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Interview > Sports game > Video Games
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Roller Champions beta impressions and interview: Skating with huge potential

As Roller Champions releases its closed beta, we speak with developer Ubisoft Montreal about free-to-play models and how the game has changed over the past year.
Aside from Jet Set Radio, roller skating hasn’t made a huge splash in video games. It doesn’t have the household name icons to match Tony Hawk’s skateboarding, or an identifiable culture outside of 1970s roller discos. Roller Champions, sadly, doesn’t have a mode to emulate Saturday Night Fever, but it has created a hybrid sport that’s arguably even better than dancing on wheels.

Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, Roller Champions is a free-to-play 3v3 sports game where you skate around an oval track and throw a ball through a hoop to score points. You can’t score points whenever you like however, you first have to loop around the track with the ball in your team’s possession, which opens up the goal so you can take a shot.

The tension comes in the risk-reward system. By doing one lap around the track and passing through coloured gates, you earn one point through a successful throw. If you complete two laps, you’ll have the chance to bag three points, while three laps will instantly end the game with a five-point victory if the opposing team doesn’t intercept your shot.

It means matches can end in a flash if you aren’t co-ordinating properly. While in possession, you can jump, dodge and pass the ball between teammates to avoid being ‘denied’. The opposing team’s main offence is hurling themselves at other players, either to knock the ball from their hands or temporarily limit chances of passing to others. As you can freely manoeuvre around the track in both directions, you can also plan attacks and block shots with satisfying jump moves.

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Roller Champions is skating meets basketball (Picture: Ubisoft) 

In the game’s closed beta (which ends on 1st March), matches are fast, fun, and surprisingly tense - especially as a five-point comeback is at either team’s disposal. The skating itself, while easy to pick-up, has flexibility too — with 'pumping' down slopes providing extra speed and braking to a standstill allowing quick switches of direction. Teammates can be used to propel yourself forwards too, making skating in unison both an effective tactic and a visually pleasing rush for a last burst towards the goal.

The core foundation of Roller Champions is extremely fun and ripe for experimentation. The beta features a skatepark mode which acts as a free-roaming training area to practise skills, while there’s limited-time modes on rotation (there’s 2v2 at the moment, which does trim the thrills somewhat with less flying bodies to contend with). We’ll have to see how creative Ubisoft Montreal become with other modes when it fully launches, but there’s a compelling core here which, if expanded upon with enough variety, could be a refreshing companion to Rocket League.

 

The biggest shortcoming is the familiar presentation. Arenas are vibrant and lively, with a pleasing soundtrack featuring Grimes, but character models follow the post-Fortnite aesthetic many games have emulated in recent years. You can cover them in goofy customisation options, tied to points unlocked by competing in matches, but Roller Champions still feels devoid of a distinctive personality to brush off comparisons to Rocket Arena or Destruction All-Stars

Roller Champions has all the components to become a surprise multiplayer hit. The beta has some technical hiccups (passing doesn’t feel quite as responsive as it should), but if it can make a big enough splash on launch with additional modes, Roller Champions could foster the kind of dedicated competitive base it’s looking to earn. 

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Roller Champions lands in 2021 (Picture: Ubisoft) 

We speak with Stéphane Drapeau, product manager on Roller Champions, below about the game’s development and what to expect from the final release. 

 

This closed beta follows an alpha way back in March 2020, what were the main takeaways from that you’ve applied here?

There’s a whole lot that we’ve applied from the alpha to the beta. There’s some stuff that come to mind that’s not necessarily [the] most important, but they were very much asked by the community. We’re really happy to have added in voice chat. But really, the most important element of Roller Champions and why it’s so important for us to have these public test phases is to always push the boundaries of what our core gameplay can achieve. 

In the beta itself we have two new moves that have been added to the move set, but we’ve also tweaked everything from the shooting mechanic to the way you pick up speed, to the way you actually stop and reposition yourself. Right now there’s a mechanic that’s the tip-toe mechanic. Back in the alpha you would just brake and stop your character, and now there’s an additional layer that you can actually stop and tip-toe around to reposition yourself and have more precision as to where you move when you slow down your character.

There’s the uppercut mechanic that’s both an offensive and defensive move, so you can actually intercept shots from people who are trying to score. That’s something that very high level players were able to do just by picking up speed and pumping down the walls, and having a lot of speed to go up the ramp and block the goal, but now there’s a dedicated move which can actually help you do that if you have the right timing and you’re at the right spot at the right time. It’s one of the most satisfying mechanics we have in the game but that’s all coming from the feedback we had in the alpha to try and make our game the most balanced possible between offense and defense. There’s a whole lot of stuff like this we’ve been working on since the alpha.

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Roller Champions is a 3v3 sports game (Picture: Ubisoft) 

 

You’re obviously looking for feedback after this beta, could you implement more fundamental changes like new moves after this? Or are you now looking to fine tune?

I can’t necessarily say that we’ve completely ruled out the possibility of adding a move. I can say that the team has an open mind of what can change and what can be tweaked. It’s always been our primary objective to question ourselves, always make sure that every mechanic has its sense, that it’s well integrated with all the other mechanics [and] how they interact with each other. So if we see that a move should be tweaked, if we see that anything can be changed, we’re very much open to having that discussion to see what can be done.

There’s a lot of changes that happened behind the scenes that we’ve tested and ended up not being conclusive, so there’s a lot of stuff — a lot of failures, if you will — that are not going to be in the beta because they’ve been tested out. But definitely the team is very much open minded and is really trying to find the perfect balance. So if there’s a lot of feedback that comes towards a certain element of gameplay, we’re going to be open to see what it’s all about and determine what can be done to address it.

 

Has the pandemic had a big impact on the development of Roller Champions? How has it been working over this past year?

We’ve adapted to the new reality and we’re of course having the development follow along with this new reality. Coming back to where Roller Champions was at during the alpha, we finished our alpha when the confinement actually started. So it went ahead with the last few days that needed to happen and we kept the game live, we kept the game operated, although we had to do the switch to working from home at that moment, so there’s definitely some adaptability that comes with it, but we’re also very much on track. 

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The skatepark in Roller Champions (Picture: Ubisoft) 

 

Is there any big challenges that come with designing a game that’s free-to-play? Does that shift priorities?

It does have some design implication. I think that’s actually a conversation that’s happening a few times as to how you can see your player have his first experience. How important it is to have a proper on-boarding and to have a proper first few minutes… how players are going to behave in game for the very first time. We’re very much cognisant that we need to capture the imagination but also capture a lot of enjoyment in those very few minutes, so that’s definitely something that’s on our mind and that’s on the design team’s mind when they go through the very first minutes of playing Roller Champions.

It’s always been a very important pillar from the development perspective to have a game that is easy to pick up but that also has a lot of depth, a lot of complexity to it, so I think it kind of is tied also to that free-to-play element. To have someone that drops in, is loosely interested, you need to capture their attention very early on.

 

You have limited time modes rolling out across this beta, is that indicative of what people can expect when the full game launches?

That’s one of the elements that we’re most excited about having feedback from the player’s perspective during the beta itself. We’ve announced a 2v2 mode in there but there’s also a special one that we’ve prepared for it. There’s some activities in the skatepark also and a few surprises along the way, so there’s a whole lot of mechanics that are really about making a live game, making a game that’s supposed to live and supposed to bring new content for players to enjoy. So although core gameplay and the competitive nature of Roller Champions is really core of everything we do, we’re also very interested in switching things around and trying new things to spice up the game in a time-limited manner. 

 

When did development start on Roller Champions?

Development started about three years ago. We’ve had quite a few milestones until then. We’re very excited to get to this new one which is the beta, of course. The very first point that was super important for us was at our announcement we really wanted to put the game in the player’s hand, not just have a standalone trailer and have them imagine what Roller Champions was going to be, because it’s core to our philosophy in development to have the feedback of players shape the experience that we’re making for them.

Even though [we have] the vision at the very core as to what kind of sport we’re trying to make, we’re also very much open and flexible to change things around and make sure the gameplay really fills the needs of our players. So the E3 announcement was really great in 2019, the alpha that happened in March 2020 was also very enlightening, the bunch of workshops we’ve done after the alpha until today at the beta we’re also very instrumental in orientating the design team and helping the development process move along. Now, we’re really excited to see the feedback we’ll get from the beta.

 

I imagine you have esport aspirations for Roller Champions, is that a goal for the development team in its design? Or are you considering that a perk on top if it does happen?

It’s a mix really because esport has always been something that’s community driven. It’s something that has to be picked up by the players beforehand. Of course, you can make sure that everything you do kind of helps or makes this reality a possibility and we’re very much cognisant of that, but there’s no plan that we’re ready to communicate around that. 

What we really want is to give them the ingredients that could generate an esport future and see if that actually becomes a reality in the community’s hand. What I can say is we’re looking feverishly at social media and we’re looking at the teams that are getting created, the tournaments that are getting organised for the beta, and that’s very exciting from a dev team perspective.

 

Will this be the last beta before an official release?

It’s always a question of doing the live phases at this stage. We’re going to wait a bit before we can go into more details about the next step in the roadmap, but we can definitely follow up on that question later on.

Roller Champions will be available on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2021.