Not too long ago, I happened upon Void Arena, an upcoming game that aims to eschew traditional RPG design by doing away with levels and skill points entirely. That certainly intrigued me and I dove into the design of an ambitious new venture.
I first discovered Void Arena via a submission to the /r/pcgaming subreddit. This linked to a blog post on the developer's website, outlining some of the basics of how an RPG with no levels and no skill points would work. Before we get into that, though, I'd ask that you take a look at one of its most recent gameplay videos to see the early alpha in motion!
Stats + Items = RPG
Role-playing games have more or less followed the same loose formula for over half a century. Players would do things with their characters and earn experience points. These experience points would grant them levels, and new levels might increase their stats or unlock new abilities. Weapons, armor, and other equipment added to your character's power in various fashions.
The gameplay of the RPG genre essentially boils down to a combination of stats and items determining a player's power. Games tend to lean one way or another; a character with no gear in The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim won't have as difficult of a time as a character with no gear in Diablo 3. Void Arena, however, wants to remove the player stats from the equation entirely.
"One of the core pillars of our game is 'unique progression experiences,'" explained Sad_Gandalf, the owner and operator of the game's developer High Level Studios. "Something that we are really after is making your decisions feel as if they are directly driving the growth of your character. With this said, we veered away from a path where your character's main form of progression was dictated by some arbitrary numbers in a spreadsheet. Instead, your character progresses mainly through exploring the world and learning new skills while also both finding powerful gear and the materials necessary to create it themselves."
Some RPGs treat player stats as a requirement for equipping awesome gear, but could a game work in this genre without player stats at all? Sad_Gandalf thinks it can, and the plan he's outlined for this in-development game certainly seems to back it up—at least in theory.
Void Arena is all about the items. You're not going to push a button to increase your Vitality stat and squeeze out a few more HP; instead, you're going to be finding a new piece of equipment to get the job done. There are stats in the game—players will have health, armor, elemental resistances, and the like. You just won't be able to increase them by leveling up your character.
"If I were asked to compare it to any existing game, I would tell you that it is somewhere between Diablo and a game from the Elder Scrolls series." – Sad_Gandalf
Traditional RPGs would typically have you travel through the game, completing quests and defeating enemies. Victory will earn your experience, levels, and points to spend on skills and the like. In Void Arena, you'll be earning gear instead—and this also serves as a balancing mechanic for its difficulty level.
For example, playing on a higher difficulty level will give you stronger gear. Step the difficulty down and you're much more powerful than you were before. A greater challenge and faster progression go hand-in-hand at the higher difficulty levels.
"As the player works their way through the game, and through slaying enemies and completing quests finds more powerful items and can both deal and take more damage," read a blog post from High Level Studios explaining character progression. "Once the player reaches a level of power [that] makes their current difficulty trivial they now [have] a choice.. they can increase the difficulty to hasten their progression, OR they can choose to enjoy their newly found powers for a more relaxing play style, cruising through a lower difficulty but ultimately lowering the curve of their progress."
Skills to Pay the Bills
Unsurprisingly, Void Arena's skills will also buck the trends of the RPG genre. There's more to a character than just swinging a sword, and you're going to have to learn new abilities to unlock these powers; but how can you do it in a game where you're not earning levels to unlock them? The answer lies in exploration.
"[Abilities] in our game can only be learned by traveling around the world. These can be found in a variety of locations and can be as easy as speaking to an NPC to as complicated as completing a [questline] and defeating a challenging boss," Sad_Gandalf said. "These abilities are not restricted by class, level or story progress."
What this means is that Void Arena will, in theory, allow you to fine tune your character exactly to your tastes. The only major limitation is a maximum of six active abilities and four passive abilities. That's it—and there aren't going to be any classes in this game, either.
"We feel that it is important for a player to be able to combine any of the gear they've found with any abilities they've learned without having to 're-roll' a character from scratch," Sad_Gandalf added
Four Acts to Finish
Void Arena's single-player will be split into four core acts in the beginning. These acts will be gradually fleshed out and released within the first year of the game's debut on Steam Early Access, though that won't necessarily be the end of things.
"Our current plans are to focus on the first four acts and make sure that they are awesome," Sad_Gandalf told me. "In the future, we would love to work on Void Arena Act V and beyond."
The finished version of the game promises a "100+ hour, [four-act] cinematic campaign." Sad_Gandalf was keen to explain the game's mechanics and setting to a degree, but the story itself is being kept tightly under wraps.
The "Sanctuary" will serve as a sort of home base for the player. You'll be able to create various workstations and rooms within this realm, some of which can be freely built in a fashion similar to the base-building mechanics of games like No Man's Sky or Fallout 4.
Void Arena isn't entirely ignorant of industry trends, mind; "seasonal" characters will also be available alongside associated leaderboards. It is here that the most efficient (and most powerful) single-player builds will be tested in a trial by fire; each season will also feature the release of exclusive content that will only be available for a limited time. The idea of seasons and leaderboards won't just be restricted to single-player, though—it will also extend to the game's PvP.
A Battleground of Builds
Void Arena PVP will consist of three distinct ways to play: World PVP, Arena PVP, and the Wilderness, each of which brings a different flavor of player vs. player combat to the game.
"With Void Arena having competitive aspects to it, I think that it goes without saying that careful balance of game mechanics will be crucially important to the long-term success of our game." —Sad_Gandalf
Arena PvP should be well-familiar to players of MMORPGs. You and up to four allies can enter into an arena to battle it out for glory and rewards in either ranked or unranked game modes. More details on this game mode will be revealed in the coming months.
World PvP, on the other hand, is much less structured and far more chaotic. You'll have to meet several conditions before you can engage in Void Arena's World PvP; thankfully, it looks like players who wish to avoid PvP won't have to worry about player-killers.
- The game must be set to multiplayer mode.
- The game session must be set to public.
- Another player must join your game.
- Both you and the other player must have been flagged as hostile.
If all four of those conditions are met, you and anyone else will be able to battle it out pretty much anywhere in the game world. Multiplayer brings a bunch of tricky problems with it, and High Level Studios is certainly aware of the challenges.
"One end of the spectrum is things like killing a weaker player to take some of their loot or looting an item that an ally needs," Sad_Gandalf said. "This is expected player behaviour that we feel, in many cases, can make experience of the receiving player exciting.
"The other end of the spectrum would include things like harassment, personal threats[,] and or attacks. This is unacceptable behaviour that makes the experience of the receiving player worse in every way. These incidents can be reported to our team through an [in-game] tool and will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Players may have their accounts banned if our team determines it necessary (within our harassment guidelines)."
It's important to mention here that Void Arena will not be an MMORPG or anything like that; it will be perfectly playable in single-player with no internet connection. Naturally, multiplayer gameplay will require an online connection to make full use of all of the available features. The last of these multiplayer modes is arguably a take on the Battle Royale genre and it's the most interesting by far.
The Wilderness is a PvP Game Mode Inspired by Naruto
World PvP and Arena PvP aren't all that novel for a game of this style. The Void Arena Wilderness game mode takes a classic arc from the Naruto anime, tosses in a bit of Battle Royale gameplay, and pits players against one another in an intense battle.
A player entering The Wilderness will get to explore a map on a similar scale to PUBG or Apex Legends. If you're thinking this is a throwaway Battle Royale add-on, though, you're going to find yourself sorely mistaken.
Rare mobs will be peppered throughout The Wilderness, each of which will have "a high chance of dropping amazing loot." This gear will surely help you on your journey back in the world of Kynn. Making your way back home, however, isn't so easy.
Each player will spawn with one of three books; this is where the inspiration from Naruto's Forest of Death comes in. You can leave The Wilderness at any time, but you can't actually take any of the cool gear you've earned with you until you open a special portal. This portal can only be opened through the use of three magical tomes—and you only have one of them. That means you'll have to fight and defeat at least two other players (at the minimum!) to take your goodies back home to the Sanctuary.
Can Void Arena Live Up to Its Ambition?
Void Arena is undeniably an ambitious indie game that aims to shake up the RPG genre in some interesting ways. Whether or not it can succeed will be determined in the next few months.
To start, this game is still in an alpha state. High Level Studios currently plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign sometime in March 2021. Should it succeed, the earliest of early access will be made available to a certain tier of backers sometime in summer 2021.
Critically, Sad_Gandalf seems to have a good understanding of the perils of game development (even if this is his first commercial product). He was happy to provide rough guidelines for the game's early access and 1.0 launch, but he also expressed a willingness to push these back if the game isn't quite ready for primetime. Void Arena should be fully feature-complete in mid-2022 if everything goes to plan.
For now, Void Arena seems like a project that's well worth keeping an eye on. If you'd like to do the same, you can add Void Arena to your wishlist on Steam. You can learn more on its official website, and don't forget to follow the Void Arena Kickstarter so you're ready for its launch in the coming months.