Like plenty of real-time strategy diehards, I'm not a fan of MOBAs. So when I was invited to check out Dropzone, game claiming to be part RTS and part MOBA, I was curious but skeptical. That skepticism softened when I learned the developer, Sparkypants Studios, was made up of many of the old Big Huge Games team that created the stellar RTS Rise of Nations.
Dropzone, uniquely, is a 1v1 strategy game where each player controls three units. Like an RTS, the characters under your control can work as a group or be branched off to different objectives, but the maps are smaller, and you control the abilities of the group as a single entity, like a MOBA. And like both genres, Dropzone places a heavy emphasis on map awareness and avoiding tunnel vision in pursuit of a single objective.
Company president Jason Coleman said the team brainstormed a few ideas for its first game and felt it should focus on its strength. “We started looking at MOBAs, and considered a game derived from an RTS,” he said. “We wanted to strip out the base-building for accessibility and focus on competitive team play, but we found that it could be difficult to follow for new spectators and was missing the deep skill of split attention.”
The team refined its approach to focus on creating a 1v1-only game that retained the team fight dynamics in MOBAs, but made the player focus their attention on the map and responding quickly to various events. They gave each match a set length, with easy to learn rules and victory conditions so a spectator can pick it up quickly.
As I sat down to play Dropzone, I was worried I wouldn't be able to follow because I didn't understand the units and didn’t have deep knowledge of MOBA strategies.
To my surprise, before the 15-minute match was complete, I found myself cheering when a map point was saved, or a key defensive maneuver that changed momentum, while appreciating the use of an opportune heal or special ability. I understood what was happening as a spectator before anything was explained to me in-depth.
Part of this is due to the simple setup—Dropzone isn’t a game of a hundred characters. Players build a team of three characters from five classes. Right now, tank, gunner and mechanic are the only classes revealed. The setting is futuristic sci-fi, so the characters pilot mech-like ‘rigs,’ with the tank there to soak up damage, the gunner as dishing out DPS, and the mechanic supporting. There are, however, different variations of each class based on the character. For example Widget and Turbine are both mechanic characters, but Widget has a better heal than Turbine does. But all the characters can be customized with various loadouts that have been unlocked during previous play sessions. So if you want more firepower, you can build a gunner loadout that focuses on area of effect and higher DPS. If you want more crowd control from a mechanic, you can build a loadout that freezes units in place or slows them down. That flexibility is welcome.
Dropzone’s format is equally straightforward: get as many points as possible before the 15-minute time limit expires, with ties going to sudden death. To score points, you have to destroy alien hives at static positions around the map, pickup the cores that they drop, and upload them at the center of the map. The premise my sound simplistic, but when the action started, it proved to be very intense as I tried to stay ahead of my opponent either by uploading cores, or destroying his rigs and grabbing his cores to upload.
As you’d expect, characters level up over the course of a match. The minor twist is that you have to choose which character to allocate that level to. All experience is pooled, so if your tank has a cool ability that unlocks at level 4, you can focus on him, while your other characters stay at level 1. It definitely made for some interesting choices. In one game I maxed out my gunner to level five to unlock his super DPS ability. In another I got my mechanic to level 4 first so he had a better heal. Each time I played, I tried to refine my tactics and adapt to how my opponent was leveling their units.
The hives respawn after a short time, but with more AI defenders and hit points. For having such simple mechanics, Dropzone gives you a lot of stuff to keep tabs on. You get experience from killing hives and uploading cores, but you can also go for different objectives, like controlling all vision towers around the map for two points, or killing 10 sergeant aliens for four points. It kept the game at a frenetic pace, knowing I only had 15 minutes to get as many points as possible, and I had to figure out the most efficient way to do it while keeping my opponent in check.
Some of the devs have mastered dividing their team up to take on three separate objectives at once, while memorizing the hotkeys for each of the various special abilities that a character has. When I started, I kept my team together at all times and rarely used anything other than the basic attack. But before the day was done, and more than 30 matches under my belt against devs and the AI, I was actually starting to master the hotkeys and dividing my team up. And I understood the need for total map awareness, as the vision towers were important to see what my opponent was up to.
The overall experience really wore me out, but in a good way. It reminded me of the fast and furious nature of some of the best RTS matches I had seen in esports, which is something Sparkypants intended. The competitive nature of the 1v1 action was highlighted by the daily game among the devs. Each day at the studio, two members of the team square off against each other with the match shown on a big screen in the company lounge where the rest of the team observes, comments and takes notes on possible changes and refinements. During play, I found myself cheering at the timing of a good heal or a core upload just before a rig was destroyed. Not only was this multiplayer action that needed little explanation, it was really entertaining to watch.
Dropzone will be a free-to-play title, but Coleman insists everything will be unlockable through play. and while the game won’t ship with a lot of maps or unit abilities, Sparkypants plans on regualr updates to bring more heroes, skills and maps to the game. I admit that I’m always skeptical when I hear free-to-play because it ends up more often than not being pay to win. But after playing through Dropzone for several hours, I found the game had enough in it that kept me interested and going back for more.
As an RTS player nervous about MOBAs, I felt like Dropzone had enough strategic gameplay that I could overlook the MOBA elements. I joked to Sparkypants that Dropzone did feel more like a MOBA to me. Coleman laughed, saying that MOBA players felt it played more like an RTS. “So we must be doing something right if we are appealing to both sets of players.”