Now, however, Trion is much farther along in the game's development, so much so that it's readying for a closed beta in just a few weeks. And as Game Director Dave Luehmann unveils a much more polished build of his company's upcoming free-to-play strategy title, another interesting influence emerges: Riot Games' League of Legends.
Initially, Luehmann brushes off a comparison between the title he's working on and Riot Games' MOBA success. "They're in two different categories of games," he says. "At a higher level, they're strategy games, but I think that's where the overlap starts and ends." He's wrong, though: The similarity is there, on quite a few levels.
It's very apparent in the gameplay, which, over development, has become much more action-oriented than the longer building patterns of traditional RTS. The "company" you choose (each player can build three groups and switch between them, even during a match if there are enough resources) is much more streamlined towards one function than it was earlier in development.
In the last preview of the game, you could build an army of all different kinds of troops: set up an air unit to scout forward, infantry to move and flank, and a tank unit to hold ground, all in one company. But Trion's development has pushed those roles apart. Now, there are hero units that will empower certain unit types, so you can add a hero infantry unit to your troop, with special abilities that add more power to just the infantry. You still can build out companies with a diverse set of units, but putting a hero in the company doesn't just take up space; it encourages you to specialize that company into one or two roles.
The core hardcore players will be one of the first groups to come in and their feedback will be some of the best we'll get.- Dave Luehmann
That means that games play out much more positionally and tactically. Before, if you ran three groups of units on the map, you'd have to manipulate them all on three different fronts. But with one big group of powered-up infantry troops, you can engage the enemy tactically from one position. During one match, I poked around two player-run tank companies with a cluster of infantry, manipulating them into just the right spot -- and then dropping an orbital strike on their heads. Like League of Legends (where player control is given to one unit at a time), gameplay has become less about how well you can multitask, focusing more on how players best control the units in their command. "It's much more tactical strategy," says Luehmann. "Get in there and start fighting. I think it's more approachable."
Players will undoubtedly argue endlessly about which the best company builds are. Balance here will be a nightmare, with all of the units from both sides available at different times for players progressing through the system. But Luehmann says that balance is paramount for the team, and it will work for Trion's plans in terms of ongoing content. "When I started playing the game," he says, "I had a couple of particular units that were my favorites; I played them a lot and they were effective. And then other people found units that were counters to them, so I had to adjust strategy."
Swapping companies out in the middle of a match makes everything more complicated as well -- like switching champions out in a LoL match -- but Luehmann says Trion examine how players use that fuctionality, making sure it's limited enough to force interesting choices. "You'll run into times when it's too late to do that, you don't have the resources any more. You didn't lay your strategy out in advance well enough to be able to capture the map well enough to do that."
The gameplay isn't the only place where End of Nations has some similarity to League of Legends, there's also a difficulty curve of gargantuan proportions. There is some single-player content, and there are even multiplayer maps where you never fire a single shot against the other player, instead battling along parallel paths trying to claim a number of limited resources against AI.
But Trion understands that Player-vs-Player is the main draw for its free-to-play title, so when the "open beta" finally begins later this summer, it will be PvP only. "We think the PvP mode of gameplay actually nicely aligns with those early adopters," says Luehmann. "The core hardcore players will be one of the first groups to come in and their feedback will be some of the best we'll get."
The "PvP Preview" will serve as a prequel to End of Nations' core story, and then later on this fall, the game will launch for everyone, complete with full multiplayer co-op and single-player content. There's already a very complex customization system built into the game, and it appears that Trion is banking on allowing players to pay to skin their units. The build we played had everything from camo skins to rainbow coloring, all the way to a skin that looked like Luehmann's favorite breakfast meat, bacon.
Each unit can also be customized with add-on parts, which will also presumably be sold via microtransactions. In that respect, Luehmann finally relents on the game's similarity to LoL. "The financial model is probably most similar to League of Legends," he says, talking about how monetization comes from customization and playstyle choice, not from gameplay advantage. "As long as it doesn't have an effect on the balance and quality of players' skill, it's much more along the lines of, vanity is the way to go, convenience is the way to go."
End of Nations has become more interesting over time, and given that the free-to-play game won't need to worry about retail sales, the biggest factor going forward will just be to see how players respond to the maps and units that Trion and Petroglyph have put together. League of Legends has definitely showed that there's a demand for a free-to-play hardcore competitive title, no matter how impenetrable it may be for casuals. If Trion can attract the right players during its open beta, that audience could flock to this game as well.