In simple terms, GOA is a games publisher - but it's more accurate to picture the French outfit as a service provider. That makes sense when you consider its parent company, Orange, but it still sounds like a foreign concept in videogaming. It really shouldn't, however, and it won't for much longer.
The new business and distribution models, the server farms and customer service teams, the long and co-dependant relationships between players and developers that characterise the boom in online PC gaming mark a firm move away from games as a commodity and towards what Valve's Gabe Newell calls "entertainment as a service". After all, what else would a telecommunications and networking company be doing getting involved in our pastime?
To date, GOA's contribution has been to publish and operate Mythic's MMOs - Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online - in Europe, as well as importing a few casual Korean hits (notably the lovely PangYa golf) to run on its free-to-play GOA.com portal. There's a yawning stylistic and audience gap between these two operations, though - and it's one GOA is seeking to plug with two new signings it was showing off at last month's Game Developers Conference.
Possibility Space's multiplayer action-RPG, Warrior Epic, and Riot Games' RTS/RPG hybrid, League of Legends, both seek to blend MMO persistence with fast-paced, instant-gratification, short-session play. They're both developed in the US with an eye for both Western tastes and Asian habits. They're both from startup developers, and they both sound like long shots. Are they? Or is this the future of gaming?
"Diablo meets the Sims." It's a compelling sales pitch, for sheer name-checking chutzpah if nothing else. Warrior Epic is a free-to-play action-RPG in which characters are treated as collectables: the centrepiece is your castle, which levels up itself, expanding as you populate it with a wild cast of customisable, extravagant, monster-mashing, role-playing heroes.
These fall into six classes: Pit Fighters (melee warriors), Illusionists (sorceresses), Pangolans (alien-looking shaman types), Dungeon Archers (rangers), Devotresses (defensive fighters) and the self-explanatory Assassins. Each comes in a couple of variations, and are generally more eccentric than most RPG designs with more weaknesses, because players are expected to have so many of them.
They're larger than life; Possibility Space wants the game to have extremely low system requirements, so it's placing all its chips on character art, and it's winning big. Warriors and enemies alike are colourful, surprising, ridiculous and cool all at once, and festooned with eye-popping armour sets and weapons. This is the only game demo I've ever been to where the developer has been proud to announce that its game features no shadows or lighting, but Warrior Epic looks terrific, so no-one's arguing.
You take these warriors into 15-30-minute missions that take place in simple, hemmed-in, maze-like dungeons with just a hint of Diablo's isometric perspective. These might be randomly-generated player-versus-environment missions that scale for solo or five-player multiplayer questing, story-led campaign missions or five-on-five player-versus-player fights that play out like a Defence of the Ancients-style mini-RTS.
The aim is to earn experience, loot and gold, naturally. The experience levels up your warrior and your castle, which unlocks the map. The gold, ultimately, buys you new characters. This is something you'll be doing a lot of due to Warrior Epic's Spirit system.
If your warrior falls down three times on a mission, it dies. Though it can be resurrected (for an in-game fee), you might choose not to, because it can also live on in death as a Spirit. Spirits can be bound to weapons as an enchantment, or brought with living warriors (up to three at a time) as a very powerful summon. It's clear that the best Warrior Epic characters will actually be amalgams of one living warrior and several dead ones. (There are monster spirits in the game too, which can be collected as loot.)
All of this will be supported by micro-transactions. Your real money - in tiny amounts, most transactions being a fraction of a dollar - buys you novelty cosmetic enhancements for your warrior and castle, and consumable items (health and experience potions). In an effort to balance the game somewhat, the benefit of consumables is always spread across an entire team, not just the player who bought them - a nice, egalitarian touch as free-to-play gaming goes. You can also buy extra warrior slots over the standard twelve.
We don't get to try it for ourselves, but Warrior Epic looks like colourful, simple and moreish RPG fun with a devastatingly clever twist - turning most players' predilection for rolling "alts" into the centrepiece of the game design. It's packed with unexpected stylistic quirks, from the Zelda-style row-of-hearts health gauge to the delightful mishmash of steampunk, surrealism, Louis XIV and heavy metal album covers in the art. If the loot flows freely and the moment-to-moment combat matches the overall design vision, this is a free-to-play game to watch like a hawk.
Warrior Epic is due for release in May, simultaneously in the US and Europe.
League of Legends
Like Warrior Epic, League of Legends derives much of its DNA from Blizzard - but from a more divorced, yet much more specific route. Where Possibility Space takes a generous scoop of Diablo and drizzles it in World of Warcraft, Warcraft III and its own ideas, League of Legends is an explicit descendant of a single Warcraft III mod, the famous Defence of the Ancients - specifically, its DotA-Allstars variation. Ready for another pitch? "League of Legends is to DotA as WOW is to EverQuest."
It's not the only full-blown commercialisation of DotA in the works - the other being Gas Powered Games' Demigod. But League of Legends (yes, they really did go for the LOL acronym, more power to them) developer Riot boasts actual DotA alumni on its staff, not least lead designer Steve 'Guinsoo' Feak, the creator of DotA-Allstars. This time, he has some very professional help - artists and designers with the likes of Sucker Punch and Blizzard itself on their CVs.
As you'd expect (if you knew what I was talking about), League of Legends is a fast-paced, skirmish-focused hybrid of multiplayer action-RPG and base-capture RTS. You control a hero unit - sorry, Champion - which levels up over the course of a single match, customising its skills and equipment on the fly, and working with other players and AI minions to dominate the enemy's control points one by one.
Once again, bold and bright maps viewed top-down are the order of the day, as are colourful characters: the Yeti Rider, an Eskimo kid chucking snowballs from his monstrous mount's shoulders; the Dark Child, a sinister Tim Burton-esque waif who summons an evil teddy bear; the Wuju Bladesman, gangling refugee of seventies kung fu cinema. In order to give the game the persistence that online gamers of all stripes demand now, these Champions are tied together by a Summoner, your actual player character, who can be customised and levelled up in a way that will give your Champions an edge in battle.
League of Legends is not, frankly, as polished on the surface as its stable-mate Warrior Epic or its rival Demigod. Its interface in particular could use work, being neither pretty nor functional enough to excuse faults on the other side. And although its cartoon style is attractive enough and the Champions have plenty of personality, the art lacks Warrior Epic's striking presence - it's all a bit Crash-Bandicoot-goes-to-Azeroth.
But this is a different world, a world where multiplayer balance and word-of-mouth count for a lot more than slick presentation. Demigod may have bigger names and more muscle behind it, but if League of Legends is faster and better-tuned then it stands a good chance of being able to carry the DotA community with it - a huge gaming subculture that's sat somewhere just under publishers' radar until now. Signs from our playtest were good, with the match developing an exciting ebb and flow, every would-be victorious charge suddenly finding itself on the tipping-point.
It's more of a concern whether League of Legends will ever be able to break out of its peculiar subculture. The last piece of the puzzle will be how the game is monetised - it's not yet clear whether it will be download-only, a boxed product, or funded by subscription or micro-transaction. Any one of these options has the potential to invite one audience and alienate another, so Riot and GOA will have to choose carefully.
League of Legends has no release date as yet.