For Honor is a medieval combat game. With not a gun in sight, it immediately stands out amongst the usual multiplayer offerings. But that’s not what’s really interesting about Ubisoft’s brand new IP.
Instead, here’s a game that’s been designed from the ground up for long-term competitive play, with serious thought put into how the title will engage players over hours, days and months. What’s more, the development team was composed from the off to support that title in the long term.
It also has very small player counts, just four on each side in its most populous modes. This should make it much easier for players to find a dedicated team of friends to play with, and the team that plays together, stays together.
For Honor may look back to the past for its inspiration, then, with a slightly bonkers mix of vikings, knights and samurai doing battle, but this is a very modern game and one that should engage its player base for years to come.
We talked to Bio Jade Adam Granger, game designer on For Honor at Ubisoft Montreal, about the new title and the team’s plans for the future.
HUNDRED YEARS’ WAR
For Honor is based around a set of carefully designed time periods that are set up to engage players in the short, medium and long-term. Each of these time segments have their own goals that can be achieved, providing feedback loops for players of varying frequency.
With ‘turns’ that last two hours, ‘rounds’ of six days and ten-week ‘seasons’, the game has something to offer at every level. Granger explains: “We wanted the player to have short term goals of their own, medium term goals with your friends, your clan, and the whole season is about the whole faction.”
That means that as the timescale expands, it’s matched by a greater need for community engagement, from personal goals right up to faction-wide ones - the latter including every player on the chosen side, be that Knight, Viking or Samurai, in the world, regardless of whether they’re on PS4, Xbox One or PC.
The ten-week seasons will also form the basis for the release of new content, in the form of new heroes to play, potentially rearranging the metagame every season and reigniting player interest. While heroes will have to be bought with cash or in-game currency that can be earned by playing, new maps will also drop in time for new seasons and will be free to all, a strategy taken from Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege.
The seasons themselves have significance too. “At the end of the season we write what happened in the lore of the game, so the Vikings took those territories and lost others,” explains Granger.
“We wanted the player to have short term goals of their own, medium term goals with your friends, your clan, and the whole season is about the whole faction.”
Maps in the game will then be festooned with faction-appropriate details to make the victories and losses of last season apparent to all, Granger continues: “There are unique elements for each season, items, XP bonuses, stuff you can only earn that one time. So you know that your faction won season two as you can never acquire that specific item ever again.”
Such inducements are like honey to bears for gamers, who will fight tooth-and-claw to secure them for their faction. There will also be downtime between seasons. The amount of time has yet to be decided but it’s likely to be days rather than weeks. It just has to be sufficient for the team to implement the changes and test everything before the next season begins.
MANNING THE WALLS
To keep this long term vision of the game ticking over, Ubisoft’s planned ongoing support from core development personnel in a way it hasn’t done before.
“For the first time at Ubisoft, most of the core team is staying on for the live period, supporting the game and creating new content for it,” Granger says.
“It’s a bit like Rainbow Six Siege but they had a different approach for the team. We see For Honor as a living game, not something we put on the shelf and forget, and just have a husk of a team looking after the servers. We want to make it grow, we want to improve it with feedback from the community. It’s going to be a living organism that we share with the players.
“We have a few seasons planned, but it’s going to depend on the reception of the players, and the direction we take will depend on the players too, more eSports features, more AI, more maps, we have a few things planned because we started working on it already, but we have the ability to react.”
It will be intriguing to see how this joint venture between developers and fans plays out. It should bring greater long-term engagement but not everyone knows what’s good for them, so the team may have to make some tough choices.
TESTING THE DEFENCES
Thankfully, any decisions will be based on a lot of data. The team already has plenty of analytics to peruse, with in-house playtesting, an alpha, data from public events and the upcoming beta.
Data is also very useful in overcoming inherent ‘truths’ that build up over a long time working on the game, Granger says.
“When you’re a developer you’re skewed, you know what you should do. For the Conqueror which is a heavy, defensive character, we had a closed alpha and people used him offensively as he did so much damage. This surprised us and we changed the Conqueror as a result.
“There are always differences between the truth of the data and the perception. Nothing is real, it’s only what you perceive as a player ..."
“The mechanics are so new, we have a humility about knowing that we don’t know. We’re very lucky to have a dedicated community on Reddit. We recently received an 18-page feedback document from a player, which was very useful.”
We suggest that it’s amazing a player can come up with such useful insight when there’s so much data already available. But Granger points out that it’s not so simple.
“There are always differences between the truth of the data and the perception. Nothing is real, it’s only what you perceive as a player, even if a hero is balanced, if every player perceives he isn’t, then you have a problem.
“A fun example, the best hero was actually the one with the second worse win/loss ratio, so it’s all about perception.”
Speaking of perception, we can’t help but think that For Honor’s core four-on-four multiplayer mode might mean it’s perceived as being a little hardcore; after all, there’s no place to hide on such a small team and teammates won’t be shy to say if players aren’t pulling their weight.
“When we had our first live period, more than a year ago now, our main feedback was that player skill variance was very high, we foresaw this,” Granger says.
“So we implemented that every game mode could be played against AI and you can select difficulty, so you can train against specific bots. There is matchmaking and custom matches, too.
“We really wanted players to earn their skills and to play different heroes, as just because you’re good with one character doesn’t mean you’ll kick ass with the others.”
On the positive side, the small team numbers should make it easier to form complete teams of strangers or acquaintances. Granger agrees: “The idea of a band of warriors is a term that our creative director has used very often, to feel like you are that band of lone vikings, a family of samurai, knights of a specific lord.”
If For Honor can engender a brothers- (or sisters-) in-arms feel to the game then its community will be built up for very strong blocks of players. That again bodes well for the title in the long-term.
With plenty of effort going into retaining players, arguably the only remaining piece of the puzzle is how to attract them to begin with. With this in mind, Ubisoft has added a single-player campaign into a game in which you might not expect one. Granger explains:
“You play from the point of view of all three factions. The aim of the story mode is to make the players understand the world they are playing in. When we announced the game we only showed the multiplayer. We’d already started working on the single-player but not on the story. People were asking so many questions: Why are we fighting? Who are the heroes? They felt it was a bit of a vacuum.
“We were happy because it confirmed our belief that we need to have some kind of narrative to make you care, because if you don’t care you don’t have fun. It really depends on the type of player. Some do just want to get better, but some care about why they are fighting. Since this is our own world, and obviously those three factions never really fought, you need some context.”
"Why are we fighting? Who are the heroes? They felt it was a bit of a vacuum."
Finally we just had to know if there were going to be pirates added at some point? Sadly there’s nothing planned to date.
For Honor, even without pirates, looks an intriguing title with some really well-conceived ideas about building a long-term community. It’s out on Valentine’s Day and Ubisoft will be hoping that its romance with gamers lasts for many years to come.
Of course, all this intricate forward-planning won’t amount to much unless Ubisoft gets the message out to gamers with its marketing campaign. We talked to brand manager Will Buck, about the company’s plans for promoting the title in the UK.
“For Honor is the first game that will really allow players to feel the true emotions of being a skilled melee warrior on a believable battlefield. The game is set in a medieval fantasy genre that’s been heavily popularised in our culture over recent years,” Buck explains, making reference to the huge success of Game of Thrones.
He continues: “The For Honor UK marketing plan is primarily a digital-led campaign across paid and earned channels. We had a great success with the recent closed beta that was supported through social media, digital programmatic display and activity with gaming influencers.
“Moving into the open beta, we are adding specialist display across IGN, Wikia, Twitch and first-party dashboard buys. We also have programmatic online VOD campaigns to push awareness. Our launch burst then kicks in, introducing broadcast VOD to the plans on top of impactful home page takeovers online with a faction-based lead creative on display.
He concludes: “This is then complemented with a strong plan for our immersive 360-degree video activation named “In the Battle” as well as content produced with celebrity talent.”