Dan Nanni is no stranger to building multiplayer shooters. He cut his teeth as a designer on 2005's Star Wars: Battlefront II before relocating to EA and contributing to Mercenaries 2 and 2013's Battlefield 4.
Despite his experience, taking point as lead designer at Boss Key Productions poses a fresh challenge. Where Battlefield 4 specialized in large-scale battles across sprawling maps, LawBreakers is an arena shooter, a genre rooted in map control and lightning-fast reflexes. It's also a genre only recently exhumed: after enjoying success in the '90s, cinematic blockbusters like Halo, Call of Duty, and Battlefield ground the likes of Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 into the dirt.
How will LawBreakers compete? By flipping the script that arena shooters followed to relative success in the 1990s. "I understand the appeal of picking up those old Unreal style of games and mastering it, but the characters' interactions with maps really set apart who was new and who was a veteran," Nanni said during our interview following my hands-on session. "You could aim really well, but until you mastered the map, you didn't know where the armor was, you didn't know where the Redeemer was--all these things that really made you win the game, essentially."
The solution posed by the dev team over at Boss Key Studios? Character mastery. Unlike games such as Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch, which brim with character choices, LawBreakers, narrows its roster down to four. The Enforcer is your jack-of-all-trades soldier, the Assassin is squishy but able to kill quickly, the Titan is the personification of a tank, and the Vanguard blasts to and fro in a jetpack, letting you get in, make an impact, and get out.
"Classes gives us a gameplay style; it gives us, as designers, the ability to create a kit for you. Some of that is making classes well-rounded so they synergize together, but at the same time allow you to have a difference in personality as far as how you complete actions."
Nanni believes each character's stark differences will encourage players to pick one class and stick with it. "The mantra back when I was working on early games was, 'You've got to get players to play more of the game.' I started asking myself, 'Is that really important if they're playing for 200 hours?' We aren't making the choices and forcing you to play different classes simply because we think you must. It's a personal choice: if you want to play the assassin, go ahead. Put 200 hours into her. As long as you're still having fun and learning new things."
LawBreakers' quality-over-quantity mantra will extend to arena selection, at least at first. Boss Key plans to ship the game with a smaller set of maps that cater to the game's two modes: a CTF-inspired option called Overcharge where players capture batteries, and Turf War, where competing teams clash over control points. The arena I played in Turf War, for example, had several chokepoints filtering in and out of control nodes, making breaching and defending those areas equally difficult.
"We want to make sure we're not cranking out stuff just to crank it out. We want stuff to release at a really high quality and be really good. As we discover more ways of making better maps faster, we'll increase map production. Right now we've announced two maps and two modes, but you can expect that to grow."
Boss Key hasn't excised map control from the arena-shooter equation. The mode you're playing may dictate the class you take into battle. "Class roles are situationally balanced, I would say," explained Nanni. "[Your role] depends on a lot of different factors: who you're up against, what weapons they're using, what abilities they're using."
Titans, for instance, can leverage their AOE abilities to dominate in tight spots. Out in the open, though, the Vanguard will have no trouble flitting in and out of their reach. If Boss Key plays its cards right, this should lead to situations where class advantages ebb and flow. Assassins work great for capturing batteries since they dart in, nab the item, and use their grappling ability to swing from any geometry, Batman-style. However, her low HP makes her less adept at holding bases in Turf War.
Nanni confirmed that LawBreakers still needs time in the oven before it's ready to emerge fully baked. It's already been through several evolutionary phases, beginning as a free-to-play game codenamed BlueStreak and changing to a digital premium title. Boss Key will use the rest of its development cycle to carefully plan for the game's future.
"We'll definitely have progression systems and meta-game structures for players to unlock. We don't want to be grindy for grinding's sake, but we do want to give players the ability to have collections and unlock content that, while it doesn't affect gameplay balance, does make them feel like they've unlocked more content in our game. At the same time, we'll be messing around with cosmetics and how to make sure your character feels unique or special; something you feel you've earned yourself. We haven't really figured out what we're going to do, but all those systems are in our plans for release in the future."
This LawBreakers preview was based on a pre-release PC demo of the game at an event where refreshments were provided by Nexon.
David Craddock posted a new article, E3 2016: LawBreakers prioritizes character mastery in a genre founded on map control
Sounds cool, but also like it'll be a bear to balance. I think the real problem with the arena genre is a focus on top-tier competitive play to the exclusion of actually making the game fun for average players. Hopefully they don't make the same mistake with this one.