A few years ago I came across League of Legends. I thought it was a relatively simple game that was quick to learn but hard to master, with multiple levels of strategic thinking that made for a deep and fun experience. Not only did you have to learn the quirks of your hero and how to deal with specific micro-level situations across the level, but you also had to keep an eye on the larger picture of the map, be aware of what is happening on each lane, while at the same time coordinating a high level strategy with your teammates. Even though I spent a few weeks playing some matches here and there, it never became a habit. The reason is that life got in the way: without enough continuous time and attention, I was struggling just to finish a few matches a week. At that rate, I could never get past the top layer and delve into deeper levels of enjoyment that required organized groups, being online at certain times, coordinating strategies with other people, etc.
Still, the experience of that game has stuck with me. Most of my gaming since has been on phones and tablets (a direct consequence of my free time patterns), so I have been actively looking for something that can replicate some of that exciting MOBA-style experience on my phone. It seems developers have been thinking along those lines too, since there has been no shortage of MOBAs for mobile devices on recent years: Fates Forever, Solstice Arena, The Witcher: Battle Arena, Legendary Heroes, Vainglory, to name a few of the ones I tried more than once.
Most mobile MOBAs are more or less the PC experience, shrunk for a mobile device
None of these games would be called a breakout success, and many have in fact shut down already. As far as I know, Vainglory is the most successful of the mobile MOBAs. That’s because it’s a great MOBA game: it has interesting heroes and abilities, a good map with strategic capture points that give different types of advantages, great pacing, good balance. Unfortunately, it suffers from similar symptoms of all other (more or less) direct MOBA translations from the PC: it is completely unsuitable to be played on mobile devices. In my view, mobile MOBAs and especially Vainglory offer a fascinating case study that disproves many of the theories I’ve been hearing for years about what the successful “hardcore” games will look like on mobile as the devices themselves become more powerful.
A long living fantasy: “mobile devices will become equivalent to PCs and consoles for gaming”
When Vainglory was released, every article I remember reading was how the time of the “hardcore player” had finally come on the tablet. There was lots of glowing about how Vainglory is finally “a real game” you can play on a mobile device. The reason? Impressive (at least technology-wise), console-quality 3D graphics, and gameplay that was perceived as not “dumbed down” for mobile devices (translation: gameplay that is almost identical to what you’d find on a PC or Console MOBA).
This wasn’t the first time I heard “true games” on mobile being equated with PC/Console-style mechanics and technology. While I was part of the AAA industry, I saw many express their confidence that once mobile devices can support the types of games PC and console hardcore gamers prefer (mainly through technology, but also via more complex controls that allow more degrees of freedom), all of the successful mobile games would suddenly become identical to the ones found on those other platforms. They would have complex 3D engines, hours of hand crafted content, life-like graphics and visual effects. Here’s EA publicly stating what I kept hearing almost daily back then:
“we’re going to start making games on Frostbite Go that will be featuring things that you’ve seen in the regular Frostbite code, like destruction and those types of things. We think we can do something dramatic there, with the mobile sector, and make real games on those machines.”
“Those types of things” means things you can do on next-gen consoles and PCs, and “real games” means PC and console games (i.e. the exact kinds of games those companies knew for years how to make). What a comforting thought: “This new, confusing mobile market will one day become the same as the markets we’re on top of now, so we don’t have to change or learn what players on those new platforms actually value”. For some in the industry, mobile devices were (and perhaps still are) held back by their inability to offer the exact same game experiences consoles and PCs do – either because the chips are not as powerful, or because they lack a “proper” input mechanism. When and if the technology catches up, the thinking goes, then those machines will become real gaming machines, and “hardcore” games (by PC and console standards) will suddenly become very successful on them.
Vainglory is in my view an example of this absurd kind of thinking. The team, which I have no doubt is very capable, has made an excellent game by PC/Console standards, and they expected that would be enough to dominate competitive games on mobile. Its failure to do that so far, I believe, has nothing to do with “hardcore” players not wanting to play games on mobile devices. I believe it is a symptom of the game not respecting those hardcore players enough to make playing the game suitable for their platform of choice. Let’s look at the evidence.
Touch Controls like nothing you’ve ever used before
When I first launched Vainglory and went through the training video, one of the first things I was told by the game was that “pro players play with their tablet on a table and use the index finger on each side to tap nearly simultaneously”.
So if I’m a hardcore player wanting to compete, I first have to set my tablet on the table, losing any benefit of this being a mobile device. Then I either have to get a stable angle stand for my iPad or risk a neck injury looking straight down. I have to play this game in a way I’d never play anything else on my device. The map itself is made of multiple points of interests, all at different places that I have to scroll to using a pretty clunky map, in order to keep track of what’s going on in the game.
Let’s be polite here and not even mention the possibility I may want to play this on the phone.
While I was able to play a few matches of Vainglory on the tablet, the experience was full of “Why am I doing this? Why is this not on the PC? What exactly is the benefit of playing on a tablet, aside a “wow, that’s cool” factor in the first 5 minutes?” Here’s what most user-uploaded images looked like for an event the Vainglory team ran, asking them to tweet how they play. You’d be excused to think we’re talking about a PC game.
Unreasonable Time and Attention requirements
Clunky controls aside, the thing I could barely believe when I first tried Vainglory was the duration of each match. I completely abandoned the game after my 4th/5th match, despite all the promise I was seeing in some of its innovative features, because I honestly had to leave the house after spending 27 whole minutes in a match. I couldn’t even comprehend the possibility that a mobile game would require my undivided attention for such amounts of time. If I had that much continuous free time every day, I would have stayed with League of Legends in the first place.
Traditional developers from the PC/Console world frequently fail to understand this point: Mobile games can allow, but never require, the player’s attention for more than a few minutes at a time – especially if we’re talking about requiring their undivided attention. Such developers will then blame the failure of their mobile game on “casuals”, who are dominating mobile games and have tainted the beauty of games that take you into another world for hours at a time. Some of the same developers believe that, as mobile platforms mature, the “play focused 100% on the game for hours” pattern will become more accepted on mobile platforms. This may be somewhat true of tablets, especially if they keep becoming bigger and less portable, but even there, it’s important to understand that if you demand the player’s complete attention for long periods of time, you are working against the platform. The success of mobile devices is partially because you can integrate them into your everyday life and access everything, including games, instantly to fill pockets of free time. Even for someone like me, who spends less time than average outdoors, I appreciate the fact that I can move around the house with my device and use it or play while doing other things. I understand that for some people, this sucks, and it may be contrary to their understanding of what games are about. But that’s what I, and many other players on mobile appreciate about such games: The way they integrate with our daily lives and become a habit that we can experience instantly whenever we have a few minutes of free time. You are free to join the other PC/Console hardcore players who vow never to touch mobile games because of timers, or because they can’t play for 2 hours straight. But if you do choose to make a mobile game, you can’t afford to ignore this very important fact about what we expect out of our mobile game experience.
A hardcore mobile player isn’t someone who wants to play a PC game for hours uninterrupted on their tablet or phone. No - that’s a hardcore PC gamer who may occasionally enjoy playing PC games on their mobile device for a change.
Going back to Vainglory, it’s obvious that a hardcore player of a competitive game would want to be as good as they possibly can be on their game of choice. If the game itself puts barriers to achieve that, either because it requires them to pay extreme attention to the game for more amount of time that they have available, or because it forces them to play in an unintuitive manner for the platform, then hardcore gamers will ignore that game and move to other games on their platform that don’t have those flaws. This is just common sense. You can’t seriously say “If Vainglory doesn’t attract hardcore gamers on mobile, nobody will” (a sentiment I kept hearing from all kinds of sources), completely ignoring the fact that Vainglory is barely playable on mobile.
Clash Royale smartly offers more with less
My personal quest to find a game that captures some of the excitement of MOBAs, but in a way that is suitable for my free time patterns and my platform of choice, ended a few weeks ago with the launch of Clash Royale.
Clash Royale is a game inspired both by MOBAs and collectible card games. It has been on soft launch on select countries for a couple weeks. Each game lasts around 3 minutes with a well-defined upper maximum of 4 minutes. The match takes place on a simple, non scrollable map with 2 lanes. Each player has a tower on each lane, and on their side of the map they also have their main keep. Whoever destroys the other player’s keep wins, or if nobody accomplishes that by the time the game ends, the winner is determined by who destroyed the more towers (a draw is also possible). Each match is a frantic experience where each player spawns units or buildings on the map (using drawn cards on their deck), trying to counter the enemy’s units, moving frequently from defensive to offensive combinations as they see fit. The game is already very well balanced and extremely fun. There is great variety of unit and building types (air, ground, splash damage, tanks, hoards of weaklings), making for countless combinations and strategies. Furthermore, even good deck combinations in theory can be messed up in the actual battlefield, where placement and timing matters a lot.
Clash Royale is so fun, it has to be played to be believed. A big part of the fun comes from how natural it feels to play on a mobile device. The mere act of placing units and buildings, using just one finger, is extremely fun, and perfect for a phone. I bet its pro players play just like you or anyone else who owns a phone: With their thumb, holding the phone in the upright position. They don’t even have to rotate the phone on its side. The time duration of 3-4 minutes is perfect for fitting matches whenever someone has free time, but also allows uninterrupted play for much longer.
The thing that is the most striking to me about Clash Royale, is how it managed to be so good by doing so much LESS than what Vainglory did:
Clash Royale is all playable on one single screen. Both lanes and each player’s two guard tower’s are always clearly visible on a phone. There’s no need to scroll or look at a minimap to see the status of the game. This makes it super easy to understand what’s going on at all times. The game’s few simple rules are efficiently communicated to the players visually (i.e. the fact that the central keep activates extra defences when a guard tower is destroyed).
The tech is dead simple: Just Pre-rendered 2D sprites on a static screen. Compare that to Vainglory’s excellent, Metal-driven 3D tech that everyone, including Apple, loved to talk about (as if that makes any long term difference in the experience after the initial “wow, this looks cool”).
Some Console and PC hardcore gamers (and even developers) would laugh at this kind of simplicity and think it would be ridiculous to make a “real” game with depth that doesn’t even have a scrollable camera. Hardcore mobile players on the other hand care more about being able to actually play the game on their phone than artificial details that add unneeded complexity.
Though it’s early to tell, it’s evident to me that Clash Royale is attracting some extremely hardcore competitive players (via publicly available info such as app store chart positions, global leaderboards, community/youtube reactions). I have no doubt that once it launches globally, it will do much better than Vainglory and all other mobile MOBAs released so far on any metric that matters. And I think that will happen because it is both an excellent game, and suitable for the platform it’s played on.
More challenges ahead for mobile developers
We are all correct to worry that the trend where success on mobile becomes more elusive will continue. But I disagree with most who believe that’s because game complexity will go up, or because mobile games will need fancy 3D tech that can only be built by teams over 100 strong, or even because success requires an unreasonable amount of marketing money. I believe the increased difficulty will mainly come from experienced teams of all sizes (including tiny teams) of extremely skilled developers who operate in the right kind of environment that allows them to create long term experiences so elegant, fun, and suitable for the platform, that they will make a large amount of players not even care to look for other games to play over many years. I expect Clash Royale, or a similar MOBA-inspired (but not direct MOBA clone) will have such an effect on competitive MOBA-style games. Then, the risk is, the rest of us will be participating in an irrelevant, futile, AAA-style arms race trying to compete for a tiny remaining percentage of the overall mobile player’s attention. Because we won’t know what else to do, we may even convince ourselves our only way to compete is to build superfluous tech and systems that don’t actually make sense on mobile.