At PAX Prime, S2 Games introduced the first public hands-on demo of "Strife," the first second generation free-to-play Massive Online Battle Arena (MOBA) slated for release. Not only is the game absolutely gorgeous, it makes a strong effort to bring in new players with a high level of accessibility and tweaks to the MOBA formula that help improve the community and player base surrounding it.
At first glance, the draw of "Strife" are the incredible character designs. From the pastel and bird-like headdress of Auros to the earthy and rugged design of Kabbal, every hero is designed with personality and a unique style all their own -- and since every hero will be available to all players at launch, there will be plenty to choose from. In fact, lore and mythology for the game bring a lot to the table when it comes to design. The team at S2 even got "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" co-creator Kevin Eastman to help expand the mythos through a prequel comic. The characters definitely aren't re-skins of S2's heroes from "Heroes of Newerth." These are individual heroes with new skills, unique animations and completely distinct personalities, which go a long way to selling "Strife" as a wholly original experience -- even for those that are already deep in to MOBAs like "League of Legends" and "Defense of the Ancients."
"Our lore writer and one of the guys who contributes on character design is Chad LaForce, and he was reading this book on what makes memorable video game characters. They were talking about how it's having archetypes and stereotypes that are twisted," said S2 Games producer Tim Shannon. "One of the things we've been trying to do is make characters that seem like something you'd see in another game, and then change them in a way that makes them interesting and gives them memorability. That sounds really nice in theory, but procedurally what that works out to is that we do a lot of talking about who's going to be what, what the twists are and how we're working with each character. Really, it doesn't come from one spot. We have design and art and lore and concept production. We're all talking about who we want the heroes to be, what voices we want them to have, what sort of personality they have and everything like that."
Characters also have the choice of a familiar -- a pet that gives the character a special ability. There are a number of pets and quite a few ways for them to progress and level up -- and all of them are pretty cute. In fact, the cute factor's high on this game, especially considering that bought items are delivered to your character anywhere on the map by a panda courier -- a nice change from current-gen MOBAs where players are forced to purchase items at their base.
Conceptually, "Strife's" general gameplay is incredibly similar to previous MOBAs: players team up with others online in a competitive match to destroy the other team's base on a map with three "lanes." Each lane runs from one base to the other as minions for both teams constantly spawn to launch a continued assault on the other. Player characters are responsible for pushing through each lane to destroy defensive towers and eventually the opponent's base. It's a simple concept, but extremely challenging in execution -- especially when looking at higher levels of competitive play. In previous MOBAs, every character had a certain role within a party, and while each character in "Strife" certainly skews to a certain style of play, one of the major goals of the game is to do away with a dedicated support role: a player tasked with taking hits for the team so that other characters can get more gold.
Indeed, that's one of the innovative concepts that sets "Strife" apart from its first-generation counterparts. In every MOBA, in-game currency -- in many cases, gold -- is used to help upgrade your character during the match. Gold is most commonly earned by striking the killing blow on minions. In short -- kill minions, get gold, upgrade and repeat. Support roles tend to take damage from minions while teammates go on a killing spree, leaving the support with little or no gold with which to upgrade.
By contrast, "Strife" assigns each minion a base value and distributes gold depending on the situation. For a player attacking minions alone in a lane, that player receives half the value of the minion when getting a killing blow with the rest distributed evenly among the rest of the team. In any other situation, the gold is distributed evenly amongst all allied players present. It's a simple concept, but eliminates the need for a support and actively encourages all players to work together toward a common goal, rather than forcing a single player into a generally un-fun role.
However, perhaps the most important point in favor of "Strife" is that the game is pure fun. My only experience in MOBAs was briefly playing S2's previous game, "Heroes of Newerth," and I was able to jump in with little trouble to the PAX demo and become accustomed to the fast-paced and frenetic battle strategies quickly. Although the learning curve is still undoubtedly steep, the ability to play against bots (computer-controlled characters) quickly acclimated me to the ins and outs of the game, though learning its intricate strategies would definitely take far more practice. A huge accomplishment by S2 is the connection I felt with my character (an agile lady pirate captain who shot pistols and threw fiery barrels). After playing with her for only one game, I wanted to go back in and work on my strategy -- I felt like I owed it to her to do better.
Despite the deep strategy and frenetic action of "Strife," the word that came to mind most while playing was "accessible." Although the next generation is, admittedly, a chance to start from scratch for many players and a good jumping-on point for those new to the genre, this is the only MOBA I would feel completely comfortable gradually learning rather than being expected to completely pull my own weight as soon as the program booted up. The strength of the character design is definitely a draw, but the gameplay tweaks and innovations are significant enough that I would feel comfortable handing off the game to any gamer and expect them to enjoy it far more than previous MOBAs.
"Everyone's a MOBA player who works [at S2]," said Shannon. "That's helped us, but is also something we've had to keep in check a lot. Mostly what we've been doing with 'Strife' is what I think is grabbing low-hanging fruit. There are a lot of design decisions that are things we've just changed around: getting rid of game lobbies, sharing gold and lanes -- that's holdover from when it was a tiny community in the 'DOTA' days. Mostly, it was just about being students of the genre, playing all the time and talking about when people start fighting with each other and everything like that. The depth is really not a problem. [Laughs] That's the easy part! Most of our design team played [MOBAs] professionally. That's one of the things we have to set checks for. A lot of the design decisions that go into making it accessibly is playing a bunch of MOBAs. We try to get our significant others and friends who haven't played try to play it, and then watch what they run into. You learn a lot from watching people that have never played a MOBA before sit down and stumble through the first couple hours when they're playing it. A lot of the things they've been catching on is what we go back and try to avoid."
Check back later for CBR's interview with S2 Games CEO Mark DeForest about re-evaluating the MOBA genre and helping to reduce the toxic nature of the community.