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Vainglory: the MOBA game that took Apple’s iPhone 6 launch by storm

Super Evil Megacorp’s game could be the League of Legends or Dota 2 of iOS, but it’s ‘not pay-to-win’

Published on theguardian.com on September 9, 2014 by Stuart Dredge

There was only one Super Evil Megacorp on stage at Apple’s iPhone 6 and Apple Watch event today, and no, it wasn’t the company run by Tim Cook.

Super Evil Megacorp is the US-based startup whose upcoming iOS game Vainglory got a prominent demo slot during the launch, turning co-founder Tommy Krul into an unintentional meme due to his scarf.

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.”