Strife: Doing Something to Stand Out in a Crowd
In a swiftly-saturating genre, it takes some doing to stand out from the crowd. S2 Games is attempting to do so with Strife, billing it as a second-generation MOBA. At PAX East, I had the chance to sit down with Producer Tim Shannon to discuss the game and how S2 is trying to re-invent this particular wheel. He gave me a brief overview of the history of MOBAs, rising out of Starcraft and Defense of the Ancients (DotA) from Warcraft 3. Strife isn't S2's first venture in MOBAs, as they'd created Heroes of Newerth back when DotA was a wee custom map. He said that as the genre matured, more systems were added onto the basic notion of what a Massive Online Battle Arena actually was.
Even to outsiders, the MOBA scene is well known for its toxic behavior. Tim pointed out that much of the community behaviors weren't players being rude just to be rude but players being judgmental because of gameplay. Their goal with Strife was to start from the ground up to foster a better gaming community through different system design. He added that they wanted the game to be more accessible to new players with less of a learning curve, so they were looking at what previous games had done right and wrong so they could keep the good things and let go of the bad stuff.
We then got down to brass tacks on how Strife intends on doing this. Tim advised that they were setting up their gameplay to be more team-based rather than having lone wolves running around doing their own thing and not paying attention to team objectives. They took out the notion of the last-hit-winner-takes-all, so wins and loot are more evenly distributed amongst the team rather than to the player who got the killshot in. He added that one of the biggest problems with many MOBAs is the fact that players tend to quarrel over who gets which role they're going to play in a match. So, their fix for that problem involves players picking a hero before they queue up, so they could set their character up, pick their pet, set up their crafted items, and take all the time they wanted to fine-tune things before queuing. Matchmaking between solo players would aim for ensuring a well-rounded 5-person team. If a group was queuing, the game expects that the group has already sorted it out amongst themselves who's doing what ahead of time. Tim continued his explanation about roles to state that they were attempting to de-emphasize the necessity for roles at all but not eliminate roles entirely. He said they wanted to avoid the meta where a team loses their match simply because they didn't have a tank, for example.
Another of the key features to Strife that's not found in many other MOBAs is the notion of fewer heroes and being able to customize them to some extent. Tim said that by having fewer heroes available, it relieves a great deal of bloat from the client itself, and they didn't want to have a ton of heroes that nobody ever used. The S2 team apparently felt that the game is more accessible by not having a plethora of heroes to learn about and strategize around. They were also concerned about how the theorycrafters tended to insist on specific builds for a character to be considered being played correctly, so they wanted to alleviate some of the spying on one's teammates to ensure proper gear and the subsequent judgmental behavior if someone didn't have the exact gear required. Their heroes have multiple possible roles and the items for those heroes will vary based on what role a player wants to utilize more, so there won't be a single optimal build for a character for people to nitpick. This gives a much greater potential for experimentation rather than a rigid 'you need this hero with these items to fight that team's hero to keep them from controlling the lane'.
Personally, I was a little skeptical at the notion of a studio designing their game around cleansing the toxic behaviors, because while Riot's League of Legends has had some success in that area with some of their social systems, the problem may be more systemic than anything else. Tim Shannon pointed out that a player's Strife account is portable to all sections of their website including the forums, that there will be one global server. They were looking at adding in-client community tools like informal circles, if not formal guild systems. He said they wanted to have the game experience be more human with more social media efforts to engage the community and also to help casual players find like-minded players to game with. They're also going to support streamers, and there is a spectator and streamer mode, where players in-game can watch other players' matches or watch their stream right in the game itself.
Strife is currently in closed beta, and you can sign up here. If you'd like to read their current patch notes, you can check them out here. What I like about the patch notes is that they also explain many of their design choices in a little blurb beneath the main note, which more games should do to alleviate at least some player upset regarding changes. They also announced a new hero named Shank on April 10th. The game's beta client is currently available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.