The disused Federal Reserve building in downtown San Francisco looks familiar. I can’t quite place which movie its sweeping steps and towering stone pillared exterior reminds me of, but, like almost all American points of interest, it feels distinctly familiar. I’ve never been here before, yet I’ve been here a thousand times via the silver screen. Inside, the main hall’s stretching, cavernous ceiling space causes even the slightest movement to sound thunderous echoes from its windows to its walls, whilst a beautifully coloured mosaic painting presides over the vast but now empty space. Now used for function hire, it’s hard not to get lost in the thought of what once was - the hustle and bustle of an active government bank - against the now deafening quiet.
The elevator takes me to the second floor where I meet Robot Entertainment’s - a band of ex-Ensemble Studios developers - CEO, the man behind the Orcs Must Die! franchise, Patrick Hudson. “So the story goes that when some of us developers were young babies we saw our mothers carted away into the woods by terrible orcs,” says Hudson when I ask him what Robot has against orcs, and why in fact they must die. “We’ve since sworn a lifetime of vengeance against orcs.” Hudson laughs heartily and suddenly any perceived formalities the business district setting might have initially posed are dropped, such is the general ethos in and around the Robot team.
Orcs Must Die! began life as a single player third person tower defense shooter back in 2011, before graduating to co-op in its sequel, Orcs Must Die 2!, the following year. The latest series instalment, Orcs Must Die! Unchained, takes a faithful leap into MOBA territory; one which feels like a natural progression given its forerunner’s direction. “We never thought about it as a MOBA,” explains Hudson. “MOBA’s only become more crowded and more competitive - we didn’t really want to get squarely in that space. But it was a pretty clear and natural evolution with what the game might be with PvP.
“Even when we were developing OMD 2, it was pretty easy to see in our heads what it would look like if there were two other people on the other side and so when you start developing and prototyping it as 4v4 - and we thought that’s what we wanted the game to be - as soon as we put in a fifth player, it just instantly clicked and was instantly better. We had a really good sense of how fun it might be just playing head to head.”
Although clearly drawing from its predecessors in design terms, perhaps Unchained’s most significant shift in direction is Robot’s decision to incorporate the ever-divisive free-to-play payment model. Within the MOBA sphere, League of Legends appears to be one of the few free-to-play games that its fanbase has more or less taken to, however - having amassed a distinctly negative reputation in recent years - jumping ship towards a freemium leaning model is arguably a gamble for any franchise.
“Yeah, it’s a big risk when you take a franchise that’s been a historically paid download and then you move to free-to-play - the [model] comes with baggage, right?” asserts Hudson. “Unfortunately this is really because a lot of developers and publishers have put a lot of abusive systems out there. I don’t think it has to be that way, there are games which do a really good job of free-to-play. We play free-to-play games and we don’t want to put a pay-to-win system out there either, so we want everybody to be able to play the game. If they don’t want to pay us any money that’s fine, we want them to be able to earn everything in the game.
“Even already in alpha, we turned the store on two weeks ago and even the first things we put out there - the vanity skins - the community said ‘these are way too expensive guys’, on the forums they were telling us, ‘what are you thinking? These are too much.’ Three days later we went and lowered those prices. We want to spend a lot of time in the beta, as we get into it, taking that theme onto the business model and the pricing that we’re employing and really listen to the fans and change and try different things throughout [this phase]. Hopefully we get to the point where, for the paid player it works well; and for the free player it works well. There’s games that do it - it’s a tough balance, but that’s our goal.”
The commitment to doing things differently is what drives the Orcs Must Die series itself. With countless tower defense games flooding the modern market - particularly within the increasingly popular mobile gaming sphere - standing out can be somewhat difficult. What has always separated OMD from the rest is its implementation of traps. Traps return in Unchained, but are restricted to certain areas within the attack and defense lanes of each respective team. Early in development Robot had planned to have opposing lanes meet head on, however this proved too much of a strain on the server architecture, in turn becoming less enjoyable. For OMD is renowned for its bouts of hectic warfare; this was just too hectic.
“We had a lot of ideas for maps and we actually blocked out a lot,” says Hudson. “We’ve only taken two all the way - the two lane map and the three lane map - we have other maps that we’ve blocked out already. We took a lot of inspiration from OMD 1 and OMD 2: what were the best maps; what kind of commonalities did they have? Was there enough space? Enough vision across the field of battle? Some elevation - this is the first map where you can actually fight from a higher level, in this game, the two lane map is much flatter. We really looked at the maps that we already built to try and bring some of those common elements, even pieces of those maps.”
At the risk of sounding overly profound, I ask Hudson what it is about successfully employing traps that is so satisfying. Why do we, as players, enjoy watching things play out as planned quite so much? “That’s a good question,” he says. He pauses for a second, as if to recall a certain plan of attack pulled off with aplomb in games gone by. “I’m the same way as a player of OMD and that’s why I like it so much. We really spent a lot of time building that, trying different systems, different geometry within levels. It’s fun to build a mousetrap. I think it’s the same types of toys we played with as kids - if you could set up a perfect domino structure and tip them down and fall and knock the ball down and it rolls - there’s something about creating something and watching it play out and seeing it do its magic afterwards.
“And it’s almost infinite, right? You can put down traps and different combinations in an almost infinite variety of different things, and I mean that’s fun and satisfying as well. We absolutely wanted to capture that; we’ve worked on that a lot - when you’ve got five players in there, if they can just trap up everything and anything then the game will come to stalemate, so that’s why you see trap limits, certain heroes are better with certain traps than others, so we hope we can capture that magic, [traps] are what make the game different. And now for the first time you can disable traps, and that’s a really satisfying thing to disarm someone else’s mousetrap that you know spent a large amount of time to place down, and now I suddenly disable the whole thing and all my minions go through it - that’s pretty satisfying.”
This sort of one-upmanship runs through the heart of the OMD community. Not long after entering its alpha phase, a group named Team Cake was founded on the Unchained forums, and set out to master the game’s fairly comprehensive deck system. Not long after inception, Cake challenged the guys at Robot to a 5v5 PvP and were quite expectedly handed their proverbial orcish helmets. Just six weeks later - and night after night of card shuffling, trial and error, and trap mixing and matching - Team Cake re-challenged Robot and beat them at their own game. In just six weeks Team Cake had demonstrated the potential depths Unchained’s strategy could reach.
“I was really surprised by this,” admits Hudson. “We went in thinking we would win hands down easily because that’s some of our best players, and I can’t compete with our best players; our best players are really good. They were employing strategies that we had never considered, they were running hunters and pride hunters just straight at our gates to tear them down as quick as possible. We never thought about that before.”
Hudson laughs before continuing: “I thought we could at least get through alpha without the community beating us - but we couldn’t do that. We used to experience the same thing on Age of Empires - we get the game out there and within a matter of days our best players couldn’t beat the community any longer. That’s the thing, we’ll keep watching and see the different strategies, you gotta give it some time to bake and see the strategies the guys come up with and what they counter them with, then if the game needs tweaking you tweak it. There’s a lot of combinatorial factors in this game: different heroes paired with different traps, and different combinations that work together as a team; and we don’t even know what that depth is yet. We’re going to see it emerge over a period of weeks or even months.”
Orcs Must Die! Unchained by Robot Entertainment is expected for a Q4, 2014 release.