Esports: Designing for Pros

Esports: Designing for Pros
Jake Tucker

By Jake Tucker

May 25th 2017 at 12:00PM

As the esports business booms, developers face tough new challenges. Esports Pro’s Jake Tucker discusses ways developers can make a smoother transition to the world of competitive gaming

Research outfit Superdata Research estimates that esports, as a business, will be worth $1 billion this year. People are now watching more hours of esports on Twitch than TV programs on Netflix, Hulu or HBO. As a result, football teams are taking big steps into esports and signing professional gamers, while fans are filling out stadiums around the world on a regular basis to watch their chosen teams clash. 

For enthusiasts of the games that are rapidly turning into the digital equivalents of sports like football, this is great. For the developers? It’s an incredible opportunity, coupled with a near unlimited source of income. Understandably, this means that many games studios are trying to “create an esport” with varying levels of success.

However, many are finding that without the budgets and talent of top tier studios like Blizzard, Valve and Riot, building a cohesive competitive scene around your games is a tough proposition. So, while you can’t design an esport, you can do your utmost to try and foster a competitive community for your game to ensure a greater chance of success.

Creating an interesting setting can go a long way to getting people invested in your game
Jake Tucker, Esports Pro 

BALANCING ACT

Long gone are the days of fire-and-forget releases, with games launched into the ether and then promptly ignored by developers and publishers until an expansion pack was due. Fans of most games now demand post-launch support, but nowhere is this more essential than in a nascent competitive scene, where players will be actively trying to find loopholes and exploits in your game.

No matter how good your designers think they are at balancing, when competitive players start theorycrafting around your game, they’ll find the one weapon, skill or technique that’s slightly more effective than the others, and it’ll be adopted rapidly by the rest of the community.

That’s where you step in. Balancing a competitive game is a long and drawn out process, which could infuriate console and PC developers used to supporting their game for a few months, but mobile developers might find the process eerily familiar. New content and repeated tweaks are essential to keep your game healthy, in addition to fixes for any particularly heinous exploits.

But you don’t need to patch every unexpected thing because...

WORKING OUT WHAT TO FIX IS HARD

Sometimes fixing bugs and glitches immediately is essential, and sometimes it’s better to leave the unintended feature in the game. Especially if it’s become a part of the metagame, otherwise you might attract the ire of your community. Similarly, failing to repair something that the community views as an essential fix will also see you catching flak, often from the exact same group.

Prioritising what to fix and deciding which unexpected behaviours to keep is one of the most difficult aspects of designing a competitive game. Having a designer or game director that can listen to the needs of the community without giving in is essential, and the choices are simple: take for example Call of Duty’s recent hassle with ‘snaking’: an Infinite Warfare patch in late April tackled several smaller problems but didn’t address the community’s biggest hot button issue with snaking, a process by which players will mash the prone button repeatedly to stand up and lay down. 

Without a fix, the community was incensed.

COMMUNITY IS ESSENTIAL, BUT NOT ALWAYS RIGHT

Any upset that catches on with the wider community is potentially disastrous, and having a community manager or a community developer in your team to put forward your ideas is key to help a game grow. 

This is a strategy that worked well for Ubisoft Montreal’s Rainbow Six Siege. The team has two community developers and a community manager on staff that work around the clock monitoring the game’s subreddit. They have to keep an eye on the place to make sure they’re representing the best interests of the players. After all, these are the people who are going to be watching your fledgling competitive game as it becomes a world-famous esport. They’ll be your future commentators, players and enthusiasts. You might only get one chance to screw up, so try your hardest to always do your best by the community.

Game communities can be vocal if they’re annoyed at something, no matter how minor it seems. This can mean that around all of the outrage, it can be difficult to pick up on what is a real issue, and what is just a perceived imbalance: “Tracer keeps killing me, please nerf her” isn’t actionable, but could be repeated as loudly on a game’s forum or subreddit as genuine issues, like “Tracer’s hitbox appears to be inaccurate, and here’s the evidence”. 

Filtering out what is worth changing is a tough thing to grasp from just community feedback, but it can be a good indicator of potential issues. If you want to get to the heart of the problem, you’ll want to use data.

TRACK EVERYTHING. YES, EVERYTHING.

Good analytics are invaluable in modern development to see where players are encountering bottlenecks, what aspects of the game are popular and indeed what is driving your players to spend money on DLC or quit the game in frustration. 

For your currently hypothetical but definitely world-beating future esports title, you’ll be wanting to go a lot deeper than that. Tracking where fights happen in the game’s maps, where players are encountering each other, how and when interactions with objectives are taking place. All of this can help you get an accurate picture of what’s actually going on in your games.

If we’ve already established that your game is always shifting, and that your community is your most essential part, you could almost see those playing your game as a sort of QA department, feeding back information on which characters and weapons are powerful, and letting you see what effect your changes are having on the game’s audience. 

BE UNIQUE

Yes, esports is a billion-dollar industry. However, it’s largely carved up between the heavyweights. You won’t be able to build a MOBA to compete with League of Legends or Dota, many have tried and failed to topple their monolithic presence. Similarly, try as hard as you might but you’ll struggle to make a shooter to compete with Overwatch or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Luckily, the solution is as simple as making a game with a completely unique central mechanic. Easy. A good example is Heavy Metal Machines, the Brazilian MOBA currently being built by developers Hoplon, where everyone is in a car. With a core focus on speed, it’s totally unique to play, offering a different experience to the other titles established on the market.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, you can just spray it a different colour. Many games are well-established in their own niches, so you just have to come up with a compelling reason why people might choose your game. Picking up a popular license could help for a mid-level developer, while smaller indie studios could try to hang anything off of one big central hook.

Similarly, creating an interesting setting can go a long way to getting people invested in your game. Compelling lore and a game world with depth isn’t just for single player games anymore.


 

Jake is the new editor of Develop’s sister site, Esports Pro. For news, analysis and other mutterings on esports, head to www.esports-pro.com