I'm a big baby, that's my problem. Whenever I try to dip more than a toe into one of the major multiplayer games of the day—your Overwatches, your Dotas, your Leagues of Legend—I invariably have some terrible interaction that puts me off it. Like a high school PE lesson, eventually someone who takes the game a lot more seriously than I do will get very, very upset by my lack of skill and run me out of town in a blur of insults and flop sweat. It's a phenomenon that Vela Games—founded by a band of Riot, Blizzard, and EA long-timers—is more than familiar with, and it's one the studio is doing its best to scrub from its debut game, Evercore Heroes.
"We have a low tolerance for people being awful," says Vela CEO and co-founder Travis George, who used to work as product lead on League of Legends, "and we just want to uphold that at every touchpoint we can." That philosophy shines through: although my brain shouts 'MOBA' the second I lay eyes on the game, it becomes rapidly apparent that Evercore Heroes differs from LoL or Dota in a few deliberate and crucial ways.
For one thing, you're not going up against another team, at least not directly. After you and three teammates have picked your characters—from a roster of heroes that can be divided into tanks, DPS, and support, because some things are eternal—you're dropped onto a map to face off against, well, NPCs. Whether big or small, boss or minion, your enemies are all AI and blissfully devoid of opinions on your playing ability. There's no human opponent in sight, because your human competitors (made up of four teams of four players each) are all on their own maps, identical to yours, facing off against equally identical swarms of AI-controlled adversaries and bosses. You can't even pop into chat to offer your rivals helpful tips or denigrate their ancestors: communication is strictly intra-team.
The gameplay loop isn't hard to grasp. You have two goals: defend your team's evercore crystal (your ancient, to all intents and purposes) from NPC attackers, and beat the end boss before the other teams. The end boss fight starts simultaneously for everyone, but before it does you're empowering your own team throughout a match's phases by fighting monsters, levelling up your selected hero's four abilities, and accruing gold to buy 'shards' that grant you advantages in the shape of damage buffs, defence boosts, and so on. Gold and experience is shared across the whole team, too, so no one gets left behind.
Your opponents can't be directly affected. They're just wisps on your map, their position and progress tracked via the game's HUD, eternally out of physical reach. You can, however, screw with them by achieving particular goals in each phase. In the match I saw, a rival team achieved a phase objective first, so the players we were spectating had to fight an elite enemy while their enemies went on their merry way, building their power for the final fight. Even in that last boss fight, a challenge popped up—be the first to seize a few control points—that rewarded the victor with a damage bonus. It's this back-and-forth, a constant trade of buffs and debuffs, that replaces the straight-up, no-frills murder of more standard PvP fare.
"In traditional PvP games, there is this aspect of, 'I have to end your fun as part of my fun,'" says George. "There's two aspects: 'How well do we work together as a team?' and 'How well do we get in the other team's way?'" Vela reckons it's that second part, taking other players out of the game, ending their fun, which so often breeds toxicity. It doesn't matter how good a PvP player you are, George points out, "If somebody's just got your number, or you're just having a bad day […] it ends your fun, it compounds your frustration." So Vela switched things up. "There's still competition," George assures me, but "you can't 'end' that game, you don't have that 'domination' aspect of it."
"In Evercore Heroes, the focus is much more on 'work together as a team to outplay other teams.'" So indirect competition, racing to beat bosses before your enemies, takes the place of head-to-head battling. Multiplayer? Yes. Online? Absolutely. Battle arena? Not so much, unless you count the NPCs.
With friends like these
Even if you're not frustrated by griefers on the other team, there's still your allies to consider. Anyone who's ever dropped into a team-based game with strangers will be painfully aware that there's usually two outcomes: either everyone goes off and does their own thing (and you lose), or the team isn't effective because someone's skills aren't up to snuff (and you lose). Either way, it's only a matter of time before someone halfway around the world is castigating you for your incompetence, laziness, moral weakness, and lack of frontier spirit.
"We're not gonna fix player behaviour on the internet. We're not signing up for that,' says George, probably wisely, but the team has thought about it a lot. After all, while they want to cut out "raging strangers" they're also keen on getting players socialising. It's here that Brian Kaiser, another co-founder—formerly of EA and currently heading up Evercore's narrative—chimes in: "There's opportunities to think about matchmaking in deeper ways than we have traditionally," he says, noting that it's not just players' skill levels, but their motivations that determine how well a team coheres. "If you do want to get in and [...] try a new character and you're just starting out, can we connect you with people that have very similar motivations?" Vela hasn't shown off how they're doing this yet, but I'm interested to see how, and if, they pull it off.
It certainly makes sense to try. George points out that, in any game like this, "There are times when it's like, 'Hey I wanna play and have fun and try some new stuff,'" and it's important to cater to that, too. Most of my own unpleasant multiplayer experiences have ultimately boiled down to a mismatch between my expectations and those of my teammates. Even if matchmaking puts me on a team that was on my (lack of) skill level, it can easily become a disaster if they're all dead-set on winning the match while I just want to take a new hero for a spin, or vice versa. Ironing out those kinds of motivational disparities could make a big difference.
Besides, Vela is pretty confident everyone will have a lot of learning to do once Evercore Heroes launches. Kaiser tells me that, while "a lot of familiar elements that draw inspirations from different games" are recognisable in the game's DNA, mastering it isn't a question of transferring over your knowledge from League or Dota. "You can't run the old playbook," he grins.
Gigaturtles, all the way down
Evercore Heroes has a bunch of maps spread across five biomes. Vela showed off four of those biomes during the demo, and they're pretty much what you'd expect: you've got forests, you've got tundra, you've got jungles, and so on and so forth. Also, and you can tell this part is important because it's written in capital letters and underlined three times in my notes, one of them rests atop something called a gigaturtle. So I'm sold.
The game's premise is that certain parts of its world are "subject to violent surges of chaotic magical energy," says Kaiser, but the people in them keep that energy at bay with evercore crystals. When the forces of chaos get their act together to lay siege to those crystals, people have to turn to the game's heroes to defend them. So far, only eight of those heroes have been revealed, but Vela's third co-founder, Lisa Newon George, promises that plenty more are yet to come.
Vela has made sure to cover a gamut of playstyles with its first batch of heroes. There's a zippy assassin, a long-range archer, an AOE guy, a single-target guy, and someone who is essentially a bipedal wall, among others. Each one has a set of four abilities plus an array of three 'talent slots'. The abilities are easy to understand: you use them in combat to harm or heal and power them up over the course of a match, but talents are a longer-term affair. As you spend more time with each hero, you work your way up what is, in essence, a skill tree. The talents you unlock can modify stats, change up your abilities, or even create new in-game goals for your hero. But you can only have three of them active at a time, so while you can nudge your chosen character towards a certain playstyle with your talent choices, you aren't going to fundamentally overhaul them.
Unless you're talking about cosmetic overhauls, that is. Evercore Heroes is free-to-play, and Vela is opting for a seasonal structure when the game releases. Those seasons will introduce tweaks to heroes, new monsters, additional regions, and, of course, cosmetic updates. The team promises that new gameplay content, like new maps, biomes, and enemies, will be free for everyone. They didn't show off any cosmetics, but if I know anything about big online multiplayer releases, it's that the hats are never far behind.
Newon George deals with Evercore Heroes' 'player content', and regularly emphasises the role that player feedback has played in the game's development. Beko, a support class hero and, more importantly, a cute little guy with a big stick and a lamp, is an example of that. "Together with the community, we co-created this design," says Newon George of Beko's appearance, but when I spoke to her, she was eager to note all the other ways players have gotten involved with Evercore Heroes' development, too.
"We've had, I think, upwards of a thousand different players playtest the game in various different formats," she says, noting that Vela has sought out playtesters of every skill level. They've had "advanced core gamers" (a title I'm adding to my business card) opine on "characters, objectives" and "overall meta", while also getting "brand new players" to "give us feedback on general impressions: where the pain points are, where the fun lies". The result is a game shaped by a "wider cross-section of different experiences". CEO Travis George added that the team had adopted changes "against even our own personal taste" as a result of player feedback.
You'll be able to take part in that playtesting yourself soon enough. Vela is inviting the curious to sign up for a playtesting event taking place between October 13 and 16 via the game's website and Discord, with Discord participants having a better chance of being selected. If you don't get in, you can track its progress on Vela's Twitter and YouTube pages. Oh, and if you see me in there, be nice.