Marc DeForest began his presentation with an odd choice of words.
“I’m almost tired of hearing about MOBAs,” the S2 Games chief executive said wryly. “Who isn’t making a MOBA?”
DeForest knows how crowded the genre has become, but that didn’t stop him and the rest of the company from making their next multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, Strife. He was adamant that Strife is the next big thing. He even went as far to say that, in the years to come, Strife will “prove to be one of the most played and most beloved games in all of PC gaming.”
That’s quite a bold claim for something that hasn’t even entered its beta period (which is set for later this fall, with a release some time next year). But this aggressive confidence was a recurring theme last week in Sausalito, Calif., where the developers spent a whole day showing off just how they’re planning to deliver on DeForest’s promise. Armed with the knowledge and lessons gained from their previous game, Heroes of Newerth — one of the top three contenders for the MOBA crown — S2 argued that it’s in a unique position to make the best MOBA yet.
GamesBeat spoke with DeForest just as the day was winding down to find out what makes Strife so special, how S2 Games expect the MOBA audience to react, and where the genre might be heading in the future.
GamesBeat: Since Heroes of Newerth will still be around when Strife comes out, do you think the audience will split between them? Or does each one cater to a different type of player?
Marc DeForest: Our expectation is there’s going to be people who play HON who are gonna look at Strife, and they’re gonna have a preconceived notion of something and they’re not going to like it. And we’re OK with that. We also feel like there’s a significant portion of the HON player population who’s gonna look at Strife and say, “Wow, I really like this.” Does that mean that they’re just gonna stop playing HON and they’re gonna start playing Strife and [be] all, “Well, if I’m playing that one, I can’t play that one.” No. …
I see a good part of the HON population doing that as well. But I also see that of all the other games in the genre, too. They have to be compelled to take a look at Strife. It’s the only game that exists as the second game of an experienced MOBA studio making another game in the genre. And then I have a feeling it’s gonna grab a hold of them. But [that doesn’t mean] they’re gonna quit playing the other game that they’re playing. They may just add it to their repertoire, and then we just hope we get our claws in deep enough that they just keep wanting to come back to it more and more and more.
GamesBeat: Do you expect a mix of new and veteran players?
DeForest: The question is: Can you make a game where you elegantly design it to the point that it’s approachable? You can look at it. You can look at it from its U.I. [user interface] You can look at it from the number of heroes. You can look at it from its art direction, and you realize, “Wow, this is not so intimidating that I just want to turn around and run away.” Or that it’s information overload analysis paralysis, and you just lock up. And then you realize that while it provides all those things, and I feel like I can sit down and give it a try, it’s not exactly easy to become great at it.
And that’s what really … the ability for you to play a game and end that game and think about all the things you could’ve done differently to improve how you played in that game is what makes you want to come back and get better and come back and get better. It drives all of us. That’s human nature. So it actually keeps the replayability and the addiction aspect of what many of these other games have [and] how they balloon their populations to what they are — Heroes of Newerth included in that.
But sometimes — look at the difficulty that they have in ushering players into them, yet they still manage to reach these huge play numbers. So if you can lower that, you get more people in, and then they don’t leave because they like it, think about how big the player population could become.
GamesBeat: What do you think of the proliferation of MOBA games?
DeForest: It’s a lot of, “Hey look, this genre is exploding! Hey look, these games are huge! They’re making tons of money! They’ve got gobs of players! Oh, I want some of that.” So what they do is they jump on, grab a hold of the coattails, and hope that they make decisions [about] why things are the way that they are, and the way that they can garner players and actually create something that is fun and has hooks and will draw people in. Well, proof’s in the numbers.
And it’s not just the maturation of the MOBA genre that you see that in. [Developers] make mistakes. They don’t even know why they’re making mistakes. They don’t even know where they’re making mistakes. But they’re making mistakes. And then they realize that they pop up, they get a little bit of light shown on them, and the media talks about them and people are like, “Oh, have you seen this?” And then … [these games] aren’t sticky. Everything is just kind of bouncing off of it. It’s almost made of silicone. And then it withers away and dies. Would you agree with that assessment?
So to me, that’s kind of what the landscape looks like. You got a lot of people saying, “Big genre. Lots of money. Chase the dollars. Let’s go make a game in this genre.” Then you have us. …
And we’re making Strife because, through being students of the genre, through being a pioneer of this genre, through being the first — now, we didn’t launch before LOL [League of Legends], but as the first commercial standalone game in this genre, people were able to play HON before they were able to play any of the other games, including LOL. We’re a pioneer in this genre. As we said, there are some things we would like to address in how these games are played and how they attract players. And it wasn’t through just time — [it was through] time, information, analysis, and assessment that we could come up with a really good formula that we felt like we need to execute on this now.
This is the time. Let’s execute on it. And we get to do it from a perspective that nobody else gets to. The guys making Infinite Crisis, the guys making Dawngate, the guys making the next thing — if it’s their first go-around in this, they’re not privy to the same information that the people who already developed one of these games and have already operated these games for a very long time. We have access to a lot of different information and perspectives because of where we’ve been.
GamesBeat: The trend kind of reminds me of the massively multiplayer online craze when World of Warcraft became popular and how so few of the MMOs that followed it actually succeeded. Do you see MOBAs heading in that direction? Is there room for only a few games at the top?
DeForest: I think it depends on how these developers and other people bringing games to the market approach it. … There’s an incumbent that sits there, or there are a few — it’s slightly different in this genre, you have to admit. It’s not just one incumbent. And while League of Legends is significantly larger than HON, and while Dota 2 is growing and is slightly larger than HON, HON is still a really, really, really big game.
So it’s not like there’s just one that sits on top and everybody else just grovels underneath and hopes. There’s kind of like a trifecta up there. And there’s definitely room for another one to come up and say, “You know what?” Here’s the thing: If Blizzard had made another WOW, or another MMO, would it have been good? Probably. You would assume it would’ve been good. Would it have garnered players? Would it have garnered interest? You would have to assume.
And while we’re not the incumbent that’s as big as what WOW is, we’re coming to the table and saying, “We are a big game right now. We have been recognized as that. We are a player. And we know how to think about these issues. And we know how to approach this kind of game. And here’s our next take on it. Give it a try. See if you like it.” And we’re really confident people are gonna really, really like it. And we also want to get the message across of: Did you try LOL? Did you try Dota [Defense of the Ancients]? Did you try Dota 2? Did you try Heroes of Newerth?
Was there something about them that didn’t seem right? Was the community too hostile? Was it too hard to jump over that barrier of entry to get in there and actually enjoy it? Well, give this a try. … Hopefully we did a good enough job at solving some of those problems and difficulties that we can usher in some of those people who kind of tried it and didn’t stick.