The gentlemen of Smashmuck talk champion design

Patrick Mackey
P. Mackey|11.01.13

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The gentlemen of Smashmuck talk champion design
Smashmuck Champions has a pretty diverse roster of characters, and it took a crazy group of mad scientists to assemble such a motley crew. It has everything from a robotic pop diva to an alien riding a velociraptor. Everything from the appearance to the gameplay of each character is fairly wild and unique, and it's clear that the design team goes out of its way to create avatars that are "not just another frost archer."

I sat down with the design team for the game, including Kiz Studios art director Allen White, lead designer Ben Rodgers, and lead developer Jacob Schieck. In-between the jokes (these are some funny guys), we had a pretty deep discussion about the wacky designs and what the team looks for when making a character.

Gameplay first!

One thing that I noted was that we started right off the bat talking about mechanics, and there was a strong emphasis throughout on play and feel. While it wasn't explicitly stated, gameplay was definitely the first element that came to the team's mind when talking about characters. But while balance is always a concern, they actually placed more emphasis on the fun of the design. "Balance is really secondary to fun," Rodgers explained to me. We all agreed that imbalanced characters weren't fun, so a lot of effort still goes into playtesting to make sure a character feels fair. However, it is a lot more important to Kiz to make sure a character isn't watered-down.

For example, we talked about Zert, who is currently somewhat of a problem for the devs. He has been buffed or nerfed a few times since the game has been in open beta, and he's currently in a bit of a weak state. "We're really having to re-evaluate him since the last nerfs," Kiz told me.

Internal playtesting was a key part of the design process. Sometimes characters get entirely changed before they see the light of day. "It's really easy to get the team excited to playtest a new champion," Jacob said. "If you ask people to playtest a champion, everyone volunteers. A lot of the time, we'll end up in games where we're all the new character."

"The first thing we look for is some hole in our lineup that we want to fill," Rodgers explained. For instance, one of the new Halloween characters is a fast combo mage who is a bit of a glass cannon, something that has been absent in the game until now. "She's fast and can really pour out the damage, but she has no real defense so she really has to pick her fights." Those roles have been traditionally filled by physical damage characters, specifically melee characters, so Kiz was keen on adding a character that deals elemental damage.

Fans make a big impact

Another example is the new PAX-designed character, an alien hobo who can hoard pickups by grabbing them and saving them for later. His design and basic concept were designed largely by fans, but the team had to take all those elements and turn them into a working character.

I asked how the developers work with so many ideas and produce a character that has only three active skills. They were quick to point out Dr. Jennifer (whose transformation into Mr. Bite gives her a total of four skills) as an exception, but they acknowleged that crowd-designing is challenging: "We really have to take the essence of the character and distill all the ideas that fit that into a working character." They also pointed out that Platimus' AoE field has effects on allies and enemies and is another example of putting multiple crowd ideas into one.

On that note, we also talked about skill swaps -- i.e., how players equip different weapons on their champion to exchange one of their skills. Because the design of some characters didn't work in all game modes, Kiz used skill swaps to shore up some of those weaknesses. For instance, Rook can replace his blink with an AoE meteor storm to help in game modes like Siege.

Even for the champions that aren't designed at a convention, the players have an enormous impact. "We often go to the forums and steal ideas from our players," they said, "and sometimes they have really good ideas, so we try them out." Players are even occasionally invited to play on the internal dev servers to test out new builds so that devs can get a good sense of the impact of new changes.

"I just draw pretty pictures"

After talking about gameplay for a long time, I tried to steer the conversation more toward the aesthetics of the game. Smashmuck has a very unique visual design, and I asked whether the devs thought the design was a detriment to the game. "We do get some comments like that, where people refuse to play a kid's game," White explained to me. "But a lot of the time they'll see a character and think that an alien riding a velociraptor is awesome. And we do try to be original." There was a bit of debate about whether characters in Smashmuck were at all cliched; White joked that Kiz just "glues two cliches together, so it's twice as good."

There is a strong emphasis on not using real weapons in character designs, as well: "We only really have one character that uses a real weapon, and that's Blitz, who uses a minigun." I volunteered my expert design advice, suggesting, "You could just duct tape three miniguns together, and it'd be three times as good."

We discussed lore and character backstory, and the Kiz reps mentioned that they do not like the current backstory text in the game. "We're going to do away with that before the game launches, because text is boring," White promised. "We're going to replace it with comic panels that tell a character story in a more appealing way."

They also explained that while they did have a plan for the story and the lore, the story is not really intended to be serious: "You may notice that the story is a little less plot and a little more jokes because we're looking to create something fun more than something serious."

It was really enlightening to talk to the guys at Kiz Studios about the design process. They were a really fun group of gentlemen that really showed the same kind of exuberance as the game itself. Thanks again for chatting with us!

When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!
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