It was hard to resist the temptation to float over to the carnival-like atmosphere engulfing Monday Night Combat's floor space back at PAX East in Boston. Boisterous and gleeful, you got the gut impression that the dudes at Uber Entertainment knew just how to demo their game for a crowd. But after a few minutes with this class-based shooter, which melds Team Fortress 2-style action with the light strategy and gameplay elements of an avatar-centric RTS, I got the full picture as to why people were going nuts over it. It's a fun, competitive joint that inspires theatrical reactions because of its playful mechanics and its over-the-top dystopian sports event presentation. In other words, it's awesome.
Art director and media dude at Uber, Chandana Ekanayake, recently gave me loads of his time in order to answer some pressing questions I had left over from my experience with the game. From AI, to mechanics, to even DLC, Ekanayake was down with spilling the beans.
== TEASER ==It seems like you can't shake the Team Fortress 2 comparisons. But Monday Night Combat does have that same cute, over-the-top cartoon style that Valve's FPS famously uses. Did TF2 have an influence the art direction of the game? Visually, what differentiates the two?
Chandana Ekanayake: It's true that both games are stylistically rendered shooters. Valve's done a such an amazing job with TF2 and all the updates over the last several years. They're definitely in a league of their own. At Uber, we started off wanting to make a third person shooter that had some strategic elements and depth to its gameplay wrapped in a gameshow-sport type fiction. While TF2 takes place in a stylized take on the '50s, MNC's backdrop is an exaggerated futuristic gameshow-sport, set in sponsored arenas, cheering crowds, an announcer, mascots, and armies of robots. We understand the comparisons on a cosmetic level but I don't see them as the same style.
While Uber Entertainment was throwing around concepts for the game, did you all immediately agree on the art style? Tell me about the process.
Chandana Ekanayake: I had just come off of art directing a very cartoony Wii game at my previous studio when I had the opportunity to join Uber as it was starting up. That game was never released but we spent several years making some kick ass art. Having worked on both more realistic looking games ( Enter the Matrix, Matrix: Path of Neo at Shiny) and cartoony games, I've become a fan of using stylistic approaches to game art to convey and enhance the gameplay experience better to the players.
Our process at Uber started with basic gameplay concepts that we built on using very rudimentary placeholder art. We knew we wanted to do a light hearted futuristic sports themed world with a retro, accessible feel to it. We decided to go more exaggerated with the characters and saturated world to convey the over the top gameplay and gameshow like atmosphere. If the game had been set in a more somber, serious world, the art style and color palette would reflect it.
The visuals are there to support the gameplay and to communicate to the player. Starting out simple, playing the game daily, refining the gameplay and repeating allowed us to find the fun first. It also allowed us to rip out gameplay concepts that didn't work early on like a cover system or more complex control systems. At the time Uber was a small team of six guys working out of an apartment, figuring out the direction of the game. During this gameplay exploration period we were also doing concept art and figuring out the ficiton of the world. The game came together pretty fast over a year because our primary concern was fun and interesting gameplay. Once you start doing more final art it's harder to throw it away or redo it if it doesn't work with gameplay. We still continue to play MNC daily with the whole team and with almost two years of playing it, it's still very fun.
A third-person, class-based shooter with bots. Monday Night Combat has this great action twist; each team has their own bots that protect their respective bases and positions. Hell, they can even attack. When I saw the game at PAX East, I instantly thought "DOTA." I understand that a few of the Uber crew have technical experience with the RTS genre courtesy of their work on Demigod. How much of that experience has been poured into Monday Night Combat?
Chandana Ekanayake: Most of the 18 people that make up Uber worked together previously on titles like Supreme Commander and Demigod as well as other RTS and action games like Command & Conquer 3, Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth, Quake 4, The Matrix: Path of Neo, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2. Uber is a small team made up of veterans and all of our various experiences help shape MNC into a genre blending strategic shooter with explosions, hand to hand take-downs and bacon.
The mode I played at PAX East was Crossfire, a six-on-six mode that has players vying for position to destroy each other's MoneyBall, an object akin to a disco-ball filled with cash. Are there any other modes in the game? What are they?
Chandana Ekanayake: There are two major modes of gameplay in Monday Night Combat, Blitz and Crossfire. Blitz is our single player, two player split-screen or up to four players co-op over Xbox Live game mode that pits players against armies of robots trying to destroy a Moneyball. Players pick one of six classes, upgrade their abilities, build turrets and use environmental hazards to keep their Moneyball from being destroyed in the five different Challenges of Blitz. The Challenges vary from surviving ten rounds in Exhibition Blitz to surviving as long as you can in Sudden Death Blitz.
Would the game be possible without robots? How important are they?
Chandana Ekanayake: The strategic elements are a big part of our brand of gameplay from upgrading your character during combat, building turrets and the AI controlled robots. The robots are critical to winning a Crossfire game as they're the only ones that can take the shields down on the Moneyball. Once the shields are down, players can destroy it which ends the match. The other aspect that we liked about the robots is that there's always something to destroy or shoot at. Destroying the robots gives you a way to earn money to spend on upgrades and skills. Escorting the robots to the other team's base also encourages team play which gives MNC a unique feel.
Do you think your AI will be able to keep up with the frantic play?
Chandana Ekanayake: The AI robots aren't replacement for human players. Their role is fairly simple in Crossfire. They spawn from your base, follow a hologram path to the enemy's base and jump on their Moneyball without gettting blown up. Along the way if they see players or other robots, they will shoot, grapple or just be a nuisance.
It's the players job initially to clear their path, escort them to the Moneyball, take the shields down and start destroying it. In single player/co-op Blitz, the players are defending the Moneyball from different waves of AI controlled robots bent on destroying it. Players can also spend money to spawn unique robots depending on the class they play. These unique robots hunt down other players.
Tell me about base defenses. I was only able to erect a single turret while I had hands-on with the game.
Chandana Ekanayake: Around each team's Moneyball, there are various static turret "nubs" that any of the six classes can build turrets on. Players start the game with money and its their choice to either upgrade their characters abilities or to build turrets around their Moneyball. As you destroy robots and kill other players, players earn more money to spend on upgrades or turrets. There are four different types of turrets each with three total levels of upgrades.
The four turret types are:
- Lazer Blazer Turret - low cost, low damage, lightly armored
- Shave Ice Turret - heavily armored with the ability to slow down robots and enemies
- Long Shot Turret - long range, lightly armored
- RockIt Turret - high cost, high damage, heavily armored
Will people be able to enjoy MNC offline?
Chandana Ekanayake: Local Blitz can be played offline by one player or two players split-screen on the same Xbox.
There are six classes available in the game. How hard was it to balance all of these dudes? Do you have any favorites?
Chandana Ekanayake: I like playing all six classes and my choice depends on the team make up or who I'm playing against. Because we have prior RTS experience of balancing several hundred unit games, balancing six classes and robots is a much easier task. That being said, our approach of constantly playtesting everyday and bringing in new players weekly has helped immensely.
If you had to cut a single class--no dodging allowed!--which one would it be and why?
Chandana Ekanayake: Wouldn't cut a single class. They're core to the gameplay and complement other classes and robots. Cutting a class would mean completely changing other classes, their abilities and re-balancing the whole game.
Each character can be upgraded in-game, but those upgrades don't carry over to the next game, right? A lot of modern shooters have persistent systems and I understand that your game will as well. Could you give me the rundown?
Chandana Ekanayake: At the end of each match in Blitz or Crossfire, players are rewarded with money payout that goes toward their Lifetime Earnings which is a persistent stat across both game modes.
Leaderboards are used to track how well you did compared to your friends and the rest of the MNC community. Lifetime Earnings can be spent on unlocking custom class slots, and buying Protags. There are over 350 Protags which are unlockable emblems that can used as bragging rights as well as a way to track your stat progress in the form of milestones.
How do these systems tie into Monday Night Combat's setting, the futuristic Running Man-like game show?
Chandana Ekanayake: Everything is tied to money. Destroy things, kill other players, taunt, get money. Money to upgrade, money to buy turrets, money for ranking. Endorsements and sponsors are tied to everything in game as well, from ability perks to various classes and themed arenas and character abilities.
What kind of DLC will we see for MNC?
Chandana Ekanayake: You'll have to wait for PAX Prime in September to see. We'll be there with a big booth, new content, competitions, statues, shirts, and other merchandise.
Does MNC have a release date or price yet?
Chandana Ekanayake: We're releasing as part of XBLA Summer of Arcade which starts in July. MNC will be 1200 points.
After Monday Night Combat, what's next for Uber?
Chandana Ekanayake: We're big believers in supporting our community and we will continue to support the game post launch. As far as beyond that, we're having such a good time in the world of Monday Night Combat, there might be follow up games. There were a ton of ideas that we cut out of this version that might find its way into future updates. We're curious to see how the community responds to the game and what they would like to see in future releases.
We'd like to thank Chandana Ekanayake for his time!