After last year’s less successful venture with Rocket Arena, EA’s back with a new arena-based experience. Developed by Velan Studios, Knockout City isn’t taking the battle royale route like many games and instead focuses on smaller team play, utilising gameplay mechanics reminiscent of Dodgeball. Letting you form up crews, everyone's playing with the same abilities.
Launching on May 21st, Knockout City’s coming to PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC, while also supporting backwards compatibility and enhancements for PS5 and Xbox Series X|S. Better yet, players can access it through EA Play and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate from day one, and it offers full cross-platform multiplayer.
In preparation for this upcoming release, Gfinity was invited to take part in a roundtable interview with several other websites. Speaking to Velan Studios joint-founders (and brothers) Guha and Karthik Bala, they were kind enough to tell us more about their upcoming game.
I wanted to ask about how Knockout City began. I understand this was about four years ago it first started, was this the first project your studio ever worked on? I know the studio was set up in 2016.
Guha Bala: It’s interesting because I think we set up the studio with the premise of “let’s go start building stuff that we’re curious about”, and see if we could find something fun. Knockout City was one of the early experiments where we – well, it wasn’t the first game from the studio, because of Mario Kart Live which was the first one released last fall. But it was one of the early prototypes that we did, where we said “what kind of experience can we create for online multiplayer games?”, and well, there are amazing developers and amazing multiplayer games in big shooter franchises out there.
So, we thought “we could make another traditional shooter” and we could make a good one, but it's not gonna change the world necessarily. We thought about the concept of throwing and catching a ball, and went “Hmm, is there anything there?”, so we started experimenting with it around that time. That’s really the beginnings of what became Knockout City, but it was really a discovery process over the next 18 months.
We tried lots of different things and the way you’d go about designing changes fundamentally because, if you throw a projectile and can actually catch it, that changes the nature of how to spread people apart, what does map design look like, what does team interaction look like, how do you really simplify everything so it does the things that are really distinctive, and lets the play mechanics shine. That took us a while to figure out.
In a preview event that I attended, I was able to check out three modes and they were Diamond Dash, Ball-Up Brawl, and Team KO. Can you please give an overview of some of the other modes included in the game?
Karthik Bala: The way the game is structured, we have playlists that go on rotation, so Team KO is our standard 3v3 playlist that’ll be available at all times. Depending on the week, we’ll have several different playlists on rotation, so, soon after we launch season 1, there’s actually gonna be a new playlist every week. In the preview event, you experienced Diamond Dash and Ball-Up Brawl, but we also have others that we’ve announced, and others that we haven’t.
For example, we have 1v1 Face-Off, which plays very differently than the other modes as it's not team-based, and that’s almost like a game of cat and mouse. You’re in the same map, and there’s a ring that’s closing in on you. Think about the intensity of the last moments in a battle royale, and it’s that over and over again for the entire mode, which is really intense. It plays quite differently because you’re trying to sneak up on your opponent, with no one to help you. You’d have to think differently about the map, and getting the jump on other players.
We also have Party Team KO, where it's like Team KO, but with all special balls. You may have seen some of the special balls in a typical mode, there are regular balls and then one special ball, like the “cage ball” that can trap opponents or the “sniper ball” that can shoot at long range. In Party Team KO, it’s all special balls. It may be different ones or the same type, and by changing that up, it significantly changes your tactics within gameplay and how you play as a team.
Those are a couple of the playlists, but we have quite a few more planned that’ll be coming out again, once a week.
Guha: We have the ability to have 8 players at the same time but the purpose of doing the playlists is that we can reconfigure how teams work, how teams are set up, whether it’s two teams 4v4 or 3v3, or four teams of 2. All these offer us lots of different ways to play in the different maps we introduce and different team configurations, in addition to new rules that we can introduce.
That means we can keep changing the play experience, so we designed with Knockout City a base set of mechanics that can be reconfigured in lots of different ways as friends are playing together, and have a good time. They can get tons of variety over time, and when they come back, they’ll find something new.
You were talking about Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, was it a test for you and your team or a way to experience new stuff in the video game industry?
Guha: You know, we actually came up with a mission statement for the studio: make breakthrough games that are magic. What it really means is, can people start to come and believe that, or will people start asking the question “hey, what are these guys gonna come up with next?”. We didn’t want to be known as a studio that just does one type of thing, but as a studio that’s really about invention, discovery. About creating new ways of play, and new types of play.
That’s why one team was super passionate about mixed reality, augmented reality, mechanical systems, hardware, circuit designs and cameras, saying “there’s something really interesting there, let’s see if we can figure it out”, and that’s how Mario Kart Live started. Similarly, Knockout City started off by asking the question “is there something kind of different we could do with multiplayer gaming? Let’s see how we could put that together” and we went and experimented on it.
That’s where these ideas come from, through the notion that hopefully, people will keep saying “what are these guys gonna come up with next?”.
Were there any mechanics/ modes that you ended up scrapping within development?
Karthik: So, this really is an entire process of prototyping and experimenting. We tried lots of different things, especially in the first 18 months on our quest to unlock the core mechanics, we tried so many different things. It wasn’t entirely obvious that we were gonna have a third-person camera as we have now. We tried arena cams and lots of different things like that, there were lots of mechanics that we explored, even when you turn yourself into a ball, like, how fast should it go, can you outrun an opponent in ball form.
There’s a lot of balancing and rethinking in that process. We were trying modes, like “how many players can we get in?” and battle royales were all the rage. Not that we ever wanted to chase, but we were saying “can we push that limit?” and it became actually too chaotic. Really big maps worked against us, as what’s really interesting is that there’s a lot of fun in the face of bringing players together and having that confrontation. In a shooter, you’re actively trying to avoid the other player and peg that other person with a shot, trying to stay out of each other’s way.
Here, we’re trying to bring people together, so maps that are a little more contained work a lot better. There was a lot of discovery along the way for unlocking these core mechanics and, to be honest, there were things on the cutting room floor that didn’t work, but we may revisit over time. Because so much has changed and evolved in the game that we have today. It may be time to go back and revisit those old ideas.
The game itself isn’t easy to classify as a genre. At its core, it’s about timing and position, so it has aspects of a shooter, but it has aspects of a fighting game, and a brawler more so.
Gula: I would say that the one thing we kept on returning to was, the more we introduced complexity, or the tendency to experiment was to start introducing lots of different things and try them. But the hard thing is to bring it back to a simple set of mechanics that are actually internally self-consistent, that keep reinforcing and allow for emergent play.
That simplicity is actually really hard to do, and we continuously look at “Ok, well, how do you simplify this mechanic so we have a lot of power in it?” without introducing this unique kind of complexity, this kind of oddity that hangs out there and doesn’t work with anything else. That’s a lot of the challenge in the design.
I'm interested in the advanced mechanics of the game. It seems very focused on movement and positioning, but with the curve shots and ball transformation as an added factor. Was the system created to have a "design ceiling" for maximum accessibility when it comes to mechanics or is there advanced systems that we don't know about?
Karthik: So, unlike a shooter - which is about position and aiming – Knockout City is about position and timing. When you have different types of shots like “lob shots” and “curve shots”, or even fake throws, it all has an impact on timing. The advanced mechanics become mind games, similar to great fighting games, and there’s a lot of emergent play as a team. So there’s what seems at the surface to be a fairly simple set of rules, there’s such a common combination of things that you can do from those rules. All the players are the same in terms of their abilities, from level 1 to advance players. It’s the skill that develops over time and how you work together as a team that makes it all different.
When we observed players initially playing, they’re playing a team-based game but they’re playing very individually, like with team deathmatch. We don’t have the typical constructs of a team-based game like character classes, heroes or loadouts that’s the forcing function to work as a team. It’s actually this emergent play pattern that’s created with passing the ball, then becoming the ball, using each other in new and novel ways.
That actually is what really opens up the skill ceiling for players, so when you see really expert players who play well as a team, going up against another team, it feels like a completely different game. Even though the abilities and the controls are identical, to a new player it feels very different. As we mentioned, we’ve been developing this game for over four years, and we’ve got some players in the studio who’ve got thousands of hours into the game, and we’re still discovering new things that we didn’t even anticipate, that keeps it interesting and fresh.
Guha: It’s a combination of a set of mechanics, layering it with team play, where the actual – especially as you change the configuration of the teams, the balls and the map design - the team strategies change quite a bit as well. The notion that team play is so inter-dependent, so unlike character class-based games where you may have specific rules, it’s very dynamic. It’s more like a game of rugby, or a game of soccer, as it develops without the very specific position designations.
Our goal is to start with the layered set of systems that are relatively simple. So, you could go along a skill curve, but a skill curve that’s unfamiliar for most people, because the mechanics are different than what’s out there in other games. Then we’ll evolve it over time, so the final phase of development for us is to see how people react to it, see how people use it and then follow that. We do have robust live services plans, season structure, all that stuff coming, and we’ll look to learn from the audience, evolve the game from that.
Karthik: As far as advanced systems go that we don’t know about, it's all out there right now in terms of mechanics you can do. There are emergent moves and combos, and we were even surprised in the beta that we saw things that we had never seen playing the game, and that’s what really interesting. When we introduce in the future a new ball type, that’s gonna change the way you play, or a new playlist that has new rules, that adds a twist that changes the way you play.
So that’s how we’re gonna keep it fresh and still keep it challenging for players with the same set of core rules that don’t change.
What difficulties did you face in building the game and its mechanics with a brand new engine? Have you had problems managing physics?
Guha: It’s really interesting building a game engine at the same time as building the game, in a lot of ways we sort of prototyped the game for local play first, and then we realised quickly that the systems we tried to create were not gonna hold up in a large scale environment. We have a blog on this related to Viper and V-script, and how we have to manage the rollback systems to make sure everybody’s in sync.
So, it’s one of the world’s first deterministic distributed physics simulations, and it wasn’t with a technical goal in mind, or with the ambition of building an engine. But, to make the game work in a competitively fair setting across geographies, across internet latencies, across CPU and GPU capabilities on a cross-platform basis, we had to take this route. It is probably a much harder route than creating a game within an existing engine paradigm.
One of the things that we do see is that if you want to make things that are really unique, sometimes you have to build the systems to enable that. Because the commercial engines out there may not enable that, and you have to sign up for both things. You can’t wish to create something brand new that people haven’t experienced, and then say “well sorry about that, its just not available in an engine”, you have to be prepared to go the extra mile to do that.
And it does that mean that what you’re essentially doing is building the tracks, building the train, building the engine while you’re driving at the same time. So that introduces a lot of development complexity as well, and you learn as you go. Because the things that you think can work, like network systems that are scalable for example - or specifically the script - may not when you test it, so it's not only a matter of development worfkflows and what people have created, it’s being able to make that stand up in a large scale internet environment as well.
There’s a lot of learning and a bit of pain involved with that, but it's all in service of making a unique experience.
Karthik: The only thing I’ll add to that is with the physics and rollback – rollback as a concept is not new, you know, it’s really inspired by fighting games and other multiplayer games that do that – but what we had to do that’s really new had to be a general-purpose solution, not specific to a specific mechanic or a set of constraints. It had to work with arbitrary level design and the number of players that become physics objects, so scalability was a real challenge.
Writing a really high-performance engine – we got it to 60fps on Switch, which we didn’t know if we were gonna be able to pull off – and we’re really proud of that. It scales all the way up, and we’re launching across all of the platforms. Through backwards compatibility, it's enhanced on the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S, and we’re a relatively small team, we’re all launching crossplay like this, which has a lot of challenges, but we feel like it's really come together.
Guha: The interesting thing is that, ultimately, we are trying to solve some types of physics problems, but the solution is not a physics solution. It's this reversible computation solution that allows us to synchronise the simulations.
You clearly see this as a living game that will be supported and evolve over time. With more and more games taking this route, do you have long term plans to both acquire and retain players when every game seems to be demanding player attention?
Guha: We have a couple of strategies on that but the number one thing is getting people to play. One of the phenomenons that we’ve noticed is if you do something unique, you can advertise the thing and do blogs/videos/national marketing but playing is believing. I don’t think anyone would’ve believed in Guitar Hero or Rocket League or any of these types of concepts before lots of people came in and actually played.
So, playing is believing is very much the centre of our approach to Knockout City, and we’ll be talking more about the plans for that in the next couple of weeks, but we have talked about a free trial program in May, as well as a tie-in to EA Play and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate at launch. Both of these mechanisms are meant to bring in as many people and their friends to come in and give it a shot, see if they feel the magic. The XGPU and EA Play are to be able to make sure that it really reduces the barrier to be able to try it out and get to play as well.
Now, the entire point about the live service and keeping the content fresh involves those new playlists and maps over time, which will be able to keep it interesting as well. So those are the basics of our plan, but we can put it out there and invite everyone to join, and we hope the community will embrace this.
What did you learn from the recent betas? You mentioned that you're still discovering new things about the game.
Karthik: There was a ton that we learned. The first beta that we did in February was small-scale and PC only, and the more recent beta that we did over Easter weekend, was cross-play across all platforms. The goal was for us to prove our scalability, server infrastructure, and we were really kind of monitoring what the play feels like for players. So we were monitoring people’s ping times, performance and things like that as part of the matches, but there’s a lot we got out of game balancing as well.
For progression and XP, the game has a progression system called “Street Rank” that’s a 900-tier pass. You can think of it as a battle pass, but it's like 900 tiers you can play at your own pace and it comes with the game, filled with lots of unlocks and content. Player challenges – daily challenges that we call contracts – are giving out XP and awards. This really allowed us – we had over a million downloads – to see how people play, how fast they were levelling up, and it allowed us to look at a lot of our systems.
We were really happy that people enjoyed it so much, we’re really shocked at how much time people put into the game over the weekend, and bringing new players in, the game’s about bringing friends together. The beta was limited in terms of the modes that we offered, and we just recently announced the crew system, which wasn’t in the beta. That really is taking the idea of playing with friends to the next level, so all of the testing we did in the beta allowed us to finetune and balance this new crew system, which we’re really excited to roll out.
Just briefly touching on that, players, this game is all about coming together and playing as friends, and unlocking new content, actually progressing together. We had this concept of crews where its almost like a clan system, you can have up to 32 friends in a crew, and you can customise the look. There’s a crew captain, you can customise your crew name and banner, logos on the back of your jackets, so you have this identity. You can customise and unlock your crew vehicle you all show up in, so there’s the cosmetic side of it.
But the big innovation we’re excited to roll out is this concept of crew contract, which are weekly challenges you do as a crew that unlock exclusive rewards. Like these crew vehicles for example, they’re weekly rewards that are only earned by playing as a crew, you can’t buy them or unlock them on your own, and then they’re gone. That particular car is only available that week, and then its gone, and you work together. Some of these crew contracts, you do it synchronously on the same map, like tiering a certain number of KOs, and some are asynchronous, like getting 1000 Kos across the crew in a given week.
Different levels of difficulty unlock different levels of rarity, so it’s almost like a social battle pass if you will. So we’re really excited about some of these new features that we’re gonna be rolling out at launch for players, and the beta’s helped us tremendously in setting up these things.
Your game is designed for team-based competitive games, but have you ever thought about solo game modes or a kind of campaign?
Guha: I think really, the focus for us here was around finding these sets of game mechanics, we built a core magic to Knockout City, and we wanted to bring that out. You know, four years seems like a long time but with our small team that we built – as soon as possible for people to play. Because until they play it, we don’t really know how they would embrace it, how we can evolve it and so forth.
So I think in the future, we can look at these type of options but for us, the quickest path in doing that and the clearest route to the magic in the game was in the multiplayer and team play. Which makes the mechanics, what makes Knockout City special, that’s at the centre of it, and so that’s why we focused in that area for the initial release.
So… what about monetization? What were the reasons behind that shop structure? Has data shown more player engagement when it comes to timed rotations for costumes? Have you considered other options on that side?
Karthik: At its core, Knockout City is about skill and style, so we spent a lot of time talking about skill-based gameplay. But it's also about how you show up and how you customise your look, both as your individual identity and your crew identity. So that was really part of the core loop, so we didn’t want to go down the typical free-to-play monetization route, like loot boxes and that kind of stuff, that create barriers.
We didn’t want it to be pay to win, so where we landed was having a game that has a tremendous amount of customisation that’s unlockable through the 900 tier Street Rank progression that comes with the base game. Included as part of that is holo-bucks, which is our in-game currency. So as you progress, you’ll earn lots of holo-bucks for completing tutorials and other activities, like progressing through Street Rank.
That gives you the ability to spend that in the item shop – the Brawl Shop – in the game. There are only so many slots that are in the shop, so we wanted to rotate out new content. Again, none of these cosmetics change the gameplay, it's purely visual and what you’re excited about – how you want to show up and how you want to change your look – and people want to try different things out, the variety.
We wanted to have a system that provided that variety, but also on a practical level with our smaller development team, to be able to introduce new content over time and keep updating that shop with new content that players can check out. So, it is something that’s generous with what you get in-game, and you can purchase holo-bucks in-game, but that’s not required, so we’re gonna see how that goes. But so far, the feedback from players has been positive.
Are there any plans for native PS5 and Xbox Series X|S versions?
Karthik: We haven’t announced anything yet, we are happy that for launch that we’ve got native 4K and 60fps on those platforms and seamless cross-play, but let’s just say that we’re really committed to the game, to get as many people playing as possible and maximise the capabilities of various platforms.
Guha: I should also say that we have 60fps on Switch as well without a performance mode, which is something that we snuck in at the last minute, so we’re really excited for Switch players as well.
I was just wondering how you strike a balance between accessible/simple controls and gameplay and ensuring there’s enough depth for players?
Karthik: Absolutely, so this was actually a key goal from the very beginning. We wanted to create games and it's actually part of the studio’s ethos to create games that seem simple, very accessible and inviting, but has a tremendous amount of depth behind it. That’s a hard one to do, we wanted to create a competitive online game that would be equally appealing to new players who don’t play online games, but also have serious credibility and skill depth for core competitive players, that core community who can take it to the next level.
Finding that balance and pleasing both is really challenging to do, but that’s where you continue to iterate and improve. There were so many failures, so many times we thought we had it figured out and put it in the hands of gamers, put it in the hands of peers in the industry, who said “this sucks”, so we had to go back to the drawing board and re-think it. But where we landed was a set of core rules for the core gameplay mechanics, it's very intuitive, and this sort of emergent play pattern as a team changes the way you play over time.
It becomes mind games against opponents and there are really unique ways you can collaborate as a teammate. Being able to pass the ball and turn yourself into the weapon - turn yourself into the ball – the risk/reward that comes with that really changed the dynamic of play for more advanced players.
What was the feedback from the beta? Did you reconsider any aspect of the game after hearing from the community?
Karthik: I think there’s some nuanced feedback about balancing and tuning, especially from our community on the Discord. They’re extremely vocal, we have an active dialogue with them every day, and that has helped us for tuning and iterating, we got questions from that core community like “Hey, is this gonna be an eSport? Are there gonna be tournament structures? Do you have plans for a competitive scene?” and they’re asking for it.
As developers, we don’t get to decide whether a game is an eSport, the community makes that decision. We want to obviously support that and drive that if the community wants it, and this is something that needs to organically evolve. Even in the beta, it was awesome, there was a community tournament on Sunday that was grassroots with a $500 prize pool, and we thought it was so awesome that we said “alright, Velan will chip in” and we made it a $1000 prize pool.
It was something small, it was really fun and entirely community-driven. We’ve already got crews that are forming, people that are thinking out and planning what their tactics are going to be as a crew going into day one. So we’re just really excited to be collaborating with the community - evolving the game with the player community has been an objective of ours when we started out – so we’re excited to be part of that.
Guha: From the beta, we’re really looking at the community from a play pattern for how is team-based play emerging, including “what progresses more quickly? What progresses more slowly?”. A lot of the feedback we’re getting from a content standpoint is “Is the levelling system working up? Are the reward systems working up? Are tutorials being accessed? How much are people using those tutorials? How’s our matchmaking system working?” because sometimes, you can just jump in.
“Is it skill based matchmaking working quickly enough?” where people are getting competitive plays, even if they’re newbies and are expert players getting competitive play as well. We got really valuable feedback on all of those specific points, but a couple of things that were really surprising to us, we took some extra effort on. For example, not a lot of games do cross-platform crossplay on day one, and especially as we had a new engine, we were curious to see how that played out across systems.
We checked whether keyboard and mouse players had advantages over controllers, and the answer is no. We measured very specific over win/loss rates, and things like that, but we use some things like “Network Next” to see where players are, where they’re seeing slower internet ping times, to make sure they’re not disadvantaged. So, we noticed during a period in the beta, a large number of players in Italy were experiencing very large ping times. So we accelerated all of those players at our expense to make sure they were getting fairly matched - and fair competition - throughout Western Europe, as well as U.S. East, where those data centres would match.
The same thing with players in South Africa, we noticed that there’s a large number of Latin American players, and so now we’ve made the decision to locate data centres there. We’ve increased the number of data centres in APAC as well, to make sure that Australian players, New Zealand players, as well as players in Southeast Asia, have a great experience. These are all things you can only – you know, we could do things in simulation – but these are all things that we can only observe when people show up.
We can see where they’re playing, what their internet conditions are and how that shows up in terms of fairness of play. These are all different examples of where we’re taking very specific concrete actions.