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In crowded esports scene, 'Strife' wants to stand out with smarter gameplay

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In 2010, a little-known game developer known released a title called Heroes of Newerth. The game centered around one central theme: five players per team pick champions to fight across a large battlefield littered with smaller enemy minions and towering defensive structures.

It was one of the first games in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, or MOBA genre, a new type of game first popularized by a fan-made modification of Blizzard's hit real-time strategy game Warcraft 3.

Called Defense of the Ancients, or Dota, the game would propel MOBAs into a dominant position in the esports, or competitive gaming, industry. Nowadays, millions of fans watch weekly tournaments. Top players compete for prize pools of more than $2 million. And very few of them are playing Heroes of Newerth.

But now the game's developer, S2, is ready to make a second foray into the MOBA genre. This time, it'll be fighting against a lot more than Dota. The market is flooded. But S2 thinks the innovative gameplay of Strife can set it apart.

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The MOBA genre formed as a small subset of popular real-time strategy games in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Strategy games were nothing new, but instead of placing players behind the helm of an army—complete with production facilities, resource harvesting, and multiple battalions—MOBAs simplified the genre by putting players in charge of a single champion on a larger, automated battlefield.

This simplification meant that complexities within each game came from the many players involved, rather than the difficulty of commanding a broad and multifaceted army. Instead of having to memorize construction cycles and area control, the biggest difficulties in a MOBA are often teamwork and coordination with the other players on your team. Not only do you have to manage your own champion—which spells to cast, which items to buy, where to be on the field—but you have to make sure what you’re doing is beneficial to the rest of your team.


Screengrab via S2 Games

The genre quickly became a cult hit—spiking during the era of the aforementioned Warcraft 3Dota, a fan-made modification for the Warcraft 3 engine, rocketed to popularity because it stripped the already-popular game down, removing the elements of base building, resource gathering, and large-scale tactics and leaving the player in control of just one unit. The other main factors driving the genre were the intense competitive nature of the game and how easy it was for players to get started: It was both free to play and didn't require a juiced up gaming rig to play.

Eventually, developers began to take notice. S2 was one of the first companies to tackle a full release, but they weren’t the only ones. Riot Games set out to create their own twist on the genre with a game called League of Legends, while Valve took up the cross of Dota and sought to recreate it with an updated engine and extensive support.

S2 found initial success with Heroes of Newerth, but Riot and Valve took the genre further by modernizing the game engine and adding a compelling free-to-play business model. Nowadays, League and Dota 2 are the two most-watched games on Twitch, the world’s most popular video-game-streaming site. The MOBA has been embraced on a global scale.

Many other companies are now trying to get in on the action—companies like Turbine (Infinite Crisis), Activision/Blizzard (Heroes of the Storm), EA (Dawngate), and Square Enix (Nosgoth) have all announced plans for their own MOBAs. Even social game maker Zynga has released a MOBA (Solstice Arena) that you can play on your smartphone, tablet, or PC.

That's why S2's announcement of a second MOBA was greeted with shock in the industry last summer.

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What makes S2 think it can succeed in challenging the dominance of League and Dota with one game, much less two?

The answer is simple. Despite the immense popularity of the MOBA genre, S2 believes that there are definite improvements still to be made. By learning from Heroes of Newerth, S2 want to take the genre to the next level.

“We have built this game… to evolve the genre as a whole through honing in on and accentuating those factors which have caused the explosive popularity of MOBAs," says Strife producer Tim Shannon.

S2 believes the genre's biggest problem is the inherent toxicity that the game encourages among its players. As in any anonymous online communal activity, players who don't give their all, or even play poorly on purpose, can suck the fun out of any match. But it's not all on the gamers: Certain elements of the game itself can cause friction between teammates—such as kills granting more gold to the person who gets the final hit. Players often complain of “kill stealing,” feeling they deserved more gold more than their teammate who scored the final hit.

As Shannon explains: “MOBAs are a team game, but many of the mechanics within that game set members of the team at odds with one another.” These mechanics, according to Shannon create a “1 vs. 4, vs. 5” mentality, where you aren’t just competing with the enemy team, but with your own teammates. S2 wants to remove these kinds of mechanics from the game.


Screengrab via S2 Games

One great example of this is the gold-sharing mechanic, where gold earned is distributed more evenly across the entire team. Every player on a team will get gold for every kill, not just the ones they participated in, or where they scored the final hit. Teammates going in for a kill can focus now on securing that gold for their team, rather than competing against each other for the valuable final strike.

S2 also wants to simplify the more arcane elements of the genre. MOBAs are often plagued by statistics that are difficult for newcomers to understand. Dota 2, for example, has three main attributes: Agility, Strength, and Intelligence. Each point of Agility raises the hero’s Attack Speed by 1 and Armor by 0.14, except for Agility-based heroes who also gain 1 to their damage. Each other attribute has similar derivations upon a hero’s power.

This all gets compounded: Each hero has different base attribute amounts, rates at which they grow as the hero levels up, and can supplement those attributes with items that can have both any combination of the primary attributes, or derivations like bonus Armor or Attack Speed.

Confused yet? So was S2 games. The complex mechanics of these statistics mean that new players have difficulty deciding which items to buy and which statistics to focus on. Often, the only way to know the best option is to seek out an online guide or calculator. But decisions in game have to be made in seconds, not minutes. And the longer a player takes to think, the more they are leaving their team a man down.

So S2 decided to do away with needlessly complex hero statistics and have boiled them all down to one simple attribute. One point of “Power” will make your avatar’s spells and attacks one percentage point more powerful. Instead of having to break out a calculator to determine what the best item to buy is, players can simply hoard Power and focus on the game.

With a more welcoming environment and a more straightforward game, S2 is looking to make an even bigger splash than their first MOBA release. Strife entered beta just last month and as it gets closer to release, be on the lookout for the noticeable differences it has against competitors. Beginner-friendly design decisions have been attempted before, but never from a company with a successful MOBA release under their belt.

In that arena, S2 stands alone.

Photo via S2 Games