“It’s really all about big starships blowing each other up. “ This is how Dreadnought Game Director and developer Peter Holzapfel of Yager (of Dead Island fame) sums up the game.
One thing is for sure: Dreadnought certainly blew up PAX Prime 2015, landing with a huge booth and hundreds of fans in a line that stretched completely around the booth—every single day of the show. Clearly, the team(s) behind the game are onto something.
I’d never even heard of Dreadnought going into PAX Prime 2015 this year. I made an appointment based on little more than a hastily skimmed email, from which my takeaway was “spaceship battle game”. It’s a genre rarely seen these days. I expected a small indie booth with some slow-moving, niche turn-based affair or something.
But I’m glad I didn’t read the email more closely, because Dreadnought wasn’t just a surprise to me—it was easily one of my favorite games of the show.
Large screens streamed live games to viewers, where we watched huge capital ships maneuver and jockey for position before firing salvos of torpedoes and beam weapons into each other. A nuclear missile was launched from a Destroyer while the other ships scrambled for cover. A Corvette-class ship performed an Immelmann maneuver, narrowly evading a beam weapon from a Dreadnought, and then delivers a final, fatal cannon salvo to its attacker—all of it excitedly relayed by a couple shoutcasters.
It’s a trap!
Dreadnought is essentially a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) type game inspired by classic science fiction starship battles from movies and television, such as those in Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Star Trek, and many others.
But calling it a MOBA is a bit inaccurate and a bit of a disservice. Dreadnought is not just some League of Legends clone. It has more in common with the likes of World of Warships or mech-combat game Hawken. There are no lanes, minions, or heroes. There is no ‘leveling’ in the game (only the metagame). There are no ‘towers’.
This is space. We fly around and blow sh*t up, sometimes from extreme range, in a hail of particle beam arrays, missiles, rail guns and ion cannons.
Meet the Dreadnought – and its buddies
Currently, there are 5 classes of ship— the titular Dreadnought, the Destroyer, the Corvette, the Artillery Cruiser, and the Tactical Cruiser. There are 3 variants within each class, each with their own unique style of play. You can also customize every ship with your own preferences.
Every ship can be heavily customized with different combinations of tactical options, weaponry, and abilities. You can customize the cosmetics as well, selecting different color schemes and decals to give every ship in your fleet a unique look.
Each ship class fills a basic role, similar to an FPS class or MOBA class. (If you want to skip the following paragraph, just watch the video.)
Dreadnoughts are the “tanks” of the game, able to soak up punishment. Tactical Cruisers are essentially the “healers” and can repair other ships, or “debuff” other ships by draining shields. Artillery Cruisers are the “snipers” of the game—glass cannons able to hit hard from long range, but fragile if flanked or engaged at close range. Corvettes are relatively small, fast, and more maneuverable than the other ship classes. Destroyers are powerful ‘generalists’ with a wide range of abilities depending on how you want to configure one.
Starship Captaining 101
Dreadnought is not a plodding turn-based game of Starfleet Battles that requires a math degree and 12 hours of free time to play, and accessibility is important to the team—and to making the game more appealing to a wider audience of players.
The standard controls for Dreadnought are very MOBA-like. (They are in fact very similar to Smite, which might be why Dreadnought resonates with me.) Directional movement is handled by the W-A-S-D keys, while your ship abilities are selected with keys 1 through 4, and then activated/fired by the left mouse button. The Q, E, R, and F keys are also mapped to auxiliary functions, similar to the way they are mapped in a MOBA. (I didn’t use these much in my playtime because I was learning on-the-fly.)
Dreadnought uses the middle mouse button to pull up a power wheel used to divert power to engines, weapons, or shields. It’s a great design, adding the oft-used Starship battle concept of diverting energy to different tactical systems, but it’s immediately understandable. Divert power to shields to improve defenses, divert power to engines to improve speed, or divert power to weapons to increase damage output.
Even the fastest ships—the Corvettes—still move relatively slowly, but they have a number of movement-based special abilities such as a short-range warp (a blink-like teleport basically), and another that performs an Immelmann maneuver (loop and turn basically) when activated. Not every ship upgrade is just another type of weapon.
I played several live matches alongside Peter Holzapfel, Game Director for Yager, with a team of QA folks stationed in Texas. Tony Medrano, Creative Director at Six Foot (who are co-developing Dreadnought with Yager), assisted me with controls and direction. (He was my “Number 2”, if you will.)
Although the ships in Dreadnought move relatively slowly, they have considerable range, which means combat is still fast-paced because someone can nearly always shoot at you. Battles are as much (or more) more about tactical position, teamwork, and timing than just centering an enemy in crosshairs and clicking.
And our matches (2 Team Deathmatches and 1 Deathmatch Elimination match) were quick indeed, taking less than 20 minutes total. And we even emerged victorious, despite the handicap of the Scrub, aka media-guy-who-had-never-played-before, i.e. me.
Team Deathmatch is a straightforward firefight, with each team trying to get the most kills to win the match. If you die, you can respawn and re-enter the fray. Team Elimination has an interesting twist: If you are destroyed, you respawn as a small fighter. Alone your firepower is pretty limited, but you can still fly around the battle in a ship that is small, fast, and maneuverable, and contribute to your team’s damage output. And 3 fighters working as a team can even be a bit problematic for an enemy ship (Remember those fragile artillery cruisers?)
“Dreadnought moves slowly, but the battles are still quick, still fast-paced. We wanted to make the game accessible but still have all the things we love about big starship battles.”
Peter Holzapfel, Game Director, Yager
Dreadnought has considerable depth amongst the 15 ships and all of their variations and available configuration options. Leveling in the metagame serves to unlock more options (albeit not ‘better’ ones), but the team definitely aims to ensure it never becomes “pay to win”.
The focus of monetization will be on cosmetics—skins, decals, and other ‘accessories’ for your fleet of ships, which will grow and change as you level up through the meta game. These are relatively new additions to the current build. You also have crew members that give you additional abilities to further enhance and distinguish your ships from other players. (Here’s hoping for a pirate voice/sound pack, or maybe something by Nathan Fillion…)
Stay on target
Dreadnought is still early in development, but the teams are hoping to hit closed beta by early 2016 (January if we’re lucky), and open beta sometime thereafter.
But while their current focus is on refining what they have, it’s impossible not to get caught up in imagining what could be done with this basic idea, and they confessed at PAX 2015 that there are lots of ideas they want to explore.
For example, Holzapfel and Medrano both indicated that Co-Op and other game modes are all potential routes for expansion once they’ve nailed the starting formula anyway. eSports may be in the future too if the excited shoutcasters at the Dreadnought booth are any indication.
So if you’ve ever wanted to make the Kessel run through the Kobayashi Maru (even though it’s a trap) and just blow some bastards back to hell, keep a close eye on Dreadnought. You can even sign up for the (eventual) Dreadnought beta on the Dreadnought Website *now*.