"Monolith is more than just a new map, it's really our reimagining of what we actually wanted Paragon to be in the first place and it's our better attempt at delivering that."
Monolith is the rescaled and rebuilt map which each match of Epic's third-person MOBA [official site] is played on. Lead hero designer, Cameron Winston, is the one telling me about its development. Monolith is replacing the older Legacy map as the team focus on improving the experience. The main goals were to trim down the size of the map (thus also eliminating the need for the travel mode aka auto-sprint which helped you get anywhere in a reasonable timeframe but messed with combat), offering more meaningful choices to players and bringing down the average length of longer matches.
I played a couple of games on Monolith with some of the dev team and I'd say it's definitely smaller. I haven't played Paragon in yonks and I thought I might not remember how big the previous map was. Then I went into my lane at the start of the game and absent-mindedly ended up walking straight up to the other team's first tower because I was walking to where muscle memory told me the two opposing creep waves would meet. I had to shake off a few direct hits from said tower and sheepishly walk back to the actual meeting point.
In terms of the other bits and pieces, it's harder to make a direct assessment of the changes both due to my lull in participation and due to the fact this is still a work in progress. MOBAs are complicated beasts at the best of times and one of the things Monolith is going to do is give the development team far more options when it comes to tweaking objectives and giving players ways to try to get the upper hand during a match. As a result there is a LOT to get to grips with.
I asked Winston to give me a rundown of the key elements as he saw them and it was a snack bar of MOBA terminology and gameplay variables/objectives:
"Moving around the map feels better, the map itself is more interesting to traverse, the positions are way more defined in Monolith so it's meaningful to pick who goes mid, offlane, all different kinds of things," he tells me. "The mechanics of interacting with the AI is better, the ability to manipulate creep waves is stronger in Monolith. There are a lot more team objectives…"
He names the new raptor camp, the Amber Link (which is a ball which fills with card power over time but can also have additional power added when a nearby jungle minion is killed by an ally – at intervals the power gets distributed around the team so it can be a useful team-wide economy boost), the Prime Guardian (carrying over from the Legacy map, the Guardian is Paragon's big neutral monster like Dota's Roshan or League of Legends' Baron), a gold buff minion, a jungle buff minion who you can kill for a shield which explodes after a while, randomised river buffs to help with laning and ganking (like Dota 2's runes)...
So yes. A lot that's new, but also a lot that's familiar if you play other MOBAs. Paragon also now emphasises the importance of those more traditional MOBA roles. There's the offlaner who can hold a lane by themselves and deal with being a bit more vulnerable, the safe lane/support pairing where one character babysits another so he or she can become monstrous later in the game, the mid laner who keeps an eye on the mid lane as well as trying to control the river buffs, and the jungler who enjoys nature and murders whatever lurks in the trees.
We talked a little about to what extent the MOBA space is defined by the existing behemoths of the genre. "It's an interesting question as there are a lot of places where you could innovate in the space," says Winston. "Where we chose to innovate is we're the first 3D MOBA with an actual Z-axis."
He continues, explaining that although the new layout heavily implies you'd want to use those established roles (the current loading in screens actually run through each role and explain what you do in them) they aren't mandatory. At the same time they help the players make sense of the game and their own place within that. The impression I get is that the dev team want to give players a starting point for figuring heroes out but not have that role be the only thing they can ever do.
"If you're playing hockey you don't need to have a goalie," he says. "You can just take your goalie and he can be a dude that skates around, but then no-one can cover your goal and the goalie gets advantages like that big glove and the face mask and he can pick up the puck. So the game of hockey doesn't force you to have a goalie but it's strongly encouraged. That's what I think the map does for MOBAs. Having the offlane and the safe lane and the mid and the jungle forces players to have positions which lets players understand what to do in the role."
The heroes have actually been nudging into those playstyle niches for a while, Winston explains, but the design of the older map tended to obscure them. Kallari is the example he gives:
"Kallari is a monster on Monolith. She was always meant to be a monster but on [the Legacy map] she couldn't really shine because - so she goes into stealth [with her Shadow Walk ability] and she goes a little bit faster so she can chase people. But it didn't actually make sense for her to rotate in stealth because of travel mode. It's faster to not be stealthed.
"We couldn't fix that problem and we weren't going to make Kallari move at, like, 900 move speed when invisible. We always knew a character like Kallari wasn't going to be really effective until we got this map on the ground."
Now that travel mode isn't there her Shadow Walk can become far more important.
As lead hero designer, Winston seems well-placed to answer whether there were any moments where heroes and map were tweaked to accommodate one another. By that I mean that there have obviously been broad changes like drastic reduction of cooldown timers on abilities which are aimed at making play faster paced and more enjoyable/meaningful to players, but, on a more granular level, has something like the new height of a wall led to a specific ability being reworked or a role being changed or vice-versa?
"We have certain heroes in mind we think excel in [the offlane] position," says Winston. "One of the core things that makes a good offlaner is the ability to challenge the safe lane buff. [If you're shaky on MOBA terminology, one side's offlane is the other team's safe lane – it's because the offlaner is fighting a bit further from their tower and is thus a bit less safe from attack while the reverse is true for their opponent. One of the offlaner's responsibilities is generally to make the enemy safe laner's life miserable where possible – Ed].
"The safe laner has good access to that buff but the offlaner can approach that buff from the river if they have a good vertical jump. Heroes with a good vertical jump have a way to excel in this position. That's not to say if heroes don't have that vertical jump they can't be an offlaner. Sevarog is one of our strongest offlaners and doesn't have one, but heroes like Greystone and Kallari and some of the new heroes I can't tell you about all have that in mind. That was specifically designed into the geometry as a way to help give certain heroes [that offlane role]."
He adds, "I definitely don't think we would change the map around heroes, we would probably change the heroes around the map."
When I played the test session one of the things I noticed was that the match lengths seemed to be in familiar MOBA territory – around 40-45 minutes. When I ask about this, both during the session and during the interview, the answer is that the map changes are more about bringing the Legacy map's tendency towards loooooooooong matches back to something more manageable. It's less about having half hour romps and more about NOT having ninety-minute slogs where you walk away exhausted and a bit bored.
I found the mid-game a little meandering – progress seemed to stall and minutes went by without feeling like we'd done more than trade kills or push the lanes back and forth a bit. Without more games under my belt it's hard to tell whether that was due to me and the other non-dev players not having got to grips with the wealth of options available on the map or whether there's a lull there which the team need to address. Winston's response implies it's perhaps a little from column A and a little from column B as he says, "We definitely need to do more work on the mid game but that's what this period is for. Now we have the baseline map we have so many more tools with Monolith to adjust the pacing of the game."
I like the analogy he uses when talking about trying to make disparate interests work together when creating Monolith.
"A lot of [Monolith's creation] was wrangling the disparate interests to make sure we all came together to make a product that achieves the goals of the game. We want it to be the MOBA that puts you in the action. We wanted to make sure it was a MOBA. A lot of times, when you're doing cross-initiative games, you're peanut butter and chocolate, right? And the dream is you want to be Reese's Peanut Butter Cups but the chocolate people are like, 'But I want to be Hershey's' and the peanut butter people are like 'But I want to be Jif'. You have to make sure that at the end of the day you actually make Peanut Butter Cups and not Jif or Hershey's. Does that make sense?"
"Yes," I reply. "Also it has made me hungry."
"For Peanut Butter Cups or for Jif?"
"I think Peanut Butter Cups. I haven't had them in a long time."
I should add that I didn't have any Peanut Butter Cups to hand so I spent the rest of the interview trying to eat a Kinder Egg I've had on my desk in case of emergencies really quietly. I got an Iron Man toy and his head opens up to reveal a weird number counter thing.
Now that the update is about to go live I finish by asking whether there's anything in particular Winston is keeping an eye on with Monolith. He seems upbeat but conscious of the risks in making such big changes even though the game is in beta for that very reason.
"The question is, is the game momentum enough to overcome the fear of change that people have?" he says. "I think once players play more than one or two games - the first game is going to be super overwhelming, then it's like if you can actually play [Paragon] enough to get over the overwhelmingness it's way better now. That's what I'm hoping people will see."