The best, most innovative multiplayer action game released in the last 5 years has gone belly up without a playerbase.
“Stunlock Studios was founded in May 2010 by a group of newly graduated students at the University of Skövde. The group has worked together since 2008 on the game Bloodline Champions which was released in January 2011. The company has its focus towards the competitive gaming scene and Bloodline Champions is an arena PVP game with a unique and fresh game play that makes sure to give the player an action filled arena battle experience.” (http://www.stunlockstudios.com)
What Stunlock accomplished was to create a balanced, complex game that required teamwork, fast thinking, and twitch reflexes. While often compared to DoTA and League of Legends, Bloodline Champions ultimately had more in common with World of Warcraft’s Arena PVP. The genius of it, the difficulty of it, the innovation, however, was also its downfall. Every champion (or Bloodline) has 7 skills, every single one of them a skillshot, every single one of them with some sort of unique effect.
WASD controls movement relative to the mouse cursor, which is also the aimpoint for your skillshots. Successful landing attacks gives your Bloodline Energy, which can then be used for either Ultimates or EX abilities. Mouse 1 Attacks are similar to autoattacks from other games in that they have little cooldown and can be used constantly, they also give the most energy per hit. There are ranged and melee Bloodlines, but every Bloodline has 7 abilities, many of which will be ranged. There are stuns, roots, pulls, escape abilities, damage buffs, heals, debuffs, damage over times, a huge variety. And since no character has a mana bar, you are limited only by the cooldown timer. Trying to keep as many of your skills in use at a time, while still using them effectively and saving some to escape, is the focus of combat. Pressuring the enemy team, using ultimates to burst down vulnerable characters, and sticking together are huge factors in who wins a fight.
Almost always, in the more balanced 3v3 mode (2v2 was fun as well, but certain Bloodlines predominate), the team to lose a Bloodline first was the team that lost. With 6 abilities and an Ultimate, a Bloodline at even a sliver of health can put out a lot of damage and control. In addition to all the great gameplay the game had a robust backend: stat tracking that let you know just how valuable you were after every round (the best way to judge your contribution to the team was the summation stat, but it also showed you damage, protection, healing, control, energy gained, etc.), a chat system with user-created channels, a friend system, clan support, a matchmaking and custom game system, a tournament system with spectator and replay support, and an easy to navigate user-interface and store. Even the graphical style was amazing, a stylized and painterly look that made each champion look unique, with pretty particle effects and clear team color differentiation. Now you might be beginning to wonder how such a good game could be dead in the US and on life support in Europe in terms of player numbers.
It is difficult to accept for me that this game has not gotten the popularity it deserves, but there are many reasons for it that while clear, are also sad. One is publisher support. Funcom picked up the game only to drop it. Lack of advertising (though there was some), steep prices in the in-game store, and ultimately (I believe) pressure to make changes to the game that have secured it’s downfall. The recent patch added a system similar to marks and masteries from League of Legends, ruining (in my opinion) one of the most attractive aspects of the game, that you know the capabilities down to exact damage numbers (no random damage, no critical hits) of the bloodlines you are facing once you see the startup cinematic.
This game was always compared to MOBA games, when it should have been marketed instead to the fighting game and FPS crowd, and they have finally succeeded in making it more like what it never was. A major beef, even for a crazed fanboy like me, was the terrible support of the publisher for the US market. Both developer and publisher being based in Europe made this more difficult, but there is no excuse for the lack of a West Coast server, or even Central. The only US server was in NY which gave me an average ping on my connection of 100 or 110, which is really unacceptable for such a timing-heavy game.
The other problem was the steep learning curve. Anyone expecting a laid-back experience in which one farms for 20 minutes before finally fighting would have been rudely thrust into an arena in which a single positioning misstep or missed skill means the difference between life and death. And there is no reward to cushion your failure. The lack of any RPG elements, the games very strength, also meant that there was no satisfaction to be had. The player losing a game of League of Legends still gets to farm some creeps, acquire some gold, and buy some items, giving him a sense of progression. Bloodline Champions offers only the grind for Bloodcoins to purchase new Bloodlines and the gaining of rank on the multiplayer ladder.
The blockbuster effect that I’ve noticed with multiplayer games also seemed to deflate the community. Competitive games are better with large numbers of players, both because of talent pool at the high level and in-crowd fascination at the low-level. So people hop on the bandwagon together, the star players for the extra fans and the fans to play the same game as the stars.
Changes in gaming culture may also play into its demise. Where once the hardcore reigned supreme as the only gamer on the block, now casual players are increasingly influencing the decisions of what games are available and who is playing them. League of Legends was released at just the right time, with just the right design choices, to win over the casuals and (enough of) the hardcore. Bloodline Champions was made only for the hardcore and never regained momentum after launch. The fragmentation of the community is also a factor. Multiplayer games have never been made in such abundance, now that developers realize how important multiplayer is to a games success (or that a game can succeed on multiplayer alone). The titans of the multiplayer scene, Counter-strike, Starcraft, WoW, are still around and big, but there are many multitudes of smaller games that each bite up slices of the playtime pie. In a market with 10 good multiplayer games, 9 of which are more popular, Bloodline Champions seems unattractive to a prospective player.
The initial price of Bloodlines may also have been a factor. If you didn’t know the several tricks, including the bonus coins gained for playing in matchmaking and the achievement system, you could use to earn 17,000 coins in a day or two, it would take almost a week to grind up enough to buy a new Bloodline. I owned six Bloodlines, all without paying money, although Stunlock deserves heaps of it, because I played nearly every day. But the casual user looks at the number 17,000 and the 50-100 coins earned from every battle and decides he has something better to do. The 35$ price of the full game is actually very reasonable, though the 90$ Titan edition is over-the-top (but gives lots of goodies), and the cosmetic items (new skins, weapons, custom taunt animations) gave no in-game advantage while looking very pretty indeed.
I played BLC (as players shortened it to) from Beta 2 through the slow death of US matchmaking, playing, because of the small community, with some of the better US competitive players on a fairly consistent basis. I was never top tier, but I enjoyed playing to win in a game designed for just such a mindset. The community was actually cognizant of the need to grow the game and offered me lots of tips and help in learning how to play, a fresh experience compared to the blame-game trash-talking encountered at newbie-tier in LoL or DoTA. The game’s balance improved massively from Beta to launch and, given the number of 3 man team combinations, proved to have no real tier-list of Bloodlines who were good or bad. Any glaring balance problems were quickly pointed out to the devs by the playerbase, and the devs definitely listened. Since changes had such a huge effect, Stunlock made only minor changes, usually bringing Bloodlines up to par with others rather than swinging them between wildly overpowered and useless.
In conclusion, Bloodline Champions represents for me a failure of both gaming culture and the publisher. Innovation in every area, strong balance, and good design would be rewarded, in a mythical just world, with success and popularity. Instead, the developers have crippled an already dying game to appease their publisher and let their lack of success get to them. Gaming culture is to blame for not being up to the challenge, for playing in herds, for missing out on one of the deepest, most satisfying games of skill I have ever played.