How the Roller Champions devs invented a new spectator sport
Roller Champions is coming to PS4 (and PS5 via backwards compatibility) on May 25, offering fast-paced, competitive, free-to-play matches in which you can rise to sports-legend glory. Its roller-skate arena action is based on three simple rules: catch the ball, do a lap while keeping it in your team’s possession, and score!
To better understand the game, its origins, and its gameplay decisions, we spoke with Gauthier Malou, Roller Champions’ creative director.
“Blending is at the core of Roller Champions,” says Malou, and that’s especially true when it comes to its origins, which combine inspirations as diverse as arcade games and a dystopian movie from the ‘70s. Before Roller Champions, Malou was part of a small team at Ubisoft tasked with two missions: create free mobile games, and keep an eye on the market to observe its trends. It was during this time that his team noticed that “the market was moving more and more towards interaction between players, spectators, and organizers,” he recalls, citing examples like Twitch and esports competitions.
“Streamers are like a Roman emperor who has to entertain the crowd,” says Malou, “and the more fun the game is to watch, the more viewers will ask the streamers to replay that game. So, at first, we thought of a classic gladiator game with swords.”
But the team wanted to approach the idea in a unique way, and that’s when Malou had a flash of inspiration: Rollerball, one of his favorite movies from the ‘70s. Depicting a dystopian world in which corporations take over and create spectacles to satiate the masses, the film is violent and dark – but that’s not what attracted him to it.
“The fact that this movie had gladiators on roller skates in a circular arena, like Ben-Hur, that’s an original approach,” he says. “Roller skates are based on physics and inertia – it gives us fun gameplay where we’re going to push each other, knock each other down.”
Of course, the colorful and dynamic Roller Champions bears no resemblance to the dark and cruel world of Rollerball. Instead, the team set to work creating a prototype in a roller-skating arena that put competition at the center of the game while still remaining fun and inclusive.
By combining soccer, basketball, handball, roller derby, and a handful of other sports, the team created a totally unique sport. With no guns, cars, or power contests, Malou explains that Roller Champions is a game that’s “not gendered, not filled with testosterone, and that’s also, in my opinion, ultra-modern, because roller skates are an environmentally friendly way to reclaim concrete cities.”
But competition is still a core part of it. “We’ve always believed in the power that comes from confrontation. It’s in us, we’re competitive,” says Malou. “And to have confrontation with good values and fair play, we created a sport.”
As fun to watch as it is to play
While working on the details of this new sport, the team followed one clear, central guideline: the game should be as fun to watch as it is to play, and someone who doesn’t know the rules of the game should be able to enjoy the action just by watching the players move on the track.
During development, Malou found innovative ways to test whether the game was on the right track. “I showed my mom a match when she didn’t even know what the game was,” he recounts. “She was like, ‘Oh, he’s good because he does a backflip and falls nicely on his feet. Ah, he sucks because he fell on his butt.’ Without understanding the rules, she was able to enjoy the game.”
These characteristics of the game – being instantly accessible, understandable, and fun – are important not only for the gameplay, but also for the fact that the game is free. Malou notes that Roller Champions may seem complicated at first; the game presents a completely new sport, and players will need to learn everything.
“Our strength, though,” he says, “is the instant fun that comes once people pick up the controller to try it.” A price tag creates a barrier to entry, Malou says, but being free means that “to try it is to embrace it.”
But while the game is immediately understandable and fun, that doesn’t mean it’s simple. The basic concept – pick up the ball, do a lap with it, and score – is amplified by moves that can be combined to create exponential possibilities.
“What brought a lot of variety was the combo aspect,” Malou says. “Kicking right after you jump, jumping again when you’re already in the air, doing a double dodge, making a pass when you’ve just fallen.”
The same concept of combos also applies to the many game modes the team is testing. “For example: hot potato,” says Malou. “It’s the exact same game, but if you don’t make a pass after five seconds, the ball explodes in your hands. And that game mode can be perfectly combined with the 2v2 game mode.
“Every time we add more game modes, the number of possible combinations is going to be exponential,” says Malou.
Although the development team has been experimenting with other combinations, the main game mode will always be 3v3. “We want players to feel like superstars,” says Malou, “so that everyone has a chance to shine, to have their moment of glory, to be cheered on. We’re keeping it as intimate as possible in terms of the number of players.”
To emphasize the idea that the players are celebrities, there are no classes in the game; everyone gets the same equipment and the same chances. “It’s really the players who have their stories and their abilities,” Malou notes, “so if you want a good defender on your team, you recruit a player who is a good defender. The players are the champions, not their characters.”
The map design is another gameplay decision that puts the focus on the players. “The game doesn’t have big maps with hundreds of players. Instead, it’s very intimate,” Malou says. To add to the effect of its small size, the map is also fully visible; its center wall is transparent to keep the audience’s attention on the champions at all times.
To ensure that the audience shares the same experience, the team also reduced the number of subjective elements in the game as much as possible. Players won’t see their enemy team as red, for instance; the teams are neutral colors, yellow and blue. By removing this element of opposition, the development team can ensure that the audience appreciates the players’ skills more than the clashes between the teams.
“Everything’s conceived so that the audience sees the same thing, because then they share the same experience,” says Malou. “There’s a sense of community, because they’re talking about the same thing at the same time.”
Roller Champions launches for free on May 25 for PS4, and is playable on PS5 via backwards compatibility. Get ready to strap on your skates and roll up to glory – superstardom awaits!