We find ourselves in a cheap hotel room in Malmö, Sweden, about to interview mobile gaming pioneer Kristian Segerstrale.
The Zoom call is starting and there’s a tacky semi-erotic painting hanging on the wall behind us, in full view of one of the most important figures in the history of mobile games.
He’s cool about the painting, of course. It’ll take more than some questionable decor to distract Segerstrale from his latest mission: he and his company Super Evil Megacorp just launched new arena shooter / MOBA hybrid Catalyst Black, with the goal of attracting an audience Segerstrale still believes is underserved: the hardcore player who demands depth and complexity from their mobile games.
Super Evil Megacorp’s first title, made-for-mobile MOBA Vainglory, arrived in 2014 to much fanfare. It was pitched as a ‘true gamers’ game’ for mobile, with dazzling graphics and a high profile reveal moment in an Apple keynote.
“We launched Vainglory at a time when the market was filled with match-three games and midcore titles,” Segerstrale recalls. “We wanted to really go out and show that we believe gamers are gamers on any platform.”
And for several years Vainglory flew the flag as mobile’s first esport. Segerstrale points out that the 2017 Vainglory world championships attracted 100,000 simultaneous viewers at one point. “Many things went really well,” he says. “We felt we were really proven right, in that the mobile generation also wants titles which are made with love and made for more complex, longer play patterns.”
Despite the team’s best efforts, Vainglory’s success couldn’t last. “There’s a bunch of things that we won’t do again, which is part of any company releasing its first title,” says Segerstrale. “We ended up creating for ourselves a quite a heavy, costly infrastructure to run the game, and we learned a lot from the complexity and the difficulty of map and character creation.”
With Vainglory fading and work beginning on what became Catalyst Black in 2019, Segerstrale describes “a tricky period in the company’s life.”
“We realised that Vainglory took a lot of overhead from us to maintain, in terms of both personnel and finances. And we realised that this title alone will not enable us to build the company we want to build long term.”
So the game was “parked” with publisher Rogue for six months before Super Evil Megacorp eventually figured out a way of keeping Vainglory running as a stripped back ‘community edition’. “Some other businesses might have just chosen to shut it down,” says Segerstrale. “But we care deeply about the community and we care deeply about the IP itself.”
Indeed, Vainglory could even return in some form. “We still harbour dreams longer term to be able to come back to that universe,” he adds.
Today the company’s focus is entirely on Catalyst Black, a game pitched in a similar way: a ‘true gamers’ game’ for mobile, dazzling graphics plus another high profile reveal moment in an Apple keynote. And second time around, Super Evil Megacorp has everything it learned from Vainglory to help make it a longer term success.
Segerstrale cites taking the big – and expensive – decision to develop its own engine as one that proved to be right. With the tech under its control rather than at the whims of Unity or Unreal, he says it has made content creation for Catalyst Black much quicker and more flexible.
For example, Catalyst Black’s heroes are defined by players mixing and matching cosmetics, characteristics and abilities, rather than the heroes being individually created, endlessly tested and balanced by Super Evil Megacorp itself.
“Before, we would decide, okay, we want to enable this kind of play style so let’s figure out how to create and place this puzzle piece into the game,” says Segerstrale. “With Catalyst Black we wanted to invert that, because we actually thought that the hero creation process was just as fun as the actual hero play.”
The approach to monetisation is different this time around, too. Where Vainglory’s economy was all about cosmetics, requiring a huge amount of paying players, Catalyst Black comes with “a deeper progression surface area over time, which ultimately some people will want to shortcut by spending money,” as Segerstrale puts it.
The decision to go with an arena shooter format was also shaped by the team’s experience with Vainglory. The mechanics are more understandable for western players compared to a MOBA, and the genre has “a slightly gentler early learning curve, and perhaps more of a variety of play, while still having that feeling of hey, I can learn lots and play this forever and still get better and better at it,” says Segerstrale.
18 months in soft launch also helped the team finesse the combat and add more game modes that have a “a much more freeform, social format,” he adds.
In a business Segerstrale describes as “constant, evolving chaos”, Super Evil Megacorp’s mission is actually the same, from Vainglory through to Catalyst Black: to give the hardcore gamer a multiplayer experience with depth and longevity.
And after all it has learned from Vaingory, Super Evil Megacorp and its boss Segerstrale are better placed than ever to do it.