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Proletariat CEO Seth Sivak discusses the decisions that are helping Spellbreak thrive in a competitive market.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

October 7, 2020

6 Min Read

Spellbreak is one of 2020's new multiplayer hits. Though not as viral as Fall Guys or as meme-able as Among Us, Boston-based studio Proletariat has muscled into a competitive market with a genuinely compelling alternative to the gunplay of Fortnite, Apex Legends, or Playerunknown's Battlegrounds.

A couple of weeks ago, Proletariat CEO Seth Sivak dropped by the GDC Twitch channel for a chat about Spellbreak's development, and what the studio has learned in taking on the industry's battle royale heavyweights, with a particular focus on keeping players engaged.

Helping players grow

Spellbreak operates under many of the familiar rules of the battle royale genre. Drop alone or with a team, land, pick up gear, be the last one standing. But unlike shooter-driven battle royales, Spellbreak's magic system involves a more ability-driven magic system that rewards mixing different abilities together.

Players start matches with a gauntlet of one magic type, and quickly pick up another. Merging spells together offers a mix of control and damage archetypes that grow in power during matches, as players upgrade latent abilities by moving into the next ring. There's an element of how leveling up works in MOBA games like League of Legends, and it's not as "point and shoot" as Fortnite or Apex Legends can be.

Sivak compared the system to being one where each match is akin to a micro roguelite, where players adapt to the random loot they're dropped to enhance their abilities. But that's not necessarily obvious to new players. Sivak recalled that in the early days of the genre, other battle royale games would just dump players into a match full of humans with experience, maybe after doing a tutorial, leading to a very "learn or die" experience.

"What we did instead was say 'hey, we're gonna let people do some active learning, because we have these little tutorial popups that help players.' With those popups, we figured 'let's get them into a match as quickly as possible, so we can have them start to experience gameplay, learn how to drink a potion, learn how to increase their armor, find loot, etc."

So Spellbreak, like other battle royales of late, does dump players into early games with bots and other lower-level players. But the goal isn't just to give them their "first win," it's to help them learn the path of progression that the game's abilities lend themselves to.

Achieving ultimate power

One key feature in Spellbreak is that in this battle royale, getting to the next circle rewards players with an upgrade to their chosen glove's abilities, which mimics how characters in MOBA games upgrade their abilities. In other games, there's the fantasy that you could be under-geared as you square off with the last few players in a MOBA, but raw shooting skill or ambushing can still win you the match.

Sivak pointed out that there's a different fantasy at the end of a Spellbreak game, one where players are universally flinging themselves over structures and tossing huge fireballs out with less fear of long-distance interruption from outside parties. It's a scenario enabled by the automatic upgrades players encounter.

"That…is something that actually matters, because now players are thinking of that in terms of their strategy," he explained. “The thinking becomes 'oh, should I go get to the circle first before I engage in a fight so I can have my ability.'”

Sivak said the biggest struggle for the team on the design angle was trying to make any kind of melee combat work in Spellbreak. In other battle royales, melee is a last-ditch combat mechanic that can reward players who are desperately low on ammo and able to lure their opponents into close range. But in Spellbreak, any major melee system was undone by the free-for-all nature of the battlefield.

In one example, Sivak discussed a system that would let players square up for a Dark Souls-style melee battle. "And then some person would just run over the hill, come up, and slap me on the back and kill me," he deadpanned.

The other problem had to do with how players react to information about what weapons their opponent has. In order for melee weapons to be as fair as the spell system, more powerful ones would shine a different color, like gold. But if a lesser-powered player saw that, they'd just...run away. Forever. "And because it's not an objective based game, it's a battle royale, I'd just be chasing you indefinitely,” he said.

Sivak said that a lot of time was spent pursuing a more Dark Souls-y battle royale when development on what would become Spellbreak began. (Sivak said that when they started development, H1Z1 was their presumed competition, not Fortnite or PUBG). It was a long iteration process that Sivak said was loaded with mistakes, but even though few of those systems remain in Spellbreak, he said time spent working on those failures was still necessary for the game's success.

"There's a million mistakes we made, but would I call them true mistakes or part of the process? It's hard to know," he mused. "The melee combat piece stands out to me because it was something we really tried. And we just couldn't get it to feel right. The moral of that story is we kept going, we kept iterating, and eventually we got to bows and arrows, more ranged stuff, and we ended up here."

A different look at player relationships

Any game developer working online knows that community relationships are important. But Sivak said that Proletariat has tried to hit a few specific goals with its community. Along with a normally functioning community team, Sivak said he encourages Proletariat developers to jump in and answer questions on Reddit and Discord, "so players can see Proletariat as the developers making the game, and not a scary corporate entity. I think that matters a lot."

Proletariat's relationship with players has even led to interesting partnerships with other developers. The company is still working on a broader "practice mode" that would let players practice fundamentals against moving targets, but in the meantime, Sivak says the company is working with the developers of Aim Lab, a program on Steam that lets players hone their twitch-based skills in isolated environments.

Releasing Spellbreak in the COVID-driven haze of 2020 has also tightened Proletariat's view on the service it's providing to the community. For one part, Sivak pointed out that as the company ramps up its holiday events like its upcoming Halloween one, it has to acknowledge that for some players, this might be the only safe way to celebrate Halloween with their friends.

And if celebrating the holidays in online games is going to be a draw this year, then what about the everyday time people spend online in social groups? Sivak says the company's gotten loads of messages from players who say Spellbreak has been one of the games they use to stay close and socialize while social distancing. "That really, I think feeds us as developers," he said.

Which is why, per Sivak, the company took a big swing at enabling crossplay across consoles and PC when it launched this year. "That's why we made a lot of hard decisions to make sure that players could play with their friends. That's why we we're on four platforms where we have crossplay."

"I feel like the industry as a whole needs to be thinking about our responsibility to provide that social avenue for our players, especially now,” Sivak said. “I think that it'd be good for everyone to start thinking about that more, because games are a dominant form of entertainment. We have a major opportunity and outlet for people to have social interactions with their friends.”

Sivak has a point, one that contexutalizes how online PvP games are developed--there's been a push among many online games to focus on core gameplay that evolves up to competitive, marketable, esports-level play. But in a year where players might just need goofing off time with their pals full of serotonin hits, developer priorities might stray away from ranked modes, and more toward features that help people play together.

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