A few weeks back I drove down to the San Mateo headquarters of Super Evil Megacorp, the developer behind Vainglory, one of the prominent multiplayer online battle arenas built specifically for tablets (and, as we discovered at September’s iPhone event, the iPhone 6).
There, I met with the studio’s founders as well as several other developers and quality assurance testers. After we got through introductions, the team, a writer from another publication, and myself sat down in front of 6 iPads Air and Mini from last year’s line-up for an hour-and-a-half of playtime.
The conditions were optimal for a session of multiplayer gaming: everyone had their own screen, the latest (at the time) hardware, and good Wi-Fi setup. We also had every character available to play as, whereas at launch players will have to choose from a rotating group of characters if they want to play for free.
The layout of the game is simplified from its bigger relatives on the PC. Instead of three lanes to take to attack the enemy’s base, there is one straight avenue and a wilderness area where you can sneak around in bushes and kill AI characters for experience, health, gold, or to win over a giant monster to fight for your side. Rather than play through a tutorial, one of the developers looked over my shoulder and gave advice as we went.
With the assistance I got, I quickly got to know the particular combinations of abilities that worked with the two characters I tried during the demo. That said, I reckon that even those who don’t have friends with intimate knowledge of the game’s characters will be able to pick up the game in a group setting. Each character has only three abilities, so if you start on the cautious side you can learn what works and what doesn’t without ruining things for your team. The item system for upgrading attack speed, accuracy, defense, and the like was easy enough to pickup for someone coming from Dota 2 but may not be entirely obvious for users fresh to the genre.
Compared to other MOBAs and action-RPGs I’ve played on tablets, a few things stood out in Vainglory’s favor. Performance was excellent, with no stuttering or major graphical issues in the time that we played (again, in great conditions). Vainglory is also incredibly responsive to touch input, which encourages you to tap more often, bringing your “actions per minute” to a rather twitch-y level. This in turn seems to make the really key moments — timing attacks just right to kill multiple enemy players or just barely getting out of a fight — actually get your heart rate going. Combined with the friendly-ish trash talk and the face-to-face reactions to the ups-and-downs of the game, the session felt like a mix of what you get out of LoL or Dota 2 and what you get playing Super Smash Bros. on the couch with friends.
Vainglory is only out in a few countries in Southeast Asia, New Zealand, and Australia at the moment. Super Evil Megacorp is using the limited release to further balance characters (I didn’t notice anything too overpowered) and work out its in-app purchase model to optimize for player satisfaction and, you know, making money. It also means that I didn’t get to play under real conditions — I’ll have to wait until launch to see what it’s like to play when thousands of people are on the same infrastructure or what performance is like on older iPads.
I also didn’t get to see the iPhone 6 version of the game during my visit. The impression I got from talking to the team was that the A8 powering the new iPhones is up to snuff, but making the game feel fair with such a smaller view of the action is trickier than it seems at first glance.
Having played Vainglory, I’m curious to see if its developer’s “if we build it, they will come” assumption is true. I don’t know that most people could get enough people together with the latest iPads and an interest in MOBAs to replicate the experience I had, so the details I didn’t get to see will be key to how it performs after its broader release. What I saw was definitely compelling enough to bring me back to see how that goes.