Exclusive Interview: Block N Load Studio Head David Solari

Most game developers don’t like to admit that their games are like other games, even when they are. But David Solari, the VP and Studio Head of England’s Jagex Games Studio has no such compulsion when it comes to their upcoming PC game, Block N Load. “It’s basically a cross between Minecraft and Team Fortress 2, with a little League Of Legends sprinkled in there,” he admits, and without prompting. But in talking to him about the game while I watched him play a couple rounds, it became clear that while this does have elements of Minecraft, Team Fortress, and a little League Of Legends, there’s actually a lot more to it.

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In basic terms, what kind of game is Block N Load?

Block N Load is a five-on-five, PVP shooter. But what makes the game different and unique is that you can build and destroy the environment throughout a match in real time.

When you started working on it, were you thinking, “Yeah, Minecraft is cool, but I’d really like to shoot that guy in the face”?

Yeah. We made a game before called Ace Of Spades, but didn’t do as good a job with it as we would’ve liked because the building in that game wasn’t meaningful enough or powerful enough. So we set ourselves some goals with Block N Load that building has to be as powerful as bullets, and smarts have to be to as important as shooting skills. So if you can figure stuff out and be clever, you can be just as good as someone who has twitch shooting skills.

And you can build throughout a match you said.

Right. We have a building phase at the start, five minutes where you can build defenses and crazy stuff like that, but you can also build throughout the game. In fact, it’s quite important that you do.

We also have blocks that are much more powerful than brick or sand or whatever. We have glue blocks that slow people down, we have turrets and big bombs, we have shield blocks that your team can run through but your enemies can’t, we have fake blocks that look like regular blocks but enemies will fall through them and you can put a mine or other trap underneath. We did lots of things to make the building powerful.

Is there a limit to how much you can build in a match?

Yes. Your team shares a collection of blocks, and each character uses them to build things, with some items — like your special blocks — using more of the collective blocks than others. Though you can also add blocks to the collection by destroying blocks. Like if I dig a hole, it will add nineteen blocks to the collection.

There are also times, randomly throughout the match, when you’ll get these supply drops that will give your team more blocks.

Why did you go with a Minecraft-esque art style, as opposed to something more realistic?

The blocks just made it easier for building, and lets you do destruction on a much larger scale, so it made the game that much more fun.

Block N Load characters

Tell me a bit about the characters in the game.

Sure. Much like League Of Legends and other MOBAs, we have our heroes as well, and they have their own specific weapons and special blocks. Sarge Stone, for instance, is a basic soldier guy, and he can place respawn blocks so you can respawn somewhere else in the map other than in your base, and he has a radar block that can sense enemy traps and infrastructure. Then there’s Cogwheel, a robot who moves slow, he’s very tanky, but he can also put down mortars. Doc Eliza Doolally is really powerful with area-of-denial attacks, such as her gas grenades. Nigel Purdy-Longsthott is kind of our sniper class, and he can fire a thing that can sense all enemies and all enemies apparatus, as well as a tiki head that disorients you. Juan Shinobi is a ninja, he’s the most mobile character in the game, thanks to his teleporting and ability to climb walls; other character have to jump up them if they can. And then Antony Tony Turretto is a defensive character who can build faster, has a shield when he’s building, and can build turrets, health blocks, and ammo blocks.

Do all six come with the game?

We’re going to launch with these six characters, but we’re planning to add three more later.

A lot of the characters look like they were based on other things. Sarge, for example…

…looks like Rambo?

Right. Cogwheel is a classic ’50-looking robot, while Tony Turretto is clearly Bob The Builder. Was that intentional?

Well, we always knew Sarge was going to be our soldier archetype kind of guy. In fact, he originally looked more like [U.S. Army General George S.] Patton, but we decided to change him to something Rambo-esque because it was just more fun.

Was there every any talk of having a character in the game that looks like Doctor Who, and if so, which Doctor?

Oh, that’s a great idea. Maybe they’d have a special block that freezes time.

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So how many maps will the game have at launch?

We’ve got a rotation of five maps. We probably have about fifty maps, but the plan is to rotate between them every two weeks. It’s actually very easy to make new maps.

Well, you’re not making the whole map, you’re just making the basic set-up, and the players create the map.

Exactly. Though we’re thinking we might add player-creator maps. It’s just one of the way the game will constantly evolve. Along with swapping out the maps every two weeks, we’re going to add a new character every other week for six weeks after we launch, and we’re thinking we want to add some new feature every three months, so player-made maps might be one new feature, or maybe we’ll add some new modes.

Right. So what modes are in the game?

We just have the one mode, in which you have to defend your cubes while destroying your enemies. Some maps have one cube, some have two, and some have three, and in maps with more than one, you have to destroy the one in the front before you can even damage the one in the back.

So then what other modes are you considering?

We’ve been thinking about an attack and defend mode, kind of like they had in Gears Of War, and maybe a “Capture The Flag” mode.

We’re also talking about the idea of doing a zombie horde mode, with you and four teammates taking on A.I. zombies.

What about “Deathmatch” or “Team Deathmatch”?

Block N Load is not a “Deathmatch” kind of game, it’s a team-oriented game. And we could do “Team Deathmatch,” but I think this game works best when you have an objective aside from killing everyone on the other team.

Obviously, there’s not a single-player mode, but can you play it alone, say against nine bots?

No. Trying to get nine bots to build and destroy things is just the biggest A.I. challenge in the history of the world. Which is where the zombie horde idea came in, because if they’re zombies, and they’re not building anything, they don’t have to be as smart.

Is there friendly fire in the game?

There’s friendly fire with explosives, but not with traps or other weapons. We actually did that, in part, because when we were testing the game, some people would destroy what their teammates had made, and then that person would get mad. Which is why we’ve included the ability to report people, and people who’ve been reported multiple times will have to go to what we’re calling “The Graveyard Queue,” where they’ll only play with other people in “The Graveyard Queue” until they earn their way out.

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Can you destroy bricks by shooting them?

Yes, it just takes a long time. Explosive destroy them much faster. Though we do take a bit of liberty with the physics.

Right, they are more cartoony than realistic. Did you ever experiment with realistic physics?

Yeah, but it was just more fun this way.

That seems to be a theme of this conversation.

It’s been our approach the whole time, to try and make this more and more fun. Like Juan Shinobi has these jump pads, and when we first introduced them, the map makers were crying that they would ruin everything. But they’re so much fun that we kept them.

The game has a first-person perspective. Why did you decide to go with that, as opposed to a third-person one?

It always felt to us like a first-person game. Minecraft is a first-person game, Team Fortress 2 is a first-person game, so it just felt like that was right for this.

Now, watching you play, there was a message that came up at the end of the match that said you didn’t get any XP…

Right, that’s because I was playing a custom match. If you play a “Ranked” or “Friendly” match, you’ll get XP.

And what can you spend that XP on?

Each character has ten levels, and every time you go up a level you get a boost, such as “10% better reload speed” or “10% building speed.” They’re different for each character, though there are some that are shared by multiple characters.

Do you level each character individually?

Yes. Though we don’t want it to be arduous, so it’ll probably only take you five hours or so to level a character up to 10. We want to encourage people to try out every character.

Is there a time limit for a match?

No, but we have added something we call “The Match Breaker,” which will appear in the middle. And if you’re the one who gets it, it powers up everyone on your team.

When does it show up?

We’re still tweaking that. It’s set for fifteen minutes in right now, but we might change it to twenty minutes since we’ve found that most matches last between ten and twenty-five minutes long.

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Will you be able to change that in a custom match?

Yes, that one of many things you’ll be able to change.

Block N Load is coming out for PCs on April 30th. Are there any plans to release it on the Mac or consoles?

We already have a team working on a console version, but if that happens it won’t be out until the end of the year.

As for Mac, I had hoped to get that up and running for launch, but it’s not going to happen just yet.

Will Mac owners be able to play again PC people?

Yeah, they would, for sure.

And will Block N Load support controllers for PC and Mac?

We kind of already have them working, just not as well as we would like. You can play with them now, but we’re not officially launching that feature until after the game comes out.

Will it also support VR helmets like the Oculus?

Maybe in the future, but not right now.

So what is the pay structure for Block N Load going to be?

The game will be $19.99, but there will also be a version for $29.99 that comes with an extra skin pack for the heroes.

Is that skin pack just an aesthetic thing?

Right. Though they make you look cooler.

Wait, hang on, did the robot just say, “Nobody puts Cogwheel in the corner”?

Yeah. Had to get a Dirty Dancing quote in there, somewhere.

Well, it is one of the best ’50s robot movies. Actually, now that I think about it, I think Dirty Dancing is set in the ’50s.

Ha! Yeah, I think so.

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Finally, given the look of the game, was there any thought of making this even more cartoony and aiming it more towards kids?

Yeah, but the game actually has a lot of depth, a lot of tactics and technicalities to it. And when we asked our audience, 68% of them were between the age of 16 and 34. So the block thing makes the building and destruction work, but the intention was never to make a Minecraft-looking Team Fortress for kids.

 

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