Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

Vainglory advertises itself as “the MOBA perfected for touch,” and to an extent, it’s true. Any MOBA player will immediately find themselves at home with the familiar minions-to-turret lane structure, a recall to shop button, and a jungle with a boss monster. Moving the genre to mobile actually seems to change very little about it, but is this truly the way to “perfect” a MOBA for a new medium? How can a new control scheme affect design?

The MOBA Formula

Vainglory takes place on a horizontally symmetric map (not a tilted one like Dota 2 or League of Legends), and you will always be placed on the left side moving towards the right. I assume that enemies see the same view, and their actions are mirrored for you and vice versa.*

Your three abilities are placed in the bottom center of the screen, and any activateable items you build have icons on the left side that you can tap to trigger them. The camera is always locked so your character is in the dead center of the screen. Everything is activated with taps: you tap abilities and then tap a location to target them, you tap on the ground to move, you tap on an enemy to auto attack them, you tap on the minimap to move the camera.

People are naturally expected to play by putting their device on a table and using both of their hands. It’s a lot like trying to play League of Legends with a second mouse instead of a keyboard. Except the mice block your view of the game screen.

This is a very micro-intensive game. There are activateable items, there’s orb walking, there’s last hitting. Nearby every hero has at least one skillshot, with some of them having absolutely nothing but skillshots. The few who don’t are marked as beginner heroes, and even they have ways to cancel their auto attacks for maximum DPS.

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One hero that stood out to me in particular was Samuel, a dark mage who’s all about aggression and area control. He has an ability called Malice & Verdict that shoots two magic projectiles towards a targeted location, one after the other. This doesn’t prevent him from moving, but it can be boosted even further with his second ability, Drifting Dark, which creates a large zone of black magic that drifts forward. If he shoots the magic projectiles while standing in this zone, they are faster and have a substantially reduced cooldown.

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Contrast Samuel to Taliyah from League of Legends. Taliyah has a similar ability to Malice & Verdict that fires several projectiles after a delay, but she shoots them in a direction, not to a location. Samuel can cast the ability on a location so he can strafe around an enemy while still hitting them with both shots. This immediately makes Samuel more micro-intensive, especially when factoring in the cooldown reduction. Additionally, Samuel’s passive gives his basic attacks extra magic damage, so he has to weave in his attacks… while also targeting every single volley of Malice & Verdict… which has essentially no cooldown while standing in Drifting Dark… which is constantly moving forward.

Samuel is even more micro-intensive than Taliyah, and he’s a hero that you play as on a mobile platform. If Samuel were to be released for League of Legends, people still wouldn’t hit his skill cap even with a mouse and keyboard. Taliyah is difficult enough as she is, and she only has to worry about half of the things that Samuel does.

Then take a look at activateable items. Nearly every hero in Vainglory will build at least two activateables: boots (which passively increase your movespeed, but can also be activated for a short powerful burst) and “Reflex Block,” which shields you for one second and blocks any debuffs that enemies try to apply to you while the shield is up. Many non-supports in League of Legends build no activateable items. That’s two more buttons you need to press with your fingers in the heat of battle. Reflex Block is even more difficult to use than either Barrier or Cleanse: the former lasts 2 seconds, and the latter can be used to clear debuffs retroactively.

Rethinking Controls

It seems odd to me that a game that is “perfected for touch” would require so much micro-level precision. Heroes of the Storm has already proven that a MOBA can function without last-hitting. But it’s not necessarily a problem that these mechanics are present. The real problem is how they need to be executed.

Players have to constantly tap on icons for abilities or items while also moving and targeting enemies on the battlefield. Anyone playing a PC MOBA can quickly see that the sooner they learn how to use hotkeys rather than clicking on their abilities to activate them, the better. A mobile game obviously can’t use hotkeys, so is there a better way to access all of these abilities?

I think that a mobile game can take advantage of gestures. For example, you would draw a cross on top of your character to activate Reflex Block, representing a shield. Or to activate boots, you could flick your character in a direction, and they would start moving that way with increased speed. This way, it would be even smoother to use boots to dodge skillshots, because when dodging you’re more concerned with a direction rather than a destination.

Each character would also have special gestures for their abilities. Maybe Samuel’s Malice & Verdict would be executed by double tapping a location. Another hero, Kestrel, uses a bow that might be able to be fired with a “zoom out” gesture, mimicking the way that an arrow is drawn. The magician called Celeste can summon a small star to crash down at a location, dealing damage in a circle around it: this could be represented by pressing and holding at the targeted position for a brief time.

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One of my favorite games, The World Ends With You, used a control scheme like this. This way, players won’t need to break away from the action to tap their ability icons. Instead, they will activate and target their abilities on the screen itself, focusing completely on the battle rather than moving their hands around searching for icons.

There are a few problems that would have to be ironed out in order for this to work. The designers would need to make sure that no activateable items are ever triggered with the same gesture that an ability would use. Multitouch would also eliminate the possibility of playing with a stylus. SEMC’s UI designers would be working overtime to ensure that players always have ways of knowing what gestures are mapped to which actions, and how to integrate range indicators into this process. And players would have a harder time adapting to new champions because they have to relearn their gestures.

The payoff would be not only a more focused combat experience, but also an opportunity for some more immersion with the characters. Other games have used physical gestures for thematic purposes. In Amnesia, doors are opened manually, which can lead to really exciting moments when you crack a door open to peek through, or when you’re running from a monster and you pull on a door that is meant to be pushed. God of War has the famous scene where Kratos is pushing his thumbs through his victim’s eyes, and you do this by clicking in on both thumbsticks.

More importantly, it opens up a new design space for different types of abilities. None of the heroes in Vainglory have a true charge-and-release ability like Varus’s Piercing Arrow in League of Legends. Maybe a gesture could be used to represent a charge, like pressing and holding on your character to build up power and then releasing at the right moment. Or there could be more creative abilities like using freehand drawing to trace flames along a path, damaging enemies standing within it. What if Samuel could adjust the size of his Drifting Dark by drawing the circle as large or as small as he likes, and a larger spell costs more energy? Touch controls can be so much cooler than just “press a button.”

Every time a MOBA gets reinvented for a new medium, whether it’s Super Monday Night Combat or Awesomenauts, there always seems to be a reluctance to break away from the norm. And yet, normal MOBAs are only that way because they are restricted to keyboard and mouse controls. Right now, Vainglory feels like the game you play when you want League of Legends but you’re not on a PC. I think it can be more than that.

*It turns out that you can play from the right side attacking the left. Guess I just hadn’t played enough PvP games for that to happen. But it begs the question, why don’t they just have everyone on the left attacking right, and mirror enemy actions? If you’re right handed, it’s a lot easier to play that way.