Bless Unleashed E3 Impression and Interview
I had a chance to check out Bless Unleashed, a free-to-play MMO releasing on Xbox One. With five announced classes — Crusader, Berserker, Ranger, Mage, and Priest — each designed to be unique but self-sufficient, combat in Bless Unleashed moves away from the holy trinity of tank, healer, and DPS as the core makeup of player groups. Instead, the game can largely be played solo, though you’ll want a group of five for some of the harder dungeons, and a few groups for larger raid encounters.
I had a chance to play with a mage character. Combat feels different from the World of Warcraft-style of MMO. It is entirely action-based, with combos as standard attacks. I was able to start one of two combos depending on the button I pressed. Combos can then progress down different branching paths. Once a combo is started, an on-screen prompt shows options buttons to press to continue the combo in one of several ways.
This system is more engaging than the typical auto-attack system of games, but not so complex that it distracts from dodging enemy attacks or using my magic abilities. As a mage, my combo attacks were ranged, though only medium range attacks are available to keep ranged classes balanced against melee classes. I could also equip and use healing potions by pressing ‘down’ on the D-pad, and in the demo I was loaded up with copious amounts of them. I was able to equip up to four abilities or ‘blessings’, each which cost mana and had a variety of effects including doing damage, applying debuffs such as slowing enemies, or allowing me to teleport.
Mana is recovered by attacking enemies with combos, and can also be recovered by holding B when not in range of enemies. Overall, I found the system fun and it managed to engage my attention as I often had to switch between using combos and my different abilities to play optimally. On the other hand, it didn’t feel quite as smooth as it should transitioning between my character’s different actions, so a bit of polish here could go a long way.
I played solo in the demo, fought my way through the starting area, and faced the boss. The boss hit very hard, able to take me out with just a couple of hits, but was both slow and easy to dodge, leaving plenty of time to recover from mistakes. I didn’t see any graphical indicators of attack damage areas as has become common in MMOs, but attacks were well-telegraphed. The boss wasn’t anything to write home about, but it did bring more to the table than a typical tutorial boss. I did notice that the AI could at times be a bit slow or unresponsive and that enemies, including bosses, occasionally paused their actions, making fights easy and — for a ranged character like the mage — potentially even exploitable. Hopefully those issues will be ironed out in the beta period.
But enough about my experience with the demo. I also had the chance to chat with producer David Jaloza about the game, so let’s hear directly from him about the game.
Charalampos (Harry) Papadimitriou, RPGamer: Can you tell me a little bit about your involvement in Bless, and give me a quick overview of the game?
David Jaloza, Bandai Namco: I’m a producer at Bandai Namco. I work with the development team on getting the builds, helping with certification and QA, and we go back and forth on design input, that sort of stuff. For an overview of the game, Bless Unleashed is a free-to-play action MMORPG, set to come out for Xbox One later this year. The game takes place in a world with gods and mortals not dissimilar to the Greek pantheon where the gods are always fighting for power, and are pulling the strings of mortals to make it happen. The player is one of these mortals and trying to figure out what role they play in this epic struggle. That’s the backdrop. There’ll be five different classes to choose from. You have the crusader class, which is your knight, your sword and shield, a little bit of offense, a little bit of defense class. You have a Berserker, who’s like your big tank, your two-handed weapon, heavy-hitting class. Your ranger, your typical ranged class, as well as a mage and a priest. One thing that we do a little bit differently is having the priest class and mage class actually packing a lot of power and they’re not super vulnerable. What we wanted to do was get away from the holy trinity tank, healer, and DPS groups, and have every class be able to hold their own. So you can play a lot of the game single player if you’d like to and not really struggle. We’d like to think that the classes complement each other very well, but they don’t depend on each other. So you’ll never be in a situation where you can’t do a dungeon because there’s no healers online. So we’re excited to see how the fans react to that and how that plays out.
CP: So you said a lot of interesting things there. A lot of them relate to questions I already have so maybe I can just segue from that into the next question. One of the things you mentioned is that it’s a free-to-play game. So what is the monetization model behind that, how is that going to work?
DJ: It’s going to be mostly cosmetic, we’re really cognizant that even the perception of pay-to-win can hurt a free-to-play game. So we’re really diligent in making sure that the community knows and we show that our game is not pay-to-win. So lots of cosmetics, weapon skins, outfits, costumes, mounts, that sort of thing. We’ll also do minor convenience items, some things like teleportation might cost some currency to teleport from one place to the other. All it does is save you a little bit of time. Or a double XP potion for an hour. All it does is save you a little bit of time, it doesn’t give you this grand advantage over other people who might not have the means to pay. So we’re really trying to keep things fair and balanced as much as possible.
CP: So would it be fair to say that you’re putting the bar for what you pay for at things that won’t necessarily help you win, but at the same time potentially there could be some grindy aspects that you have to pay to get out of, such as maybe longer travel times, or longer level-up times?
DJ: Sure, yeah a little bit like that. And even with those, we don’t want to be very advantageous, so you wouldn’t spend $50 and be at max level, that’s a little crazy.
CP: It’s good to hear from the player perspective that you’re thinking about these issues and you are cognizant of that, and hopefully it will be a model where you guys benefit and can keep the game running, and players benefit because it will still be fun. It’s hard ground to navigate I think. There’s definitely games that have done it well like League of Legends for example is one that does it well. If you do it right everyone benefits.
DJ: Yeah, and where players feel it’s fair and they’re not disadvantaged, because you know, some people have more money than others, but the game shouldn’t prey on that.
CP: The other question I wanted to touch on and follow up to some of your introduction was the five classes and the online co-op party type gameplay. What have been some of the challenges in balancing the content so that all of the classes, and different sized groups can succeed in that content, and at the same time find it challenging?
DJ: Some content will scale based on how many people are there as far as difficulty of a boss or amount of hit points. We’re still balancing the skills and combat a bit to keep it fair. So you played yesterday, I forget which class you played —
CP: I played the magic class.
DJ: OK, so the mage. We talked about the range, where it looks like “oh, my fireball would totally hit that”, but no, we had to bring it in because the range classes were killing the melee classes all over the place. So to make it fair, we had to bring that in. Also, we’re still experimenting with the lock-on feature. In these games, especially console, you want a lock-on so you’re not trying to move the camera and fight your monsters. This was also giving the range classes an unfair advantage because they could lock on and run away. Those are challenges we’re still looking at and refining.
And then as far as dungeons, we look at data, we look at progression curves, see how long it takes, see how many times people might die on certain things. We keep going back and iterating, and iterating, and iterating.
CP: So you do that for the different party compositions, and different number of players to see how that works out?
DJ: Yeah, like let’s try all priests, and see what happens. Let’s try all priests and one ranger and see what happens.
CP: Alluding to some of the things that you said in the past when I talked to you during the demo, you said this was going to be coming out on Xbox One. Do you see any drawbacks in building a self-sustaining community when you’re limiting it to just one console? Is there a reason behind that exclusivity? Why was that decision made?
DJ: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have a good answer for it. Bandai Namco has a good relationship with Microsoft, and we decided to go that route. That’s not to say that after we release… you know, we are open to other consoles and platforms. But really it boiled down to wanting to get it right in one platform first and make sure it’s good and not lose focus. And Xbox won out on that one. I do not know or can speak to exactly why it was chosen over PlayStation, I wasn’t at the company when that decision was made so I’m not really sure.
CP: Sure, a lot of those things are relationship-driven, focus-driven, all those kinds of things. But do you think something like that might affect sustaining a community or are you not concerned about that?
DJ: With free-to-play games in general you always want more people, and with MMOs you need critical mass in order to make them work. There are lots of console players so right now it’s not something we’re worried about. Our projections show that it should go great. Obviously, if the game is bleeding users and no one sticks around, then that might be a different problem that we’ll need to fix.
CP: That’s another interesting thought. I used to be big into MMOs myself and have followed that industry for quite a while and have seen that in recent… I shouldn’t even say ‘recent’, because for quite a while it’s been really difficult for games, even really good games, to have staying power. And that’s been a struggle. There are some games that have stuck around like WoW, but those are typically the exception. What does Bless bring to the table that might be unique, or that might give it that kind of staying power?
DJ: That’s going to be a big challenge. I’ve been making games for a long time, you can do everything right and your game can still not succeed. But we’re doing a few things. Shortly after launch we’ll have a realm-vs-realm system, we’ll have end-game PvP, a lot of end-game stuff to keep players interested and coming back. We’ll be having content updates every few months with new quests, new weapons, new crafting items, all that stuff. And then even between that smaller content updates and bug fixes. So having a really strong community and engaging with the fans. Lots of events, including weekend events. Lots of social features like guilds or the Soul Pyres in the game will be small social hubs where players will get together to heal and we hope they socialize and team up and go out. If you have more friends playing the game, you’re more likely to play the game for longer. Making sure to check all the boxes and try to do everything right and hope it works out.
CP: Are there any specific features or mechanics that you might highlight as something that’s unique that Bless might be bringing to the table that will contribute towards creating and sustaining interest? Or are you more trying to refine existing systems?
DJ: It’s more refining existing systems. I think our moment-to-moment is really kind of what stands out with Bless more so than the meta. And how we’re going away from the holy trinity I talked about. Going into combat with five different people is going to feel different than other games. So that sets us apart a little bit. And then the fidelity of the graphics, they’re just beautiful. There’s not much out there in the MMO space that’s in Unreal 4 that looks so good. So we’re hoping that draws a lot of players in and keeping them for a little while too.
CP: You also mentioned PvP. Can you talk a little bit about what those options will be and what PVP will look like? You said realm-vs-realm, and potentially other types of PvP?
DJ: So we’ll have battlefields, if you played WoW they’re a very similar thing. A closed off space with teams of 15 people going at it, and we’re tracking kills, deaths, and which side wins. And then you’ll get currency from that to spend at the PvP store. We’ll also have certain areas that are sectioned off that are PvP areas. And if people start griefing they’ll be flagged. So there’ll be a little bit of everything.
CP: On the quest side of things — the single player PvE side — is the game set up like a quest hub or is there a different design?
DJ: Yeah, there’ll be hubs. So you’ll go from area to area, but on your travels in between you might find side quests, like a farmer who needs help with something, or a big giant that’s attacking something. So pretty standard as far as quest progression that people are used to playing MMOs.
CP: Is that progression tied to an overarching narrative or is it independent per area?
DJ: Overarching narrative, and a little bit of both. So you go to a town, the town might have it’s specific smaller story arcs, but the reason you’re in the town is to progress the larger story arc that we’re telling.
CP: Can you share any of the setup behind that? You mentioned a little bit at the beginning about the world, but I’m not sure if you can share more details, without spoiling anything!
DJ: Yeah, I don’t want to spoil it. You wake up at this festival in a small town and the town is attacked and besieged. The priestess there is killed, and you don’t know why. Your journey is to try to figure it out. You’re also having visions of a god trying to set you on the right path so you can save the world and you’re trying to figure out what’s going on there. I feel ok sharing that because that’s in our longer trailer that’s out there. So yeah there’s a little bit of mystery, I don’t want to spoil much, but there is an engaging story that the player will be playing through until they reach a certain level, and then we’ll have other story arcs, and we’ll be continuing that story arc as expansions come in.
CP: Is the game entirely online? Are there any single player missions or things that players can do without forming a party and potentially even offline?
DJ: There’s no offline play, you have to be connected to a server to play. But the player can play a lot of single player if they want to. That’s one tenant we’re behind, making each class solid. You can play a lot of the game single player if that’s what you choose. If you want to participate in battlegrounds or the higher level dungeons you’re going to want three to five people with you. But a lot of the game, if you wish you should be powerful enough to solo if that’s how you like to play.
CP: You mentioned to me that there are also raiding encounters, where it’s more than five people, for twenty people or so?
DJ: Yeah, there are ‘Field Bosses’ right now. You’ll encounter them throughout the world and they’ll take more than a few people to knock down. If you try to solo it you’re going to have a bad time. We want to get as many people in there as possible. Right now I think twenty is the number, but that’s something we’re looking in our beta tests. We’re seeing for example, what is the frame rate when we have twenty or thirty people around this big boss. And OK, let’s turn down the particles, or maybe we make it twenty, not thirty. That’s kind of what we’re looking at in our betas right now — to have as many people as possible without sacrificing performance.
CP: For the reward design, how are you balancing that between the single player group and then that bigger type of raid content? Is the best stuff locked behind those raid bosses, or if not, what might you get for investing in those kinds of efforts?
DJ: We want to be balanced and fair, so participation counts. As far as the final loot drop system, I have to get back to you. How I understand it now – but I’m a little shaky – is that everyone gets something for participating. And then that drop might be a little random. So if you spend a long time killing a big boss, you’re going to get something great. But we don’t have a system where that boss will drop one thing, and if you’re quick enough to get it, it’s yours. It drops something for everyone who actually did damage to the boss and participated.
CP: Should I expect that all the best stuff in the game will be locked behind those bigger bosses? Or will there be equivalent types of things I can get from the group content?
DJ: It’ll depend on how you want to play. Obviously taking risks or doing the bigger bosses will get you nicer stuff. But if you’re not into PvP and you’re more into PvE, there’s PvE gear that you can craft and get. If you’re not into PvE, then you can still participate in PvP and get that gear. There will be a lot of crafting. We also have a marketplace or an auction house. So let’s say you spend a lot of time gathering resources. You can probably get nice items in the auction house and not have to participate in the raids and what have you, and still craft armor or get armor that you want.
CP: How does crafting work? Is there a system in place that you can describe?
DJ: It’s pretty stereotypical for what you expect from MMOs. There are different crafting vendors like a weaponsmith, cloth merchant, that type of thing. You would bring them specific materials that you then use to craft. Sometimes there are materials that might give you a little bit of randomness, and so you might want to craft something two or three times and see if you get the best stats. We’re working with the developers to make sure this doesn’t feel too grindy. We know that in some MMOs you need to cut down trees for something like two days in order to get one piece of armor. We don’t want to be that grindy. But yeah you’ll also be able to enchant items. The closest thing to that I can think of right now is the ‘rune’ system from WoW or Diablo, so you can like imbibe weapons with different abilities later on toward the end-game with your crafting ability.
CP: So you have to build your crafting ability as well when you progress your character?
DJ: Yeah, you’ll start off being able to craft only so much, and that will progress on.
CP: What about the rest of the character progression? How does that work? How do people level up, how do they gain skills, what are the systems there?
DJ: You level up by getting XP. You get that by doing quests and killing monsters. As you level up you’ll get skill points toward ‘blessings’. Blessings are your special abilities, so like your fireball, your teleport, your healing. There’ll be different branches that you go down. So you can change the abilities, so instead of a frost bolt, it becomes an AoE thing that freezes everyone around you. Or you can decide, no, I’m going to double down and make that frost bolt even more powerful. So there are a few different paths each class can take by customizing these blessings. We’re still balancing out how strong or weak they are, but that’s how the player will progress. And you’ll be able to find blessings as well. And then as the game progresses, we’ll release more blessings with content updates.
CP: Are you locked in once you go down a path or can you re-spec?
DJ: There’ll be a way to reset that. It might be a dual cost, so it might cost a lot of soft currency, or you can pay [real money] and be able to do it.
CP: When I played the game I saw that you can only equip a limited amount of blessings to use — I had four equipped. Some other MMOs have a lot more skills available at any given time to use. What are some of the thoughts going into the decision to have that more limited number of abilities available at any given time? How will that affect gameplay and how players approach and interact with the different encounters in the game?
DJ: Really good question. The decision is due to making it for console. That’s a huge challenge, you have like 25 buttons you can interact with on a PC, how do you do this on a controller? So we had to limit the amount of skills that you’ll get at any given moment. We tried to balance those out. So the mage, for example, has a slow-down, a stun, a teleport, and a big DPS. Try to balance those so you have a lot of tools in your… toolbelt I guess? As far as gameplay goes, when you’re in combat you cannot switch out blessings, but before, when you prepare for a fight, you can bring up your blessings menu and be like, OK, I know this guy is horrible against fire, so let me grab my fire blessings. Now I’m ready and set, let’s go! We’re approaching it that way as opposed to trying to come up with a menu system that’s just not intuitive and kind of daunting.
CP: So depending a lot more on players preparing and figuring out how to optimize setups, and going that route?
DJ: Right, yeah.
CP: What is the death penalty if you end up taking on more than you can chew?
DJ: It’s not bad. I mentioned the Soul Pyres earlier, the little bonfires sprinkled out through the world where you regain health and act as little social hubs. When you die, you get teleported back there. There are a lot of them, so one is usually not too far off. Then you’ll need to sit and heal for a minute. If you keep dying and keep dying and keep dying, there may be a little bit of a waiting penalty, and this might be a spot of monetization also. Like you can wait right now or spend a little bit of Star Seed [in-game currency] or currency to resurrect right away. But there’s no running back to your corpse to get your loot and that type of stuff.
CP: So as a philosophy you don’t believe in a more punishing death penalty?
DJ: No, we want to keep people in, keep them playing, keep them happy. That’s how you retain players for a long time. If I die and I know this is going to be twenty minutes until I can play, I’m going to play the other thing that’s sitting there.
CP: In terms of the launch content, how many hours do you think it will take for players to complete that?
DJ: That’s a good question. I want to say thirty-to-forty-plus hours at least, and that’s if you’re head-down and going straight through and not participating in some of the more casual aspects such as the side quests, GM events, and social events.
CP: And once that’s done, what kind of cadence are you looking at for releasing additional content?
DJ: Right now it’s about small drops of content every month, and every third month you’ll have a much larger drop. But we’re going to look at the data in the community and see how that works for them. If they’re starving for content in shorter time then we’ll adjust. If they’re still chewing at it and having fun then we’ll try to squeeze more in. So just really having a finger on the pulse of the community. And fixing bugs, and if everyone hates something, let’s adjust it. In the end the game is not for us, it’s for the community, so we want to do whatever makes them happy.
CP: Any final thoughts that you want to share with our readers?
DJ: We’re excited for people to jump in and play and give us your feedback via Twitter or what have you. With players being vocal and constructive about what they like and don’t like, that’s what’s going to make the game better and more successful. Our community team is always reaching out, always eager to hear from the fans what they dig and what they don’t dig because it will make the game better.
CP: Have you made any changes based on feedback that you’ve heard so far?
DJ: We already have, yeah. We ran our first beta a month or two ago, and we gathered up every single piece of feedback, we categorized it and counted how many people had each issue. We reached out to some people that we could, and it got put on a schedule, and the fixes will be in the next beta.
CP: Well thank you for taking the time, I really liked learning more about the game and am looking forward to it!
DJ: Thank you!
RPGamer would like to thank David Jaloza and Bandai Namco for letting us check out the game and spend time discussing it at E3. Bless Unleashed is set to be released for Xbox One later this year.