Show me someone who claims a traditionally hardcore game has succeeded in making money on mobile and I will show you a liar.
A reductive way of describing the current state of play at the cross-section between mobile free-to-play and hardcore gaming, certainly, but neither is it entirely inaccurate.
Attempting to transition genres and tropes traditionally associated with the most engaged console and PC gamers to mobile devices has always created problems, if not resulted in total failures.
DeNA's The Drowning confirmed what we all knew about the incompatibility between touchscreens and FPS games; similarly Fallout Shelter's success is based on the fact that the spirit of its hardcore RPG big brother is channelled into a mobile friendly vessel.
Only World of Tanks: Blitz can really claim to have successfully transitioned the core DNA of a hardcore title.
A hard game
This is the breach into which Super Evil Megacorp gamely stepped into in November 2014.
Vainglory became the highest profile Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) to appear on touchscreen devices as part of the company's mission to bring hardcore genres and production values to the mass market.
But ahead of the global launch of a fully featured cross-platform version of the game on 2 July 2015 (support for Google Play has now been added to iOS), questions remain about what impact it has made in the market as a whole.
In particular, there remains a lingering question about how well the game is monetising and whether Vainglory really can succeed where others have failed before.
At a press event in London ahead of the launch, and in a potential boon to more reactive elements of the gaming community, I caught up with Super Evil Megacorp's CEO Bo Daly and CCO Stephan Sherman to talk monetisation, company aims and e-sports ambitions
PocketGamer.biz: I had a look earlier today at the performance in the UK of Vainglory. It is near the top of the strategy genre, which is good.
Stephen Sherman: Yeah. I wouldn't have expected that, even.
It's high in games, and it's about top 500 overall for all apps. But in grossing, it's only at 1,500. Does the fact that you're getting installs and engagement but not spending concerns you?
Sherman: Not at all. So, ironically that was core to our plan. Vainglory was always meant to be growing like a garden more than launching a firecracker.
It's not meant to be a high-burst short-yield game, and if you look at any of the other games in its genre, its genre is still far more similar to its ancestry on PC or in other console genres than it is to most mobile games.
MOBA monetisation is iterative. There are a lot of opportunities to innovate and optimise.Bo Daly
Going into this we knew that we had to grow this game and be committed for it in the long haul, and part of doing that - if you look at League of Legends, you look at Dota - they all experience the exact same kind of growth patterns.
Bo Daly: I think it's even more meta. As a small company, our main concern is focus. We had to be very careful about how we prioritised the challenges we wanted to face.
MOBA monetisation is iterative. There are a lot of opportunities to innovate and optimise, but the very basic way to do it is known, and that wasn't really a risk.
Starting a company, you need to de-risk everything as quickly as possible, and the thing that we were least confident about three years ago was, 'Will players treat this platform as a place where they would look for good games?'
Sherman: 'Will they take it seriously?'
Daly: You know, 'Will players play for long periods of time?', 'Is the session length correct?' - these are all of these things we've been trying to prove out over the last couple of years of our beta-like existence.
Really our launch is now and that's because we now finally feel we have a product that is v1.0 complete.
Frankly, even the monetisation features haven't even existed. So the next update is going to add card packs, which is the core monetisation engine for the skins component for the game. The skins feature only came out two updates ago. We think that the skin system is going to monetise better than other MOBA skin systems, just because we're able to learn from the lessons of free-to-play and how it's evolved since 2007.
But at the same time, you manage what you measure, and we were much more concerned about managing player expectations, player experience, and also making sure that we didn't come across as yet another mobile title that's really eager to be in the players' pockets, because we're trying to cater to an audience that we feel is pretty allergic to that kind of gameplay.
We're lucky enough to have very patient investors, who see we're trying to build something that over the course of ten years will yield many times as much money as the biggest game in the world today.
Our investors see we’re trying to build something that over the course of ten years will yield many times as much money as the biggest game in the world today.Bo Daly
That's still the vision. You don't get there by taking short-term wins and ultimately to build this off the back of a deeply immersed community, you take those things in their time.
So, I think we will see more monetisation intensity in the coming months. We have other monetisation systems we intend to roll out over time, it's just it's really not the biggest question.
How difficult is it communicating that longer term monetisation trajectory to the wider industry?
Daly: To be honest, it's not really. If that were our goal, our raison d'etre, yes it would be difficult, but frankly we're in the business of enchanting players, and as long as we know that we're on track towards the success...
I mean, I'm always happy to have the conversation. We're not defensive about this at all, but at the same time I don't necessarily feel like our incoming investment dollars aren't dependent on us weaving a story like that.
Our revenue as it comes online isn't going to be dependent on that. Frankly, the more that we sound like we're in it for those types of metrics, the less we're likely to succeed with the audience that actually matters and the people who are actually going to drive our success. So, yes it's hard, but monetisation is the least of my worries right now.
Sherman: The way I see it, the overall choices we've made - and how we've approached embracing our community and trying to grow both the product and the community together - has always been about authenticity, and more importantly making sure the experience was worth whatever the monetisation would be to follow.
Because, as Bo mentioned, none of us around the table in the leadership at Super Evil felt like monetisation was going to be a problem, if you are capable of growing the garden, so to speak.
It was much more about making sure that we made it frictionless for players to understand that when we're approaching them. We're not giving them a statement that sounds like a snake oil salesman, saying 'We've got a MOBA on mobile and it's gonna be awesome.'
I wanted to make sure all those players felt like the moment they got into the game, we weren't trying to take their money. We're trying to provide them an experience. And ironically, it's almost disarming.
It helped the players feel like, 'Well, you're clearly not here to take my money. Why are you here?' And for the love of the game, for the craftsmanship, for the experiences we're providing, that created a very different echo chamber between us and the community than if monetisation had been our focus from the get-go.
Daly: And we benefited so much from that, because our entire product roadmap over the last six months has been a function of what we've seen in the community, and the community is incredibly positive. In a sector of the industry that is known for having these horribly toxic communities, we actually have an amazingly positive community.
You manage what you measure, and we were concerned about managing player expectations.Bo Daly
The level of trust allows us to truly build the game with the community, let them make the decisions. We didn't think eSports was going to be a thing for us for eighteen more months, but, you know VGL [Vainglory League] came on board and was running 2v2 tournaments using the third player as a spectator, and we were like, 'We need to build some features for these guys'.
This has driven massive Twitch viewership. Beyond the many, many minutes that our players spend in the game, they spend so much additional time watching the game, streaming the game, setting up Twitch streams that are talk shows about the content of the game.
It's, very, very powerful and I don't think any of that could have happened if we gave them a fear that we were concerned about profit taking.
Talking about community, I saw a stat that showed you had 1.5 million watching Vainglory Twitch in May. I was comparing that to the League of Legends world finals last year in 2014, and they had a concurrent viewership of 11 million. How do you feel about that comparison?
Sherman: I'm cautious to never believe that any kind of success is assured. And so we have numbers - both public and private - that are very positive and those are the kinds of metrics that really do excite.
But, at the end of the day, the thing that I feel holds us steady, the thing that will really help us stand the test of time, is making sure that our relationship with our players is really complementary. And that we're growing that relationship in tandem with them together, and that they're helping us shape what the experience of Vainglory is.
We're not a company that declares Vainglory anything. We're a company that provides our players with a product and asks them, 'Tell us what it is and how we can best shape this experience with you?'
So, we don't come out and say, 'Vainglory is an eSport on mobile.' That's not for us to say. If Vainglory turns into an eSport, it's because our players tell us, 'You know what? Your game is an eSport'.
And then we say, 'Yes!' Now, we can try to make it an eSport, but we can't make that declarative. Our players have to help us tell that story..
You were talking about improvements driven by the community. Are there any other examples?
Daly: Bots. We wrote bots because our community was like, 'You know what? This would be kind of cool. There's this hole in the experience in which it's very difficult to transition.'
Them giving us this feedback and saying, 'Welcoming new players into this experience and helping them learn how this experience works is difficult. Can you find a way of making this work?' really helped spur us towards this direction of saying, 'That's something important we want to do.'
Sherman: That's still something that we're actually very bad at.
The past six months have been about giving players something to aspire to.Bo Daly
Daly: There's even more to do, but it does help to have that relationship where you get that feedback loop, where the players are as excited to help you find that perfect design balance for tutorialisation as you are to have that in your product.
Finally, what's the difference between Vainglory November 2014 that launches on the App Store and Vainglory global launch today?
Daly: There's so much. Vainglory November 2014 had no account progression, no levelling. Players couldn't earn anything. Prior to this week, basically what we've given players is a concrete basketball court, and, said, 'Here's a ball.'
We're still missing a lot of aspects. There's no stadium. There's no bleachers. We're starting to fill the seats. We essentially gave the players a toy to play with and told them to entertain themselves.
The past six months have been about giving them the things they need to have fun and to build some structure, to give players something to aspire to, both in terms of levelling up their account and grinding and progressing.
To be the best Vainglory player in the world in January 2014 was a simple feat. I was pretty good back then. I am not good today. It takes time to build that, and one of the core fantasies for players is to be invited the world invitational tournament that's coming up in South Korea.
For some of these players, this is life-changing. They had to go get passports because they've never gone anywhere. To be able to give that to players; that wasn't possible in November, and now it is.
There's still a lot to build and a lot of features and systems we intend to add. That's just the nature of the game-as-a-service.
That said, the product in November wasn't a complete product. It was really the minimum viable product of, 'What can you get away with giving players that they will fall in love with but that's still a far cry from being able to give them something that will give back to them over time'.