Interview: Counterplay Games' Keith Lee unveils competitive tactics game Duelyst

Nowadays, if you're getting into the competitive space of online games, you're probably going one of two routes. You could create a FPS, or perhaps add yet another title to the every growing massive genre that is MOBA.

Keith Lee from Counterplay Games is taking a slightly different path with his team's first title, Duelyst. The title forgos twitch-based gameplay and replaces it with carefully thought out tactics and strategies. It's quite an impressive feat, especially since it's centered around ranked competitive play. I was able to chat with Lee and get a better idea on what gamers can expect from Duelyst.

But before we dive into specifics about Duelyst, you might be wondering "Who is Counterplay Games? Can I expect a quality title from a studio I've never heard of?" You can relax, as the team is comprised of some truly talented developers. Keith Lee himself has been the lead producer on Diablo 3, lead game programmer at Insomniac (you can thank him for all the crazy weapon designs in Ratchet & Clank games), and eventually co-founded the mobile app development studio Booyah. It's safe to say Keith knows a thing or two about making video games.

Duelyst originated as an original tabletop game made by Lee and a few colleagues. The game ended up being so fleshed out that they wanted to bring over that competitive gameplay into an actual video game. They hoped this would allow a much wider audience to experience it. Thus, Duelyst was born. Instead of delivering a single-player focused tactics game, as is the genre's standard, the team instead wanted to focus on ranked competitive play.

Ranked competitive play and the tactics genre haven't really gone hand in hand before, but Lee is hoping to change that with the game's focus on live-synchronous play.

"The game is also live-synchronous, even though it can be played by email and asynchronously, but really our goal is to make it into something people can watch, and stream. Play head to head, find players, we have really good match making, and the idea of having 90 seconds to complete your turn solves a lot of problems with turn based strategy games where people start to withdraw and not play the game, so it makes sessions shorter."

Duelyst

Lee also makes a point that Duelyst is for competitive players who feel like they're not that great at twitch-based games like Counter-Strike or League of LegendsDuelyst allows for a different sort of gameplay while still maintaining large layers of depth and complexity to ensure that each battle plays out differently. He also points out that some gamers, like himself, aren't able to dedicate or invest a lot of time into each session, so he promises that at most, matches should last around 30 minutes or less if playing live-synchronously.

"The core of the game is allowing you to choose from a roster of tons of different type of units and spells and deploy them on a tactical map. We removed a lot of resource management and things like that, so your focus is just to defeat your opponent's general. It's 1v1, head to head and as a result, it keeps the game really fast.

Keeping players invested in their units instead of gathering resources is certainly a smart idea. However, players will still have to think strategically when they accumulate and use Action Points each turn. A player will be able to move and perform actions as long as he has enough Points to use per turn. These Action Points can also be spent on deploying more units onto the battlefield, and the way it was explained, is that units will have varied costs depending on their effectiveness. For example, a large number of throwaway infantry units might cost less than a more powerful unit.

Then comes the element of risk vs. reward. The General is both the most important and most powerful unit in the game. While you can do a significant amount of damage with him, it's also important to keep him protected, because once he falls, you've lost the match. Do you risk bringing him to the frontlines to take out a few units, or do you keep him as a last resort?

Duelyst

Even though Duelyst has a focus on playing competitively, it will come with a Single Player mode in addition to the three multiplayer modes. The Single Player mode is important since playing through it will unlock the majority of the units to use in the game's multiplayer modes.

"A really great analogy would be the original Plants vs. Zombies where you'd play certain levels, or even Hearthstone and play against certain AI, and you would then be able to unlock a new type of unit, or new type of plant, but in this case, you can use it in the future when you're customizing your squad for other modes.

The other three modes include Practice Casual, which allows players to get a feel for Duelyst without the fear of Ranked. The others are Ranked Normal and Ranked Draft. Ranked Normal allows you to customize your squad with unlocked units prior to battle and play against an equally matched player, while Ranked Draft unlocks all the available units and spells, and you can then draft them into your game before the match.

Lastly, I have to touch on the game's aesthetic. The artist behind the game worked on Rogue Legacy, which players might remember as the tough-as-nails but incredibly addicting 2D roguelike which also happens to look fantastic. Duelyst will also have that pixel-style aesthetic, but with some better looking shaders. In the trailer posted above, you can see just how impressive the game looks. 

Lee did mention that given the current state the game is in, it won't be ready until late 2014 or early 2015. Duelyst's Kickstarter campaign is currently live asking for a mere $68,000, so if you're a fan of tactics games, or like the idea of one becoming more competitively focused, go support it. Let's make those stretch goals happen!

Charmander
Mike Splechta GameZone's Editor-in-Chief, retro game enthusiast, savior of kittens. Follow me @Michael_GZ
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