eSports Ruins Another Marketer’s Day

I have no particular desire to pick on S2 Games (even though they often deserve it), but the way they’re marketing certain aspects of Strife, their newest game, was nearly slapping me in the face with how the mere idea of eSports hangs over the heads of modern competitive games like the proverbial sword of Damocles.

When I first heard about Strife I was intrigued by a developer controlling clones of the two basic competing archetypes of gameplay representing nearly an entire genre. With Heroes of Newerth S2 once claimed the premier DotA clone (and as history bore out, the only DotA clone, until S2 themselves were scooped by IceFrog and Valve when DotA 2 was announced), and with Strife they’re moving into League of Legends territory, which makes more sense for anyone who wants to make money. Strife is an obvious appeal to a broader, more casual player base in everything from the UI and mechanics to the art and lore. Of course, they have since been scooped by Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, but it’s the thought that counts, and by all accounts it couldn’t be happening to a nicer company.

The reason I thought this idea was interesting is that I think a PC developer has a much better chance of pulling off the casual to competitive marketing coup that Namco attempted with Tekken Revolution, a free-to-play casual version of a basic Tekken game that serves as a gateway for players interested in the series but not yet willing to spend their money on the latest full-priced entry. Strife, I thought, could be the same: a less competitive, casual focused game for players who want to dip their toes, with Heroes of Newerth dangling enticingly to one side for any players who want to make the leap to a more demanding game.

Seems that’s not to be. Although S2 have made promises about continuing to develop Heroes of Newerth alongside Strife, they still choose to coat their Strife marketing in a soft veneer of competitive gaming buzzwords.

Witness this poor man verbally contorting himself like an Escher Girl as he tries to repeatedly make the case that every player can min/max their items and also get super awesome special crafting bonuses that will set them apart, but that this will definitely have no impact on gameplay or balance.

There is no reason he should have to do that. He should be able to come out and say, “We’ve added a crafting system so that players can grind up to better items, because we think that’s fun.” They justify most of their other changes from the traditional HoN and DotA formula by saying that the new way is, “more fun,” yet when it comes to the important things–the things that will clearly give some players an advantage, however fleeting, concessions are made to appease a competitive following that the game hasn’t even acquired yet. (And let’s be honest, they made 80% of those changes to be more like LoL and less like DotA.)

It’s not as if there aren’t other games in the genre that shoot for casual and hit the mark. Most recently there was Prime World, which tries to marry the genre to MMO-style persistent character development, allowing players to grow stronger through the game’s economy and PvE maps between sessions of more standard lane-pushing PvP. Before that there was Rise of Immortals (which became Battle for Graxia), which I’ll acknowledge died a horrible death twice, but it was also a bad game.

I understand the dilemma modern developers face. On the one hand, 99% of their players won’t even join a free online league, let alone something as daunting as a weekend amateur tournament, but at the same time many of them will follow actual tournaments and competitive players and assume that the game they are playing is the same. This sort of thing happens all the time in fighting games, where casual players get a look at tier lists or match-up charts and start complaining about their 4/6 match-ups even though they’re playing at a level where tier lists have no bearing at all on results. Some combo that they can’t even do, or some setup that they don’t even know how to apply, is marginally less effective against character X and that’s just not good enough. It’s really easy for players to get ahead of themselves, especially if they’re already the theorycrafting type. How can a developer possibly cater players who barely even understand what they want, let alone what they need. That is why assurances are always made, however transparent, that the game will be balanced and tournament worthy.

I guess the other half is that everyone wants those eSports dollars. Having sponsors and tournaments is cheap, or even free, advertising, and there’s an aspect of keeping up with the Joneses as well. If all of your rivals have big tournaments, then you had better get one as well, and if you want to be top dog then conquering the competitive arena is as important as getting all the casual players who actually pay the bills. The problem is that there are already top dogs, and it’s unlikely that they will be knocked down by anyone with less resources and clout. S2 is a lot of things, but they aren’t Valve or Blizzard, and I doubt they’re going to be bought out by a company as large as Tencent (not until Google decides they need to enter the gaming arena). This is like every new MMO that tries to beat World of Warcraft at being World of Warcraft. They start with high hopes, and the “WoW Killer” headlines are abundant, but eventually they all give it up and go Free-to-Play so that they can start making some money.

A while ago I wrote an article about Dead or Alive 5, a game that was nothing more than some vague screenshots and promises at the time. I wrote it as a fan of both the Dead or Alive series, when a lot of people weren’t, and of competitive fighting games, and my main point was that there is a place in the market for introductory, casual competitive games. I still think that’s true for fighting games, and I definitely think it’s true for Strife. When I think of Strife as another LoL clone I have no desire to play it at all, but when I think of Strife as a casual-focused game I at least acknowledge that it would be different and novel, and I’d be more inclined to give that game a shot than the one I’m being sold.

The other thing, of course, is that Strife, like every new game in the genre, uses the idea of detoxifying their community as their mission statement, yet they also acknowledge that one of the major factors causing the toxic communities is the competitive nature of the games. If you market for competitive personalities and tell them that they’re playing a competitive game, don’t be surprised if they get competitive about it. Market a more casual game to players who specifically want a more casual game and voilà, a less competitive community is born.

If You Build It, They Will Play

Then there is Heroes of the Storm, the new Blizzard game. What’s remarkable about it, besides that it is finally a game trying to do things differently, is that Blizzard answers every eSports related question with a shrug. Their current attitude seems to be that they’re going to make a game, and if people want to play it competitively then so be it. They already have Starcraft 2 as an eSports brand. Now, maybe they get away with that because they’re Blizzard–in fact simply because it’s a Blizzard game people will play it competitively in some way. Much the same way any and every fighting game Capcom releases gets played at tournaments no matter how bad it is. But I also think it’s a smart move for them to aim for a market of casual players that is clearly there.

Even if it wasn’t Blizzard, a game that gets big enough, that has a community big enough, will grow a competitive scene organically. The Smash Bros. games managed it, even when Nintendo went out of their way to add random tripping to Super Smash Bros. Brawl, mostly because the director didn’t think his game was meant for Fox Only, Final Destination-type tournament play. But it didn’t matter; Smash Bros. Melee was the best selling game for the GameCube, and many people only owned a GameCube because of Melee, and when enough people are playing a competitive game they will eventually get together and organize. That’s how most of the best competitive scenes started, from as far back as StarCraft: Brood War and Warcraft 3 DotA. I don’t really want to say this, but there was a time when games earned their place on the competitive stage, instead of just having their developer or publisher slap down some cash at a major tournament in the hopes that someone will show up (And they do, but whether or not they stay when that developer cash is gone is another matter.).

It’s a natural part of capitalism for a company to not want to settle for less than everything, but I always find that a little sad. It reminds me of The Boy and the Filberts. There is a lot of room at the bottom, and even in the middle, but everyone struggles to be on top. I don’t believe there is as much to lose by plain speaking and casual dealings as companies like S2 seem to think.

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