The game’s premise is simple: strike your opponent with a dodgeball two times to knock them out. In some modes, called “playlists,” the goal is to reach 10 knockouts before the enemy team does, while in others, the objective is to collect the diamonds that drop when an enemy is knocked out. Oh, and you can also play as the dodgeball, just hold down a button to “become the ball” and your teammate can toss you into an enemy like you’re a homing missile.
Despite its simplicity, the game provides plenty of entertainment. After playing for a few hours with other games journalists, I got the hang of every game mechanic, from catching the ball to prevent someone from knocking me out, to performing a pirouette to bend my ball past obstacles like walls and cars, and to perfecting my aim as the homing missile seeking enemies.
I tried playing on a mouse and keyboard and on an Xbox controller. The controller makes the game controls a lot easier, as button-mashing can effectively keep my in-game character safe from incoming balls, while on mouse and keyboard, I was more of a slow-moving target.
Based on the few hours of gameplay, “Knockout City,” so far looks and feels like a spiritual successor to Electronic Arts’ colorful and splashy three-vs.-three shooter, “Rocket Arena,” developed by Final Strike Games. But “Rocket Arena” fizzled and failed to attract a large enough audience for players to queue up for games.
“This has been true since we started in the early 90s. [Our industry] is filled with games that didn’t get acceptance from consumers and games that did get acceptance,” said Guha Bala, co-founder of Velan Studios. “The ones that did, sometimes you point to the business model, but really it’s probably because the game struck an emotional chord and really resonated.”
He added that rather than be stuck in the weeds of business plans, one of the reasons he and his brother, Karthik Bala, started Velan Studios was that they wanted to chase “original ideas.”
Compared to “Rocket Arena,” “Knockout City” is doing a few things differently.
For one thing, “Knockout City” costs $19.99, and Velan Studio developers are letting players try the game out free for 10 days, during a block party in-game event. That’s $20 less than “Rocket Arena” charged upfront and $40 less than larger EA games. The free trial also provides a chance for people to feel out whether the game is something they will enjoy.
“Especially for us as an indie studio, leaning into gameplay, not wanting to do aggressive paywall mechanics and things like that, we thought a relatively low premium price but with loads of content packed in, will bring in as many people as possible,” Guha Bala said. Karthik Bala added that the 10-day trial will help people understand what “Knockout City” is, as it’s not purely a shooter, fighting game, nor sports title, but contains elements of all three genres.
The company also worked with Nintendo to offer “Knockout City” as a multiplayer title that doesn’t require a Nintendo Switch Online membership (about $3.99 a month) to play.
“We took a different approach in partnership with Nintendo … in this game to be able to make it as accessible as possible to as many Switch players as possible,” Guha Bala said.
“Knockout City” is also planning on giving players a rotating number of game modes, or “playlists” as it calls them, to keep things fresh. That’s in lieu of having multiple game modes that players can queue up for outright, which would divide up the player base and could cause longer matchmaking wait times, a problem that plagued “Rocket Arena.”
“If you’ve got too many playlists, they’re fragmented, and the wait times may be too long,” Karthik Bala said. “And if there’s too few, you may not have the variety as well. But the idea behind that is to be flexible. So we’ve done a couple of betas [testing phases]. Now that’s given us some guidance on what is the right amount to start with.”
The game’s first season starts on May 25, and each season will be nine weeks long. Velan plans to update the game with content every week, adding new gameplay, challenges, playlists and even different types of dodgeballs over time. The studio will also receive player feedback and see if there’s enough appetite for developing “Knockout City” into an esport and adding a competitive ranked mode.
One feature the game is missing at launch but may add over time: so far the game modes only support up to four players per team. That can make things harder when there are five people trying to be on the same team, but Velan said that this is “a starting point” for the game.
People are able to be added into a crew and brought to the same “hideout” to jump around and interact with each other. The hideout is a playable lobby, which Velan notes could be experimented with, although it didn’t comment on whether “Knockout City” will begin to support in-game concerts like “Fortnite” and “Roblox” do.
Velan’s 50-person team isn’t very large “relative to the ambition of the game,” Karthik Bala said. “We’re committed to supporting the team, but at the same time, you know, as a live service game, the health and well-being of our studio, is paramount. It’s something that we’ve had to manage like everybody else, during the pandemic. And so far, so good.”
Guha Bala added that the old-school way of making games was to release a title on a certain date and then have everyone take a month of vacation before returning to prototype the next game. Velan has restructured its teams to support live services instead, with a quality of life team focused on game improvements, and a features team focused on longer-term season content.
“What we’re delivering, we do it with a sense of balance, because one of the real pernicious things about a live services game is that you never stop,” Guha Bala said. “Just like this pandemic, it’s like, we’re working from home, and you can’t leave work. So you have to develop better practices to handle that … and we’ve started to reorient ourselves, but that’s going to be a work-in-progress.”