When Grux, Paragon’s grunting bipedal rhinoceros, comes stampeding out from under Agora’s flowering canopies, other heroes hide. He’ll pick a fight with the most ferocious of opponents, his massive clubs ripping others apart like paper. There’s one exception, though: he’s sort of afraid of his grandmother. Grux is said to have crushed the skulls of each of his challengers from his tribe, except Nana Grux. He’s never been able to beat her in one-to-one combat. Epic Games sets Grux up as a ferocious, storied fighter—someone never expected to be on the losing side of a battle. (Unless his grandmother is involved.) But Paragon is a competitive game, and not all that control Grux in a way that explicitly highlights his lore. He’ll lose matches. Sometime it’ll be his fault. And that’s okay.
Grux’s lore has almost no bearing on Paragon’s competitive matches, except that he’s still a staggering, powerful rhino. He doesn’t need to worry about Nana Grux; she isn’t a hero in Paragon, despite fans clamoring for her addition. Competitive play is unhindered by the incongruities that story can create in a competitive multiplayer environment, where plot can muddy the believability of team makeup: if two heroes are feuding, why would they be on the same team? This hero’s partner is on another team, that doesn’t make sense. Like Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch, Paragon sidesteps this problem almost entirely. Lore, such as it is, gets explored outside of the game’s mechanics. In Overwatch, for example, Blizzard doesn’t include any meaningful narrative in-game, but instead put out a series of digital short films and comics for Overwatch.
Competitive play is unhindered by the incongruities that story can create.
This opens space for players to create their own competitive narratives—which is what drew Epic to the MOBA genre in the first place. It’s those kinds of narratives that drive what Paragon creative director Steve Superville calls “heroic fantasy.” Paragon’s team went through a three-month period where they just played a lot of games, both in and out of work. “We were always talking a lot about the stories we had playing MOBAs,” Superville said. “This person plays support, and they have this fantastic save. Or this person played a damage dealer, and they were saved by somebody, or made a fantastic play by diving over a wall and using their ultimate.”
There has to be room between their game’s narrative and its competitive gameplay, but not as much space as traditional MOBAs give—the top-down view, Superville said, creates too large a rift. It’s harder then to feel the character, to really create a story—to highlight those competitive storylines. An over-the-shoulder, third-person view, while not customary for a MOBA, gave Paragon the feel it was going for. Plus, third-person action is sort of Epic’s wheelhouse.
“We tried to marry those two things, so when you play Rampage in Paragon, as an example, you rip a rock out of the ground and you throw it across the level,” Superville said. “When it hits him, you know exactly what to expect. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to take [your opponent] out of the fight for a few seconds.”
Paragon will have a story, though. It’s just separate from the game’s competitive narrative, and players have the option to start following crumbs as early as the open beta, which began August 16. “We introduced our first tidbits of lore [with this newest build for Paragon’s open beta],” Superville said. “Players can go to the hero screen and get their first hints of who characters are and how they might connect to each other.”
Epic is taking a mysterious route.
Though they’re not exactly known for it, Epic’s rich history in videogames is does have plenty of narrative-driven, single player experiences, like Gears of War and Marcus Fenix’s ragtag bunch of Locust Horde fighters.Those games are built for players to enjoy in the “10 to 20 hour range,” Superville said. But Epic wants Paragon players to put thousands of hours into the third-person MOBA, and keeping players engaged for that amount of time is hard. Really hard. That’s why Epic is taking a mysterious route; Superville looked to Lost (2004). Lost’s fan culture has survived for years, and at its height, Lost consumed people. “We want to expose people to small bits that make them ask questions,” Superville said. “They’d go online, get on Discord, and talk with each other about what this could mean, or how it relates to what they already know.” For Epic, developing the story themselves is just as important as having players participate in building the narrative of the world and its inhabitants.
In an increasingly crowded field of esports, perhaps this is really what can push players to connect with Paragon, not only as a competitive multiplayer game, but as an esport, too. Overwatch opens a safe divide between its lore and its competitive leanings—stories outside of the competitive matches are self contained, allowing for players to create their own competitive narratives. If Epic is able to pull off the feeling of heroic fantasy it’s looking for, it’s looking at a long life.