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

De­vel­oper/ pub­lisher Stun­lock Stu­dios For­mat PC Ori­gin Swe­den Re­lease 2017

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

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