How do you take the fun, addictive, and lucrative League of Legends formula and make it work on a smartphone? Furthermore, can you make it intriguing enough for e-sport veterans — possibly as an e-sport itself?
That's the all-but-impossible challenge that developer Spacetime Studios has given itself with Call of Champions, which will make its public debut this week at SXSW. It's a streamlined multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game designed to be played in five-minute-or-less spurts, and while it may seem casual in scope, the developer has also made this with professional gamers in mind.
The MOBA genre, dominated by multimillion dollar ventures like League of Legends and Dota 2, pits two teams against one another across multiple pathways of combat. Each player controls a single character that gets more powerful as you kill enemies, destroy checkpoint towers, and defeat waves of computer-controlled henchmen (or "creeps") that each team’s home base sends out on a regular basis. The goal is to reach the enemy base through at least one of the three lanes and destroy it.
No item shops, no minions, and a five-minute time limit
The experience is complicated, and the twitch-heavy gameplay demands nuanced controls from a keyboard and mouse. Several MOBA games exist for mobile platforms already, each one translating / simplifying the genre in a different way (Vainglory, for example, which Apple showed off at its iPhone 6 event, reduces the number of combat lanes from three to just one). Call of Champions takes several liberties with MOBA conventions. Instead of creeps, players fight to knock an orb from one base towards another along two different tracks (representing the traditional lanes). If a turret is within range of the orb, it becomes vulnerable to attack. Knock the orb all the way to the enemy's base, and you have a clear path to victory.
But while some matches, even in mobile MOBA titles like Vainglory, can go anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour, Call of Champions' matches are designed to begin and end in five minutes or less — there's a countdown timer to make sure of it. We played several matches over the course of an hourlong meeting during GDC, about half of which ended in under five minutes. If no base has been destroyed by the time the clock reaches 0, the winner is decided via points (based on the number of structures destroyed, the number of player-controlled heroes killed, or the overall damage done). If someone disconnects or backs out of the app (to take a phone call, for example), the AI will take over for your hero — and you can jump back into the same match later.
Each match played with a certain hero earns that character experience points (true to MOBA form, there are dozens of playable heroes). Every hero starts the game with the full range of spells and abilities; leveling up gives players the option to improve on certain abilities. All customization happens outside of the match itself, and there are no items to purchase or equip. Once the game starts, it's basically tap to move, tap to fight, and tap to cast one of your abilities.
For a novice player, all that sounds great. MOBA games can seem daunting, and all signs point to this being a very simplified, arcade-y variation. But that's where we get to Spacetime's more ambitious goal: it wants Call of Champions to appeal to the other side of gaming's spectrum — to be something enthusiasts can play in between rounds of Dota and LoL. The game itself is designed with e-sports in mind: there are "spectator" and "director" modes for watching matches and keeping tabs on everyone's statistics, which can be streamed via Twitch. Call of Champions' SXSW debut, in fact, is a series of tournaments played across Austin, Texas, which doubles as a way to show off how the game plays under various network conditions.
And that's the biggest challenge for Call of Champions. On one hand, it has to convince casual players to give a notoriously complicated genre a chance. Developer Spacetime has had success here in the past, most notably with the critically-acclaimed MMO Pocket Legends. For a non-MOBA player like myself, Call of Champions was an experience that's easy to pick up and enjoy. On the other hand, there are pretty clear ambitions to make this not only a gateway drug to e-sports but also something of an e-sport itself. How an audience that thrives on nuance responds to a streamlined MOBA remains to be seen. Call of Champions is launching later this year as a free-to-play game for iPhone, iPad, and Android.