UPDATE: Epic has promised to never sell card packs in Paragon.
In response to uncertainty over the free-to-play PC and PlayStation 4 MOBA's business model in my preview below, Epic Games has now issued a statement, putting an end to this particular worry.
"Epic will never sell card packs for Paragon."
Given Paragon is a free-to-play title, we still expect some form of microtransactions, but at least we now know they won't be in the form of these card packs, which have a direct impact on the competitive nature of the game.
ORIGINAL STORY: I enjoyed my time with Epic Games' new third-person MOBA. Paragon runs on Unreal Engine 4, which means it looks absolutely nothing like anything else in the genre, even in this early alpha stage. I'm not sure the character design has the same kind of soul as some of its competitors, but it's still a very impressive thing to see in motion. This is the closest a MOBA has ever actually come to looking like its own CG trailer.
It's also unashamedly part of the genre. Paragon calls itself a MOBA, not a 'hero shooter' and it fully embraces that identity. This is a game with three lanes, towers and a jungle. There's a decent list of of heroes (13 at launch, with more planned), each with their own set of unique abilities and ultimates. A single match can last anywhere between 20 minutes and upwards of an hour, depending on the skill of the teams involved. Epic isn't reinventing the formula here and I don't think it's trying to make MOBAs 'more accessible', as so many have promised. Paragon is simply a good looking game, that can also be played on a console. That's the hook.
It's fun, too. I like that you need to aim even your most basic attacks, whether that's an energy blast, or a swing of a fist. If you haven't played a third-person MOBA before, this takes some getting used to, as will, I'm sure, the option to gain a height advantage over your opponent. This one sort of blew my mind. Paragon is a MOBA with verticality! On the map we played, each lane offered ridges to climb and bombard enemy players from higher ground and get this: the jungle itself was on a lower tier of the map. This means that each lane has certain points at which you can jump down, through the canopy, into the jungle and ambush opposing players. I liked that a lot.
And yet, unfortunately, I think Paragon might be in trouble.
At a preview event at the start of this month, there seemed to be a couple of topics that nobody really wanted to talk about: money and crossplay. Paragon launches as a free-to-play game on both the PC and PlayStation 4, which looks like a smart move on Epic's part. We've already seen games such as Smite get a lot of love from console players.
Getting your game on multiple platforms and in front of as many people as possible is great, but I don't think they should all play together. Competitive multiplayer games live or die by how fair they feel to the player, and yet Paragon will support crossplay. Crossplay, in this genre, isn't fair.
Here's what creative director, the fantastically named Steve Superville, had to say when I asked him if the team was concerned that PC players, armed with a mouse and keyboard, would have a significant advantage over those playing on console:
"It's always a concern. Any time you have any sort of difference in input device or platform, it's something you have to consider," explained Superville.
"But we set out from the beginning to make Paragon for console and PC. The pacing of MOBAs is not as punishing to non-mouse players as a traditional shooter is. There's no jump 180 noscope headshots. Because it's a MOBA, it's much more about positioning, coordinating with your team and using your abilities at the right time."
That seems a fair counter, but it's not what I experienced while playing the game for myself. Yes Paragon is a MOBA, but it's one that asks you to control a third-person camera and manually aim each of your attacks, and simply put: console players can't turn as quickly. A thumbstick (even with aim acceleration) can't compete with a mouse and despite not being able to try crossplay at the preview event, we did have the chance to try both platforms. The difference was immediately obvious.
MOBA communities often have their share of issues with player toxicity. What happens when some of those players are considered a detriment to their team because of the platform they're playing on? Yeah, that's unlikely to help.
Another issue cropped up when I asked about Paragon's microtransactions. We know it's a free-to-play game, but considering how pretty it looks, I imagine there's some interest in making a little money back. The problem was I couldn't get a definite answer on exactly how Epic intends to do that.
"We are not talking too much about the business model right now, said Superville. "But we are very aware that pay-to-win is a bad thing for competitive play."
He's absolutely right, of course. But if Paragon doesn't cost anything to play in the first place and we're yet to hear about a skin store or anything of that nature, there does look to be one obvious place where they can offer microtransactions: the game's card packs.
Unlike most traditional MOBAs, Paragon doesn't have an in-game item shop for players to pick up upgrades during matches. Instead, you select a deck of cards prior to the game starting and then use Card XP (gained by killing players) to unlock their stat boosts during the game itself. It's actually not a hugely different setup, when you describe it like that.
One of the bigger differences, however, is that in Paragon you don't immediately have access to all of the cards in the game. Instead you begin with a few starter decks and then flesh them out by purchasing card packs using an in-game currency, which you earn by levelling up heroes and/or your overall profile. There's an argument to be made that this entire system has been crafted simply to encourage players to keep playing - although if that is the case, doesn't it mean players who sink more time into the game have better card decks, and thus a better chance of winning matches?
I imagine Paragon will offer a paid alternative as well. Selling card packs seems like the obvious choice, but won't that also impact gameplay and, thus, undermine competitive play?
I asked Superville if Epic had any plans to sell these packs, and here's the worryingly vague answer I received in return:
"Currently," stated Superville, "you can only get them through playing the game."
Having been at Blizzcon last year, when the Overwatch team seemed to actively avoid the topic of whether they intended to sell future heroes and maps, I'm disappointed to see a similar misstep from Epic here. Paragon, as a competitive multiplayer game, requires a large and very dedicated community of players if it hopes to stick around for years to come. Every major publisher seems to have their eyes on this extremely popular genre, but if we look at the games that have truly made it, they've all benefited enormously from a healthy relationship with their communities. They keep the money away from the gameplay and talk openly, and honestly with their playerbase. I'm concerned that Paragon might not be doing either of those things right now and that's a shame.