Super Evil Megacorp, the developer behind mobile MOBA Vainglory, has had a busy week.
Today, the developer launched the five-person team modes in Vainglory, raising the number of players per match from six to ten. Super Evil Megacorp held an event to celebrate this launch, showing off the game and inviting fans to watch competitive Vainglory live and in-person, which they did with enthusiasm. Chairs were set up facing a main screen projected on the wall, itself a collective mirroring screens from several phones dotted around the building. Fans were reacting to every twist and turn beamed onto the wall by banging together loud, hollow plastic tubes and screaming their heads off.
Up in the building’s loft, Super Evil Megacorp’s CEO Kristian Segerstrale was happily mingling among his employees. With a beer in hand, Segerstrale was happy to shake anyone else’s hand, and encourage people to snack while they were there. A veteran executive of studios Supercell and Playfish, Segerstrale was oddly inviting, and started our interview asking me questions about Game Informer before I could ask any of my own.
After we were introduced, Segerstrale seemed genuinely interested in whether we covered mobile games, and what kind of games we all like to play. When I told him that we mostly cover consoles and PC, Segerstrale smiled.
We primarily cover consoles and PC, but mobile is kind of a blind spot.
To be honest, in some ways, that’s for the right reasons. I
mean, mobile gaming has for a long time been a somewhat… like, there have been
outstanding games being made by studios, but so much of the business of mobile
games has been a cynical monetization attempt at really shallow addiction
cycles that ultimately are typical bid-for-power style monetizing angles. Now,
as a gamer, it’s difficult to give that kind of depth for respecting some ways
as a player, you know, compared to the kinds of games that you usually see
people sinking tens of thousands of hours in to.
Do you feel like
that’s a mobile market thing?
Yeah, literally it’s a market evolution. If you think about
how long it took for PCs and console gaming both to evolve from a place of
initial simplicity – I mean, it’s fun now playing things that I grew up with
and realizing just how janky they were, you know? Even though I loved them to
bits at the time, they really were quite janky experiences. But I think gamer
culture on PC and consoles has evolved over the past two decades or so from
experiences that are kind of expected to work in a certain way to these
incredibly rich online multiplayer games that are primarily about community and
primarily about content creation.
I think mobile started in a different place because mobile
started in a world where things had to be free-to-play for distribution
reasons, and hence the first games that you get are not games like Tetris and
like say the way that PC or console games started with shooters and the like.
There wasn’t really a pay $60 upfront and play forever kind of SKU, which is
where console and PC games came from. Mobile came from a free-to-play place
where, if you have to make it free, how are you going to make some money as a
studio, where you have to figure out microtransactions somehow, one way or
another. I think that has lead to this evolution of player culture expecting
that style of play – short sessions, the proverbial “best of” moment – and
having these shallow addiction cycles. Because that’s what the industry
creates, that’s what the players expect, and because that’s what the players
expect, that’s what the industry ends up making. And frankly, could in some
ways arguably get away with making for too long.
In this new world, if you can spend a million dollars making
a game that makes you ten million dollars, or through shallow addiction cycles,
a hundred million dollars for that matter, why would you go through all the
effort of trying to create a higher production value game that lasts for
thousands of hours? In some ways, the founding philosophy and our mission as a
company is to just say that mobile gamers deserve better, that mobile gaming
culture will evolve to a point where players… like, humanity hasn’t changed,
right? And, as gamers, when you have a wake up experience as a player, it takes
a certain level of quality and polish and depth in your experience.
Just like as gamers, when you play on a handheld console,
you no longer expect a game that is somehow fundamentally dumber than the game
you play on your console at home or your PC at home. We believe that’s where
mobile gaming culture will be all the time.
Has there been an
effort with Vainglory to make it specifically less predatory, then?
One of the things Vainglory is about is building for the
touchscreen generation. The kind of experiences that we grew up and fell in
love with ourselves, which were back then entirely on PC, the sort of LAN party
experience where you play all night where it’s never about how much money you
have spent in a game and is always about your skill and your teamwork and your
tactical and strategic precision. We wanted to really build that sense into the
game and it’s really important to us. Of course, we need to pay our salaries
and we want to fund our marketing efforts and things, so there are things to
buy in Vainglory, absolutely there are. We are excited that, in the competitive
modes, all you can buy are cosmetics and/or unlock heroes quicker than you
would otherwise, but it’s all competitively balanced. In the quick modes, you
can purchase these things called Talents which are basically wacky, crazy
abilities to make the five-minute modes a bit faster.
But fundamentally, we are building IP and gameplay, which is
all about trying to create an immersive world, where you feel like once you
begin to learn the game and understand there’s thousands of hours of learning…
in some ways, we’re standing on top of giants, we admire companies like
Blizzard, companies like Riot, and Valve, who have come before us in the PC
generation, of going through that effort of evolving their games from the 90s
in some cases to get better, and better, and better. They create believable
characters, create compelling gameplay with the kind of strategic depth that,
as a player, you really respect them, you really feel like this is not just a
game for me, this is a thing that I do, it’s a hobby, this thing that I play.
So bringing that to the mobile generation has been very much
core to our mission as a company. It’s crazy how, in the past three years,
we’ve gone from “Why on earth would anyone play a core game on mobile, why
would not play it on PC or on console?” to literally having world championships
with thousands of simultaneous viewers, right? And fifteen million total views.
It just goes to show you that there’s a whole generation growing up for whom its
dawning that, you know what, this mobile device is my primary companion device,
I use it as a communication device, I use it as a media player, I use it as my
everything. And you know what, there’s now games on this device that I can fall in love with and play for hours and hours and hours that don’t just fleece
my credit card.
Walk me through the
process of deciding how to add four more players to each Vainglory match. What
is the genesis of that decision and how do you go about getting it implemented?
I can’t imagine you can just snap your fingers and go from 3v3 to 5v5.
That’s a great question. So, we originally decided for 3v3
as a format because… imagine we were making this game for a platform where
everyone was playing Candy Crush. We wanted to make sure, for the first
experience we create, on the one hand, it has the kind of framerate and
tactical and decision-making gameplay that we ourselves expect from games, but
at the same time, from a gamer culture perspective, is somewhat more approachable
in terms of multiplayer gaming coming from five-minute single player gaming.
Also, from a tech perspective, rewind back to the devices we
revealed the game on, the iPhone 6, and we’re very proud of being able to
deliver on 60 frames per second solid gameplay on that device at the time. So
it was a mix of where hardware was and where gamer culture was, but as we saw
both things evolve, ultimately like I said, our mission, our dream was to build
uncompromising- like, the experience that we grew up with. I grew up with
Unreal Tournament and Warcraft 3, where those games today have obviously in
that style of first-person shooter and RTSes and MOBAs have evolved to a place
where 5v5 is the canon format, especially for a MOBA.
We started evolving the tech immediately after the 3v3
launch for 5v5, we just didn’t know what the timing was. Then we started more
seriously exploring 5v5 over a year ago, where we were looking at it as “Okay,
we are going to do 5v5 now, let’s take the time necessary to make this feel good
on mobile.” And there are a lot of design innovations, like for example,
because we are realistic about control precision and accuracy, because you
never want to fight the controls, right? You want to be precise, you want to be
able to focus the enemy carry, you want to be able to execute your combos in a
way that is precise, right? A lot of us are fighting game players and that sort
of exact reaction to precision is native to our animators and our designers, so
we’re really sticklers for that.
To be able to cater to that, in Vainglory 5v5, you always
play left-to-right. We actually do some clever camera mirroring where depending
on which team you’re on, and you know whether you’re on the red team or the
blue team at the outset, you always play from left to right on your device.
That for example allows us to do things like position the minimap, position the
abilities in a way that predominantly expects you to encounter your enemies
more on the right side of the screen than the left side of the screen.
Those types of micro-decisions were things that we spent a
lot of time agonizing on really early, because wanted with 5v5 not just to make
it, but also for it to feel really great. Especially as we saw other products
started coming to the mobile market, which were more multiplayer-oriented and
used virtual joystick controls which have been imprecise, we wanted to make
absolutely sure that by the time that we released 5v5, it feels awesome, it
feels strategic and tactical, but also, from a controls perspective, it feels
The original decision was just because we went, “Well, this
is our dream! This is what we gotta do!” But then the actual design and
balancing of it was a really long journey. All of our design is always from our
first principles and we are always proud of moving and evolving the industry
forward, in the sense that we want to bring that PC-like experience to mobile,
but doing this meant bringing a brand-new category forward. Playing
left-to-right was interesting, also looking for how to solve some of the
movement issues on these larger maps, brings the time of matches down from
something like 45 or 50 minutes to something like 20 or 25, while retaining all
of the phases of a MOBA and all of the ebb and flow and storytelling of a
A lot of that was really stuff like, you know on the river
in our 5v5 map, it flows from the center lane to the side lanes, and the river
gives you a slight movement buff in the direction of flow. So if you go
downstream in the river, it’s slightly faster, which means that you can rotate
from mid-lane to the side-lanes a little bit faster, which means that you’re
less safe in the side-lanes, and you’re able to create slightly faster
rotational strategies. So like lots of little nuance like that. We’re real
sticklers about game length, where it needs to be long enough where you feel
like you’ve made real strategic and tactical choices throughout that game. You’ve
had a laning phase, you’ve had a farming phase, you’ve had a team-fight phase,
you’ve had an objective-taking phase, you’ve had a push-to-win phase. At every
phase, you should have the opportunity to come back, we never want matches to
tilt so hard that feel as a backfoot team that you won’t be able to come back.
That is a really fine-tuned balancing that takes a long
time, so 5v5 has been in testing, if you like, from a gameplay perspective
since May of last year, and then in external beta from about August onwards
while we kept on enhancing the graphics and things. During that process, when
we started, we didn’t know exactly can we pull this off with the same hero pool – like, do we have to start moving our hero abilities around, do we have to
change fundamental balancing? But we’ve been really proud that the heroes
really have held up, that we don’t need to need to have a different balance for
them in 5v5 versus 3v3. There’s some items in 5v5 which are new and different,
predominantly to cater for the vision game, because the map is smaller in 3v3,
the itemization around it felt like the right way to approach it. We tried to
see if that could carry over to 5v5, but it turns out that it doesn’t create
interesting vision game and counter-vision game for the map.
Do you have to
balance the two modes separately? Are you worried that focusing on one instead
of the other will make people unhappy?
Yeah, we worry about that a lot. The truth of that is, when we
started developing 5v5, we did not know whether 5v5 ends up in the primary game
modes for the game or not, and we always said to ourselves that the community
will choose. We tried our very best to create a balancing that works for everything,
and we will see, let’s see where the community gravitates. Even with the best
of intentions, even with the most high-level concepts, the most talented design
teams in the world – we have two co-founders that spent a long time at Riot, so
we believe we have expertise in this area – you never know how it’s going to
come out, you know? One of the signs of a mature designer is to be absolutely
paranoid about how something is ultimately received. We didn’t know.
Around October or November of last year, when things started
clicking together, to a point where our community were absolutely adamant that
this was the future, of the game… to the point where now we’ve shifted our
entire esports program from 3v3 to 5v5. When we think about bringing heroes to
the game, we do want them to play on both 3v3 and 5v5, but unless the community
tells us otherwise in the next few months, we are right now considering 5v5 the
primary game mode moving forward.
There has been more
of a movement in competitive gaming to make the initial step more accessible.
Battlegrounds, for example, has a no-nonsense setup to getting in to the game, and Dota
2 has the turbo-Dota modes. Is there a plan for Vainglory to move in that same
We think about that a lot. We think mobile games generally
do accessibility very well, in that the hyper-breadcrumb tutorialization have
in general that bust-up moment in keeping people’s attention, and deliberately
we did not start there. Our first attempt with Vainglory was to make sure that
there’s a “there” there in terms of core gameplay. When people get it, they
would get it and we won’t focus too much on teaching at the start. But since
then, if you now look at where Vainglory has come, now we have a very
character-centric tutorialization that really helps people get to grips with
basic controls first and introduces the players to the characters and the
attitude, if you like.
We think accessibility’s important and try to build intuitively
accessible experiences that never compromise on the depth of the actual
product. For us, if you’re going to err one way or the other, we will err on
the accessibility end. We just believe that, while it is true that getting
people through tutorials and getting people through the early experience is
important for any game, we think that where the mobile game market really lets
down players right now is in those games that you can play for thousands and
thousands of hours, and still discover something new and interesting. Our bias
will always be depth.
Stefan, our chief creative designer, he’s right around the
corner, he has been personally overseeing the overhaul of the tutorialization.
He’s been very focused on doing research on new players all the time and how do
we help people fall in love, how do we teach them enough to fall in love with
the depth of this experience, and he’s very passionate about it. So I don’t want
to talk down accessibility, but I want to talk up depth.
Is that the overall
goal, then? There are going to be people who never go competitive or never want
to go competitive, is the hope to move them from the casual arena to a
I want to be cautious about the competitive angle. Vainglory
is today the largest competitive multiplayer mobile esport, which we’re really
proud about, but we don’t view that as a goal in its own right. We view that as
a litmus test of whether the game is competitively viable enough that there’s
enough people that like this kind of thing that they like to watch it, and they
want to play it, and they can make a living off the back of being professional
players. That’s cool, it’s great, and we love to encourage it as much as
Fundamentally, though, that’s not what we set out to create.
We set out to create that feeling – in my case, in the
mid-90s, lugging my PC over to a friend’s house, playing in a LAN party all
night, thinking that I was real good at whatever I was playing back then, which
I want to say was Unreal? Maybe I started with Doom originally, then maybe
Quake, then Unreal. You know, kind of thinking that you were s**t-hot all the
way until you managed to connect to someone else over the internet and then
were like, whoa, whoa, whoa, there are other really good players. As it turned
out, I was really not s**t-hot at all, but it took me a while to realize that.
But the point is, we want to create an enjoyable, fun
experience to play at every level. We don’t want to confuse competitively-viable
skill sets with being able to have fun at the game. The way we think about it
is like, we take a sport like soccer. It’s super fun to kick a ball with
friends in your backyard, you can play some amateur ball, you can play in a
professional league and watch the world championships, right? It’s fun, it’s
the same game, it’s equally fun, it’s reasonably accessible, you can learn how
to kick a ball.
Here, you have a phone, everyone has a phone, and you can play
this game on any device you have. It’s a thing you can do instead of playing a
board game, or playing cards, or playing something else would do around the
table. We want you to have fun in your own skill tier in a way that’s fun. Helping
guide people to that point where they have a lot of fun with the game with
friends is, to us, really the game. We want to take it to the point where, for
us, gaming played a really important role growing up as a thing that really
brought us together with friends. There was a certain connection where you’d
play all night and then have to go to school in the morning with those same
friends and deeper friendships. Being able to create a game that plays that
kind of a role was important to us.
The esports angle, it’s so overhyped these days. We’re part
of it, it’s great that it exists, and we’re super excited about the [Vainglory
esports teams] TSMs and Tribes and Fnatics of the world, and other Vainglory
teams, and excited about those partnerships like the Razer partnership and now
the ESP partnership… it is, to us, a litmus test. If we do our job correctly
creating a super fun game, then that emerges, as opposed to trying to make
that. We don’t know that that’s even possible, we just want to create a super
fun game for the community.
Vainglory is available on iOS and Android. The 5v5 update went live today.