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3 Features

Transformers Universe: More than meets the eye?

By Tamoor Hussain on Tuesday 1st Apr 2014 at 6:00 PM UTC

"How would you describe Transformers Universe?"

It's a simple, soft question to get everyone comfortable. And while most developers would quickly launch into a PR polished script recital, Alex Horton, chief creative officer at Jagex, wrestles with it.

"I spend quite a lot of time worrying about that, and then not worrying about it," he says.

"It's a really hard question, and one that I really can't answer in a way that makes me feel good."

Horton clearly carries a passion for his new project. He routinely speaks of "the spirit of Transformers" during his breakdown of gameplay and the justification of its design principles.

But every once in a while there's, naturally for anyone this personally invested, a glimpse of uncertainty.

Pictured: Alex Horton, Jagex chief creative officer

"It's different. Maybe we've created a horrible Frankenstein's monster that doesn't make any sense to anybody. We're going to find out."

That wavering is indication that the studio is operating outside of its comfort zone, something which after years of RuneScape success is perhaps overdue.

"This a different type of game for us," Horton says, gearing up to demonstrate, "this is our next, really big, special game".

"We've not made a traditional MMORPG as you might have expected us to, instead we've tried to make a game for today, and for the future."

Not obeying the successful RuneScape formula is Jagex's first step into the unknown. Substituting off Transformers' most marketable heroes and villains is its second.

Like the eponymous Transformers who star the show, Universe is made up of gameplay parts and mechanical cogs that Jagex hopes it can engineer to fit together and form an exciting new hybrid.

Our demo begins with Frontline, a unique new character created by Jagex for the game, speeding through an open-world area called "Highbase". The war between the Autobots and Decepticons continues to rage, and - once again - Earth has become the battleground.

However, in this continuity humans have not yet become sympathetic to the Autobot cause, thus forcing them to hide out in a barren pothole on the outskirts of Colorado.

The area's simplistic visual design is a reminder that Transformers Universe is a browser-based game. That's not to say it's lacking in visual sparkle; aspects of the game are great to look at - the character models in particular - but at the same time compromises must be made to accommodate bandwidth-friendly game environments.

In this open-world we're given a brief taste of the game's PvE, which involves engaging groups of zombie-like bots called Terrorcons. Defeating these rewards players with Energon, the commodity fuelling the war and the primary resource players will use to buy, upgrade and customise their characters.

Transformers Universe is a campaign based game, and as such is driven by a narrative. Although David Nicholson, vice president of Transformers Universe, went to pains to avoid the word "missions", he said the game would provide a "lean back" experience "a little more about staying in the universe".

At the core of the game, however, is a fast and furious third-person shooter that pits player versus player in a battle that hinges more on strategy and tactics than nailing the enemy with a bullet to the head.

In this respect it can be likened to League of Legends, DotA or Team Fortress 2. Like these games, familiarising yourself with the strengths and weaknesses of a character, and using your abilities to effectively fulfil a role, is key.

At launch, the game will have a generous roster of characters (more than ten but less than one hundred, the studio says), for players to familiarise themselves with.

Transformers Universe began development more closely aligned to the Prime continuity, but Jagex's cast of brand new characters made the game a better fit for Generations.

"We haven't built a character creator," Horton said.

"In collaboration with Hasbro we've created custom, unique new Transformers to play in our game. These are complete characters, not droids or mechs or any of that. They have different abilities, strengths, weaknesses and personalities."

Although Transformers Universe gives players direct control of Autobots or Decepticons, the player is actually cast as a Commander, capable of amassing a crew of robots. The idea is to encourage players to acquire bots with various roles and specialties, then develop them to be effective in certain scenarios.

Showdown, for example, turns out to be a effective tank. Although his damage potential is limited, he's capable of absorbing punishment for a sustained period. He can also share his shield with others nearby to keep them in the fight.

Catapult, meanwhile, is a nimble baja buggy that occupies the team's sniper role. At a distance, she can control crowds and funnel enemies into choke points, though up close she needs to rely on teammates like Showdown to keep her alive and get her to safety.

This kind of synergy between the abilities of characters is what the entire Transformers Universe PvP experience is predicated on. But sometimes the characters you have may not be the ideal blend. Jagex's solution to this is to give players a decision to make whenever their robot is taken out: repair it at the cost of Energon, or swap in another character.

This bouncing back and forth between characters is another central part of the gameplay experience.

"They all play differently," Horton explains, "you can specialise in one bot and take it all the way to the highest level, or you can spread out and have multiple bots. Once you get into the depth of the combat and understand how to play, you know that different bots have different roles in different scenarios. Really, you want to have a stable full of bots that can cover any scenario you're in. But you can also be that healer guy on the team and dedicate yourself to it. "

"We've not made a traditional MMORPG as you might have expected us to, instead we've tried to make a game for today, and for the future"

Although third-person shooting is the main thrust of gameplay, the classic stat, equipment and character development wrinkle of traditional MMORPGs is also a major component of Transformers Universe as a whole. And it's an area where Jagex can play to its strengths.

Tucked in the open expanse of the Colorado overworld is Highground base, which serves as a player hub. In World of Warcraft parlance it's Orgrimmar, and like the Orc capital city players can gather to socialise, group up, prepare and embark on missions from there.

There's also a hangar area that gives players a closer look at their stable of characters. Each bot has three equipment pieces, an additional sub-system, a bespoke ability set, S-Tech (a one-shot special with a cooldown), and is categorised based on one of 12 archetypes.

Info panels keep players informed on current equipment and abilities, as well as strengths and weaknesses, which are surfaced in a handy spider chart.

"It's really important for us [to have the granular RPG mechanics] because that's our heritage," Horton explained.

"There's many other people that are much better qualified to do a straight up shooter than we are, but they couldn't do what we do.

"For me it was really about bringing those different abilities, damage dealing, working together, and blend them all together. It's a fast and furious looking game, but it's not actually about target acquisition, it's more about the decisions you make. It's dynamic and fluid."

The stat and equipment driven development of characters could drop Transformers Universe in a place somewhere between Hearthstone, Blizzard's deck-building collectible card game, and League of Legends, which emphasises learning characters and outfitting them with particular pieces of equipment.

"That comparing and contrasting of characters adds a magic to the game," says Horton. "It's more like playing a card game where you fill up your deck with little guys to put on that battlefield... you're ending up in this space where you've got all these different styles of characters and I'm playing my guys against your guys.

"We were looking at what was going on around us with the perma-death in World of Tanks, what League of Legends was doing and even Skylanders, where you have a little toy... Even Grand Theft Auto has moved to a game where you can play three different characters. It seems to be the contemporary thing to do, we weren't anxious to jump on with that; it was a natural fit."

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Of course, this is all also designed to feed into the microtransaction based business model Transformers Universe uses. Although it is free-to-play, Jagex claims it has ensured that the game does not become pay-to-win.

"At the core, we're an item sales game, but it's more of a heroes model," says Horton.

"The Transformers are the key item that you'd buy, but you need to know what to do with them. They don't represent power and amassing a lot of them doesn't make you more powerful.

"We're very big on the democratisation of that. It's not a race to collect everything, it's about what you want to do with it. We've provided other ways to attain these things; I come from the philosophy that not everyone has the money to play these things, if you believe in our game you can put money into it, if not, play on, you're still part of our community and that's important to us."

With multiple parts being brought together from multiple machines, it's understandable that Horton has some concerns that Transformers Universe might not click with players. Based on what we've seen, the gears seem to be locking into place.