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Vela Games' mission to reinvent multiplayer games

Co-founders of new Dublin studio explain how the win-lose structure breeds toxicity and why co-op should not be an optional extra

New developer Vela Games has emerged from stealth today and hopes to create a "genre-defining" co-operative multiplayer title.

The company was actually founded last year, and since then has raised €3.4 million in seed funding, assembled a team of 13 developers -- mostly ex-AAA -- and established a studio in Dublin. It has now gone public as it ramps up work on its unannounced original IP.

The three co-founders are CEO Travis George, who spent close to a decade as a product lead at Riot Games; director of insights Lisa Newon George, a former University of California lecturer and Riot Games research; and game designer Brian Kaiser, who spent 11 years as a game and narrative designer.

Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz, this American trio says that opening a studio came down to a choice between Dublin and California, but opted for the Irish city as it's "the best base for us to build the strongest development team."

"We have incredible tech and creative talent in the city, but it also allows us to tap into talent from the US and the EU more easily," said Newon George. "We can also offer a really high quality of life with an actual work-life balance, which is so important in our industry. So we may get more rain over here than in California, but it's a nice change."

Left to right: Vela Games co-founders Travis George, Lisa Newon George and Brian Kaiser

Left to right: Vela Games co-founders Travis George, Lisa Newon George and Brian Kaiser

Vela has also benefitted from the support of the Irish government, as well as the culture of tech start-ups across the city. The company is currently in pre-production on its first title and will continue to hire as the project progresses, although Kaiser says the trio are conscious they need to "grow thoughtfully."

Vela Games plans to focus solely on multiplayer games, partly because these appeal to the type of audience the studio wants to reach, but also because it's "what we love, and where we can do something different," according to George.

"Once the game is only about winning, then someone has to lose. A win-lose game can contribute to stress and player toxicity in the community"

Lisa Newon George, Vela Games

"Many of us have deep experience developing multiplayer games and we get why players love to play them," he continued. "It comes down to three main things: players wanting to play together, aspiring to master skills, and loving the feeling of achieving something meaningful.

"That's an area where Lisa especially, with her background in anthropology, can take us in new directions. We will understand why players love playing their favorite games, so we can create unique and awesome experiences from the very beginning."

Newon George adds that she'll be putting her PhD to good use by trying to get a greater understanding of what it is that a broad range of players want, expect and don't want from multiplayer experiences in order to steer the design of Vela's titles.

"Everyone on the team is experienced, but we want to avoid falling into the trap of either only making decisions based on our own instincts, or relying too much on one source of feedback such as Twitter, too late in development," she says.

"So to start with, I will be focused on understanding why our audience of players play their favorite games so that we're heading in the right direction even before we go to live testing. As development progresses, I'll then expand my research to understand how specific aspects of our game are resonating or not, and why. Then finally, as the game comes together, I will help shape how we interact and engage all those players -- not just with us, but with each other. Building that deep relationship with our players is essential to making our community and game a success."

Yet while the biggest publishers and developers focus on competitive experiences, Vela is instead focusing on co-operative ones in the hopes that it can find a way to change the way gamers play together. The studio is unable to give any details at this point, but it sounds as if the team has something ambitious in mind, with George stressing: "We're not just making another battle royale."

In fact, Newon George believes it's the nature of current multiplayer games that can lead to some common negative experiences felt across the industry.

"Does a player play to have fun or to win? How do they communicate with their team? These factors can make matchmaking more personalised and effective"

Brian Kaiser, Vela Games

"We love competitive games, and many of us have designed and evolved them," she says. "Those certainly can be intense, with co-op moments here and there, but there's also a lot of downsides. Once the game is only about winning, then someone has to lose, and in a win-lose game the actual gameplay design can contribute to stress and player toxicity in the community.

"We also love non-competitive multiplayer games, but often these are co-optional. These games are often designed as single player experiences with the option to play together, but the interaction and core of the game may not be much different. We think we can go further by designing an entire experience from the ground up that taps into these motivations mentioned before, through the lens of co-op."

The difficulty with all co-operative titles is designing it in a way that encourages, rather than forces, players to work together. George says co-operation needs to be central to the gameplay, because "you can't just tack it onto another idea and hope it works."

"Again, this comes down to understanding why players play their favourite games," he says. "One thing players love is getting better and developing their skills, both as individuals and teams. The best esports teams in the world have skilled players at each position, but they also work better together as a team. We can build this type of skill-based gameplay, but by focusing more on co-op than direct competition, it will lead to players playing and winning more, together."

There is always the danger of lone wolves, players who will run off and tackle the game almost as if it were a single-player outing. Rather than designing a game that punishes such behaviour -- again, forcing co-operation -- Kaiser believes it's possible to build a title that allows for this without ruining the experience for other players.

The Vela Games team

The Vela Games team

He offers the example of being more experimental with win conditions: "Our idea is to say to players that you must meet the base conditions for winning, but also offer ways to 'win more'. For instance, if you have to survive in a session until the end -- that's the base win condition. But you can then earn extra rewards by surviving and performing more actions skillfully or killing extra enemies. With this approach, we allow players to push themselves individually to the benefit of the whole team.

"Additionally, playing with strangers can sometimes increase negative interactions on teams, especially if you have poor communication systems. Lone wolves can often be a symptom of this. We are working on innovative new systems that remove these barriers, without just relying on traditional chat and voice. Better communication means better co-operation and, ultimately, a more fulfilled community of players."

Kaiser also believes there's promise in finding new ways of forming teams online, observing that most multiplayer games' matchmaking systems are based primarily on a simple numerical rating to represent player skill. But ability is just one factor that should be taken into account when it comes to connecting players with each other.

"We believe we can do better by considering two other pillars: player motivation and communication styles," Kaiser concludes. "Does a player play to have fun or to win? How do they like to communicate with their teams? When you understand and respond to these factors during development, then you can turn matchmaking into something more personalised and effective.

"Evolving matchmaking is a great example of how we'll bring player-first values into every decision we make in game design. If you start with an understanding of how players want to play, then you can create a better, more enjoyable experience for them. "

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