Actually, the game is much more interesting than the scarf. It’s the most hardcore game ever shown during an Apple keynote: a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) title that’s shaping up as iOS’ equivalent of PC games like League of Legends and Dota 2.
“We really only wanted to go down this road if we felt like the experience was going to be faithful to the core community, and for what the expectations of a real, honest-to-goodness core game would be like,” said co-founder Stephan Sherman, when he and Krul sat down with The Guardian after the event.
“For it to feel like a legitimate MOBA, certain things had to be in place. It had to be a skill game, it had to be fair, it had to have zone defence, and players had to know what their roles were, where to go, and how to interact with their teammates in a way that was useful,” he said.
“It had to be tactically competent: it couldn’t be reduced so far down that you couldn’t have the skill depth and the element of overpowering your opponent mentally, and trapping them.”
But back up for a second. If you’re new to the MOBA genre, one way to think of it is as a bit like Capture The Flag, with two players trying to capture (or more likely destroy) one another’s bases with their teams of heroes. Strategy is everything, including the aspect of trapping.
“It’s like a box on a stick with a little bit of cheese in it, and you’re trying to get the mouse to come in so you can yank the stick and close it,” said Sherman.
“That mechanic is at the heart of any good competitive game, whether it’s chess, or Counter-Strike, or Street Fighter or Vainglory. Any hardcore game that has stood the test of time has that fundamental mechanic of luring the other player in and trying to trap them. It never gets old.”
So, that’s a big part of Vainglory, as are what Krul promises are rock-solid controls – “30-millisecond response time, or shorter” – to ensure that if players make a mistake, they can’t blame shonky touchscreen controls.
Vainglory is set on a parallel version of the earth, with the backstory including two sleeping gods – one in the heart of earth and another in the heart of the moon – with the former secreting then releasing “halcyon” through geyser-like eruptions on the surface.
The world is split into two kinds of areas: The Calm, with less halcyon eruptions and more stability for humans to live, and The Churn, where the eruptions of “raw god essence – it’s the thing that makes magic work” spell danger.
However, people still venture into The Churn with “vain crystals” to capture the halcyon and take it back to their settlements: and it’s the battles for this – one team always starts with possession of an erupting halcyon well while the other is trying to capture it – that spurs Vainglory’s action.
There’s also tension: what Sherman described as the “ebb and flow” of great MOBA games. “A MOBA at its core is not a brawler: a constant stream of action. It’s 95% about setup,” he said.
“It’s preparation, gauging how good your opponent is at what they’re doing, and laying traps for them and luring them in – or being counter-trapped by them. It’s that mental mind game where you watch things explode into super-intensity. That’s really important.”
Individual games of Vainglory average around 20 minutes, although Sherman said close ties might stretch to half an hour, while one-sided “stomps” might be more like 10-15 minutes.
“The amount of time a game takes is long enough that players get an emotional investment in the game, but short enough that the action feels a lot more tightly packed than you see in a lot of the more common MOBAS,” he said.
“It’s about having the things you talk about after the game is done. If the game is too short, you won’t have them. If the game is too long, everyone gets bored,” added Krul.
“We’ve worked towards an optimal point where the game can still be fun to jump into and play for a bit, and doesn’t require the hour-plus investment that something like League of Legends of Dota 2 takes, but it’s still long enough that you have those four, five, six or seven encounters during the game, and you talk about them later.”
Krul said that Super Evil Megacorp, which raised a $15m funding round in June, has encountered plenty of scepticism about its plans to make a hardcore MOBA work on mobile devices, even if it’s not the first such game to try its luck on iOS.
“It’s really a supply and demand thing. There aren’t a lot of truly good core games on the platform,” he said.
“People have over the years come to associate iPhone and iPad with planting some crops and, y’know, games that maybe are fun for kids to move around and do some swiping, but not the stuff you play on your console or PC.”
The company’s bet is that a lot of hardcore gamers do own tablets (or, soon, the larger-screened phones like the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus) and that if they’re provided with the right games, they’ll play on those devices.
“We’ve been testing this in a few territories, and we found that people play on average for an hour and 20 minutes a day. That’s a level of engagement we could only dream of when we started making the game,” said Krul.
“Most people when we started were like ‘why would anyone want to play anything that is not Fruit Ninja? People only play in the bus, they only play really quick…’ But we’ve found that’s not only the case.”
Super Evil Megacorp developed its own engine for Vainglory, and has recently been working with Apple’s Metal framework – announced at its WWDC show in June – to get the game up and running on iOS.
Vainglory will be a free-to-play game that makes its money from in-app purchases: a model that has been relatively uncontroversial for PC games like Dota 2 and League of Legends, but has provoked more debate among its target demographic of core players on mobile.
“Our game is not pay-to-win. There’s a temptation there on mobile, because it seems like an easy win – a way to get cash, but in a competitive game that cuts your knees out from under you. And even if it didn’t, it just doesn’t fit with the DNA of our company,” said Sherman.
“We like spending a lot of time to think of ways that feel engaging and fun and fair to players, when we think about how monetisation works.”
That means no use of “energy” mechanics, where players have a certain amount of energy that runs out through playing, and then makes them either wait to play again, or spend virtual currency to remove that wait.
“We’re not going to have energy mechanics. That stuff is just horrible. I believe that in some ways, it’s bad for the platform,” said Krul.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about positive reinforcement mechanics rather than negative ones. Rather than removing a frustration by paying, you’re complementing the play experience by paying, but not in a way that’s pay-to-win,” added Sherman.
“We have a couple of really interesting ideas on that front, but we can’t share them yet. It’s not pay-to-win, and it’s going to be fun, engaging and fair.
MOBA games aren’t just popular for people playing them: they’re hugely popular for people watching, as e-sports – competitive gaming for an audience – has taken off through sites like Twitch.
60m people watched games on Twitch this summer, with League of Legends the most popular game, and Dota 2 in fourth place. Is Super Evil Megacorp thinking about what this trend means for mobile games like Vainglory?
“Spectation on these games is huge, and we’re definitely looking into that,” said Krul. “It’s huge for us: the idea that someone could be playing Vainglory, but they can also take out their phone and watch any of the games currently going on. Stay tuned.”
“Twitch released their [mobile] SDK, and there are a handful of games using that. We’re watching those things pretty closely,” added Sherman. “We think there is definitely a large part of the experience that’s in spectation.”
Vainglory is being tested in a few countries in Asia, but its full global launch will start in October. Krul warned that it will be a slow rollout from country to country, though.
“If you’ve ever followed any server-based games that go live, everyone always fucks it up. The slower you can do it, the better, and you have to verify every single step along the way to make sure your servers aren’t melting down,” he said.
For now, Vainglory is an iOS exclusive, but its developer’s game engine – named E.V.I.L. – has been designed to be multi-platform, so it’s possible (and, if the game does well, nigh-on inevitable) that it will launch on Android later.
Once Vainglory is launched, the company is hoping to attract players new to the MOBA genre, as well as veterans. It’s currently working on ways to make the game accessible to the former, without feeling dumbed down for the latter.
“We wanted it to be approachable, but deceptively deep,” said Sherman. “We have some cool ideas about how we are going to onboard players who are new to the genre.”
Krul chipped in. “It’s like the layers of an onion: you have to create a core which is actually very deep, and then you build the shells around it that allow people to easily get into the game,” he said.
“It’s about converting players from ‘Let’s check out what this game is because it looks kinda cool’ to ‘Holy shit! There’s actually a lot of stuff here and I’m enjoying myself for hours on end. That’s where the magic happens, and that’s what we’ll hopefully be able to do.”
• Stuart Dredge’s travel and accommodation was paid for by Apple. Editorial is completely independent.
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