While certain console platform holders are still waffling about whether or not they want to allow their games to support cross-platform play or not, one development studio has decided it wants to not only make cross-platform play a priority, but to focus also on competitive parity and try to dissolve platform barriers altogether.
That studio is Super Evil Megacorp, headed up by CEO Kristian Segerstrale, and the game is Vainglory. Until earlier this week, Vainglory was mostly a mobile MOBA making waves in mobile esports as one of the few games on iOS and Android to spur comparable competitive excitement to what League of Legends and Dota 2 did on PC. But now, Vainglory is on PC too, and capable of cross-platform play with every other device the game is available on.
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But cross-platform play isn't the end of it. Segerstrale told me that, although they still haven't had a chance to test it fully at the top competitive esports level, he was "pretty confident" that Super Evil Megacorp had gotten extremely close to competitive parity across all devices.
His hope, he said, was that eventually top Vainglory players could compete in high level tournaments against and alongside one another across an array of devices all in one match. For now, Segerstrale offered a PC vs. mobile exhibition match that had been played at Vainglory's world invitational tournament in December as an example of the studio's success. The mobile players won.
"You don't have to feel that if you play on mobile or PC or any other device for that matter that you're at a competitive advantage or disadvantage"
"Our vision has always been to bring PC-quality gameplay -- the kind of gameplay we fell in love with ourselves growing up with LAN parties with friends -- to a very broad set of devices," he said.
"It's about providing not just cross-platform gameplay -- I think a lot of games have that these days and it's clearly the future -- but cross-platform gameplay with competitive parity where you can truly play with anyone, anywhere. You don't have to feel that if you play on mobile or PC or any other device for that matter that you're at a competitive advantage or disadvantage. The game truly allows you to play together competitively no matter what device you're on."
Vainglory's cross-platform debut is but one of a series of major steps forward the game has taken since its launch in 2014. Originally, Vainglory was an iOS-only MOBA that featured 3v3 gameplay. Since then, the game has launched on Android and has expanded to the more traditional 5v5 MOBA gameplay seen in its PC competition.
Segerstrale told me that from the start, the team had to stretch the performance of the devices Vainglory was on to make the game work the way they wanted, but since has been focused on developing its engine technology to ensure that the game could be played competitively across a wide range of devices. The focus, he said, was on the gameplay, even if the graphics might not look as good on lower-end smartphones.
That constant development of engine technology and focus on gameplay above all else helped get Vainglory to the point where a PC and Mac cross-platform capable release made sense, though Segerstrale said the jump wasn't without challenges.
"There are several major areas that have been challenging. First and foremost is just the tech, making sure the game runs really well on a broad range of devices, and we've been really focused on building our own proprietary cross-platform engine to do this. It really is natively built to deliver maximum performance across even very limited capability devices. So that's one.
"Second, the game balance around input control mechanisms. Vainglory supports three types of controls right now: tap controls, mouse and keyboard controls, and joystick controls. Making sure that we can spend enough time on the detail around controls and making sure that they feel great for the people who are native to that control mechanism has been really important to us, because at the end of the day we think a lot of gamers define themselves not just by their preferred device, but input control mechanism."
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"How do we truly create a UI and play experience that is post-platform, where the game isn't being defined as PC game or mobile game?"
But even though Vainglory is out on PC and Mac now, Segerstrale repeatedly pushed back against the notion that Vainglory was specifically a mobile or a PC game. Above all else, he wanted to emphasize that people should just play the game on whatever device they felt most comfortable on (including console, which Segerstrale confirmed is still in the works), and that parity across all devices was Super Evil Megacorp's ultimate goal.
"One of the things we think is really interesting is that a lot of the industry has defined games by which platform they're being played on," he said. "You have certain expectations of a console game just because it's a console game, certain expectations of a PC game just because it's a PC game, and mobile gaming too -- like, for example, when we saw the announcement of Blizzard's Diablo title, which was not super well received partially just because without even knowing anything about the game, it has the prefix 'mobile' on it.
"So one of the things we spent a lot of time on is, 'How do we truly create a UI and play experience that is post-platform, where the game isn't being defined as PC game or mobile game?' And we think that working a lot on the UI components and the overall feel of progression and economy has been very important to that.
"There are an awful lot of people growing up, the touchscreen generation, who consider touchscreens their primary computing platform and are equally native to that control mechanism as PC players are to mouse and keyboard. My nephew, about a year ago, pointed out to me, 'Hey I've heard of this game like Vainglory that's on PC.' And I said, 'Yes, there are multiple, League of Legends, DOTA, you should try them out.' And he said, 'I would but I can't understand how you can control a game that requires this much accuracy with something like a mouse and keyboard.' To me growing up as a PC player, that sounds like heresy, but there's this whole new generation growing up who couldn't care less."
One thing that came up every time Segerstrale mentioned the different platforms Vainglory was available on was the multiple hybrid devices it's compatible with, including the Samsung DEX, ASUS ROG, and Chromebook. I asked Segerstrale why the studio bothered putting resources into ensuring their game was not just functional on non-gaming hybrid devices but, like on PC and mobile, had competitive parity with more mainstream ones. Segerstrale said it was less about the individual devices and more about the company's vision of the future.
"We see hybrid devices as a early sign of what is to come in the industry"
"We see hybrid devices as a early sign of what is to come in the industry," he said. "If you think of where gaming has come from, it came from initially incredibly gaming-specific devices like handhelds or consoles, and what made games explode was when PCs were powerful enough to support gaming and when mobile devices started becoming powerful enough for gaming. Neither of those devices were originally developed as gaming devices. They became gaming devices as they became mass-market computing platforms.
"What we are really excited about is: What are the next generation computing platforms that everyone is going to have that people can also play games on? It is very likely that any specific one of these hybrid devices may or may not be successful, but as a category people will evolve and learn to use whatever these devices are that they use for everyday computing for gaming."
That future vision is what informs all of Segerstrale's cross-platform philosophy. He told me that he hopes Super Evil Megacorp and Vainglory are only the first of many to embrace a cross-platform vision, and that such a vision will only benefit the gaming industry overall.
"We think cross-platform is the future for gaming in general," he said. "It has to be. Fortnite showed a lot of the potential, and I think we'll see more of it. If all else is equal, a game will be more successful if it is on multiple platforms purely because more people can play and playing together is more fun. If everyone can play, marketing and publicity for the game is more effective. And ultimately, you will reach larger audiences and the way the computer gaming world works with content creators and community being such a central component in how a game grows, if players can play on any platform that potential growth is higher too.
"It's a difficult thing to do technically, not all genres are suited to it, but we think we'll see a lot more experiments in this area and we're certainly excited to be pioneers."