Super Evil Megacorp was founded in 2012 with the goal of getting into the MOBA space on mobile. To date, it has raised more than $15m to make that ambition a reality.
The team is staffed with former Riot Games, Blizzard, Rockstar and Guerrilla Games developers. Its first title, Vainglory, was released on iOS in November last year, but the studio has now launched what it's labelling the 'full' version on both iOS and Android as it plans to take the title to the next level.
Despite the studio’s expertise in game development and MOBAs, the start-up is still taking a risk with Vainglory. Publishers such as EA and Warner Bros. have all tried their hands at the genre, and have all failed. So why does Super Evil Megacorp, a team of 35, and with a budget that can't hope to match League of Legends and DOTA 2, think it can make a mark in the MOBA space? And why does it think mobile is the place to do it?
“We wanted to build games that defined eras in players’ lives,” says studio CEO Bo Daly (Picuted left, main image). "In the same way I use to play a lot of Diablo, or players got into World of Warcraft for five years and look back on that as like an epic in their existence. We want to build that style of a game. And the truth is these games are almost always competitive multiplayer games, and we kind of view the MOBA as being a perfection of some of these genres.
“In some ways I think you can argue that the RTSs and ARPGs have merged in a sense to create a more perfect online, real-time competitive game in MOBA. We like the genre, we enjoy playing it and we also have the benefit that two of my co-founders worked at Riot Games prior to starting the company and they understood deeply the anatomy of what makes these games tick. What matters and what doesn’t matter.
“I point to that a lot as the reason to why we can be successful.”
A Competitive genre
Daly believes that publishers have failed to bring the MOBA to mobile and tablets in the past due to underestimating the appetite for deep content on such devices and trying to copy and paste gameplay from PC’s winning formula.
He says Super Evil are trying a different development approach for Vainglory. The team took apart the features that make up a MOBA, stripping away convention and what works better on PC. This, he says, was so they could double-down on the most important elements for mobile.
“Even on PC MOBAs, those games can get kind of long,” he states. “There’s some very boring minutes early on where you’re just farming your land forever right.
"So we felt there was an opportunity to streamline that experience, compress it a little bit, keep the energy levels high for a full 20 minutes and then give the players a moment to go ‘okay, I want to go again’.”
The tactic seems to be working so far. On average its users play more than 80 minutes a day – accumulated on the back of numerous 20-minute play sessions. It’s a big number for mobile, which is known for snackable gameplay sessions. It’s something that’s even encouraged in the free-to-play space when it comes to in-app purchases.
Daly says it works for Vainglory and MOBAs as it builds engagement. When asked whether 20 minutes was generally too long for mobile and tablet, he responded that the notion comes from “group think”.
“You make a game that is simple and casual, and you look at the data, and it says people play five minute games on this platform," he states. "So you make five minute games and the data tells you that even more.
“The truth is, you really you have to measure it by, when you’re at 15 minutes of a heated match, does it feel like it’s been going on too long? And almost invariably it doesn’t. Players are eager to hang around for another ten minutes to finish out that match.”
The MOBA touch
Along with trying to tackle the mobile space, Super Evil wants to drive the competitive gaming side of Vainglory. To this end, it has set up the Vainglory Cup Series.
One of the key challenges however is creating more simplistic controls for mobile and tablets while also ensuring there’s enough depth for the competitive community. Daly says though many players have become accustomed to a keyboard and mouse, it doesn’t necessarily make touch a less viable input for MOBAs. In fact, he says in terms of actions per minute and dragging a mouse left to run to run and shoot, touch is more intuitive and easier to execute moves on.
He believes touch could even become the de facto standard for many genres in future.
“We feel we’re successful if we can make the interface recede and make the players forget that they’re controlling something and more think they’re interacting with other people,” says Daly. “We feel good about the way that feels right now, and we don’t feel there’s very much lost.
“Frankly it’s not a pixel accuracy game. We’re not pulling off headshots at a thousand meters. It’s more about timing, coordination and tactics then it really is about pixel hunting. I think for a very wide class of games, actually, we'll find that touch interface is probably a more native and in some ways better interface, and maybe ends up being the de facto standard interface for a lot of top-down or three-quarter perspective-type games that we’ve been trained to play on a PC with a keyboard and mouse.
"Frankly if you play them on touch for long enough, when you go back to PC, we hear a lot of notes from players that say, hey, I went back to try and play a MOBA on PC and it felt awkward.”
A criticism of those entering the MOBA space is: is it really a genre? Or is it just based off the original DOTA and then League of Legends? Arguably, many of the games in the space closely follow similar gameplay and map layouts, though it’s a criticism that could be levelled at many shooters.
Daly says it is “absolutely a genre”; defending Vainglory for its different meta game, while saying there's a lot of room to innovate in the space and make the game their own.
“I think to some degree, there is a little bit of, not quite zero sum, but there is a little bit of zero sum-type fact that you’re ultimately competing for player hours and player dreams and aspirations,” he says.
“And it will probably feel for a very long time that there’s one game, or maybe one game and a knock-off, or two or three games in the ecosystem that are actually interesting and viable at any point in time. But I don’t know that that makes it less of a genre.”
Daly was coy at this stage on the number of downloads Vainglory had achieved to date. He says the studio is focused on creating sustainable growth overtime, and won’t be spending big on user acquisition.
“There’s a couple of ways to look at growth,” he says. “There’s sustainable growth and there’s UA driven growth. You can waste a lot of money in UA driven growth, particularly if the product isn’t quite ready to go out the door.
“We haven’t spent a dollar on UA. It’s probably fair to say we spent a little bit investing in it in segments in the early days, but literally single digit thousands of dollars in the early days.”
Should Super Evil's game become a success in the mobile market, it'll surely be closely followed by a number of others MOBAs. Perhaps even from the current big players on PC.