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Five Lessons I’ve Learned Building a MOBA for Touch Screens

Kristian Segerstrale, COO and Executive Director at Super Evil Megacorp, shares five lessons learned developing unapologetically core MOBA Vainglory for touch devices.

Since the start of Super Evil Megacorp, our number one priority has been to create a game for touch screens that can earn the respect of core gamers. Unlike many touch screen games from the past, we didn’t want to simplify a genre. Instead, we set out to create an unapologetically core MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena game) from the ground up and perfect the game for touch devices. Our mission with Vainglory is to bring the visceral, deep experience to touch screens - where strategy, tactics and mechanical skill all matter. This is the type of gaming we all grew up with and loved in the PC era - especially in a LAN party setting - and we wanted to bring it to an entirely new generation of gamers with the added bonus of not having to carry their PC rigs around.

When we first set out to build Vainglory, we didn’t know if it was possible to transition the full MOBA experience from PCs to touch screens. We knew that, in the console-grade E.V.I.L. game engine, we had the technology to deliver the graphics, polygons and frames-per-second required for a visually stunning experience. But we weren’t sure if we could deliver the “feel” of the game where you would be fully immersed in the action and entirely focused on beating your opponent, instead of figuring out how the controls worked. And where it would be as much fun to watch people play as it was to play the game in the first place.

It took a lot of iteration to get the controls, the map design and the overall high level design choices to all work together, but we’ve been very encouraged by our early progress. Since an early version of the game launched on the App Store in North America and Europe, we’ve learned a lot. We’re very encouraged by the growth and support by our awesome community.

In the month of May alone, we had over 1.5M monthly active players on iOS only, with players spending on average over 80min per day playing the game, and with nearly 20% of players watching it on Twitch as well as playing it on their device. Now following on from the Android launch, we’re growing faster still, and we are very excited about working with our community to continue to evolve the game.

While continuing to build and grow Vainglory and its community is an ongoing learning process, I wanted to share five lessons we’ve learned while developing the game and bringing a super core, traditionally PC-only genre to touch screens.

Lesson 1: Engine Matters

For console or PC developers, it’s not any news that your engine tech matters - very few top charting titles are built on 3rd party engines. However, for touch games this is a largely new concept. Knowing that we wanted to bring core game experiences to touch devices, Super Evil decided to build the E.V.I.L. engine, our proprietary, console-quality engine that allows us to creatively work on our game without the boundaries or restrictions of having to follow someone else’s guidelines.

Not only does the E.V.I.L. engine allow for wonderful performance and precision (60FPS, <30ms controls, 1.3M polygons), but it also allows us to quickly adapt to new hardware, with the fastest time to new APIs and chipsets.

By building our own engine, we’ve also been able to get rid of any technological limits for our creative. This has helped attract top talent to the company - designers with incredible skills who crave artistic freedom and a technology-driven culture have been able to find a long-term home here, which is really important for us as a company as we find our footing and grow. And maybe one day we’ll let people know what E.V.I.L. stands for ;)

Lesson 2: Design for Gamers, not Mobile

Perhaps one of the more fundamental differences between our approach and many others, has been to very specifically not try and design for the current “mobile gamer” - where established wisdom is to design for 2-3 minute play sessions on the go with super simplified controls and typically include timers, energy and social mechanics. Instead, we wanted to respect touch screens as a first rate core gaming platform. Their technical capabilities have largely caught up with PCs and consoles. They just need the software to go with it.

We don’t consider Vainglory a mobile game, despite it being playable on touch devices. We designed and built the game as a truly core experience - not just a port of a PC genre to mobile. We started from scratch when designing the game - and re-thought literally everything in order to make it perfect for the platform on which we were building it.

For example, our controls - we stayed away from using gimmicky controls like the accelerometer or even virtual joypads. Instead, we wanted to find the simplest, most precise and accurate form of control that offers a very high action-per-minute control input. We were very encouraged that even the most skeptical PC players found that after some getting used to, taps allowed them to execute complicated maneuvers with even more precision than their traditional mouse and keys input allowed them to, since tapping with fingers on both hands gives you 2-4 mouse pointers you can use simultaneously.

Another thing that sets us apart from other mobile games is our session length. Instead of pandering to the 2-3 minute established wisdom session length, we wanted to design for a session length that compresses the MOBA experience to shortest length in which we feel you can have a full blooded MOBA battle, including all its phases from farming to team fights, where you get a real opportunity to outthink the opponent as well as outplay them. And where team comps, builds, counter-builds and map control all matter. We arrived at a match length of 20 minutes for Vainglory, whereas casual mobile titles typically have 2-3 minute gameplay sessions. In fact, our players spend on average over 80 min per day playing. You can watch a best-of-3 game pan out from the Vainglory World Invitationals here to see how this has worked out in practice!

Lesson 3: Working with the Community

Another huge difference we see between publishers launching mobile games vs. PC or console games, is in the focus on community. We built Vainglory to last - not to surge to the top of the Top Grossing charts for a week and then disappear. While many companies rely on paid user acquisition strategies to support this goal, to date we have very little UA. The vast, vast majority of our players are organic. In our eyes, fostering an engaged, loyal and happy community is the most important aspect of building a high-quality game that players love. From the beginning we’ve been forming one-on-one relationships with our players and influential people in the MOBA space. This has both been reflected in how we hire, and how we spend our marketing resources.

We hired former pro League of Legends player George ‘Zekent’ Liu as our video community manager, and he runs weekly streams for the Vainglory community on Twitch. We’ve hosted community events for our players all over the world. We listen to our players and we put them first, and for us, that’s the key to building a long-term community of people who enjoy your game, rather than just a ‘flash in the pan’ hit.

We take pride in our community - our players are incredibly engaged and to an extent own Vainglory even more than we do. Some of our best ideas have come from the community - we added a 2-slot spectator view early on because our Twitch streamers kept telling us that we should. We added Taka, one of our most popular heroes, because our players kept asking for a ninja. We do our best to listen and hear what our players want. All of our team members interact directly with players and it’s one of our biggest perks!

Our community is at the center of everything we do. Check out this launch event video summary to give you a sense of what we’re building.

Lesson 4: Measuring Progress

Launching a core game on a traditionally casual platform called for the re-evaluation of what “success” means to us. The current generation of mobile titles are often measured by whether they hit the Top Grossing and Top Downloaded charts within weeks of launch.

We feel the next generation of core gaming hits will not be built this way. There simply is not a way to acquire your way to an engaged community overnight. We think the next generation of titles will have a far slower and more gradual rise to prominence, much more similar to PC titles in the past. I’ve been fortunate to be part of building multiple category-leading game companies on new platforms, and the industry invariably always measures you on the metrics of the previous generation of titles.

Rather than focus on on today’s charts, we’ve instead been obsessed with community engagement, and how our community has spent time with us. Things that would normally be seen as secondary metrics, like Twitch views or YouTube views, views on strategy sites, or time spent in-app have become our primary growth metrics to evaluate whether what we are doing works. The fact that our Twitch traffic for Vainglory tripled from 500,000 views in February to 1.5M views in May is something we pay a lot of attention to, as an example.

So far, we’ve been very encouraged by what we’ve seen in community engagement. And we were also pleased to have briefly been in the top-100 grossing charts for a few days in June, showing that even our small and growing player base is not just supporting us with their time, but increasingly also with their money.

So we are still in our very early days, but we are very encouraged by the support and love our community has shown us during our first few months of being live!

Lesson 5: Patience

Above all else, building something new that changes people’s perceptions of gaming on touch screens requires patience and persistence. Communities, especially for core games, take time to grow. The ‘instant gratification’ mentality that the mobile games industry has developed isn’t the formula that we believe makes sense if you want to build something truly new.

For us, we’re keeping our eye on the prize and are continuing to build the core MOBA experience we believe the touch screen generation deserves. As part of that, we’ve begun expanding our community efforts even further, with local community managers around the globe and by working with some of the biggest names in eSports to create tournaments for our communities. First with ESL earlier this year, and more recently with the world’s leading eSports broadcaster OnGameNet (OGN) of Korea. We’ve even released the first version of our all new eight-camera, 4K / UHD-ready desktop spectation client that brings something entirely new to the way eSports are viewed. Meaning, with eight pre-determined cameras built into the game, watching matches of Vainglory will be much more cinematic and look a lot like how traditional sports like hockey are viewed - from multiple perspectives and without missing a beat.

The potential opportunity to free up core gaming from the confines of a PC or console is mind boggling. Someone will one day go onto create a touch screen success 3-5x the size of the largest PC and console gaming franchises. We are encouraged by our early progress, but it is still the very early days. We work hard every day to do justice to the awesome community that has decided to support us along the way and appreciate them more than they can ever imagine.

We are infinitely patient in our approach and one day dream to build the first truly mass market eSport, which like soccer, can be played and watched by anyone, anywhere. And to build a company that provides the world’s best home for core gaming master craftsmen and craftswomen to express themselves and achieve mastery in their craft. We’re still at the very beginning of our journey and excited about what the future will bring.

Last but not least, find me in Vainglory! My name is EdTheShred. 

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