Jagex is best known for its popular MMO, RuneScape, and its more recent Transformers Universe online game. Now the studio is beta testing its latest online offering, Block N Load, which features a team of cartoon characters at war with each other on a battlefield that players design. It's set to launch soon for $19.99. David Solari, vice president of Block N Load at Jagex, talks about this twist on multiplayer shooters and tower defense battling in this exclusive interview.
Where did the idea for this game come from?
Block N Load was inspired by the complete freedom to build and destroy in-session and in real-time that we had in a game we’d previously released called Ace of Spades. But we wanted to take things to a whole new level. Block N Load isn’t a sequel, it’s a whole new game developed from one key element used in Ace of Spades.
What were your goals heading into this game?
We set out three firm development rules and stuck to them: building and blocks should be as powerful as bullets, smarts are as important as shooter skills and finally, fun first. These rules were then underpinned with a “player first” mind-set to fix our true north. Every decision we make now are tested against these principles.
What have you learned from previous Jagex games that was applied to this one?
A couple of things are really working for RuneScape right now, most notably its Player Power initiative, which is where the development team asks players to decide what content they would like to be made next out of a range of choices. If a piece of content never gets picked for development, they ultimately remove it from the range of choices. This really embraces player-driven development and it’s something we’ve always been keen on. The other is that RuneScape releases new content every couple of weeks, which helps keep the game feeling really fresh.
In our “play for fun” game mode we are going to have a choice of three maps. Every match players will have to choose between two. On what we estimate will be a two-week cycle, we will drop the least popular map to the custom mode and add a new map to the main rotation. We will actively be looking for new map ideas from players. It’s worth saying this is all free, as we don’t ever intend to charge for new maps because we believe this splits the player base. That’s not best for players. We also have lots of plans for new core content, which we would make available to new players. Things like player-made maps, a full replay mode, a zombie horde mode, etc., but we would let players put ideas forward for what they’d want to see. We’d then put all the things that we could potentially do up for a player vote to help figure out what we should prioritise.
To keep the game fresh, we will be doing regular adjustments and occasionally light content patches. We already have some cool plans lined up for Christmas.
Can you walk us through some of the different heroes on the offensive side of things?
We really tried to get a variety of functionality into our heroes. You can play them all offensively or defensively, but they have tools that make them better at certain things.
For instance, the ninja – O.P. Juan Shinobi – can climb walls and cover large distances with his jump and speed pad combo. He also takes reduced fall damage, so he’s great at getting in behind the enemy, taking out their infrastructure and defences, and then setting about destroying the generator. He’s not bad at taking people out from behind, but he’s like paper in a fair fight. Let’s face it though, ninjas don’t fight fairly.
Cogwheel is the toughest guy in the game and can take a lot of hits, so he’s good at absorbing fire whilst disrupting the enemy. He can also rapidly build a forward-operating base to give his team a foothold. Although slow, he can force his way to the enemy defenses, launch mortars and cause huge devastation that can often break a siege situation.
What heroes are best for building good defenses?
Tony Turetto, our engineer, is the obvious choice for defense, although he can cause a lot of problems by supporting forward operating bases as well. What I personally like to do with Tony is build a pill box with a ton of turrets defending a generator. I then tunnel behind the pill box and build a safe room with health and ammo protected by force fields that only my team can walk through. This means my unit always has a safe area to retreat to where we can re-arm and heal up.
Doctor Elisa Doolally is also a strong defender, as she has a ton of area-of-effect damage and zone control specialities. Enemies might get on your generator, but they will die pretty quickly as a result of her gas mines and grenades.
How does this game incorporate teamwork into the equation?
It’s actually really fun to play solo or as a team. We were worried it would be an unfulfilling solo experience, so we tested it extensively throughout alpha. However, like most games, you can get more from it as part of a team and with friends. It’s useful and effective to organize some defenders and some attackers amongst yourselves. In this way, you can agree and coordinate specific strategies like” go over the top, sky bridging, tunnelling, sieging, etc.; or generate co-operative building schemes like laying down jump and speed pads or establishing a forward-operating base and quickly fortifying it with trenches walls, turrets, health blocks, etc.
You can also work together to ensure your team gets the random supply drops of bricks, which really help defenders build a ton more defences. A well set-up engineer can easily defend against a solo attacker, but if you have three teammates co-ordinating against them, they simply won’t be able to cover all the angles and the defences will fall fast.
How elaborate have you seen players get with building their defenses?
In play tests we’ve seen pill boxes, underground and over-ground mazes, elaborate sniper nests with health and ammo protected by mines and caltrops -- with jump and speed pads used for easy access. We’ve seen bases covered in jump pads and glue, which is a novel defense strategy usually resulting in hilarious results. We’ve seen people build speed and jump pad combos defensively, which fling people off the map to a comedy death (unfortunately, these can easily backfire on friendly team members, too).
We’ve seen whole areas covered in false/trap blocks (blocks which take on the look of the surrounding landscape, but which enemies can instantly fall through). We’ve watched as people fall down shafts into pits filled with mines and man-traps, and a player controlling Elisa throws gas grenades down the chute for good measure. Defenses are only limited by people’s imaginations, and I personally love seeing new players develop new approaches in-game.
How do you like to play this game and why?
As part of the development process I started an internal league at Jagex. We have 14 teams that take part and play a bunch of games every week. I’m pleased to say my team’s undefeated, but we did make the game and I did pick all the best players because I like to win.
My favourite hero is O.P. Juan Shinobi, the ninja. I’m not the most accurate shooter in the world, so I focus on taking out enemy infrastructure and their generators and bases. I usually end the game with the most deaths, but I also usually end up with the most generator and base damage so I really feel like I’ve contributed to the team. I actually think this is some of what makes this game a little bit special - the fact you don’t have to be an amazing marksman in order to have a good time and do well, although there is plenty in the game for great shooters too.
Conversely, I also like playing Tony, the engineer, and building some crazy defenses. I rarely leave the vicinity of my generator, because it’s really fun trying to outthink the attackers and being able to resist multiple attackers as a result of building effective defenses.
What role will the upcoming Beta play for your team?
From a feature perspective we are pretty much done. I’ve seen a lot of games released at the stage we are at now. What we are going to get is tons of feedback on what needs a balance pass, and then give everything a bit of polish. We’ll figure out what doesn’t work and what we need to re-develop, and what would add that five percent extra coolness that would make us super special.
The beta will also help us understand how to run this game as a service. I’ve run a lot of services before and every one of them is different. You need real people to tell you the areas of special attention that the players, and the game, needs to work as well as it can.
What type of eSports potential do you see with this game?
Personally, I love eSports. I watch a ton of LCS (League of Legends Championship Series) and follow a couple of teams quite closely. However, I believe that it’s players that determine whether a game is an eSport, not a company or strategy. If people like the game and think it’s eSports worthy, we will support it big time. Do I think it has potential to go that way? I think there is a pretty high skill cap for the game without sacrificing accessibility. Also, the fact that every game is different is really interesting.
I believe we have only scratched the surface in seeing the cool stuff that people can come up with, and that you’ll definitely encounter hilarious moments in every game. I think people might like it for that. We also have a pretty smart spectator cam prototype that makes matches look pretty cool. I certainly love watching our guys casting some of the internal league matches for fun.