Summer Solstice

Solstice Arena by A Bit Lucky, Zynga

Published: August 13. 2013

iOS

Zynga’s fast-paced iOS game Solstice Arena brings frenetic multiplayer MOBA gameplay to the small screen

When work began on Solstice Arena, San Francisco-based A Bit Lucky was an independent studio. “At the time, I was playing a lot of MOBAs—Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games,” says Jordan Maynard, the game’s creative director. “And I was also a huge fan of Unity.” Maynard had always used Unity as something of a hobbyist tool, going all the way back to version 1.0. “I sort of put the two and two together and said to my team, ‘Hey guys, I think we can do this game. I think it could be awesome, and I think we can use Unity.’” The game was something he called a “speed MOBA”—but more on that in a bit.

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This moment was right around the time when Unity 3.5’s feature set had just been announced. Maynard says he was “a big fan of Unity,” but had never been able to actually justify using it in a commercial setting, in large part because some of the features it lacked for bigger teams. “3.5 totally addressed all of those,” he says, citing the integration of SVN version control, which the team was wedded to. “At the time we were a Flash house; we actually took some time and ported the whole team over to Unity,” he says. “It would be hard for me to separate the idea of Solstice from the idea of Unity. They all came at the same time for me—it was the perfect storm.”

Frederic Descamps, the general manager of Team Solstice and co-founder/CEO of A Bit Lucky, recalls an important moment in the development of both the game and the studio. “We did a game jam as we were transitioning to Solstice Arena,” he recalls. “If we had done the game jam using Flash, we probably would have had only two teams out of the 19 people we had in the company back then, because making a game in Flash is actually pretty complicated, and not everybody can manipulate Flash.” The transition in middleware changed all that: “When we used Unity for the game jam, we had actually seven submissions from our team. Very quickly I could tell, “Look, the engineers and the game designers are not going spend time battling a technology or an engine—they’re going to be able to do more thanks to Unity.”

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“Everyone in the company that was in the room,” continues Maynard, from the accountant to office manager. “I just sat there, and on the projector I was like, ‘All right, literally from scratch, we’re going to make a game. What should we make?’ People voted. We made a version of Tables on the projector, and in the next two days everyone started making their games. It was just super fun, and a great way for people to learn how to use Unity. I’m a game designer, but I have a computer science background,” says Maynard. “To the hybrid engineer game designer, it’s the perfect thing to get in there and do rapid prototypes and show people what the game is supposed to play like, rather than having a PowerPoint document. Where with Flash you need programmers. For the teams that didn’t necessarily have a programmer, like the marketing guy or some of the artists, I would jump in and help them with my knowledge, but I didn’t actually write anything. I just showed them how to do it in Unity.”

Using Unity, the team got its first playable build of Solstice Arena up and running in under a month. “From the day we started—from a brand new slate, a brand new open project—to the one month mark, we had a fully playable game,” says Maynard. “It looked ugly as hell, but it was playable. I think that’s where the main power community for us came in, in that early time when it was really just a rapid, rapid iteration of prototyping that we could do. We hadn’t even moved the whole team yet, it was just a few people who got that first playable up and running. Now we could concentrate on making the game as fun as we possibly can for the platforms we wanted to release [on]. That’s how Unity really helped us. We found the fun for the game very quickly.”

At the time the game had only one hero model, but all the features were there: everybody had their own abilities, the UI was there, and it was fun. “We had fun playing it,” says Maynard. “We knew that as long as we could keep this fun as we add the graphics, we were in a really good place. I think the most important thing is yes, planning, but also finding the fun fast, and I think that’s what Unity excels at doing.” As the studio continued to work on the game, it was eventually acquired by Zynga—and the rest, as they say, is history.

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The “speed MOBA” wasn’t going to invent itself, however. At the time—and still to this day—traditional games in the MOBA genre take 30 to 40 minutes to complete. For mobile, the Solstice team didn’t think such a time commitment would be appropriate. “We really took to this idea of a ‘speed MOBA’—of something where you can get that quick fix in on your couch, on your tablet, in 10 minutes,” says Maynard. Cameron McNeil, Solstice Arena’s principal game designer, says that speed was the key in more ways than one. [Unity] helps to iterate really quickly—you find an issue, you can have a build in 10 minutes time, and you’re playing it again. We played that all the time. We pushed it all the time. For us, having that quick turnaround is extremely important.”

“I think the main thing that came out of that fast iteration time was finding the fun, and the fun really was with speed MOBA,” says Maynard. “I think the thing we really got through quickly by virtue of using Unity was we got to the fun of having a speed MOBA, which is all about the team fight—it’s three on three, synchronous, real time multiplayer. That just doesn’t even exist that much on the tablet market right now. I think Unity really helped us get to that really fast. Just like, ‘Hey, this speed MOBA thing is actually going to work, it’s fun, we have all the epic moments that we’re used to from our hardcore games like World of Warcraft, or League of Legends. We have all these epic moments where you get away with literally one end point and you feel great. Unity really allowed us to tune-in and balance to that really quickly.”

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While the game is currently only available on iOS at the moment, the team is working on Android, PC and Mac versions as well, all of which will be interoperable. “I think the main key for me was building a tablet first, which Unity made very easy for us to do,” says Maynard. “We knew we wanted to work on both tablets and PC, but we know from experience that if you build on your highest-end platform—for let’s say the PC—it’s going to be hard to port it to a tablet.” Which, he says, can be somewhat tricky.

“We love Unity. Very big fans since 1.0,” says Maynard. “If there’s one place where you can get in trouble, I think, it’s that Unity gives you enough rope to hang yourself. They make so many things so easy to do, that if you actually don’t know what you’re doing on the network side, or if you don’t know computer science fundamentals, Unity will allow you to hang yourself with that and you’ll run into some problems. Actually it’s every middleware that’s out there—from the Quake engine to the Unreal Engine. Of all of those, Unity is the one that I prefer.”

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“Still, this is something where Unity actually isn’t necessarily a panacea,” continues Maynard. “If you just build a game in Unity on the PC, you’re not going to automatically get it to work on tablets. You actually have to carefully design the game and think about the technology, the technical implications of the hardware, and things like that beforehand. We did that, and Unity helped us with that. Technically speaking, we didn’t cut any corners. We didn’t cut any corners or have to make any compromises on our character quality and game visual quality, using Unity straight out of the box.”

Their main word of wisdom? Focus. “We have guys on our team, engineers who’ve worked on MMOs, who’ve worked on first-person shooters. We knew what we were doing on the network side. I think that’s the biggest advice—to plan for it at the very beginning. If you think you’re going to add it on later as an afterthought, that’s not going to happen.” McNeil agrees, on all counts. “Plan from the beginning to be on iPad, and work on that first. Plan from the beginning to have multiplayer, and work on that first. Do the easier stuff later.”

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Sidebar: Unity Asset Store

“Probably the third-party tool that we got the most mileage out of was NGUI for our UI system,” says Solstice Arena’s creative director Jordan Maynard. “All of our UIs—which you see a lot of in the game—are all NGUI.” He also points to Prime 31’s suite of plugins for iOS integration as a huge help. “It’s just easier than writing it yourself,” says Maynard. “Again, with Unity, one of the best things about it is that it makes so many things so easy. I don’t have to write an animation system or a font system or a sound system—it’s all there.”

Sidebar: It Takes Time

“My dad has been into game development software for a very long time, and he has a story he used to tell from the early days with Electronic Arts,” recalls Solstice Arena’s creative director Jordan Maynard. “When someone would ask him how long a project would take, he’d say, ‘Take me to your lead engineer.’ He’d then say to the lead engineer, ‘Show me your cycle where you edit code, compile it, run it and test it.’ He’d time that with a stopwatch, and then he’d say, ‘Oky, multiple that by 10,000—that’s how long your game is going to take to make.’”

Solstice Arena

“With Unity, you can literally do that edit compile and play cycle without stopping the editor,” continues Maynard. “You can do it live while you’re in the editor, and change the values and get it tuned exactly right. That really compresses how long the entire project takes.”

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