This indie arena battler challenges the biggest games in the genre
Battlerite launched on Steam Early Access in September and quickly became one the fastest-selling games on the platform, an impressive achievement for a multiplayer-only indie game from a small studio with only a few credits to its name. It’s a competitive action RPG that mixes elements of MOBAs, fighting games and MMOG player-vs-player combat. Small teams of two or three heroes with distinct abilities are thrust into battle in a fantasy coliseum. The team that manages to wipe out the other wins the round, with the first team to win three rounds winning the match. This format is familiar to Battlerite’s developer, Stunlock: it’s a recipe the studio pioneered with its first game, Bloodline: Champions, back in 2011.
“Bloodline never took off as a huge commercial success, but it was a huge success for us as a studio,” marketing director Johan Ilves tells us. “It was our first game and started out as a student project, a very ambitious project for a group of 14 students. We always believed in what we started back in 2008. It was the only skill-based PvP arena game of its kind, and five years after release there was still no new game like it.”
Bloodline earned a small yet passionate community but Stunlock didn’t have the resources – particularly in terms of server infrastructure – to support multiplayer beyond a certain scale. Its next game was tie-in MOBA Dead Island: Epidemic, which was made for Deep Silver but cancelled in October 2015. Fully independent once again, Stunlock turned its focus back to Bloodline: Champions. “It felt,” Ives says, “like unfinished business.”
For the long-term fan, Battlerite’s success stems from the way it raises the skill ceiling of lots of familiar mechanics. As in a MOBA,
you have an array of skills mitigated by cooldowns; unlike most MOBAs, however, these abilities are manually aimed, and many require perfect timing and judgement to achieve their full potential – such as shields that can reflect projectiles, or teleports that can be reversed to return you to your original location if the situation demands it.
Each character also generates energy by dealing damage and securing powerups around the arena. A full energy bar grants you access to your hero’s most powerful ability. Yet energy can also be spent on EX variants of regular powers, which adds a strategic element to ability use akin to Street Fighter. There is a lot going on in any given moment, and much to learn.
Despite this, accessibility has been a priority for Stunlock since the beginning – making the formula work for newcomers was the biggest hurdle the studio sought to overcome. “It’s definitely been a challenge,” Ilves says. “At its core there are a lot of delicate elements that we’ve worked on to reduce the [skill] threshold. We put a lot of effort into audio, visuals and general feedback to make every move and every attack easy to read. When you hit someone, or when you get hit by something, you should always be able to understand the impact of that attack and learn from it.”
A substantial tutorial introduces concepts in a safe environment, and when you graduate to playing against others the matchmaking system does its best to ensure that you’re pitched against other newcomers. Battlerite’s focus on combat helps, too: there’s no mapwide strategic level to consider as there would be in a MOBA. This means that, as in Street
Fighter, it’s possible for new players to trade blows and have fun even if they’re not maximising the potential of their characters.
The elimination format is a natural generator of dramatic setpieces, and colourful powers are fun to experiment with. Every character in the Early Access version is available for free, and this allows each player to find their comfort zone. The net result is a complex game that has resonated with more people, more quickly, than was forecast. “We’ve always been confident in Battlerite, but no one expected it to take off this quickly,” Ilves says. At the time of writing, almost 400,000 people have played the game on Steam. While its accessible design is no doubt a factor in its popularity, another is how fully fledged it feels. More characters are planned before the arrival of version 1.0 early next year, and Stunlock is promising to overhaul ranked play before full release. It may still be in development, but the game already feels as good as complete – a fact attested to by the thousands playing it – which is a breath of fresh air on Steam Early Access.
“We’ve always been confident, but no one expected it to take off this quickly”
Extra effects such as stuns, roots, slows and fire are communicated through text, but it’ll still take some time to learn which characters can do what – and what it looks like when they do
ABOVE Many different character pairings can work – not just traditional combos such as healers and tanks. A pair of mages approach the arena very differently to two assassins, for example
TOP LEFT Character designs emphasise strong silhouettes and easy recognisability: at present, there are no cosmetic items or skins that stray too far from the colourful fantasy aesthetic.
ABOVE Effective range varies hugely between characters, although champions with long-range damage usually pay for it with reduced mobility. In Battlerite, being able to reposition quickly is often vital
LEFT Powerups spawn regularly in the centre of the arena, making this open area a vital – but highly dangerous – battleground. Gaining an advantage requires careful use of abilities and good aim
Ashka is a good example of
Battlerite’s hybrid character design: a mage on paper, his ability to transform into a molten fist provides reasons to engage up close