Super Evil Megacorp's Kristian Segerstrale isn't someone you would expect to see at Casual Connect. The studio's MOBA for mobiles Vainglory is about as far from casual as a mobile game can get, and its audience is well and truly hardcore. We caught with Segerstrale about the game's first year and how the community continues to surprise him.
"We still don't feel like we're feature complete, we still don't feel like the product is really where we want it to be but it's been really amazing to just see the growing community play the game and just provide such incredible feedback and also start to watch the game more and more. That side of it has really grown very rapidly," he says, wolfing down a banana between meetings.
"That's something we just didn't expect. Because this type of game on PC and other platforms typically needs to work for years and years to get to that place where you begin to build a loyal community that begins to play competitively. We've been very fortunate that very early on the community clearly demanded competitive play and in fact we had to reshuffle our own priority order of features to bring in things like spectator mode."
"We've been very fortunate that very early on the community clearly demanded competitive play and in fact we had to reshuffle our own priority order of features"
This player-led approach to development has served the studio well so far. It doesn't do press releases, it blogs to its community. That was how it broke the news earlier this month that it had just completed a new $26 million round of funding, had partnered with Giant Interactive to take on the Chinese market, and had created a bespoke Vainglory International Premier League that would be televised on Korean TV.
And that's what seems to be the most interesting element of the competitive gaming business for Segerstrale. He talks about how long it takes a game--baseball, football--to become a sport and says he read it takes about 50 years. He also highlights what he thinks could hold eSports back from becoming spectator events, pointing out that regular patches can change the rules of a game significantly, making it hard for anyone who isn't a hardcore player to keep up.
"The really interesting question to me is what will make it mass market? One of the things that's been really fun to see over the past three or four years is it's gone from being quote unquote 'spotty teenagers behind PCs that get filmed' to this thing where they are have their uniforms and they have slow-mo montages of them.
"I think they've learned a lot more to build narrative around these things where yes it's about the game but it's also about the teams and the personalities and the drama. I think there's a lot of learning that's happening there."
He makes a comparison with game shows, that by halfway through you understand all the rules, and baseball games and American football where the spectacle can give you the broad brushstrokes of the game even if you've never played or watched them before.
"It doesn't alienate you initially because you don't understand the rules and that's something that we're working really hard on also to try and create a visual of the gameplay where in that same sense you will watch and enjoy the spectacle and then you enjoy it even more as you learn the intricacies of it.
"In particular I think one of the challenges with PC eSports right now is the camera angle cuts all the time, you cut from here to there, to there, to there. So one of the things we do think an awful lot about is how do we help make that all approachable. Can we make it more understandable?"
One of the ways Super Evil Megacorp plans to do this is introducing ways to broadcast tournaments that are more interesting for players. The traditional MOBA view is top-down, and Segerstrale asks me to imagine watching football this way. The new tools will allow people to stream games with camera angles that don't appear in play - zooming in on action, side views - a feature that seems key to building the narrative that is so important to hooking viewers.
So what does the next year look like for Super Evil Megacorp? How will it be spending that sweet $26 million that it just scored in funding? Segerstrale knows he wants to invest in the spectator features he's mentioned above, but other than that the plan is fluid.
"Somebody is going to be the Blizzard or Riot of this era"
"It's less about the money and more about the people. It's not about their CVs so much, we spent a lot of time talking to a lot of folks and we need folks who are equally convinced that this is a transformational opportunity. We are very much at the starting lines of what we think is an industry-wide thing where core gaming and the money spent will make its way to touchscreens. Somebody is going to create the seminal company and the seminal game of that era. Somebody is going to be the Blizzard or Riot of that era," he says.
"In terms of actual use of funds? We frankly don't know yet. We will continue to invest in the community, not to try and suddenly make a Super Bowl ad because that's what might bring in the most players. We are very interested in thoughtfully growing out the community and supporting the community so you will probably see even more commitment behind things like eSports not just at the top level but rather at a regional level - how can we make it interesting for you personally to be part of a team and compete in your own league? The other thing is the feeling of being local. If you're in Japan or Korea or Russia or any major market we want you as a player to feel like we as a company deeply care about your experience."