How mobile are you?
Vainglory’s design was driven by Super Evil’s goals but tailored by the limits of its platform. The game was built for the smallest screen in gaming, which yielded unique development challenges. The biggest, Segerstrale says, was designing a control scheme.
“There’s a very easy assumption to make that, because you are controlling with your fingers as opposed to a mouse pointer, you will not have as much control in the game,” Segerstrale says. “That was something we were super focused on from the start. Truthfully, when we started Vainglory, we didn’t know if it was possible to create that sense of positioning that we have on a PC MOBA. We didn’t know. It was one of the first things we wanted to prove out.
“What we found is that you not only have the same level of control,” he continues, “but arguably significantly more. That’s something people don’t really get their head around. If you give yourself 10 seconds of time [on PC], you can click on a specific pixel on the screen, which is amazing. That you can never do with your finger. But when you actually play a MOBA, when you think about how you actually click, you tend to click a target, then click to move, then click a target, then click to move.
“And actually, the pixel precision is far less critical than being able to click approximately in the right place in multiple locations very quickly. And that, it turns out, your fingers are much better at than a mouse pointer.”
The strength of Vainglory’s controls is its use of both hands. With Vainglory, moving in one way and shooting in the other is “trivial” because you can use both your index fingers. By cutting out the “pointless” back and forth that you have with traditional cursors, Segerstrale says, Vainglory lets you “focus on the enemy and the mechanics.”
“We think about it like how shooters moved from PC to console,” Segerstrale says. “I’ll be honest, I was a big FPS gamer and I didn’t think it was possible to do that on consoles in a way that was effective. And then, you know, Halo came along and proved us all wrong.”
Networking was another hurdle for Vainglory, though one with a surprisingly easy solution: avoiding Wi-Fi.
“One of the interesting things about mobile devices is that they are always connected to the Internet, which is amazing. But they are sometimes connected over Wi-Fi. The fact that people play on mobile devices wherever they are is a challenge in the sense that people don’t always understand the quality of their Wi-Fi.
“The big surprise for us was that it turns out playing on your mobile network, like LTE, is actually far more reliable than any Wi-Fi network in the world. It turns out mobile networks are constructed in a way that is virtually error-free. And because only five to 10 megabytes of data is exchanged in a 25-minute match, you can play at perfect ping regardless of whether you’re in reach of Wi-Fi.”
As you’d expect, sitting six feet from your Google Fiber-powered wireless router will yield a stronger connection than your LTE network. But overall, in terms of packet loss, traditional 3G and 4G networks proved to be the more consistent option, and a godsend for a game selling the option to get a hardcore experience anywhere.
The often negative perception of mobile gaming, dutifully established by many nickel-and-diming knockoffs, was a different but equally challenging beast. Here, too, simplicity won out: Super Evil went for total transparency.
“The thing that will strike you about Vainglory, compared to almost any other mobile product, is that we are genuinely interested in free-to-play in the same way that PC games are,” Segerstrale said. “There are no shady mechanics, there are no timers, there are none of those things that, right now, are characterizing those games that have created a perception of mobile games being money machines.”
Other than limited edition seasonal hero skins, all of Vainglory’s features can be unlocked using Glory, a currency earned through play. For those unique skins, or for any feature you want to access immediately, you can buy and spend ICE. Everything else can be unlocked without a cent. As Segerstrale puts it, “It will take you some time, but you can get there.”
Vainglory’s standout feature is its ability to defy convention. Rather than rely on the mobile audience, it leverages it. Despite the scale inherent to the MOBA genre, or perhaps because of it, it packs heaps of content into a single lane that can be experienced on a phone. And just as strangely, it’s determined to become an eSport. Just last August, Super Evil launched Vainglory’s International Premier League in Korea with the help of gaming channel OGN. The tournament saw teams from North America, Europe, Korea and China compete for a $70,000 prize pool, and brought in over one million Twitch views.
As the birthplace of eSports, Korea looks like an ideal market for Vainglory. Similarly, Japan’s love of smartphone games makes it appear ripe for the taking. Segerstrale agrees these are important markets, but maintains that a global plan is best suited for Vainglory, not only because its appeal is not contained in a simple duality, but because Western and Eastern markets aren’t as different as we often speculate.
“I think it’s true that cultures are different all around the world, but gamers tend to be gamers,” he says. “Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve had early adopter enthusiasts who’ve been raving about the game and who we’ve worked with to help create great content and support the community. And there’s been folks who look at it and think, ‘touch screen MOBA, could never possibly work,’ and that it’s just going to be another one of those money making schemes that promises one thing and delivers another.
“So it’s been really wonderful to watch how player after player, in particular from the pro gaming communities, has ended up really enjoying the game and becoming local supporters of it.”
Although Vainglory will continue to grow as an eSport and flesh out its own design with the help of its community, Segerstrale says it’s this broader consumption pattern that he is most excited about.
“By the end of next year, there will be somewhere around three billion touch screens out there that can play a game like Vainglory,” he says. “And somebody out there is going to build a success that is about three to five times the size of the biggest PC games. It’s not going to happen overnight; it will take a very long time. There is an education process there. There’s all of us learning to build the software and create the communities and encourage the ecosystem.
“But it’s going to be an amazing time for gaming overall to in some ways finally bring core gaming to the masses. We won’t be bound by a few hundred million consoles or six or eight hundred million gaming PCs. Virtually everyone is going to have one of these powerful platforms in their pocket that they can play with.
“I think the experiences that will be created over time will be awesome. I’m most excited to be part of that longer transformation.”
The question isn’t so much “Why would you make a mobile MOBA?” as it is “Why not?” We’re talking about the combination of gaming’s wealthiest—the fireball that is the mobile games market and the ever-expanding pockets of MOBAs like Dota 2 and League of Legends. You could wring a small country’s GDP out of a mobile MOBA. Or, maybe, you could have a really fun LAN party.
The latter is what Super Evil Megacorp has in mind. Super Evil is the fresh-faced and delightfully named studio behind Vainglory, a 3v3 single-lane MOBA exclusive to touch screen platforms. After a showing at the iPhone 6 press conference, Vainglory first released on iOS devices in 2014. It launched worldwide on Apple and Android platforms in May of this year and has built an audience of over 1.5 million since, dabbling in everything from eSports to couch play all the while.
Flabbergasted but intrigued by Vainglory’s path, I spoke with Super Evil COO Kristian Segerstrale over the phone to figure out just what LAN parties have to do with touch screen play.
Come one, come all
“We designed Vainglory for a global audience,” he explains. “If you take a couple of steps back, our dream with the product was to provide the touch generation with the kind of gaming experiences we had when we grew up. I was a big player of things like Warcraft 3 and Unreal Tournament on PC. I would literally carry my PC to my friend’s house and, you know, we’d play all night.
“That competitive, fundamentally social experience with friends, playing a game with deep strategy, tactics and team play, as well as individual mechanical skill… We felt that that kind of game just simply wasn’t available on a touch screen. So when you think about what kind of experience Vainglory is designed for, it is really that.”
Super Evil approaches the massive install base of mobile gaming from a different angle, Segerstrale tells me. Rather than the sales potential, they’re interested in the accessibility of the platform. Everyone has a smartphone. More than anything, Super Evil wants to give them a deeper game to play.
“We think that mobile consumers are just ready for touch screens to have a more immersive, PC style experience,” he says. “So we designed everything from the engagement model to the business model accordingly. We really want to provide people with the in-depth opportunity to play as long as they want to.”
Already, they’ve had successes: the average Vainglory users spends 85 minutes on the game per day, nearly four times the average mobile play time of even Japan. The revival of the LAN party has proven itself more than a pipe dream as well. According to Super Evil’s latest round of surveys, over half of Vainglory’s users regularly play with friends in the same space.
This echoes how Vainglory’s community has driven the game’s development. Take, for example, the recent addition of guilds, player-managed teams and groups who play and strategize together. Guilds came about long before Super Evil officially sanctioned them. Players created their own infrastructure based on how they wanted to play. All Vainglory had to do was follow their lead and make these features official, in this case by adding guild- and team-only seasonal goals and rewards.
“If we were a PC game, you could argue we might still have a beta of the game,” Segerstrale admits. “There are still a lot of features that we’re building and rolling out. It’s something we are going to be building with the community for a long time to come. But we have proven conclusively, which we didn’t know prelaunch, that this style of gaming, of playing together as a LAN party with friends on a PC style game, is something that touch gamers love.
“Yes, [mobile gaming] started more casual and mid-core, but we think the very large evolution of the market over the next couple of years will be caused by play patterns emerging on touch screens everywhere,” he says. “We [know] gamers who, previously, perhaps shunned touch screens for core gaming, thinking, ‘This is going to be just another attempt at creating short play patterns,’ something that people don’t consider real gaming. But we think there will be many others who come to see touch screens as a first-rate gaming platform just like PC and consoles.”
It’s all in your hands
Still, pitching this sort of experience to an audience as divided as mobile gaming’s isn’t easy. Oftentimes it seems diehard fans of mobile will play anything, but everyone else won’t give any game the time of day. Getting console and PC users to the platform in the first place is just as much an uphill battle. To avoid this divisiveness, Super Evil started by focusing on their product, not their platform.
“We believe gamers fundamentally don’t care what device they play on,” Segerstrale says. “Fundamentally, it’s not really the hardware that people care about, it’s the experience. And so far, the experiences that have been offered on touch screen have not really been designed for core gaming, that kind of immersive, long-session gaming. But the hardware has been capable of it for two or three years already. If you look at [mobile devices] that were launched two years ago or so, the CPU/GPU combination already enabled play of things like Vainglory. It’s just that the industry wasn’t mature enough, the industry wasn’t there.”
Segerstrale wants Vainglory to help the industry get there now. They’re serious about Vainglory, at least enough to build an engine for the game. Appropriately dubbed E.V.I.L., Vainglory’s proprietary engine delivers 1.3 million polygons, 60 frames per second and sub-30 millisecond responsiveness across a broad range of mobile devices. But the studio had to do more than get the most out of smartphone processors. To ensure Vainglory appeals to more than casual players, they had to deliver the experience hardcore players want. Namely: a proper MOBA.
“We wanted to start from a blank piece of paper,” Segerstrale says. “We wanted to think about how we could design experiences that would, firstly, serve all phases of a MOBA. We didn’t want to dumb down the core experience.”
Vainglory is all about destroying the opponent’s Vain Crystal, but it starts with gold farming. Eventually, this turns into “objective control.” At this point, players fight for control of points in the game’s Jungle. Minion and Gold Mines can be used to buff your minions’ strength and earnings. Similarly, by slaying the Jungle’s Kraken, one team can send the beast charging down the lane, destroying enemy turrets and, if unchecked, the enemy crystal.
The cornerstone of this and all stages was concision, Segerstrale tells me. Super Evil wanted to create a visceral MOBA experience “in the most compressed form possible.” As it turns out, the shortest form they could get was 20 to 25 minutes. In this, map design was key. Fortunately, the team had the advantage of “standing on the shoulders of giants” like League of Legends and Dota 2. What’s more, two of Super Evil’s cofounders are former Riot Games employees themselves.
“Ultimately, we tried several variations of a map, and we ended up with a single lane and large Jungle with capture and hold points that deliver gold income as well as buff your minions in the lane,” Segerstrale explains. “The point of it was to create tension in a way where you have this ebb and flow of anticipation, where you try to think about what the opponent is going to do next.
“It needs to be a game of chess, as well as a bit of a fighting game. ‘How do we set a trap for them? How do we spring that trap in the most effective way possible?’ We tried to make a map layout that created the most interesting setup for outthinking the opponent and creating those points of tension.”
Vainglory’s short games play off those “points of tension” by fostering more intense and frequent fights. Because of that, hero building and counter-building is crucial, especially for competitive play.
“If you talk to our casters, many of them will say [hero building] is the most interesting aspect of Vainglory in that any hero is viable to be built along weapon damage, crystal power, ability power or some form of utility. And once you’ve chosen your team composition, how you actually end up building your heroes has a very large impact on the outcome of the game.
“It’s not just how you build them, but how you counter-build, how you react to how the opponent is building their heroes,” he continues. “So when you watch a game of Vainglory, it feels like it’s happening on multiple layers. There is the objective game and the rotations and all that, but also the building and counter-building […] between the two teams. Teams will pretend to go in one specific build direction in order to convince the other team to build a certain way, and then they change their builds entirely to outwit them.”
Hero design will remain an ongoing process for Vainglory, but the team does have a plan going forward. After the latest addition, Phinn, an incredibly tanky hero, Vainglory has a roster of 18. These heroes comprise five different classes: Assassin, Mage, Protector, Sniper and Warrior. Super Evil plans to add a new hero approximately every month, with each new addition bringing “something entirely new and different to the game,” Segerstrale says.
“A lot of people asked us initially, you know, ‘Look at all these other MOBAs, they have so many more heroes.’ For us, it’s not about the quantity. We want every hero to be unique and to fundamentally change the game whether you’re playing that hero, playing with that hero, or playing against that hero where it shifts that sort of mental chess game.”
Build variety and viability gets the same treatment, he says. The team wants every Vainglory hero to be playable in every role, “so you can build the hero in different ways in order to make the hero feel different.” In practice, this more than triples each hero’s repertoire of play styles.