"The elephant in the room of course is Overwatch," Boss Key founder Cliff Bleszinski admits early in our roundtable discussion of upcoming FPS, LawBreakers. The implication is clear: why the hell would anyone try and make a multiplayer-only FPS in the shadow of Blizzard's all-conquering pachyderm?
That's a fair question, even though Bleszinski is an industry icon, the designer of smash hits Unreal Tournament and Gear of War. Passion is the most obvious answer. Feeling jaded with the industry, Bleszinski retired in late 2012, only to find himself getting fat and annoying his wife. He missed game creation and being around game developers, and so in 2014, North Carolina studio Boss Key Productions was born.
LawBreakers is its first game. A breakneck shooter, it's set in a futuristic world full of gravity anomalies, rocket jumps, and grappling hooks that all facilitate high-flying gun battles influenced by the gravity-defying showdowns of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. During our chat, the dev team often refers to the game as a "the floor is lava" style shooter, a title that will have players rethinking the way they play an FPS.
LawBreakers has Bleszinski's stamp all over it: a slightly goofy premise, highly-tuned gameplay, and buckets of over-the-top action. With the FPS, Boss Key is targeting core shooter players from two generations: crusty old Quake and Unreal players, and the younger audience that loves character-based games. However, Bleszinski is quick to emphasise that LawBreakers is a "shooter first, characters and abilities second" deal. "It's hard. It's very aspirational," he says. "The hitboxes and characters are very legit – we wanna make a fair first-person shooter that's made for core shooter players. A lot of games feel like characters and abilities first, and then shooters later."
The team bats away concerns that this means it won't be welcoming for newcomers. "Dark Souls isn't noob friendly," says Bleszinski, joking at the expense of Minecraft that kids learned to play it despite its awful interface. His feeling is that last-gen console accessibility demands made gamers feel coddled, and that most want to be challenged. Nanni agrees. "It is going to be difficult, but it's intuitive difficulty," he says. "We want players to feel like they've learned something and gotten better at something." There's acknowledgment that a smooth on-boarding process for newcomers is crucial, so there are character options for those that aren't immediately high-flyers. Balanced matchmaking is also recognised as extremely important.
Boss Key agonised over its shooting feel, Bleszinski says, and was careful to ensure that there was depth in its deathmatches. That's because to compete with the genre's giants, first and foremost the studio had to make a damn good game. "A grappling hook is a grappling hook, ours is just the best," Bleszinski quips. The switch from free-to-play to a mid-price game was freeing in this regard, in that the team no longer had to make concessions for gameplay in order to support free mechanics. Gone are the days of "we've got a great mechanic, how do I tie that into our economy?", says Nanni.
Another pivot was made with the game's aesthetic, which was initially more cartoon-y – a style Bleszinski feels has taken over the shooter market, as evidenced by games like Battleborn, Paladins, and Overwatch. "This kind of pastel-y, Pixar type look with exaggerated proportions – we want to be the anti-that," he says. Now Boss Key is courting players of more realistic looking games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Counter-Strike.
It is also hoping to avoid the toxicity that sometimes leaks into those games. "A competitive game like this tends to bring out the worst in people and I'm well aware of it," Bleszinski explains. "There's a fine line between 'ha ha you suck', and then really making a person feel like utter garbage. We all know the Call of Duty reputation of a 12-year-old slinging racial slurs and that's not what I want in this game so we're gonna keep a sharp eye on it. I wish I could give you more information because it's a subject that's very near and dear to me having spent all those years on Xbox Live."
LawBreakers is seeking to distinguish itself with its character archetypes, too. The team didn't want do a legless bow and arrow character, or a gnome that builds turrets, says Bleszinski. For example: the medic class doesn't have a heal beam, but instead deploys drones so he or she can remain in the fight. Boss Key also acknowledges the importance of memorable heroes. "Not saying you have to go full Winston and have a big purple gorilla," Bleszinski says. However, he does acknowledge that generic archetypes don't get you far with today's discerning audiences.
Initially, Boss Key didn't pay much attention to the game's lore beyond 'the Shattering' – the event that created the game world's gravitational weirdness – but now every character is strongly tied into the game, and even game modes have story and maps expand lore. The team is also working on extra ways they can draw players into the world, surfacing the game's story without taking players out of game. "You only have so many moments to get that across – the four second animation of a character flexing or winking at the camera to see what their attitude is, the barks to let you know who they are and what they're about," Bleszinski says. Lore material external to the game is another avenue being looked at.
With release scheduled for some time this year, the aim is now getting the game to play like a sport, full of tense battles and "buzzer beater" moments. Nanni says this thinking won't result in restricted roles for players the way something like American Football does, but instead will allow for more fluid roles, as in basketball. It also means a Michael Jordan level player can carry a less-talented team. "It's not that four players aren't contributing, it's that one player can really sell the win," says Nanni. Of course, Boss Key would love for LawBreakers to become a prominent esport, but it's focussed on release first. "I don't wanna put the cart before the horse, because most people that do that tend to faceplant," says Bleszinski.
Another mission is convincing people to play the game. Boss Key is hoping the asking price of US$30 ("a borderline impulse buy") will help there, as will the game's core of competition and premium it puts on skill. There's still plenty of room in the market, and of course, LawBreakers has its own flavour. "I think the verbs are incredibly fun, I think the characters are awesome, I love the setting (I'm obviously a little biased)," says Bleszinski proudly. "But I just want people to give it a go. Hopefully it'll stick and they'll like it... If Overwatch is Coke, we can be Pepsi or maybe even RC Cola."