I have great respect for anyone who can manage to properly create a multiplayer game. It's an insane amount of work, and one that seems to require a lot of willingness to dive into some very specific mechanics. Recently, we saw Aftercharge, a 3v3 multiplayer game by Chainsawesome Games. I decided that I absolutely needed to know what made the game tick. Thankfully, I got a chance to do so when I spoke to Laurent Mercure, the communication officer for Chainsawesome Games. He was more than willing to tell me about all the crazy work that went into Aftercharge, and the balance of it.
TechRaptor: Hello Laurent!
TechRaptor: For those that are not aware of Aftercharge, or for those who want to know a little more, can you quickly just give me the elevator pitch?
Laurent: Yeah, absolutely. So Aftercharge is a 3v3 competitive game in which one side is made of invisible robots, and the other side is made up of invincible guards. So it's very asymmetrical in design. The two sides play very differently, but we've put a lot of work in there to make sure they're both just as fun and just as fair.
So when you're playing as invisible robots your goal is not to kill the enemy team, that wouldn't be possible, its to destroy what we call extractors. There's six points on the map that needs to be destroyed, and this is how you win. Destroy all six, your team is victorious. However, if the opponent team manage to find and take you all down, then they win. So one side is stealth action, the other is more like strategic defense.
TechRaptor: Awesome. Now, this game just came out on Steam and Xbox One. How does it feel now that it's out and in players hands?
Laurent: It's a bit crazy. It's a bit crazy to be honest. We're launching globally an online only multiplayer game for an indie studio. It's very stressful. It's always a wonder if we'll have enough players. Of course, we were kind of... I wouldn't say lucky, we worked hard on that, but we got a partnership with Microsoft so that Aftercharge is part of Xbox Game Pass. So that gave Aftercharge access to a lot of players, and that means right now, since the game is crossplay between Xbox One and PC, we have plenty of players. We don't have to worry about that. So we have players coming in every day, trying out the game.
The comments are very positive, so everything is going great. It was very stressful to launch because, when you launch any game of that kind, anything can happen. Like you can have some problems with the server and then everyone loses access to the game, which could still happen, but it didn't happen. Fingers crossed. It feels really good, especially the good comments we're getting. Apparently a lot of people are really enjoying the game and this is a really nice feeling.
TechRaptor: So, I guess we'll just start at the beginning then. Where did the general idea for Aftercharge begin? Why did you guys decided, as an indie studio, to go for a 3v3 online multiplayer game?
Laurent: Because we're a bit crazy. I'd say initially the idea for Aftercharge was on a much smaller scale. I don't know if you are familiar with our previous game, it's called Knight Squad, it was a top-down 2D I'd say kind of party game, and this is how we initially imagined, a while back, Aftercharge would be. So we imagined the same mechanics, so you have a team that is invisible and a team that is invincible, working on a different, completely different, point of view with top-down and 2D. This was the initial idea, we though that this was fun. We tried it, we actually made... it was called Electric Panic back at the time, we made the prototype during a game jam.
So in 48 hours that prototype was born and it was already fun. So that's why... I think it's a good start when you start on something and in just a few hours its already fun. All you need to do is kind of build up on that.
The decision to switch to a much larger project, something that's 3D, that's FPS, that's online, and all that stuff. That came because we thought the market was much bigger there, and there's so many players playing shooters online and it's something that we, as players, do enjoy. So we kind of worked on that concept and brought it to that different space. That's pretty much how Aftercharge came to be.
TechRaptor: Now was the game always planned to be multiplayer, or was there a single player component planned for a while?
Laurent: No, we're not really big on single player as a studio. It's not our thing. There's a big of backstory in Aftercharge, but it's one page in Word that I wrote myself. Just to give a bit of context. But we're not big on single player, we won't... the games that we enjoy, as players, are multiplayer games. So that makes sense, that's what we're making, and Knight Squad was another example. There was a very very short single player mode that you could play, but its mostly to play with your friends, and that's something we're doing again with Aftercharge.
TechRaptor: For Aftercharge, since the game is basically a game of three attackers-- rather I'd say the three invisible robots and the three invincible robots, how tough would you say it was to balance those out and make sure one side wasn't more overpowered than the other?
Laurent: I can't say it was hard, because it still is. It's still a work in progress, but was made immense progress on that front because we ran many alpha playtests, then beta playtests with the community. There's quite no better way to test a balance than having just a lot of players playing it, and I think we achieved very good results with the latest tweaks we did on the balance, and right now... it's not perfectly 50/50, but of course we have stats on how many games are won by robots and how many are won by the defenders, and it's close. I think it's like 53 to 47.
It's super close, and how that was achieved was mostly by tweaking the stats of the characters and going "okay we think the defenders need a hand" and we boost their damage just a little bit. Or "this ability is really breaking the balance of the game, lets tweak it." I'd say that we are maybe a bit like balance nerds. We love that everything is balanced, and we love talking about the meta of the game even though its only been out a week.
So we know which character we think should be picked more, and kind of balance around that and around all of the statistics we got. For now, the two teams seem like they're super balanced and we're quite amazed at that because previously, like the beta we ran in December, it wasn't looking so balanced. We did some smaller tweaks between then and now, and they clearly did their job.
TechRaptor: I guess if you guys are such fans of balance, you're all fans of Thanos as well?
Laurent: [Laughter.] We could say that. But we won't go and do anything that radical.
TechRaptor: When you guys start adding new things to this game, like say during development you're making new characters, how do you sit down and decide how to design these, and how their abilities can complement others and work in the game?
Laurent: We kind of did, a long time ago, before jumping into production. Right now we have characters that are in the works, other characters that we have in mind, but all of these kind of ideas for abilities and stuff,they were decided a long time ago. What we usually do, to make sure these ideas are still good, is that we prototype them. So we have that new character that is coming, we don't know exactly when, but we have a prototype version, we tested it, it's fun.
The next step will be lets have the community try it, and then we'll set up some play sessions with our hardcore fans and let them try it out and give us their feedback. We'll do that, we have content planned and we don't want to break balance, of course. The ideas are pretty much all coming from the same person. We have one game designer, game programmer, game... everything, and he has great ideas.
We usually, the rest of the team is there to kind of validate if it's the best idea we could come up with, or is it just perfect. Then we try, we have fun, and as a studio that's how we work. We try things. We don't look at design on papers and say "it should be fun" and then put it in the game entirely and judge if its fun afterwords. We try to make it playable as fast as possible, and then judge if it's fun while we're playing it.
TechRaptor: Is there anything, going along that line of thought, that simply wasn't fun and you guys had to cut or rework massively?
Laurent: Hm... That's a good question. Well some abilities needed a lot of tweaks. We didn't, I don't think, remove any ability at any given time. But we tweaked them. For example, there was... all the robots, they have the ability to revive each other with no limit, cast time, or cooldown. It was always part of the design, that they can all revive each other and it's part of the reason of why it's hard to stop them. But that specific ability is so overpowered and needed to be tweaked a lot so it's not frustrating for the defenders. Like, you're trying to chase down robots that just can't die because they're all reviving each other. So that mechanic has been tweaked so much.
Initially when you revived your ally, not only was he brought back to full health immediately, you were also brought back to full health. So we tweaked that so it takes a few seconds to go back to full health. So it's still possible to take you down again if you're playing an enforcer. But then when we did that it was not strong enough, so we added a short window of invincibility for the robot that just got revived. So it can still run away. Then players were using that to keep punching extractors, which is the main objective of the game, so they were using that short window of time when they were invincible to keep punching those things. So now, in that short window of time, you can't attack.
We were always tweaking pretty much based on what we see players doing, and that's why I don't think any mechanics were removed. There's always a way to keep the fun there without ruining it for anyone else. It's just a matter of tweaking the numbers and then adding some features and some abilities. I don't know if that answers your question.
TechRaptor: It does! So, besides just abilities and characters, another big factor with first person shooters, especially competitive ones, is map design. How much work, would you say, went into designing each of these maps?
Laurent: Quite a bit. I think the one that we worked on the most was, of course, our first one because we didin't have a workflow for it. It was our first 3D map as a team. We never had done that before, we always worked in 2D previous to that. So, like, the size of the map, the items that are scattered on the map, heights of some points, all of that was tweaked to hell because we wanted to have enough space for the robots to roam around and then have the defenders not have to cover too much ground, because that's impossible, and then the robots have an upper hand.
So the first map required a lot of work because we... it was our first one. We didn't know what to look for, so we made something and clearly it wasn't good enough so we added things, we enlarged some areas while playing it, and then we kind of got our formula. Like, what's the ideal distance from one extractor to another extractor, so the enforcers know that they have another point where they can go to defend if they lose one point, and then the game flows with it. But it took a lot of work. I think we worked on the first map for like, not exclusively, but for at least like one good year before starting to work on the second map.
At that point we kind of... we were able to make the three other maps quite fast, because I think the formula was good enough. There's something different in all the maps, of course, they're not all like the first one. That would be the easy road, but also the boring one. All of the maps are kind of exploring something else in the layout. The second map has two places that are really really high points, where enforcers could go and have an overall look on the entire map, and also robots can go there and fall from the sky to drop down on an extractor unexpected, and then another map has trenches, and another map is more open with less cover. So all of these things were kind of added on top of the formula that was at the beginning.
TechRaptor: When you play Aftercharge, like you hop into a random match, what's your favorite strategy that you think most people might not know about?
Laurent: When playing robots, a good strategy that most new players don't understand is that when you're playing the robots, you're trying to stay unpredictable. So if you're playing a robot and what you do in early game is head to the closest extractor and just hit it until it explodes, that won't work because they're kind of expecting that. So going around, trying to stay on the edge of the map and trying to hit an extractor that's very far away, that's going to surprise them most probably.
But also when you attack an extractor, don't just stay there and keep attacking it, because you're keeping yourself visible, because when you attack an extractor you're revealed for a very short amount of time. If you keep punching, you're just staying visible, which is going to give enough time for enforcers to converge on your position and you'll be taken down. There will be no way for you to escape. So hit one punch or two punches on an extractor, leave, then move on to another one that's ideally no the closest one, and hit again. Once, twice, then leave again. That way every time the enforcers don't have time to converge on you and they've already lost you. So it's very confusing for the enforcers that are fighting against that strategy.
TechRaptor: Before you guys made Aftercharge, you mentioned Knight Squad before as the sort of goofy little top-down Gauntlet-styled...
Laurent: Yeah, Gauntlet meets Bomberman. I think that was the line at that point.
TechRaptor: I guess, real quick, what went into Knight Squad and what lessons did you learn from it that you were able to utilize for Aftercharge?
Laurent: I think that the most important one is that, not on a game design perspective, but on a business or marketing perspective, is that you need some help. You can't do anything by yourself, so with Knight Squad we had the help of Microsoft, because we launched a game as Games With Gold. It gives us a lot of visibility, which was amazing at the time. Now we're launching through Game Pass, which is giving us a lot of visibility and a lot of players. I think that's something that most indie studios are not really looking at. You can't just release a game and say "oh, we'll have players. We're on Steam, right?" That's not necessarily going to work.
In terms of design, I think something that's always been what we do in Chainawesome Games, and it worked well in Knight Squad, is that we keep things rather simple. It was a-- Knight Squad was extremely simple. We're going very complicated in comparison with Aftercharge, but it's still quite simple. So the characters, they don't have like a talent tree or points they can put in some abilities. No, they have two abilities, that's it. You choose from characters that have two abilities and you use them, and we don't want to add more inputs to the players. It's quite a simple game, and the strategy comes along as you play.
TechRaptor: Even before Knight Squad, you guys made BeatBlasters III.
Laurent: Wow, yeah. That was a long time ago.
TechRaptor: I'm curious, what happened to BeatBlasters one and two?
Laurent: That's just us being silly. It's really just a matter of having a goofy name. So yeah, that's the humor. I wasn't part of the studio at that moment, so I wasn't in that, probably very awesome, brainstorm that gave BeatBlasters III a title. But, I'm not surprised.
TechRaptor: That's okay. Now, Aftercharge is available right now. You mentioned before you guys are working on more characters, but what other plans do you have for the game? Are you guys going to do DLC, are you going to release more maps, or are you going to start on a new project entirely?
Laurent: No, we're definitely not switching to another project any time soon. We're adding stuff to Aftercharge. So what's coming up for us as a studio is yes, like I said, there's a character coming out, but there's two more we have in mind for the rest of the year. We also have a map that's started, we should be able to get two more maps by the end of the year. We also have an idea for a new game mode, not sure when that's going to happen exactly. Lobbies, that's something that's not in the game right now, but we do want people to be able to find a group of friends and play together against another group of friends, and really put the competitive to another level that's coming up.
Another big one we're working on is the Nintendo Switch version. It's already in the works, it works, I tried it very recently. So we're... it's well underway. I don't know exactly when that's going to happen, but it's one of the big things we're working on at the studio to kind of help Aftercharge grow.
TechRaptor: Since you mentioned a Nintendo Switch version, is there any plans for a PlayStation version as well?
Laurent: Not at the moment, no. For us, as I said, the cross-platform is essential to us. It is, right now, we have more players on Xbox One because of Xbox Game Pass, and we're glad that its cross-platform. If it were to release on PlayStation 4 right now at the moment, and not be included in some sort of Ps+ or big promotion, then I don't know what the player count would look like. It's a scary thought. So, then, when we're releasing on Nintendo Switch we know it cross plays with Xbox One, so we're fine in terms of players. So that's pretty much the main reason why Aftercharge on the PlayStation isn't quite in the plans. If we see any credible lift in the demand for it, maybe. But it's not... we've definitely not started working on that.
TechRaptor: So I think that's mostly about everything that I wanted to ask. So do you have any final thoughts you want to leave with anyone reading this?
Laurent: I would say that if they are even-- that's what I usually say, I've been saying for a week-- if they are even slightly interested in the idea of Aftercharge then I invite them to come to our Discord and see what other players are saying about the game. So don't ask me if Aftercharge is awesome and worth a try, just go ask our communities.
TechRaptor: Laurent, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk with me, its been really interesting and I learned a lot about Aftercharge today.
Laurent: No problem, thanks Sam.
We'd like to once again thank Laurent for taking the time to talk with us.