Epic on what it's like to rebalance Paragon, their in-dev MOBA

June 21, 2016 by Laura Michet

How one alteration to travel mechanics can change an entire game

There's been a lot of confusion lately about which team-based PVP action games are actually shooters and which are secretly action games and which are secretly actually MOBAs (and which are MOBA shooters and which are shooter-influenced MOBAs and which are MOBAs with action elements and which and which and which and which…)

Paragon, currently in closed beta and under development by Epic Games, is a MOBA. 100% definitely a MOBA. It has last-hitting, for chrissakes. At E3, we had a talk about those MOBA roots with Epic designer Cameron Winston. "MOBAs have a basis as a strategy economics game that also has this element of micromanaging and control," he told us. "What we want to do… is to add one layer on top of this." That layer is: action stuff. They want the game to be more about skill shots -- but the core is still very much a MOBA framework. Winston describes it as "a MOBA for MOBA players, but we don’t want to stop there. A MOBA for everybody."

Now, Paragon is not quite the first game to try adding action combat mechanics to a MOBA, but they are one of the only ones to seriously grapple with verticality. "We’re the first MOBA with a fully-functioning z-axis," Winston says. Some characters have high jumps, and the map allows a lot of attacks from above.

The game is in a paid-access beta, and it's still undergoing a lot of changes. At E3 Epic talked in great detail about their recent decision to redesign the entire travel system. Basically, they're taking sprinting out of the game -- a decision which has enormous follow-on effects all across the combat experience.

Currently, Paragon as a kind of super-sprint "travel mode" which allows a character who is out of combat to rapidly speed all over the map. It essentially allows players to get anywhere they want to go, whenever they want to get there. Winston says it was harming game balance and extending match length by allowing people to chase people with unreasonable ease and reposition too easily. "People who should live were dying and people who should die were living," he says.

So it's going out -- it will be replaced, eventually, with a teleport ability on a cooldown timer. Winston says that Epic wants to reward wise commitment of time, effort, and resources -- and preventing players from just running toward or away from any conflict they please is a big part of that. If you choose to commit to somewhere, there should be real stakes associated with that. Winston recently wrote about commitment and consequences on Epic's Paragon blog.

Cutting travel mode also helps Epic make sure that the gap-widening and gap-closing moves in its heroes' kits actually mean anything. Many heroes now already have moves which allow them to quickly close distance between themselves another hero, or shove another hero away and get space to flee. Cutting super-sprinting from the game, Winston told us at E3, "allows us to much more scientifically and precisely control who gets to have movement initiation and disengagement and who doesn’t."

The changes will also make Paragon feel more like a MOBA to players who are used to MOBA mechanics. Right now, for example, you are never quite sure where you are safe to hide and start teleporting back to base. MOBA players from other games learn this pretty quickly, but in Paragon, travel mode made players perpetually "not safe, because at any moment these guys could roll up on you super fast, and you couldn’t really tell until they were on you. That was undesigned."

Listening to Winston talk about the decisions behind Paragon's travel rebalance is a treat. Although I'm not a big Paragon player -- not even a big MOBA player -- listening to a designer get into the details of their own creation like this is always a thrill. I was equally impressed, however, by his description of Paragon's hero design pipeline.

Paragon releases a new hero every three weeks -- and Epic plans to continue doing so indefinitely. Winston told me that they'd keep doing it "until everyone on the project is 98 years old or until we have a billion... so theoretically forever." Winston says they need more than 40 total heroes for launch. “We want to have enough heroes to support a robust draft pick ban phase," he says, and they want fans to get excited about picks and bans during tournaments. With more heroes, there will be enough "to support interesting choices in that space."

Because you can't just design a hero in three weeks flat, there's a huge number of heroes in their development pipeline at any given time. Winston says the process is hardest on the artists, not the hero kit designers. I imagine this is partially because the game -- developed in Epic's Unreal engine, of course -- is a pretty visually-detailed piece of work.

At E3 I was able to play their newest hero, who launched today. He's Khaimera, a beastial melee-attacker guy who can pounce on people and buff the speed and damage of his attacks, transforming himself into a kind of windmilling cleaver-machine. To be perfectly honest, Paragon is a bit of a thematic enigma to me. A lot of the heroes are robot-men and robot-ladies but others are wizards and non-wizards and non-robots, and Khaimera definitely looks how he acts, which is like some kind of angry monster cyber-caveman. Like a tiefling barbarian with a jet engine in his back, I guess? While testing him out, and I killed an extremely large number of creeps. (I was less good at testing him out versus enemy heroes, but I am also not particularly good at this game.)

Paragon's theme may be a bit impenetrable to me, but it's certainly pretty, and there's definitely deeply-MOBA-styled entertainment to be had in its beta, which I've been playing a bit of on the PS4. Its open beta hits August 16.

Disclosure: ZAM and Paragon developer Epic Games share a corporate parent. Epic has no control over editorial.

Khaimera promotional art. Khaimera promotional art.