Of all the people to appear onstage at Tuesday’s Apple keynote, U.S. game developers Super Evil Megacorp were among the most memorable — thanks partly to co-founder Tommy Krul’s decision to wear a fetching infinity scarf.
What followed were Internet memes, parody Twitter accounts — and a whole lot of buzz for Vainglory, the team’s hyper-competitive multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game that was called into action to help show off the graphical prowess of the iPhone 6.
As an example of the ever-thinning gap between console and iOS games, Vainglory knocked the demo out of the park, leaving fans salivating at the prospect of next-gen gaming on Apple’s new handset.
It also left people wondering about the origins of the fantastically named Super Evil Megacorp.
“Frankly, we thought [mobile gaming] wasn’t being given the respect it deserved.”
Before their new venture, members of the company’s dream team were world-class developers, making a living in the world of console gaming. Between them they worked for an impressive array of companies, including Riot Games, Blizzard Entertainment, Rockstar, Guerrilla Games and Playfish.
While all of them were successful, however, they all felt they had spotted an opportunity: mobile gaming. “Frankly, we thought it wasn’t being given the respect it deserved,” says Kristian Segerstrale, the company’s COO and executive director. “It looked like something we could do well.”
Although iOS was already starting to pick up momentum as a gaming platform in 2012, it wasn’t yet the giant that it is today. Leaving high-profile jobs in the console-gaming world for the backwaters of mobile was a bit like Tim Cook quitting Apple and spending his severance money on lottery tickets. In other words, for a lot of people it was a risk that wasn’t worth taking.
But not everyone felt this way.
“We had a lot of friends working in the industry who we really thought we could bring on board with the right pitch,” Segerstrale says. “These were people I wanted to work shoulder-to-shoulder with in the trenches, battling the odds. Our aim was to build the best team possible — whether that’s coders, animation experts, whatever. We didn’t want to build the infantry; we wanted to build a commando unit.”
The name Super Evil Megacorp started out as a joke when names were being flung about, but quickly registered as the right choice. “It’s a great name,” says co-founder and CEO Bo Daly. Over time, the name took on added significance as a symbol of what the four co-founders wanted to achieve.
“With console gaming you’re in an environment where hundreds of people are working on a single project,” says Segerstrale. “In that situation a talented developer can easily get lost in the shuffle and end up feeling like they don’t have a creative voice. We wanted our company to be different. We wanted it to be a place that was built around top talent who could get their ideas out there to the world.”
The idea behind Vainglory came from the team noticing a lack of compelling multiplayer online battle arena titles available for iOS. These are the so-called core games, which appeal to hardcore gamers willing to invest serious time and effort into a title, rather than going for the instant gratification of a quick play.
“There was this crazy idea that core gamers would never play something on mobile,” Segerstrale says. “I knew that wasn’t true. Like everyone else, all the core gamers I know have smartphones of some sort. Yes, they’ll play games on PCs but what about the times of day when they’re out and about? We all strongly believed that core gamers will play games wherever there’s great content. That was our mission.”
“We set out to create an unapologetically core game that was perfected for touch,” says Daly. “It was about re-imagining every element of a competitive multiplayer battle arena to work for iOS devices. That meant thinking about everything from the map layout to the hero abilities: everything finely tuned to create an experience that would come to life on touchscreens.”
“There was this crazy idea that core gamers would never play something on mobile.”
The team talked constantly about building the kind of thousand-hour titles that would surprise players even years down the line.
Super Evil Megacorp first came to the attention of Apple when its proprietary E.V.I.L. engine proved capable of pushing more polygons about onscreen than any other developer on the iOS platform. Apple’s developer-relations team members were suitably impressed, and fed this information back to their superiors. When Apple announced Metal, its dream tool for game developers, the Super Evil team was determined to push the platform to its limits.
“At its core, Metal is a means of letting your game talk to the underlying graphics technology on iOS in a more efficient way,” Daly says. “It gives you very, very direct access to the hardware. The result is Apple continuing to blur the line between what you can achieve on mobile and what can be achieved on a dedicated games console.”
The resulting game squeezes 1.3 million polygons onto the screen, all running at a stonking 60fps. Apple again took note of the progress Super Evil Megacorp was making, and when came time to put together plans for the iPhone unveiling, the developers got a message from Cupertino.
“We’re still a small company, so I’d be lying if I said that this was just something we took in our stride,” says Segerstrale. “It was certainly something that made us focus even more. It was an incredible honor. We knew that this was our opportunity to shine, and we wanted to grab it with both hands.”
The co-founders say adrenaline was in full effect in the days and weeks leading up to the keynote, but that fortunately no last-minute mishaps occurred. Krul and Stephan Sherman were chosen to appear onstage, although it was hands-on for all involved.
“I think it was a testament to everyone on the team’s hard work that there wasn’t a last-minute rush,” Segerstrale says. “The keynote demo was set up days in advance, which meant that there was no tinkering on the day. There was testing and testing and testing again, but all of the real challenges had been solved ahead of time. It was just a question of delivering a great presentation, and I’m so proud that Tommy and Stephan did exactly that.”
So, what are Segerstrale’s thoughts on Krul’s unexpected celebrity following the event?
“If we had planned that out, I’d be a marketing genius and would happily take full credit for it,” Segerstrale laughs. “As it was, there was nothing meaningful about it. Tommy just really, really likes his scarves. I remain hopeful, however, that when we look back on this event in the years to come, Scarfgate will be lost to the annals of history.
“But Vainglory won’t.”