When we set out to create Adventure Time Battle Party, we had some specific goals in mind. I can proudly say, we achieved every goal we set out to accomplish.
As a team, we all love playing MOBAs, but there are a number of standard systems in MOBAs that don't align with our sensibilities. We wanted to make a MOBA that we would love to play, and by extensions, kids (and kids at heart, like us) would want to play.
We sat down as a team and defined the things that we didn't like about the standard MOBA design. Here were the top issues:
- Games take too long to play
- The shop is too complicated
- Other players are... not very nice
- First 10 minutes of the game are boring
- Power balance can snowball too easily
I think the well-earned reputation that many MOBAs have of a toxic community is, in part, related to lengthy game times. The shorter the game, the less time a "bad player" is wasting of their teammates. Also, in classic MOBAs, people have down time to worry about what other people are doing – they have time to inspect players' actions and critique them. In our game, there are shorter play times and very little down time.
Making the game shorter might sound easy but nearly every single aspect of the game determines the game length: character power, map design, item power, minions, towers, everything! One of the most difficult aspects of the limited game time was fighting the inclination to make everything thing a little tougher or last a little longer. Here is a conversation we had about a million times:
Developer A, "The towers go down too fast, we should make them stronger"
Developer B, "If we do that, a game will never end before time runs out."
Developer A, "Oh yeah, I forgot about that."
We want games to end with a team clearly winning and destroying the other team's base. Thats always best but we made a scoring system for when matches go too long.
Since we had a set gameplay time, we had to have a scoring system. The score system took some time to sort out – how much is everything worth? Shouldn't KOs be worth the most? Are there things players are unfairly farming the most score?
We are really happy with how scoring has affected the game. It has created new metagames where players will play purely for score and snipe points from other players. Jungling becomes twice as valuable since it gives XP and score. It also balances nicely because if players try to get a score lead and then just defend their base, the other team can easily overtake the score lead (and XP lead) by farming jungle monsters.
And nothing is more satisfying than winning by score right at the last second.
In-Game Store & Backpacks
In our research, the #1 difficulty wall for new MOBA players is the in-game shop. However, just removing it seems like a terrible idea – the store is too important. So we asked ourselves, what is a system that accomplishes the same job as the store, but is far simpler?
We set out to make a system to that 1) allows for player choice & play style 2) creates champion depth 3) allows for counter building and 4) can show off Adventure Time items. Adventure Time has a ton of cool magic items and weapons!
The Backpack system was the answer and we are very happy with how it turned out.
Backpacks, Builds & Toxicity
Another goal we had regarding the store was that there would be no "wrong" way to build a champion. While this concept would allow for player exploration and customization, another goal was to reduce toxicity. We don't have chat, so players cannot be toxic to each other, but players can still feel toxic. If a player looks at a teammate's build and thinks, "My teammate is building their champ incorrectly!", they are going to be playing in poor spirits. If there are no right builds, how can a teammate say another teammate is wrong?
One of the big decisions in this system was that all (well, nearly all) powers align with your Power Damage stat. This was players cannot look at a champion and think, "You are dumb if you build PD on this champion."
This has been very successful. We see all kinds of unexpected builds and counter builds.
Champion design is the most fun part of making a MOBA. Before we got started on designs, we set up some rules to reflect our audience and our design sensibilities.
- Everyone is equally overpowered – when reading hero designs, everyone of them should sound “too good.”
- No hard support powers – no hero should have a power that only helps teammates. Any support-type power should be a strong benefit for the player as well.
- No match-up specific skills – no hero should have a skills that only works against certain other skills or heroes. (e.g. “This skills let’s you eat Princess Bubblegum’s traps’)
- No non-counterplay powers – No powers should be 100% unavoidable. (e.g. A skill slows all opponents in the game)
- No clicking directly on opponents – while skill shots are traditionally harder, we have found our audience had more trouble with direct-click powers.
- No mana, cooldown only.
- There should be a "wrong way" to use a power – Powers not should be always good. (e.g. a power is good when an opponent is alone, but not in a group, or it is good when an opponent is CC'd but easy to avoid otherwise, etc.)
No chat. That's about 90% of the problem.
We also avoided powers that made players feel like this teammates were "supposed" to be doing something. Here is a story from development.
At one point a champion had a healing aura. During the first "testing session" (i.e. the team playing as if their lives depended on winning) with this power , people were yelling at each other, "WHY ARE YOU NOT HEALING?!", "OMG HEAL ME!" etc. This power was immediately changed. After this we kept a close eye on player behavior around power designs.
I also think the toxicity of MOBAs is due to worrying about what your teammates are doing. It's easy to look at someone and think they are doing something wrong and then get angry at that player. Clicking on the map to move gives a player down time – down time to worry about what their teammates are doing. The request for clicking on the map to move often comes with "I want to be able to look at my teammates". We talked about this feature many times internally. I feel strongly that clicking the map to move is a slippery slope towards "down time features" and toxic behavior.
However, we did let players press SPACE while KO'd to watch teammates.
For those unfamiliar with snowballing, snowballing is when a team gets a small advantage, and that small advantage leads to another advantage, which leads to a huge advantage. Repeat until winning.
The opposite of snowballing is a stalemate, where teams are kept too even and no clear winer can be determined. Balancing snowballing is a careful balance between snowballing and stalemates.
Step one was to remove idea of gold and buying items. While our XP/level system somewhat replicates the cycle of "winning objectives = gold = overall power", we took getting a KO bonus against higher level opponents to an extreme level. This way if a team gets huge lead but does does not have the skill to keep it, the other team can easily catch up.
We also flatten out the power level at 10. We tuned a lot to ensure players can hit max level in a 15 minute games unless they get crushed by a much higher skilled team.
We had a number of other successful goals, like a solid development pipeline and champion balance, but those are core development goals, not changes to the game genre. We set out to make a MOBA that we wanted to play, and we certainly accomplished that.