see what happens, but we certainly held some small tournaments at E3, PAX and gamescom.

“It was really fun to see people learning the teamwork of the game, forming strategies and really competing. They were hardcore, and they got very good at the game in a very short space of time, so I’m really excited to see what they do once it’s out.”

Monolith won’t have long to wait as Guardians of Middle-Earth launches on PSN and Xbox Live Arcade from December 4th, and getting it into the hands of the MOBA elite at large will prove to be a real stress-test of its competency among the genre. Again, if the game’s balance is off by a significant degree, it’s likely that seasoned players will come down hard on it.

But the team feels confident that it has thoroughly researched the genre, and with the help of its hired pros, has become ingratiated into the circuit, in what has truly been a process of practical doing, instead of theoretical thinking. An artist doesn’t make a masterpiece by just reading about art after all, they have to get their hands dirty and do it.

Monolith’s hands are plenty dirty with MOBA knowledge, but can it deliver? We’ll know as soon as the reviews land. Stay tuned for our score round-up this week.

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2 Comments

  1. Man_s

    Interesting article. Good to know that they can balance the game quickly and more easily. The other MOBA take on consoles, Awesomenauts, suffered dearly from a lack of updates which are crucial in such a genre, which is a shame since it’s a great game. Hopefully this one will competently carry the MOBA torch on console.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. redwood

    does this game have an offline multiplayer?

    #2 2 years ago

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