It looks like Tron mashed up with American Gladiators and dodgeball. Six characters – three blue, three yellow, are facing off. The two teams are working to capture points on the map that sprout holographic fields once captured. One of the yellow players captures a point, and a yellow windmill-like design pops out.
A blue player that was about to capture it gets toasted, and it’s now three versus two. Then, a Shock player from the yellow team drops their shock skill, letting their Blade teammate take the stunned player down. It’s one versus three.
That last blue player, though, is a Thief class player, and they roll in from the side, stealing that yellow windmill, turning it blue. In the process they manage to run over the blue symbols still hovering for both of their teammates, reviving everyone. In one move, a team near defeat has suddenly evened the odds and the game is on.
This is Roll7’s Laser League, and it might just be the next big thing in eSports, following hot on the heels of Rocket League‘s success. Despite the name, there’s no direct relation between the two.
If you haven’t heard of Roll7 yet, it’s okay – this is their first venture into competitive games, online games, and three-dimensional games. Until now, the team has been best known for OlliOlli, the brutally difficult and addictive side-scrolling skateboard game. An ultra-violent side-scroller called Not a Hero followed, along with a sequel to OlliOlli. But the team was ready for a change.
After a few pixel games, the team’s ambition grew. As early as 2013, the team had a prototype for Laser League.
“When we signed OlliOlli, we were messing with this game, literally lines and dots on a screen,” said Roll7 Director Simon Bennett. “We would take it to London indies, to E3, to GDC, play it with developers behind closed doors, in hotel rooms. It was just this fun thing that we’d play. It was like pong – just these little dots, running around.”
“But then we made all these games, and we saw the ambition of other independent studios, going no-no-no, we gotta do something big, giant, and we were like ‘Oh, you can have that level of ambition in a small studio!'” Bennett said. “We looked at what it would take to turn this lines-and-dots prototype into something massive – something 3D. So we moved to Unreal, w brought on a big team, partnered with 505 [Games], and the rest is history.”
The team has been working actively on Laser League for about a year, and they want to get the game into players’ hands before too long. While the team isn’t actively looking to push Laser League into the eSports space, they’re definitely treating it like a sport, and Bennett says Early Access is part of that.
We’ve invented a new sport
“We’ve invented a new sport,” he said. “Every new sport has–it doesn’t just happen. The rules of a sport don’t just suddenly exist, they happen over a period of time.”
In basketball, the three-point shot wasn’t made official until the 1979-80 season, Bennett pointed out, and that change, considered a gimmick at the time, changed the game massively.
“We want to go into early access to take what we think is a refined experience that plays, works, is fun… then work with our athletes, our players, to create that rulebook.”
When the team has those rules solid, when it feels, Bennett said, like a sport rather than a game, then it’ll come out of early access.
I’d played a couple rounds of Laser League before hopping into my chat with Bennett. The game has a slight learning curve, but I was pulling off some slick moves in just a couple minutes. There are six classes to choose from, each with its own ability: Shock, Smash, Ghost, Thief, Blade, and Snipe.
As described before, the Shock class stuns players, while Blade functions similarly to Genji in Overwatch – a dashing slash move. The Thief can steal captured points. Ghosts can phase through lasers, and Smash characters can knock opponents around. Probably my favorite class, though, is Snipe. This character works a bit differently from a traditional sniper. Instead of trying to hit one of these moving targets, you’ll drop a home point somewhere on the board. Then, as you move around, a visible line connects you back to that home point. When you activate it, you’ll, as Bennett put it, ‘teleslice’ anyone between you and your home point. Despite the visual indicator that would let you avoid the snipe move, it’s still surprisingly useful and is satisfying very quickly.
I talked with Bennett about what sort of hooks the game will have. Even a deeply entertaining game like the aforementioned Overwatch has hooks to keep pulling players back in, and so does Laser League. There are two progression systems in the game – Experience and Mastery.
Experience is a general point system that levels you up, with levels providing cosmetic unlocks of various kinds – brands, kits, laser textures, and even emoji you can drop during play. Mastery is sort of a class-based achievement system. Each class has a bunch of Mastery tasks that you can accomplish to level up your Mastery of that character. It doesn’t give you a gameplay edge over the other players, it simply advertises to others that you know what you’re doing.
Instead of trying to insist you’re really good as Widowmaker, the mastery level is intended to advertise that you can walk the walk. I’m concerned about the lifespan on this system, but I love the idea and hope it works as Bennett expects.
Laser League will be the first game from Roll7 with full “proper” online. We’ll see matchmaking, party play, and local play.
At this point in the conversation, Bennett paused, then tensed up. He started to stand a bit and shouted a good “Yeah!”
Even when we accept that this game is his baby, his reaction to an upcoming play was no different from what we’d expect in a sports match. When the play finally ended, the players across the room all cheered in unison, along with those watching. This happened over and over as we chatted.
“That reaction? That’s what I want to hear,” Bennett said.
And I have to agree. The basic loop of Laser League is immediately fun and absolutely skill-based. If Roll7 can present it well, I could see this game catching on in competitive circles. And the second it’s in Early Access, it’ll definitely end up in my local gaming group’s rotation.
Laser League joins Early Access this summer, with a hope of going to a final build in the first quarter of 2018. The team is aiming for a PC release first, but once the game is finalized enough to feel like a sport, consoles will come soon after.