Throughout his career, Kristian Segerstrale has managed to successfully navigate the sometimes choppy waters of social and mobile gaming. He helped get Glu Mobile off the ground, founded PlayFish and sold it to EA, served on the board of SuperCell, and now he's pushing core gaming on touch devices at Super Evil Megacorp. While Super Evil Megacorp certainly isn't the first studio to attempt to bring a core experience to a smartphone or tablet, Segerstrale believes that touch devices are at the cusp of a core explosion, and he hopes that Vainglory can help lead that charge for years to come.
Vainglory is off to a solid start in its early months, as players are averaging around 75 minutes of game time a day, proving to Segerstrale that mobile doesn't require three-minute sessions to be successful. But perhaps the biggest difference for Vainglory is that it's putting community first, so much so that Super Evil Megacorp is managing its free-to-play strategy with a very cautious approach.
"It's very difficult to find anything to pay for [in our game]. Literally, you'd have to really, really look for a way to spend money in our game but that's really just not our focus right now... we've actually deliberately chosen from the start to almost be the caricature anti-monetizer in some ways. We want core gamers to feel like we are definitely, deliberately not that [exploitative kind of F2P] so that there are no pop-ups, there are no things inducing you to pay, there's no manipulation. None of those things occur because we don't believe that is right for the kind of experience we're creating," Segerstrale emphasized to GamesIndustry.biz.
"If really, as a game designer, what you're doing is trying to rip off a consumer, your game will not last very long. I would postulate that as a universal truth"
Segerstrale said that the recent South Park episode that so many people have been pointing to when they discuss free-to-play was not only funny but it kind of hit a nerve for the industry. "It was so good and I was cringing at the same time, because it is sort of a... it's a challenge," he noted, adding that he's firmly against any apps that are aimed at monetizing children.
Whether an app is for kids or adults, however, if it's designed to simply wrestle money away from people it's bound to fail. Segerstrale believes most developers have learned their lesson. "If really, as a game designer, what you're doing is trying to rip off a consumer, your game will not last very long. I would postulate that as a universal truth... And I think we've seen companies that are based on those design principles not fare so well in the long term. As an industry, we have to make sure that we don't underestimate the consumer," he said.
If anything, the key to the market, Segerstrale said, is to work with the consumers. Community has become the top priority for Vainglory.
"The thing that we've been really taken with from the start is the speed at which the community has evolved and developed. We still think of this as how you build a PC game. And if we were a PC game, you'd still have a beta tag probably on the game. You're still growing the community. We're growing this for years and years and years to come. The market these days expects, when you look at mobile, you think it's either in the top 10 in the first couple weeks or it's nowhere. Whereas, the way we're approaching it is we're trying to create the next generation in gaming experiences on these devices and we want to invite a community along and we want to build it together with a community," he said.
"Any big 10-year plus franchise you can think of was built together with a community, whether it's World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, or any of those things. They've all been built over a long time. Eve Online, any of those... That is our north star, we really care about our community. In January alone, we had more than a quarter of a million unique viewers of our dev stream. It's amazing. We don't really promote it."
It's arguably a big risk for Super Evil Megacorp to pour its resources into one project, but Segerstrale and his team are aiming to have Vainglory around for a long, long time. "We don't have any other games in development. We are working with the Vainglory community and all of our time is spent on this. We think about the very, very beginnings of our journey still and we dream of creating a franchise that matters for decades, in the same way as an Eve Online or World of Warcraft has grown over time by forging their own community and doing right by that community - and we're updating Vainglory every three or four weeks with meaty new features, much of which comes from our community suggestions," he continued.
To that end, Segerstrale is hugely encouraged by Blizzard's Hearthstone - he believes it's a validation of the core market on touch devices. "We're super happy to see Hearthstone because that's the first title which speaks to core gamers in our opinion on touch. So it's great for us to have someone to point to, to say somebody else is fighting the good fight on this, because frankly gamers just deserve better," he said.
Even so, core gaming is still not entirely proven on smartphones and tablets just yet, and it certainly wasn't a couple years ago. For Segerstrale though, the ability to think about what might succeed and build games for that potential market is how to get ahead. Looking at the top grossing games of today doesn't get you anywhere, he said.
"Whatever you're doing today, it'll take you two years to build. So what will the chart look like in two or three or four years time? How do you build for that? How are you competitive in that environment? That is the only decision that matters," he remarked. "You cannot make a product that comes out tomorrow. Whether you're building a new startup or a new game, the key is to find conviction and you may be right or wrong - and at the end of the day there's a large chance you might be wrong - but the only way to get there is to have a conviction about what the world will look like in two or three years. How will the player behave? And then begin to build towards that.
"I don't care if the top grossing charts are the same this week and next week and the following week. What I care about is what do they look like two years from now. When we decided to make Vain Glory two years ago, the thinking was sometime in the next 3-5 years this kind of thing will be big on touch screens. We're two years into that and we feel we're off to a great start. But it takes time and sometimes you just need patience with these things."
The GamesIndustry.biz team updates its mobile charts in the Insights section with data from AppAnnie each week, and the top grossing charts for both iOS and Android hardly ever change. The deck of Clash of Clans and Candy Crush merely gets reshuffled. Isn't that a bad thing for the mobile ecosystem? Segerstrale doesn't believe so - in fact, he thinks it's the industry's focus on top grossing that is unhealthy.
"I would discourage people from paying too much attention to top grossing because...if you start making a game now that's aiming to compete with those top grossing games you're hopelessly too late"
"Do you think any consumers care about the top grossing chart? I'm kind of fascinated by this industry's obsession with the top grossing chart. I don't think any consumer chooses the game that makes the most money. To me the thing that really matters is what are consumers actually playing and how quickly does the top 10 downloads turn over because as long as the top 10 downloads turns over quickly that means everyone has a chance to start creating something. In my opinion, top grossing is maybe the last indicator of whether something is going to be big or not," he said.
"Top grossing is an interesting industry observation in that it shows which companies are doing well, which titles are making a lot of money, but for all you know what may be going on is that the player base may be shrinking and they could be making more money from a smaller amount of players, which basically is what we saw on Facebook. When you look back at the Facebook gaming charts they went into stasis at one point in time in a similar way, when nothing really changed. You had games like Pet Society, Mafia Wars, etc that were in the same state and suddenly it all changed. I would discourage people from paying too much attention to top grossing because, sure it's an interesting industry stat and you can look at it, but if you start making a game now that's aiming to compete with those top grossing games you're hopelessly too late and trying to get there by copying or being heavily inspired by it is not right."
For Segerstrale in particular, he knew that he was on the right track with Vainglory not because of something he saw on a chart, but because he witnessed people in the community speaking up about the experience and how happy it made them to have a mobile game with depth.
"There was this thread on Reddit about 'dad gamers' playing Vainglory because they no longer have time to shut themselves in a room to play PC or console games, but 'holy shit it's amazing I can put my kid to sleep and play Vainglory just like the old times.' They can get back into it as opposed to doing the three-minute session. Eventually they formed a dad's guild, which was really cool. Those kinds of things to me show that there is that latent demand for experiences that are different and that's why I would not stare at the top grossing chart," he said.
Super Evil Megacorp just a week ago launched its closed beta for Android. The community kept asking for it on Twitter, Segerstrale said, but he also explained why his team was sticking to iOS only for the first several months.
"Apple devices are more homogenous so as a platform it was easier. In particular, when you go live with a title like Vainglory that needs to evolve quickly you want to make sure that your technology platform is unified enough that you're able to churn out content and new features quickly. The minute that you support 3 or 4 or 5 different platforms and you have a lot of fragmentation your feature development slows down," he said.
"There are many, many features that we're dying to put out in the community. We're really feature focused and content focused right now as opposed to platform focused. In a lot of ways we wanted to get iOS right first and then worry about bringing that experience everywhere else."