Jagex are probably best known for their free-to-play, browser-based RPG, RuneScape, but more recently they announced Block N Load, a multiplayer shooter that pits teams of five against each other in a genre bending game that blends fast paced first person shooter and melee action with a sort of block building tower defence game. Block N Load entered closed beta earlier this month and we caught up with Vice President of Block N Load, David Solari, to chat about the game, and how they took the concept of Ace of Spaces and turned it on its head.
In 2012 Jagex, who at the time were best known for RuneScape surprised everyone by acquiring Ben Aksoy’s block based shooter, Ace of Spaces. Development of the game was handed over to a team at the RuneScape developer and they decided to run with it, but sadly it didn’t go all too well. The reason for the acquisition was the first question on our lips as we asked why the company decided to purchase the game in the first place.
[su_pullquote]”I think we let ourselves down”[/su_pullquote]
“That’s actually really complicated to answer, but I think, it came through, we had a New York office kind of thing and it kind of came out of that, I wasn’t here at the time initially when Ace Of Spades came into the company. So yeah it kind of came out of the New York thing and we transitioned that back to the UK. And then we were making it here, for about another year I think and then we kinda launched it December 2012,” Solari revealed.
From there however it seems the development took a surprising turn as the games core concept was turned on its head. Something which Solari revealed could have gone better. From launch the game didn’t quite get the reception it deserved and the games original fans weren’t too happy about the changes that were made, this is something that Solari also reflected when we asked him about the games overall reception.
“I think we let ourselves down,” he said. “I don’t think we tested it as well as we should have, the guys that were kind of doing it, like considering a company with online experience and all the rest of it, it was a different group to the RuneScape guys and we didn’t do testing properly, Q&A testing, or pen testing as well as we maybe should have. It was rushed like games get rushed sometimes.”
Solari revealed that Jagex were disappointed with what they’d done, probably due to how the development team changed the core game right at the end, which “didn’t go down well with the community that had built up around the game which is absolute madness right? In retrospect why would we do that, but we did.” Despite this Jagex were committed to what they’d released and had no plans just yet to leave it by the wayside. “Having said all that we then spent the next 6 to 8 months continuing to invest in the game and really tidy it up, made battle builder which was a really kind of UDC map creation mode for the game. So you know we worked really hard to do the product justice in the long run. But we let ourselves down for sure.”
As for the future of Ace of Spaces, Solari revealed that Jagex are currently done with development of the game which is a real shame but did note that they have added the ability to have private servers in a recent update which will allow fans of the game to continue to play it. “The guy that made that game isn’t here anymore, it’s his game his idea,” he said. “I can’t make that game, that’s not the game that’d I’d want to play, respect to the people who do want to play it, I think the core idea of it is great and that’s why we took it for Block N Load, but we’d need to get someone that’s super passionate about making that game what it could potentially be.”
[su_pullquote align=”right”]”I’m absolutely paranoid about the quality of service and things like that”[/su_pullquote]
So Block N Load is Jagex’s new baby and with concept similar to Ace of Spaces, they’re hoping to apply what they learned from the launch of Ace of Spaces can be applied to Block N Load so it doesn’t happen again. Thankfully, with Solari at the helm, who has games such as Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online under his belt, Block N Load is set for greatness. “I’m absolutely paranoid about the quality of service and things like that,” he said. “So, I wasn’t involved with the launch of Ace Of Spaces other than through the marketing I didn’t do the operations or anything or own the product as it were, I’ve got a very different approach to kind of service provision and stuff like that so I’m totally paranoid our beta’s not stable as opposed to just launching something into the world without testing it properly so thats why we’re obviously having a pretty decent beta.”
“Even though actually, the games pretty stable, you can see for yourself it’s in pretty good shape really, although there’s a lot of polishing, glitches, and things that we need to be fixing. So honestly, I would have handled it different anyway but we definitely as a company didn’t want to put ourselves in that position again, so I guess it’s put more pressure on us to do a good job with the launch of Block N Load.”
If you’ve managed to get hands-on with Block N Load, you’ll notice that the variety of maps that are currently playable in the beta have a strong resemblance to that of Minecraft which has a massive following of modders as well as a huge library of custom skins, so naturally you’d expect some sort of customisation in terms of block skins and custom maps to be a huge part of Block N Load, though that could be the plan in future, right now Jagex have other things on the agenda.
“So what we want to do is, kind of every 3 months release a big free feature, and there’s a bunch of different things we can do, so like we could do a zombie tower defence horde mode, we could do ranked teams, we could do user-created maps right. And what we want to do is kind of get some of these ideas, once we’re a little bit more stable in the beta, say “hey, what would you guys like to see first?” and see what people vote for.”
“I think there’s probably likely to be a lot of people vote for user-generated maps, if people are really into doing their own block skins and things like that, that could be something we look at as well. When we do the map mode we want to do it properly, we want people to upvote maps that are cool and down vote maps that they don’t enjoy,” he said. “Like the ones that aren’t doing the best, we already intent to rotate a new map in every couple of weeks, I’d love to be taking player created maps and rotating them in to the primary rotation of the game, I think that would be really cool.”
Of course these ambitious plans to get the community involved are pretty far off in the distance as they only launched the beta at the start of December. In terms of further customising Block N Load, Solari did discuss the possibility of custom block skins, though they’d need to regulate how exactly it would come into play due to some players using skins to troll other players. “If people want to do their own block skins and stuff like that the problem is readability, we already have block skins to a degree and if they can be anything suddenly a med-block looks like some kind of explosive or something like that. So that won’t be very readable which means it won’t be very playable,” he said. “I think allowing people to skin blocks and stuff, not so much, but I think there’s other stuff we can do with heroes, maybe we can let them wear shoes or something, I don’t know. Certainly with the custom maps yes that’s on the list of things we’d like to do.”
Block N Load comes with a unique cast of zany characters from ‘Doc’ Eliza Doolally a crazy doctor with the ability to fire poisonous gas from her primary weapon, O.P Juan Shinobi, a Mexican Ninja who can traverse vertical walls to get the drop on his opponents, and ‘Tony’ Turretto a traditional New York construction worker who’s a pro at building turrets and hard to break down defences, but coming up with crazy characters came as part of each of their unique skills, rather than building skills around the characters themselves.
“What we wanted to do with the first six heroes is have the basic archetype, we wanted a guy that was particularly strong defensively, We wanted a guy with a lot of mobility, we wanted a guy that could charge in like a maniac, we wanted somebody that had long-range damage then we just built the characters of the heroes around them,” Solari revealed. “In terms of art, so the art director at Artplant drew these sketches and we actually had a range of models we could go through from like basic Minecraft to like all the way up to where we are today and we decided to go all the way up because we just felt like we could just do so much more with it in terms of skins and all this kind of stuff.”
“Alex our chief creative officer used to work on GTA, he used to dress all the characters he’s got this really great sensibility for what people wear and what different character types wear and all this kind of stuff. He’s really good at getting the detail of what really brings something to life, like making sure that the engineers helmet had kind of union style stickers on it. So that’s kind of how it all came together,” he continued.
Block N Load offers a few types of customisation options from the ability to choose which blocks each character heads into the game with right down to character skins totally changing up the way each character looks, but in terms of more advanced customisation, Jagex are keeping the game fairly simple.
“So, we talk about 100 units complexity in a game, with the blocks it’s all about what the blocks do and what you can build on the map, once you get into the heroes their pretty straight forward but there’s actually quiet a high skill cap when using a smoke bomb that you can teleport too, if we started to add significantly more thing like multiple weapons and things like that I think it would increase the difficulty level and unbalance what we have. What we will do though is bring in new characters and new blocks.”
[su_pullquote]”If they can hold that respawn point it just kind of makes the gameplay shit”[/su_pullquote]
One thing we’ve found about Block N Load so far is that all though the game is incredibly fun, once you die there’s a pretty lengthy wait time until you respawn, of course this has been a pretty hot topic at Jagex so they’ve had to find the sweet spot in terms of creating a respawn time that isn’t too long, but isn’t short enough so the other team is at a disadvantage. This is because of the respawn block that some of the characters in Block N Load have in their arsenal.
“This has been a hot topic, this has been discussed like you wouldn’t believe,” said Solari. “I don’t know why it starts at 15, it’s supposed to start at 10 and after 20 minutes scale to 15 and 25 minutes, 30 minutes and that’s how it’s supposed to scale. We have reduced it now in the main game, there’s a balance to it, we tried really short respawn times and if the other teams got a reswan pad then it’s just die / out, die / out and they’re just throwing themselves at the generator getting two hits, dying and they’re out to repeat it all again. If they can hold that respawn point it just kind of makes the gameplay shit.
“Certainly later in the game and to force it towards a close and make it more punishing if you die we extend the respawn times but you’re right they’re too long just now,” he continued.
At our time at Jagex’s offices in Cambridge, we saw how the game could perform as an eSports game as two of the games developers took to the stage in their atrium to cast an ongoing game on the big-screen. It actually went impressively well and as someone who doesn’t watch eSports, this would be something I’d tune into. On that vein we discussed Block N Load entering eSports, and it’s definitely something Jagex have considered.
“So I’d sit and watch a league match, we’d play league matches in here and I took my lunch and sat down and we’d just got this spectator cam in, it had this overview of what was happening and it was going between little battles and I was like ‘this is really watchable’. I’m like a huge fan of League of Legends I actually love watching the LCS games I was like ‘wow this is actually pretty fun to watch’,” he said. “We just kind of embraced that and did a little bit more work on the spectator thing but to be honest, it’s come out of the game being fun rather than us trying to make something specifically would look great from that perspective. I think that’s the thing, make a fun game first and then see if there’s cool stuff about it that you can leverage and that’s what happened.”
During development of the game, Jagex came across many different block combinations, one of which paired the spring block with the boost block and caused the player to shoot ridiculously far out of the map. This was something that Jagex considered nerfing, until they realised how actually fun it made the game. From there, they’ve encouraged insane block combinations and instead of “nerfing the fun” as Solari describes it, they embraced it.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]”We’re pretty strict about not nerfing the fun!”[/su_pullquote]
“The thing for me was when I first felt like we were getting somewhere was when I started an internal league like pretty early because I wanted to get initial feedback, we started with like 50 people in the company playing this internal league, we’ve got like 140 now,” he said. “I went into one of the kitchens and they were just talking about the match they had. saying ‘I did this and you did this’, they were fighting with each other about what amazing thing they’d just pulled off and that’s what we want, those kind of conversations. Toning any of that stuff down takes that away. So yeah we’re pretty strict about not nerfing the fun.”
Right now Block N Load is already a fantastic game on PC, but with first person shooters, many are more comfortable using controllers, something which Jagex do plan to work on in the future as there’s already limited controller mapping, but Solari doesn’t recommend it. “So, you can play it on a control right now, I wouldn’t like to recommend it,” he said. “Shauny, another team member of ours, plays it on controller pretty well but he’s obviously been able to get people to help him set it up. I think we want to try to get controller support in for the actual launch but yeah I wouldn’t recommend playing it right now even though it does work if you know how to figure it out.”
Naturally, when discussing controllers the question of whether Block N Load would arrive on consoles in the future arose, but that all comes down to how well the PC version of the game performs first.
“Yeah, if it’s successful and people like it I think it’s got potential for consoles for sure. I think we’d be excited about doing that if people dig it,” said Solari.
Let’s be honest, the last thing we expected from Jagex was for them to come out with a first person shooter, but according to Solari, despite some disappointment over Ace of Spaces, the reception so far has been pretty good. “To be honest we came out of complete darkness, the feedback we’ve been getting on our Steam pages and stuff like that, there’s some people disappointed by Ace of Spades and honestly still quite upset about it, and it’s the internet people like to share what they think,” he said. “There’s a lot of people jumping to the games defence and saying this is completely different, that they’re going to check it out and that it look really cool.”
“We took the game to Insomnia 2 or 3 weeks ago in Coventry, and honestly we had people queuing up 10/15 times to play the game over the 3 days, sitting in a queue to play the game has got to be a good sign right and that got us pretty excited. Generally the feedback has been pretty positive.”
Block N Load is currently in closed beta, but if you want to gain access, just head to the website to sign up. To guarantee beta access, you can currently pre-order the Fully Loaded edition, which comes with the game, instant access to the beta, and a ton of other goodies.