The MOBA is a genre that just has not quite agreed with mobile, despite it taking off in this age of free-to-play. Developers and publishers have tried valiantly to make the genre work on mobile, with pretty much no success so far.
Heroes of Order and Chaos by Gameloft might be the most successful, if only because it is still being updated by them, but it’s never ranked all that high. And Fates Forever, from OpenFeint co-founder Jason Citron, has made practically no money. Now, DeNA has teamed up with Phosphor Games, creators of Horn and Dark Meadow, to try and make the genre mobile-friendly.
In this case, by making it a 2D platformer, much like Awesomenauts. Meet WARP: Warriors of the Red Planet, which is currently in a soft launch and open beta. The game is showing promise, but whether it can make money remains to be seen.
WARP doesn’t deviate too far from the MOBA formula. It’s about 3-on-3 combat, where players take their team, with spawning bot minions, up against enemy reinforcements. Levels follow the three-lane structure of most MOBAs, with towers on both top and bottom, and creatures that can be farmed for gold and experience in the middle, used to buy new items at base and to upgrade the character-specific abilities. Towers stand in the way, which will do massive damage to the player, so using the bots that spawn for each team as shields is key, and destroying other bots is also important.
But the real key to victory may just be killing other player characters. This is always important when trying to win in a MOBA, but in this game especially so, since it’s meant to be somewhat quick. Matches are meant to last about 10-15 minutes, and respawn times increase rapidly over time. Late-game deaths may just mean one team getting an insurmountable advantage, or turning the tables on a sure defeat if played properly.
WARP doubtlessly owes a heavy debt to Awesomenauts, the 2D platformer MOBA on PC. Of course, this is in large part due to the fact that the MOBA genre follows a pretty specific set of standards, and any game that hops in the genre will likely resemble its predecessors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and WARP’s speedier pace does have an impact on how matches will go.
The game starts with a character selection process where one person at a time picks a character, either locking in their selection, or choosing to pass until others have picked. Right now there are no bots, so it’s all matches against humans. There’s no voice chat, so either friends will need to team up with each other and chat via Skype or some other outside channel, or just try and follow best practices while playing.
Controls-wise, the game doesn’t make much in the way of concessions. The buttons include left/right movement arrows, a drop down button, and a ‘recall to base’ button on the left side. On the right side is a jump button, surrounded by the three abilities. Characters’ primary weapons auto-fire at nearby enemies, with it being possible to tap on an enemy to specifically target them. The target reticule will turn from gray to orange once in range, which is all just a rather intuitive system.
The thing about WARP is that while it is designed for mobile devices, it’s also not really holding back for them. The game is planned for PC release as well, and I imagine that the game will attract an audience there, because there’s nothing really dumbed down here. Outside of the swifter pace this is a full-fledged experience, just one that can be played on mobile. The characters are all meant to play their own roles strategically. There’s just the one map, but that’s standard for MOBA games (Awesomenats is actually the exception here). The controls are touch-screen friendly, but they’ll feel like a natural fit with keyboard and mouse, and may even work on gamepads as well, if the auto-targeting can be worked out. There’s definitely strategies to work on here, relationships between characters to consider, and plenty of intense “just got away” moments that make the genre so exciting to play. Right now in the beta, WARP gets a lot right.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of players on yet – I had to play when the developers were online to get multiplayer matches in – but there is at least a practice mode that allows players to level up individual characters’ meta-statistics in order to get new items for their loadouts, and to engage in various scenarios. There’s no energy system or anything for matches; just jump in and play. There’s also a helpful tutorial that explains how the game works and how it plays, but it’s not overly-long, and it can be skipped for those who know what they’re doing. Too many other mobile MOBAs have lengthy tutorials, which are necessary for newcomers, but sometimes people who know what they’re doing just need to jump in and learn.
The game is free-to-play, but it takes a different tack than something like Fates Forever, which just sold character unlocks. All the characters in WARP, at least in the beta, are immediately available. There’s a currency called Mars Opal, which can be used to buy new loadout slots for characters, to help craft new items for each character’s loadout (including passive abilities), and to buy more skins. I’m curious how much money this game makes, because in the beta, it’s easy to just ignore it all and just play. But those who really get into the game will likely be the ones who dive into all of this.
And while one of the issues with online games on mobile is that mobile devices are prone to lose signal, jump from LTE to wi-fi, and whatnot, Phosphor Games have cleverly addressed this problem by making it possible to jump back into a game as if nothing happened. Your character will run back to the base automatically once you drop out of a game, and once you jump back in, you’ll start back from the base in the middle of the match. It worked perfectly every time I tried it out, and it’s a great solution to a common problem. I played over LTE and the game had no lag issues or otherwise.
Players can sign up to the beta right now if they wish, and the game is available in several countries on Google Play. Certainly, I’m curious to see what happens when this game rolls out worldwide and the general public plays – will the matches be fun with a casual userbase? Will people flock to this game? And can it be the first MOBA to really succeed on mobile?