While the gold rush of battle royale titles has subsided, there are still those who are looking to advance the genre and take a slice of what has proved a very lucrative pie. One of the most promising titles of recent months is Spellbreak, which puts a fantasy twist on the usual template to great effect.
In Spellbreak, players are battlemages, with a class-based system enabling fantastical abilities. That means traversal of the map is rapid, and weapons (spells) can have big area effects, providing a far more dynamic battlefield than players might be used to. And all of that is served up with the energy and colour of a saturday morning cartoon favourite.
With alpha and beta tests done, the game has received a full release and now is setting out on its first paid-for season. So it seemed a good time to speak with the team at Boston based developer Proletariat, to discuss both the creative and technical decisions that brought them this far.
“One of Spellbreak’s biggest differentiators is that we are free to explore a much more diverse set of abilities and forms of combat due to our theme,” Seth Sivak, co-Founder and CEO, tells us.
“There are so few first or third-person fantasy action combat games and we think the current version of Spellbreak only scratches the surface. By focusing on projectiles, skills with cooldowns, and especially the ability to create elemental combinations, we have unlocked a whole new direction for core gameplay,” Sivak explains.
While its setting makes it stand out from the usual military fare, there’s another key reason behind its potential. At launch, Spellbreak supported PC, PlayStation, Xbox and Switch, with both crossplay and cross progression. An undertaking that’s very potent when trying to build a sizable player base in this highly competitive space.
The studio was created back in 2012, with Sivak leaving Zynga to co-found it. Other hires have come from the likes of Harmonix, Insomniac and Turbine. Such as Cardell Kerr, executive producer, who was previously creative director on DC MOBA Infinite Crisis at Turbine.
“Proletariat has grown to over 120 developers,” Sivak tells us. “The initial prototypes were built with a small team of only a handful of people and at the time the studio was only about 30 strong. Most of the growth has come in the last year and has allowed us to bring a level of quality to new areas of the game like audio, as we build out those internal teams.”
That larger team has also been responsible for making the title work across all the various platforms. Cardell tells us about that process.
“Spellbreak is built on the Unreal Engine, which has been extremely helpful for goals of being multiplatform. Launching with crossplay was extremely difficult,” he notes, but adds, “I often joke with the team that we managed to launch on multiple platforms with crossplay in the middle of a global pandemic, so really anything else we do will just be easier.”
“Doing it required a lot of fundamental shifts in how we worked, from the implementation side and including multiple test kits, all the way to the quality assurance side and how we handled verification,” Cardell explains.
And supporting the game on all the platforms remains a challenge. “We are still learning!” Cardell exclaims.
“In terms of balancing console and PC players, we find that they are actually fairly similar in terms of the things they want from a game. If I had to sum it up, I think that the main difference between the two is that PC players tend to be more vocal.”
A DISCOVERY OF BATTLEMAGES
An engaged community is what everybody wants, but balancing its requests with what’s actually best for the game is always a tricky task. Proletariat describes itself as a ‘Player First’ developer, but what does that mean in practical terms? We ask Sivak.
“The first community members touched Spellbreak back in the summer of 2018. Since that time we have had an open dialogue with our players. We make decisions about the game using three major components, the first is the creative direction we want to take the game, the second is what players tell us they want, the third is what players actually do – metrics from the game. This information is used to inform our design and product decisions.
“Our Players First mentality is about creating a relationship built on trust. We encourage our developers to interact directly with the community on Discord and Reddit. That transparency helps set the table for the community to trust us. We trust the audience to give us constructive feedback and hope they trust us to make the best decisions for the game. All of this only works if there is transparency and communication.”
Sivak looks to have a clear approach to the relationship. Which is a lot more than some companies in the battle royale space have shown recently. Though, of course, as the game gets bigger, the demands also grow, and the vocal minorities can become very vocal indeed.
A key gripe of many multiplayer communities in recent years has been skill-based matchmaking. Something that is always on the lips of influencers and commenters with regards to Activision’s Call of Duty: Warzone. So we ask how transparent Proletariat is with its implementation.
“SBMM is an extremely contentious thing in BRs,” agrees Cardell. “When it comes to Spellbreak, we aren’t strictly SBMM, but we do try to ensure that new players aren’t immediately thrown into matches with people who’ve been playing since Spellbreak was in Alpha. I do think that it’s surprising how much conflict there is over SBMM when it comes to BRs. It is a staple of arena style games, but I think it speaks to how diverse the overall appeal of BRs actually is.”
That diversity is no doubt born in part out of the huge popularity of the free-to-play titles. Players will often strive to improve at games they’ve invested money in to play, but a free-to-play won’t succeed by throwing new players to the wolves on their first outing.
FANCY NEW ROBES
Of course, all games need to make money, and so we come around to discussing Spellbreak’s first paid season – Chapter 1: The Spellstorm. Season-based models are now the norm in the BR space, so we ask how it fits Spellbreak specifically and how early on the team set upon the structure?
Ironically, we knew pretty early on that we wanted to pursue a seasonal update model,” Cardell answers. “Coming from strong RPG/MMO roots, we knew that updating the game in a significant and predictable cadence would be the most interesting to players, and it allows us the time to create experiences that would be polished and interesting.”
Seasons often bring both practical game-changing content, cosmetics and a sense of an evolving story – but even with a sizable team now of 120, how does Proletariat balance and prioritise all of these?
“This is one of the main struggles for creative projects!” begins Cardell. “We start out every chapter with far more work than we can possibly do. It’s a classic case of ‘eyes bigger than stomach’ where peoples’ passions drive them to pitch things that are simply too large to be achievable within the time constraints.
“One of the main challenges is actually maintaining that passion, since you want to ensure that things don’t get too formulaic. In general, once we have a list that we know is simply too big, we force rank them and just start working down as well as estimating the time. Eventually cooler heads prevail and we snip some features and cut some other elements, ultimately resulting in a chapter that is as balanced as we can make it.”
Even the biggest players in the space to date have delayed season starts in order to complete work on upcoming content. How flexible does Proletariat think it will need to be to deliver?
“We have a more regular schedule, primarily due to the number of platforms that we are on. When it comes to updating our game, we are fully committed to keeping all versions in sync, which means that we have to do a large amount of pre-planning.
“That said, we have already released sizable community driven features during patches, meaning we have tried to ensure we update frequently enough that we can maintain some agility when it comes to community desires,” coming back to that ‘Players First’ mantra.
And Proletariat understands that players do more than simply play the game. In the past, the studio developed two influencer- and viewer-centric projects. StreamLegends was an RPG extension for Twitch that let channels communities to quest together; while Streamline was a third-person title which integrated the roles of broadcaster, player and viewer into the gameplay.
Sivak points out that both titles were intended to increase their own reach:
“As an independent studio we have been working hard to build games that distribute themselves. If you’re an unknown studio building a new IP you need to be thinking about how you make people care about your game from the start. Beyond the fast action gameplay in Streamline, we learned all about how to make a game that is very watchable and very easy for content creators to use to make great content.
“With StreamLegends we had the chance to test several ideas about the social nature of content consumption and the communities that grow around an influencer or a game. Both of these projects informed how we built and published Spellbreak.”
The title looks to be off to a good start, with over 4,000 positive Steam reviews to date. We’ve before noted that such live games have little middle ground. It seems to be all-or-nothing, they either go on to do very well, or they end up going nowhere. Still, with Spellbreak Proletariat has given itself every chance to succeed.