The annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco can be a tough place for a small developer to get noticed, but it can also be a place of opportunity. Developers in need of cash have more options than ever thanks to options like crowd funding, but they still need to draw attention to their project, and show people why anyone should give an unproven developer support. A demo helps, but therein lies a Catch 22: You need money and time to create a demo, but you need a demo to generate money and the time to properly use it. There are exceptions though. Exceptions like Heavy Gear Assault, which went from an idea to a playable demo in just two months using the new Unreal 4 Engine.
The next generation of consoles have mostly drawn attention for their high-power hardware, but they’ll also bring new development software in the form of new game engines. The vast majority of games developed today rely on just a handful of engines, even if many of those engines are heavily modified. That means the new game engines designed for the next gen – like id’s id Tech 5 (we saw just a fraction of its potential with Rage), Square Enix’s mysterious Luminous Studio, and Dice’s Frostbite 3, could end up having a bigger impact on the gaming industry than even the new hardware. They offer more tools for developers to make better games, and those tools can also speed things up significantly. It can even mean the difference between having a demo ready for GDC or a pile of concept art.
Using the impressive Unreal 4 engine, Canadian developers Stompy Bot Productions and MekTek Studios appeared at GDC Play in support of their upcoming game, Heavy Gear Assault. The mech-combat game will offer PvP gameplay and work within a free-to-play financial model. The demo being shown was rough around the edges, but it looked fairly impressive (you can see it in action below), especially when you realize that the developers put together the entire demo – from the gameplay mechanics to the mech design to the arena itself – from scratch in under eight weeks.
Unreal 4 is a powerful tool, enabling developers to create prettier games with more impressive effects and more fluid mechanics. But it’s also a tool that has been streamlined to make it as easy to use as possible without limiting the options available to the developer using it. That doesn’t mean anyone can pick up the Unreal 4 Engine and make their own game, but the work that would have once taken several people to complete can now be handled by only a few very smart, and very determined, people, like the developers at Stompy Bot and MekTek.
The heart of the game will feature a very sophisticated ranking system to support the combat. Because it is free-to-play, there will also be a robust economy built around microtransactions, but it goes beyond just purchasing new parts and mechs.
The game is tailored for eSports competition, and as with all eSports, there will be those who rise to the top while everyone else is left on the sidelines. That has always been the steepest hurdle to the rise of eSports: How do you get people that play games in an active capacity to accept a role as a passive observer? One idea is in-game sponsorship.
If there is a top player in Heavy Gear that you think is a good bet, you can officially sponsor them in coming fights. Your sponsorship will then allow the sponsored to purchase new parts and upgrades. You can then watch the fight within the game, on a mobile device, or possibly through a video platform service (negotiations are ongoing with at least one major company that has its toes in the eSports broadcast pool). If your player wins, you will receive a bonus of your own, including credit rewards that you can then spend on your own mech.
The game will offer both individual sponsored matches as well as official tournaments, where competitors can enter and face off against the best gamers in the world, competing for prizes. Many of the details on this are still being worked out, including what type of prizes and how you pay for sponsorships.
Esports are a growing industry within an industry, but they still need to find a way to convince people to put down their own controllers and accept a role as a spectator. Sponsorships give fans something to be invested in even, even when they aren’t playing.
There are still plenty of details that need to be worked out, but Heavy Gear Assault is still very early in its development life. It recently began its own crowd-funding campaign to raise $900,000, and it has already reached $116,000 at press time. A companion Kickstarter project will also be announced soon.
Using the Unreal 4 Engine, the game will be state of the art, and include everything from destructible environments to realistic damage of the mechs – shoot an arm, and that arm will become non-functional, hit a leg and watch the mech limp. Despite a huge amount of items available to purchase, no mech will be perfect. They will all have flaws, and finding those flaws will be the key between victory and the scrap heap. That makes confrontations as much about strategy as who is better with a controller.
The next generation of game engines are going to create several new ideas that weren’t even considered before. The idea of a small team putting together a AAA-quality, free-to-play, eSports game would have been ludicrous a few years back. The wave of next-gen hardware isn’t even here yet, but in its wake we are already seeing a glimpse at tomorrow.