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The Fall of EA’s MOBA – What it did Right and What Riot can use

February 9th, 2015

 

The fall of EAs MOBA Banner

 

 Dawngate, a project by Waystone Games that now lies abandoned, was a breeding pool of incredible ideas. A few days ago the studio shut down all servers and its corporate overlords at EA resumed counting money and punching babies. Though the game will never see release, I think Riot and future MOBA devs can all benefit from learning about Dawngate’s approach. Now that Waystone’s creation is no more, let’s step back and appreciate what it did right:

 

Flexible Meta

 Dawngate’s advertising mostly revolved around the slogan ‘Break the Meta’. Particularly, League’s meta. On their regular stream, the devs often mentioned they were big fans of LoL and felt their game could follow in its legacy, while remedying what they thought were issues. Their core goal was having more than one team comp be viable.

 And, from my experience, they succeeded. During Champion Select (Shaper Select) in Dawngate, you could choose between 4 roles. Gladiator would give you a stacking gold bonus for last hitting minions. Predator would give you bonus gold for every kill and assist. Tactician would give you gold every time you hit an enemy Shaper (think the Frost Queen line of support items) or a minion near you died. Hunter would increase your damage against jungle monsters and heal you for a percentage of the damage dealt to them.

 These four roles meant your playstyle was defined by your personal choice, not the champion you picked.

 

Gladiator Predator Tactician Hunter

Above, Dawngate’s roles – Gladiator, Predator, Tactician and Hunter.

 

 It was quite possible and viable to jungle with unorthodox picks; you just needed to pick the ‘Hunter’ role. Second carries in lane could serve as supports by choosing ‘Tactician’. Melee carries, instead of jungling or farming, could choose a ‘Predator’ role and focus on roaming. Of course, champion design often leaned toward a particular role, but you could still experiment within that role. ‘Tactician’ and ‘Predator’, for example, balanced each other out really well between a defensive playstyle and an offensive one – supports with high kill potential could focus on being aggressive or sit back and protect their carries, depending on what role they chose. Defensive supports could still pick ‘Predator’ and lane with stronger early carries.

 LoL’s meta can be seen as stale or evolving; it depends on whose perception you’re looking for. A professional player would see more variety than a casual one, because their definition of a meta is more expansive. They’d include factors like timed tower pushes, objectives, comps that are meant to split-push, comps that need to force fights, rotations depending on champions picked and so on. But these differences are marginal; worse, they tend to just cycle with patches, rather than create entirely new strategies. A few champions dominate before being nerfed, then the forgotten ones surface out; rinse and repeat.

 Dawngate’s meta was less about cycling champions and more about cycling playstyles. Double jungle-comps used to be quite popular, so did double carry + support lanes. Your options in lane weren’t split between an AP or an AD champion, but between how many players would be on that lane, what they’d do in the lane and where they’d go afterwards.

 You wouldn’t see a roaming Alistar going with a ‘Predator’ style, with a Caitlyn soloing bot lane from safe range with ‘Tactician’. In Dawngate, you could play that way and it wouldn’t feel like a gimmick.

 

All Summoner Spells were useful

 In League, Summoner Spells are not a choice, they’re a part of your cooldowns. Flash is auto-locked and the rest depends on your role. Dawngate did have a Flash and some of its spells mirrored those found in LoL, but they were, again, balanced for individual roles. So you could really take a Zhonya-like spell over a Flash and you wouldn’t be gimping your team. Flash was more often-than-not a must-have on carries, but other roles were not forced into picking it.

 Most of Dawngate’s spell diversity comes from a balance of strength and cooldown. A weak, AoE shield had a much shorter cooldown than a stronger, self-target one. This meant there was room for both spells, depending on the circumstance. Ignite was also split; you could opt for a low-damage spell that also slowed your target or a heal-over-time that also applied a DoT to target enemy. For every Summoner Spell option in League, there were two in Dawngate.

 You could also change spells at the starting platform by purchasing new ones and replacing your old ones. So you could skip Flash in the early game and still get it in time for late-game teamfights by selling another spell which has lost relevance.

 ‘Cleanse’ was actually viable

LoL’s Cleanse is a well-designed spell – it’s reactive, it’s not overpowered on its own and it’s heavily situational. And, because it’s just balanced and not mandatory, it’s never picked. Dawngate had Cleanse; in fact, it has both League’s Cleanse and DotA’s Black King Bar, which makes a character immune to disables. These spells both aim for similar effect but in different ways – Blitz is obviously stronger on initiators, because it lasts longer but doesn’t break existing CC. Dispel is more reactive and, thus, better-suited on carries.

But the cooldowns are proper, their effects reward good use and so they can actually compete for a slot, even with Flash. We’ll never see Blitz in League, but Dispel can be a good example of how Cleanse should be buffed.

Blitz

Dispel

 

 

The Karma system is awesome

Vote-Karma  Some readers might recall I talked about Dawngate’s Karma system about a year ago. In plain terms, Karma is what you reward both allies and enemies with once the game is over. At the end of each match, you vote which player you think should receive Karma. You can split the Karma you’d give between multiple players if you feel they’re all deserving.

 After the score screen closes, all players receive a chest full of loot. The rarity of that chest depends on several factors, but Karma has the biggest influence. The chest itself gives in-game currency by default, but it can also reward you with a new ‘rune’ (which I’ll get to later) or even a new character.

 Opening chests in Dawngate was a marvel – from the animation of the lid flying off to the rewards being written on flip-cards. It made each win a special occasion. More importantly, the Karma system made defeats less of a bummer – if you did your best but still lost, chances were a fellow teammate or an enemy would reward your efforts with Karma, pushing your score up towards a rarer chest and better rewards.

 

 On the opposite end, if your match was ruined by a negative player or a troll, etc., you could personally punish them by not giving them Karma. That way, even if that toxic player won, he’d still get less rewards.

 

Dawngate-Karma-Award

The reward meter at the end of each match is filled by various conditions. In green is the Karma gained through player voting.

 

Dawngate-Chest

The contents of a chest depend on its rarity and chance, of course.

 

 I could go on, but I’ll stop here and summarize: the Karma system empowers players to both honor and punish others in a meaningful way. Honoring a player in League often feels like a meaningless gesture; similarly, reporting lacks any feedback and, over-time, becomes a chore. In Dawngate, you were given the physical means to encourage good behavior.

 I hope Riot will consider giving power to players in the way Dawngate’s Karma system does. I’ve previously discussed adding a pause to League or voting for most valuable player and the response to these topics has been identical: these options would be abused. I think that, at a certain point, being conservative with a huge community does more harm than good. Adding a Karma-like system would be a huge experiment for Riot, but that’s why the PBE realm exists. Although the Dawngate has closed, it remains a proper realization of that experiment.

 

Runes made fun and new-player-friendly

 Dawngate’s ‘runes’ were split in two categories – Sparks and Spiritstones. Sparks were standard LoL runes, each giving you a small stat increase. Spiritstones could give you either a more sizable stat boost or an additional passive. These catered to both the four main roles and to specific champions. You could make an optimal loadout for a specific champion filling a specific role, but between flat stat boosts, % boosts and entirely new passives, you had plenty of options to make every niche pick work.

 There was the minigame of fitting Spiritstones within the ‘rune page’, like ‘Tetris’ blocks. It was good fun trying to maximize the space on your page with different Spiritstones and slotting Sparks into the empty sockets.

 Runes could also be won via the Karma system. I would often get Sparks from wins, meaning the only real expense for me were Spiritstones. This let me spend most of my currency on new characters, which allowed me to buy more skins. What worked for me also worked for the developers. And it gets better.

 

Spiritstones and Sparks

Left side – Spiritstones, right side – Sparks. Sparks fit into Spiritstones which then fit on your loadout page.

 

 If you’re a new player in League going up against smurfs or higher-level players, you are statistically weaker. You have an empty rune page compared to their full page, made specifically for the champion they’re playing. That match is stacked against you, which sucks and has sucked since release. Runes can be fun and give you more ways to start off a game after you have them; before that, they’re a chore you just have to deal with. So why not get the first batch free and spare new players the grind?

 In Dawngate, you were given three loadout pages and two Spiritstones with their respective Sparks for free. Since there were no tiers in Dawngate’s system, it meant you were competitive from the get-go. You could easily play with a pre-made loudout for hundreds of games, opting to instead use your in-game currency on unlocking new characters.

 

Spiritstone of the Reaper

An example of a Spiritstone, granting the player a unique new passive.

 

Runes can be an engaging part of League. They can make for better champion diversity, open new roles for already-viable champions and encourage players to experiment. Dawngate’s system was by no means perfect, but it made an otherwise-tedious grind interactive and forgiving for newcomers.

 All this talk of how runes can make the game fun aside, they remain mostly a business decision. No one in League’s history has said “I can’t wait to spend the IP I saved for a month on stats”. Runes exist so players don’t get to spend too much IP on new champions and instead buy them with real money. This concept is neither fun nor exploitative – it’s just acceptable and works as part of a business model.

 But runes can be more than an annoyance. Dawngate, in my opinion, managed to make the system more diverse and easy on new players. I hope we one day see ‘pre-made rune pages’ in League; if not completely free, then at least at some discount.

 

Death Recap that recapped your death

 League’s current death recap is, to put it bluntly, a waste of space. Most often the damage shown adds up to a third of the damage you were dealt. Death Recap picks up damage from irrelevant sources like Sunfire Cape or Liandry’s Torment while skipping what actually killed you. Icons and spell names are often missing or bugged, leaving you with a blank square and a number next to it. Terms like “mixed damage” are also meaningless; you don’t learn what to itemize for, so what’s the point of that number?

 It’s a broken mess. It is, however, a good place to find out that Flash deals damage.

 Dawngate had a functioning death recap since alpha. It swaps the column style of League’s recap for two pie charts that split damage by type and source. The first chart would show you what percentages of magical, physical or true damage you took; the second would detail what spells killed you, how much damage they dealt and who used them. This lets a player know what damage to itemize for and who his/her team should focus in fights.

 

Champion Concepts

One of my favourite characters in Dawngate was Mina, a tiny doll-like support. Mina could transform into a giant key and plug herself into allies; she would share damage taken with them, but she could also cast all of her spells from within her allies. Her ultimate would make puppet illusions of enemies that would hover above them in torment. Add to it Mina’s unbridled rudeness and the hilarity of a doll shouting orders at others and you have a character that’s a joy to play and learn about.

S6yXZYB

 Most of Dawngate’s characters had unique mechanics that took months to develop. An example of this would be Kensu, whose ultimate allows allies to pass over terrain. Other mechanics were much simpler, but fit the character’s theme so well. Nissa, a ranged carry who used a wooden boomerang, had a pet squirrel that would jump off her shoulder and act as a ward.

 We have plenty of diverse characters in League that explore new mechanics and playstyles. Dawngate had its share of stars on the roster and its champion (shaper) list can be a well of ideas for future characters in League.

 

Ways of storytelling you name it it had it

 Lore, in any game, creates a coherent universe and grounds the characters in it. The quality of League’s storytelling can be very impressive at times. Kalista’s pledge ritual, for example, does a unique character justice – a ghostly warrior who is summoned by others to enact vengeance in exchange for their souls. It shows in great detail the link she has with spirits and her outer-world powers.

 Most times, however, LoL’s lore borders on fanfiction. The motivations of champions to fight are so poorly conceived that immersion is broken. This was made worse by the removal of the Institute of War last year.

I think the main problem with LoL’s storytelling is it’s too clean. We’re rarely challenged by a unique narrative; most of the time we’re scrolling through standard tropes (a good example would be Trundle’s old vs new lore). Dawngate’s lore was often quirky, daring – one character, Freia, runs a bloodied axe through the tale of Red Riding Hood and shares a rivalry with Fenmore, the wolf in that story. Kindra, a seductive noblewoman, has a fittingly erotic lore. And so on.

Dancer720_Blank Storytelling in Dawngate was a constant experiment. New characters were teased with their artwork in black-and-white and a long story detailing a key moment from their past. Though League’s reveals are certainly more eye-catchy and impressive, I think there was charm in Dawngate’s minimalist approach to teasing new entries in its world. The style hearkens back  to Quinn’s journal – a teaser that focused on storytelling over visuals and kept players hyped for a long time.

 Back in Season 1, Riot had a similar formula of crafting League’s lore with the Journal of Justice – a ‘newspaper’ issue of sorts that covered important events across the world of Runeterra. It served a niche audience that could only support it for a single volume during the first season. Regardless, the tone of the narrative made the journal an immersive read. It led to the Ionia vs Noxus battle, Riot’s first (and last) lore-driven match between pro players.

Dawngate’s lore span dozens of webcomics, which you can find stored here. Some of those stories were dedicated to skins; every new skin had a lore piece to accompany its release. Here’s a section from the story of one of my favourite skins in Dawngate – Deathtalon Viyana:

deathtalon_viyana_715They were all her inferiors. Imperfect. Study models. Stones laid on the road to her own creation. The best attempts of the minds of their age to attain something akin to her own majesty. Her grandparents, in a sense. Not by birth, but by blood all the same.

Her powers awakened; her eyes cast crimson light across the dust and bone. Yes – old blood remained in the marrow. Quicksilver awareness traced the broken strands and arcs. There, the knotting preferred by Promin. Here, the condensations peculiar to House Artam. Maker’s marks. Faster clotting to heal wounds, denser bone to prevent breakage.

 

And then there was completely experimental storytelling, like audio logs. Those were brilliant; sadly, Dawngate’s sudden shutdown meant they couldn’t be finished and a lot of them were pushed out at the very end.

 

Again, I can keep up the lore exhibit, but I’ll end this section on a key point; Dawngate made you connect with beings who experienced human emotion. There was no world-threatening conflict to give meaning to these characters, they just were. And sometimes all you need to flesh out a fictional world is bring its heroes back down to earth.

 

 

You can find all of Dawngate’s Chronicles stored here. Many thanks to redditor Trymantha for the link!

 

No Loading Screens

Dawngate didn’t have loading screens. To whoever did the programming magic to make it happen – you are amazing. No loading screens meant less time waiting for a match to start, no chance of someone disconnecting while loading and, most importantly, instant reconnects.

 

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[ Note ] I don’t have a better screen to show, but the Champion (Shaper) select  above wasn’t the final version.

After the timer up top is over, you’re immediately put in the game, no loading screens.

 

Some of Dawngate has inspired League

The new Summoner’s Rift does take some design cues from Dawngate’s map. Textures in both games resemble brush strokes and have vivid, contrasting colors. Both jungles are strewn with critters and intricate details. The inspiration is there, at least in some part, and it goes both ways – Dawngate was initially inspired by League.

The new Baron now has unique AoE attacks, much like Dawngate’s Parasite creature. Though the Parasite evolves as the game progresses, it fights identically to the updated Baron on SR.

Dawngate Map Screen

 

and the rest was its own thing

Dawngate Map Dawngate remains special to me, because it took from League only the foundation and built a new experience. There are only two lanes, not three. Deep in the jungle there are four wells, where tiny minions gather gold for your team; these can be killed and their wells captured. The Nexus is a huge creature with various attacks and health bars. It’s linked to power points which, when destroyed, weaken it so the team can bring it down. Turrets respawn in order after a given time. The list goes on.

Maybe some of what Dawngate tried was too ambitious and untested. But the game was a bold step forward for a genre where ideas tend to be polished, rather than evolved.

 

 

 

In Closing

Dawngate was a collaboration of creative genius, sold under the logo that won ‘America’s worst’ two years in a row. Still, every tragic story needs its share of hope. Some of Waystone’s developers have banded together to make a new studio. Others are friends with Rioters and may find a new home working on LoL. Wherever they end up, it’s important to acknowledge their brilliant work. It’s passion that built the Dawngate, and it’s greed that killed it. I hope Waystone’s devs find the avenue to build the game they wanted Dawngate to be.

I would also hope that EA goes bankrupt and its employees burn their managers at the stake, but I hope for that every year and it never happens.

 

 

[ Note ] For my article I used resources from the Shaper’s Guild, an amazing fan-made website that covered Dawngate all the way to its farewell announcement.

 

If you have any questions, feel free to ask me at @NoL_Chefo or e-mail me at [email protected]