The Massive Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game genre has evolved significantly since its beginnings as the “Warcraft III” modification known as DOTA (Defense of the Ancients). Using heroes with special powers, two teams go up against one another to destroy their opponent’s base of operation through three lanes of a top-down map, each with defensive towers that shoot projectiles at enemy forces that get too close. All the while, each base spawns minions that will mindlessly head down each lane to try and push any advantage possible as heroes duke it out for supremacy.
Since its introduction, the genre has undergone a number of different evolutions and takes on the formula — including the DC Comics-themed, free-to-play “Infinite Crisis,” due out later this year — but longtime MOBA developer S2 Games is about to change the direction of the genre with “Strife,” the first second-generation MOBA seen by the public. With a showing at PAX Prime 2013, “Strife” debuted, offering a unique take on the genre specifically designed to attract new players and reduce the usual player toxicity. In many ways, S2 Games has taken what it learned from developing “Heroes of Newerth,” one of the first official MOBAs to hit the scene, and evolved it into a whole new and fresh experience.
CBR News spoke with S2 Games CEO Marc DeForest about building “Strife” from the ground up, how it improves the genre as a whole, the importance of character design and approachability and why the fact that “Strife” will never reach the 118 hero roster of “Heroes of Newerth” is a very good thing.
CBR News: This is a big moment for the MOBA genre as a whole as “Strife” debuts to the public. What went in to ensuring that this game was a not only worthy successor to “Heroes of Newerth,” but a better evolution of the genre as a whole?
Marc DeForest: We use the term “premiere second-generation MOBA” [to describe “Strife.”] That sounds like a really fancy marketing term, but it has real meaning. We’re the first studio to make a successful — and that’s a key word — MOBA, and through the education process and the experience of making that, we asked if we could do a better job starting from the ground up and making a second one. That’s what “Strife” is. This is a very important and impactful moment for us in that PAX Prime 2013 is the first time any consumers have had the chance to get their hands on the game.
While playing the game, the word that kept coming up in my mind was “accessibility.” In current-gen MOBAs, there’s a huge barrier to entry — not because of game complication, but because there’s a subculture there that’s not always welcoming to new players. What does “Strife” do to help combat that toxicity and bring in new players?
The way that most of the existing genres — our own game [“Heroes of Newerth”] included — deal with hostile communities and toxic player behavior is reactive. What that means is we’re going to sit around and wait for you to screw up and maybe we’ll perform some analysis as to why you screwed up, why you acted like a jerk, why you were frustrated, why you took it out on your teammate. When that happens and someone tells us about it, we’ll deal with you. We realized that’s probably not the best approach to do it. Granted, there’s a number of sacred cows that exist in those games that you can’t touch. We’re aware of this. We know there’s a number of things we would love to change that could alter that behavior, but the moment we change those, we create a whole different type of toxic community. They’re toxic towards us, they’re upset at the change.
By having clean-sheet design and spending a lot of time analyzing those things that we can say, “Why do players fight with one another?” From our experience operating “Heroes of Newerth” and from watching our competitor, people fight because there’s this preconceived notion of, “You should play the game this way and I want to play this role and play the game this way. If you impede on that whatsoever, or you make my life difficult because of some of the core decisions of the game that can make my experience bad, I’m going to take it out on you.”
We deal with that in one major way: you choose your hero prior to entering the matchmaking room. One of the best ways to reduce toxicity is to create fair matches. The fairer the match, the more close it is, the less opportunity there is [for toxicity]. When you’re not getting stomped, whether you’re the stompee or the stomper, the less likelihood there’s going to be for that toxic behavior. We can give you a rating based on how you perform per hero. We can also let you choose which hero you want to play and instead of getting in a fight with your teammates at the pick screen deciding, “Oh, I want to play that type of hero,” we created heroes that can be played in a number of ways. Through our external progression systems of crafting and pets, the way that we designed our item system and the hero choices in and of themselves, you don’t have to play a hero a specific way. You won’t get the best out of a hero by only taking a singular route. By doing so, you lose the opportunity to look at what your opponent is doing and be critical of that and cause hostile inter-team behavior.
Gold-sharing is another thing we’ve worked on. Just because you’re playing support doesn’t mean you’re the sacrificial lamb of the team and giving everything you could get to somebody else on your team so that they can help you win the game. Being support is more about enabling your team to do better. The way that we do that in the gold-sharing mechanic is if two people are sharing a lane, whether either person last-hits a creep, both people get the same amount of gold. In the event you’re in a solo lane, you would get that same half amount of the gold and the other half is split equally amongst the other teammates, including yourself. You would get a piece of that spread amongst other people. Through our testing, that has significantly reduced the inter-team conflict that exists. I could go on and on.
The character design of the game is incredibly strong, which adds to the accessibility of the final product. Whether it’s through the art or animation, it feels like players can really identify with these characters in a way they might not have in other MOBAs. What was the approach to design like?
Before I even move into that, you brought up the fact that the game feels very inviting and approachable. There’s a science and psychology behind the use of shapes and colors including in the design of your characters that can lend to aggressive behavior and can lend toward passive behavior. We actually became very interested in this and became students of what that means. Everything we’ve done in this game is intentional, including the fact that somebody like yourself can walk up to the game and go, “This feels very inviting.” That’s not by accident. It’s through hours and hours and hours of studying what this means: the color palette, the shapes, the characters themselves, the map — there’ve been studies that by looking at puppies, you’ll actually be a less angry person. Not that all our characters are puppies, but it’s that kind of science that’s gone into it.
We also found — and again, these are lessons learned from “Heroes of Newerth” — there needs to be a specific attachment made to heroes. How do you do that? That’s more of us being students — there’s a science to that. There are some rulesets you can follow and big successful companies like Disney and Pixar follow this ruleset. This ruleset is available to anybody. What’s funny is how many people don’t go pursue the knowledge and get it. We did with this game. We asked, “What does it take to make a memorable character?” I’m not going to really arm my competition with that information, but it exists. It’s important to remember that everything’s deliberate, everything’s intentional and we’ve applied that to everything, including our character design and the lore of the game. What is this game? Who are these people? Why should I care about them? The way they look, the way they act, their effects, their colors, their backstory — everything about it makes you drawn and attached to the character.
MOBAs have continued to rise in popularity with a number of choices for what to play. “Strife” is free-to-play — as are many other MOBAs — what sets your free-to-play system apart and what have you done to keep players from paying to break the game? Furthermore, how has the massive amounts of competition affected your development process?
There’s a certain level of philosophy that exists within developers as to acceptable levels of what contributing money means to a game. I think we can stand very proudly behind the practices we participated in for “Heroes of Newerth.” “Heroes of Newerth” has 118 playable heroes. You sign up for a free-to-play account, you get them all for free. If you’re going to spend money, you want to know what you’re going to touch, you’re going to touch systems that aren’t going to make you better than someone who just plays the game. That philosophy is also found within “Strife.”
One of the key monetization systems we have in the game is cosmetics. One of the ways we’ve approached it differently than we have in “HoN” and some of our competition — and yes, we do look at our competition, but our competition doesn’t alter the goals we’re trying to achieve. Understanding what other people are doing and taking time to be students of the genre and see what they’re doing and how the community reacts to things makes you a better developer. While it may sound nice and rosy to say, “We have specific goals, we don’t look at our competition,” the fact of the matter is you should pay attention to what they’re doing, because I want to learn from the successes and mistakes you make, so that I don’t make the same mistakes and maybe I can figure out why the things that you’ve done are successful.
We do allow in our monetization for players to use real money to speed up the progress of some of our external progression systems in the form of pets and crafting, but never in a way we feel we cross a line into paying for power.
As “Strife” continues to evolve, much like “Heroes of Newerth,” how far forward is S2 looking in the game’s evolution? What are the factors that help it to progress from its current roster to the 118 heroes of “Heroes of Newerth?”
We will never achieve the vast roster that “HoN” has. In fact, that’s a very disciplined goal that we have for the project. When a genre evolves and matures, we’ve watched other genres — I don’t want to say die — be put on life support, following a very specific path of what we like to call “me-too-isms” and “one-upping.” What that means is, “I’m going to do that, too. I don’t know why. They did it, so I’m going to do it too, but I’m going to add something to it.”
If you do that over and over and over again as a genre matures, what are you stuck with? You’re stuck with unnecessary complexities and following the guy before you, even if you don’t know why you’re following the guy before you. I don’t like to guarantee much, because I don’t want it to come back and bite me, but I have no problem saying we won’t have 118 heroes in “Strife.” Do you know why? It’s not necessary to have 118 heroes. “HoN” has 118 heroes, and I’m not saying it’s wrong that “HoN” is a product or other competitors have a significantly large pool of heroes, but we feel we can achieve the type of diversity and replayability and depth in “Strife” without having that amount of characters.
How we plan to progress the game is — there’s trend-balanced designing, which as a community, you may notice your community not by the numbers, but through the way that they play, constantly do similar strategies. What we want to make sure people understand is that there are other strategies, multiple ways to play the game, multiple ways to win the game. We’ll use that type of balancing.
Nobody’s perfect. We’re not going to come out of the gate with the most balanced game — and in fact, I would argue that the most balanced game might not be the most fun game. Having imbalances and trying to figure out what those may be where there are so many different components is part of the fun. That’s part of the evolution of what “Strife” is. Adding pets, adding items, adding heroes — we’re going to launch this game with a limited hero pool. We’re very confident in that. This reveal at PAX has done nothing but substantiate and validate the fact that most of our competition — ourselves included with “Heroes of Newerth” — has way too many heroes. The way that information is even digestible — it’s almost impossible. As long as we keep things in small chunks of digestible format, we can create a game that — even if it’s been around for a couple of years — new players can step in and play it. It’s not over-burdensome and we can continue to grow the population.
You should always have the opportunity to play this game with the people you want to play it with. We consider it a social experience for them to be able to get into it and perform well so that you can have a good time with them.