Interview: Spellcraft’s game director on the first public alpha and its intense gameplay

Oh, this one.

A good weekend is in store for anyone who loves to play the latest, hottest, fresh-off-the-press-est multiplayer games the moment they pop up. That’s right, this weekend – right now in fact – you can login and join the open alpha access to play Spellcraft on Steam. It’s a brand-new multiplayer title in development by One More Game, a studio founded by former ArenaNet and Riot Games developers, among others.

I, for one, have been waiting for this alpha access to arrive very patiently – maybe not that patiently as I check Discord for updates daily. So when I had the opportunity to chat with OMG co-founder and Spellcraft game director Jamie Winsor about the public alpha and some of the inspirations behind Spellcraft, I knew I had to jump on it. Previous closed alpha tests were under NDA, but OMG confirmed that this public alpha lifts the NDA, so we can all speak freely!

MassivelyOP: How many game modes do you have currently available? Is it primarily one vs. one duels or will players be able to get their hands on more than that?

OMG’s Jamie Winsor: Spellcraft is currently a 1v1 game with a few different modes that players can try. There’s Versus, which is our ranked mode; Casual, which is an unranked matchmaking queue; Duel, which is a mode that allows players to skirmish each other via a Steam invite or direct web link; and finally Practice mode, where you can play against a crazy intelligent AI with 6 difficulty settings.

Do you have plans for other modes? I’m always a fan of team based fighters, so any sort of  2v2 matches could be interesting.

We’re focused on the core 1v1 gameplay currently  because we believe 1v1 is the truest form of competition. But we listen to our players, and Spellcraft is a very “modular” game: it’s relatively easy to add new and different modes. We’ll make more modes if there’s demand, and we fully intend to find ways to let friends enjoy Spellcraft cooperatively in the future. We have some ideas about what form that will take, but right now, we need to hear that players love the core gameplay so we can build on it.

If not now, in the future are there any plans for a story mode that players might progress through?

We don’t have any firm plans around storytelling besides creating some characters we think are pretty great. But we do agree that, even for PvP-focused games, the best way to get narrative ideas across is by integrating it into the game, and we’ve got some ideas in that realm. And again — Spellcraft‘s pretty modular. If we believe players want some kind of PvE, cooperative experience, we’ll build it.

While this is the first public alpha, you have had previous invite-only tests. How has the response from the playerbase been so far? Has there been a lot of feedback that’s helped or even caused you to rethink some of your initial plans for skills or characters?

Technically we’ve been testing the game with an external audience every week since late 2020. We call the way we make games Alpha Driven Development (there’s more on the OMG blog if you really wanna get gamedev-pilled, and this article on the Spellcraft site sums it up well). We’ve done two larger tests with a couple thousand people, primarily to test the foundations of our game. Both times we’ve tested we’ve learned a lot, and it’s absolutely caused us to rethink our plans, and not just around characters. Spellcraft‘s a brand new type of game, and we had to learn a lot about how to make its unique gameplay approachable and deeply replayable. The game’s always been about commanding a team of heroes through well-timed spellcasting, but the exact interaction model has gone through a few evolutions, thanks in large part to those previous tests. We’re really excited about today’s version of Spellcraft, which is why we’re finally putting it out there for all to see and play.

For a team with such a depth of experience and knowledge from the gaming industry, and especially the MMO industry in particular, what led you to create a real-time battler like Spellcraft?

We love MMOs, and it’s true that a number of folks on the team worked at ArenaNet. We definitely have no shortage of ideas for massively multiplayer games. We made a real-time battler because we wanted to build something truly new — not a prequel, sequel or remake. We chose to start with a competitive strategy game first and foremost because we also love competitive strategy games. It’s also not quite as monumentally, astronomically, almost unbelievably expensive to build a game focused on player versus player competition — as opposed to a game focused on tons and tons of PvE content.

When I look at the gameplay of Spellcraft, one of my first thoughts is of old school tactics games like Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics. Of course, those were turn- based and not real time as in Spellcraft. What games inspired you to build Spellcraft?

So many games. One of the first things we said about Spellcraft when we set out to make it — was that it would be real-time and strategic, but not real-time strategy. We’re deeply inspired by the history of RTS games from StarCraft to Age of Empires. While at first blush Spellcraft might look most adjacent to autobattlers (and no doubt we’ve taken cues from the genre), we actually think the combat shares a lot more in common with arena PvP or MOBA teamfights. Finally, it might sound orthogonal, but to me one of the most important inspirations was fighting games. There’s a lot of acting and reacting, plays and counterplays in our game that to me scratches the same itch as the best fighting games.

When I’m thinking about games I want to play for the evening, I typically split it up mentally depending on what I’m in the mood for. Maybe I want to do a full world dive with friends in Guild Wars 2 or amp myself up with some intense PvP, or maybe I’ve only got 15 minutes free so I’ll play a couple of quick Rocket League matches. Where do you see Spellcraft falling in terms of players’ mind share?

A Spellcraft match is about 10 minutes in length. One of the things I’m most excited about is the fact that it offers some of the same depth of play you get in a MOBA or MMO session — in terms of gearing up your characters, making strategic choices, executing during intense moment-to-moment combat — but in much shorter matches. We think we’ll see a little of both extremes if people love Spellcraft like we hope they will: some players will grab a game or two when they have a little downtime. And some players will spend all evening climbing the ranked ladder, playing in tournaments, and theorycrafting about their next meta-crushing strat.

What are your thoughts on esports? Do you expect or want competitive tourneys or is it more of a casual experience?

Spellcraft is definitely a competitive game, and even though this is an alpha, we’ll have ranked matchmaking and we’ll give players a permanent medal for their placement during our “pre-season 1.” But we’ll let players tell us if and when Spellcraft‘s truly an esport. We don’t believe in “forcing” esports — instead, we’ve built a game that we think has some of the right ingredients. It’s competitive, deep, and action-packed. And we think it’s very watchable: we designed Spellcraft from the beginning to have the kind of pacing that is very advantageous for streamers, and maybe one day soon for shoutcasters. Spellcraft‘s round-based structure has ebbs and flows of high intensity, fast-moving action, followed by slower-paced sections between rounds where we can talk about what the heck just happened, and plan our next moves. Hopefully, all that coalesces into a game that people want to play, stream, get good, and compete at the highest levels. We’ll follow the community’s lead and invest in what they want.

From some of the characters I’ve seen it looks like there is a lot of fantasy elements to the heroes. Are there other genres of heroes in the roster or that you expect to add? Perhaps some more steampunk or even sci-fi styled heroes?

We chose the “tabletop gaming” visual style for Spellcraft, in part because it opens the door to heroes from any universe you can possibly imagine. In our alpha, we’ve only got 9 heroes, and they run the gamut from fantasy, to sci-fi, to horror, to whimsy. We’ve definitely got your D&D tank and archer in Aster and Cage, but we’ve also got Reset (the big ole robot) and Europa (the one with the really big gun) from the Discovery Corps, a decidedly sci-fi duo. Then there’s Squiddleston, an octopus pirate captain with guns. Beyond those 9 heroes, we’ve got over 20 more in the works, hailing from 7 distinct worlds.

A big thank you to Jamie Winsor for taking the time to answer all my questions. I’m looking forward to jump into alpha myself!

Every other week, Massively OP’s Sam Kash delivers Fight or Kite, our trip through the state of PvP across the MMORPG industry. Whether he’s sitting in a queue or rolling with the zerg, Sam’s all about the adrenaline rush of a good battle. Because when you boil it down, the whole reason we PvP (other than to pwn noobs) is to have fun fighting a new and unpredictable enemy!
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