A couple of weeks back Epic's Paragon [official site] team brought their third-person MOBA – still in its alpha state – to London for a hands-on preview event. I managed to get several games in (two crushings and one tense victory) as well as spending some time with creative director, Steve Superville.
Superville says that Epic's question of themselves when setting out to make Paragon was "can we bring action to the MOBA genre?" My own big question of Paragon is this: I play a lot of Dota, and if I want something shorter I head into Overwatch or Smite's Joust or Arena modes, so what's the thing that Paragon offers which would get me to carve out a wedge of time for that game?
Before we get to the answer, let's first look at the basics. Paragon is a third-person science fantasy MOBA with elements of a shooter. It's closest comparison is Smite but it feels very different to play. The map is a riff on the three lane setup with each lane protected by towers and waves of minions while jungle areas occupy the spaces between lanes. The map makes use of height to provide and obscure vision. One side lane is high and the other low, while the jungle is set deeper into the ground and concealed by a thick canopy. The jungle contains monsters as well as points where you can harvest resources for your team.
The matches were all 5v5 and the basic pacing and principles of play were the same as with other MOBAs, although combat has a pleasing action/shooter element as you try to land your basic attacks and skillshots. Itemisation is done via card decks which you craft separately to the matches then select before you join battle. By paying card points you earn during a match (matches last around 30 minutes although we had a close-run thing that stretched to an hour) you can activate these cards and upgrade them to augment your character.
Tentatively (it's always tentative with a preview) I'd say things are promising. I enjoyed my matches of the game but need to spend a chunk of time with it when it's in beta so I can see if the interest sticks. If it goes well I can also see it being a major thorn in Hi-Rez's side both from a Smite and, to a lesser extent, a Paladins perspective.
But back to that question: what is Paragon doing differently to prompt me to make time for it among the games I already enjoy?
"Ah, that's a good question - hopefully we have a couple [of things]," he says. "The card system is a big part of it." The card system was designed to handle two problems. One of those is for newer players where Paragon might be their first brush with a MOBA – the card system is intended as a way to simplify the overwhelming experience of getting to grips with items in other MOBAs. "For Paragon you choose a character and we give you a crafted deck of cards that was made for that character and you have tens of cards to learn and once you learn, and you're unlocking card packs by playing the game and your knowledge of the game and the options you have available grow in lockstep together so you're not so overwhelmed."
The other problem is one you encounter a bit further into a MOBA. "What I perceive as a staleness when it comes to builds for particular characters in the big MOBAs. This character has one, two, maybe three builds that are really common and we felt like that was because anytime somebody tried to be clever and do something novel with their itemisation everybody has the item to make that a poor choice always available to them. The meta gets pushed in a set direction.
"By making players build a deck which has their strategic choices outlined and then bringing it to a match there's a chance for you to do something clever, because if I didn't bring the item that mitigates the choice you made you now have an advantage and my job becomes to keep you out of the situation where you are really strong.
"You get into this mind game, a lot like captains in drafting where you get into the mind game of team compositions. Now it extends to items where I'm thinking - you played Sparrow and the most common build for Sparrow is this, and I know that, but you know that I know that. As we start to build decks against each other you get into the 'I know that you know that I know that you know…' It's very Princess Bride."
I'm going to just say that at the moment I don't see the card system playing out that way. I feel like there will still be optimal builds for characters and people will likely stick with those because it will give you the best chance of winning. In the version I played we also didn't see our opponents before we picked our decks so in that case I'd just build a deck to give me lots of options against the current strong heroes or one which makes me generally powerful. They might make changes and prove me wrong but my instinct is that people will try to optimise and stick to those perceived optimal patterns.
I ask about what happens if you haven't brought the right set of cards to battle as well – Dota's huge item shop is terrifying but it also lets me have access to everything I might need. Will it not be thirty minutes of "Ugh, I wish I'd brought x to the fight"?
"It's not designed that way," says Superville. "If it is the community will show us rather quickly but it's designed in such a way where there's no situation where there's the one card you have to bring to counter the one choice I make."
Characters will also have affinities which govern the cards they can use. There are five affinities, each marked by a particular colour, as well as a universal type. The idea is that characters can only use cards from the affinities they have so you'll always have a basic idea of what's in their arsenal. The example Superville gives is Kallari. Kallari's only affinity is Corruption so you know she's going to be using cards from Corruption and don't have to worry about the other four affinities"," says Superville. "If everybody was able to use everything, now I've just got to guess. I might as well roll the dice and do what I feel like."
That's a lot of talk about cards but I would say that for me the big difference between Paragon and other MOBAs I've played which might lure me in is that I really enjoyed the sense of movement as I roamed the map, teleported into a fight or scarpered from an ambush. You're interacting with terrain in a way which I've not encountered in a MOBA before.
With that in mind conversation moves to the terrain. As I mentioned earlier, Paragon uses verticality in a way that's completely different from Smite. In Smite the main battleground is on one level and there's no Y-axis at all when it comes to aiming the vast majority of your shots. With Paragon the lanes and jungle are tiered and, in terms of aiming, it's far more like a shooter so you can pick people out of the air or tackle them from a higher or lower position.
"We wanted to make sure we maintained the things that make MOBAs special. One of those things is knowing what your teammates are up to so we built the map in such a way that it's bowl shaped. As I run down a lane and you're getting to a teamfight I can start planning how I am going to engage [...] We also tiered the lanes so you can look down across the map. High lane is high and mid lane is mid and low lane is low. And we depressed the jungle in-between so the jungle is still - it's still our fog of war. You can't see through the canopy, you have to wonder what's down there. If I'm trying to take the quick traversal path between lanes I have to wonder is Kallari the assassin lingering down there? Have I used wards?"
Terrain doesn't apply any effect like a miss chance as it does in Dota, it's just a visibility thing, but Superville adds "We reserve the opportunity to have characters - I won't say there are characters coming - but we reserve the opportunity to have characters added to the game that make more significant use of height, like they do more damage the higher up they fall - that sort of thing."
There are also these pools in the jungle which turn you invisible when you stand on them. I was using them to hide from enemies as I teleported back to base but apparently they have other uses too. They're also not pools but 'shadow pads' it turns out. "Shadow pads operate a little bit like League of Legends bushes but with a twist, so characters who are invisible actually shift planes. They're in the shadow plane, and things that are in the shadow plane can see each other. So if you're fighting against the assassin, her ability is she can go into the shadow plane and if you can get to a shadow pad you can at least see where she's coming from and fight her. It also give people the chance to duck in there and usually they're at intersections so did you go left or did you go right? Now I have to guess."
When the game goes into paid early access this spring (no fixed date as yet) the roster will contain thirteen characters. The idea is to just add more over time rather than have a fixed roster size like Overwatch and new faces should appear "at an aggressive cadence" which Superville hopes will be enough to keep people engaged but not so fast it's overwhelming.
The same drip feed is also being applied to the game's lore – I found that out when I tried to ascertain why these thirteen characters might be scrapping in the first place. Obviously you could just stick with "because reasons and just play the game" but I'm always curious to see how a developer handles that side of the game.
"We want to use it as an engagement tool and do something more like Lost, the TV show where we go and the community starts speculating," says Superville. "It's always fun to see how fans engage with the IP and the background. Particularly as a multiplayer game which we hope will live for years – we lose some of our engagement if we just lay it out like in Gears of War."
The current plan is to go into early access, then add a little bit of lore and some hints at future revelations then see how it goes. I never watched Lost so I assume a plane will crash into a polar bear at some point.
Beyond the knowledge that there will be a paid early access phase, Epic are also not ready to announce monetisation models although they dropped a few hints.
"We haven't revealed any monetisation plans but we're a MOBA so you can probably guess what we're going to monetise. What we know we need to maintain is that it's not pay-to-win. That cards and things that impact gameplay are acquired through playing the game and that's the way you progress. Really they're there to incentivise strategy and not overwhelm players early and allow them to build their knowledge rather than to try to get into people's wallets."
Card drops will thus come via playing. "As you play a match you earn reputation - that's our time currency - you purchase card packs with time currency. As you level up your profile, as you level up heroes, you're given rewards, some of which are time currency bonuses or whole card packs. The more heroes you play the more you can level up that sort of thing."
They also haven't decided on other modes and maps yet. Superville says further into development the team might experiment, but currently there's just the three-lane option I was playing. "We're making a new game and we figured the best way to encourage people to come in is to give them something different but familiar, so we're sticking with the three lane, towers, inhibs, core, minions, all that."
So Paragon is nowhere near finished. But there's enough in place that it has my attention and it feels different enough from the other MOBA options that I can see myself making room for it in my playtime. I have real reservations about planned cross-platform play between PC and PS4 and I honestly don't know if the cards will open up builds the way Epic seem to think they will. That said, I had fun playing (and felt MOBA-style joy and frustration during the games we won and lost). I really liked how the game looked and want to experiment more with the characters as well as working out how to use the different aspects of the map.
There's no date for the paid early access phase yet, nor is there a price point but it's expected in "Spring 2016". Open beta is currently scheduled for "Summer 2016" and anything beyond that is deep in How Long Is A Piece Of String territory.