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The forgotten MOBA

Vorp failed its first time around.

"We had originally put this on Facebook thinking, like everybody does, unfortunately, 'Oh, yeah! You put it on Facebook and it'll kind of grow organically," Ryan Seabury, End Games Entertainment's chief creative officer, told Polygon in a recent interview

"Well, no, not at all, actually."

Since it went live almost two years ago, Seabury said that about 100,000 people have played the multiplayer online battle arena, but that number represents a "trickle" of players dipping in and out of the game, he said. The experiment of developing a game in real-time with player input had merit, Seabury said, but had failed to find an audience. The cost of maintaining End Games' experiment didn't work out, and the studio moved on to other projects..

But Vorp got a second chance. This week, it leaves beta at its new home on Kongregate, the GameStop-owned free online gaming service, and the path between the ideals that created the game and Vorp's second chance was anything but assured or straightforward.

"Our whole development process for this was pretty unique."

End Games formed from burnout at massively multiplayer online role-playing game developer NetDevil. Seabury and Scott Brown founded the studio after developing several MMOs at NetDevil. The last project they worked on, Lego Universe, launched in October 2010 after five years of fatigued development. Less than a year later, not long after Gazillion Entertainment acquired NetDevil, they departed to form their own studio and develop games using a guiding philosophy that stands in stark contrast with the protracted development cycle they'd spent a decade working in.

End Games' core philosophy is to develop and release games quickly and iterate on the published product with the support of players. Vorp was the quintessential example of this new paradigm.

"Our whole development process for this was pretty unique," Seabury said. "We pretty much put it out there as soon as we had a functional alpha."

Going from no code to publication took about three months, and Vorp, which has grown into a full-featured MOBA with several maps and over a dozen ships, began as a simple level with a single ship that fought endless waves of AI enemies.

"And we just started building out the game from there," he said. "We just threw it out in public. We thought we'd basically take our development process and turn it on end from what we'd done with MMOs where you keep everything behind closed doors for five years and then put it out there.

"Instead, we were like, 'Let's put people in there at the earliest possible point, get feedback from the very beginning on the most basic things, [like] is it even fun to fly and move?'"

That real-time development allowed End Games to receive and react to feedback. In the wake of its Facebook release, the developer iterated on Vorp's most basic features. For example, the developers learned that it confused players because played so much like Dota. People who were used to click-and-move positioning struggled to control the near perpetual motion of Vorp's space ships. In subsequent title updates, End Games modified the game's controls, maps and objectives to support its locomotion. Single towers became sets of towers. Inspired by Star Wars' trench run sequence, End Games redesigned matches to focus on speed runs into the enemy's base.

And yet, for all this work, Vorp failed to gain traction. Looking back, Seabury identified several problems with the experiment. First, Facebook's API was unwieldy, and the social media giant wasn't eager to offer its support to help the game get discovered. But the root cause may be Facebook's very nature.

"When you go to Facebook, you're not in the 'play game' mode."

"When you go to Facebook, you're not in the 'play game' mode."

"We started thinking more about the psychology," Seabury said. "When you go to Facebook, you're not in the 'play game' mode. You are actually trying to catch up on what your friends are doing and share stuff in a much more social context."

Seabury's postmortem concludes that Facebook was the wrong platform for the game.

"Facebook integration makes sense, in the sense of sharing achievements and progress and letting people know that you're into a particular game," he said. "But for the kind of game that Vorp is, it's not the right place to live."

After Vorp's apparent failure, End Games moved on to other projects that play the bills, many of them work-for-hire games that leveraged its development experience but often felt creatively bankrupt. It was being paid to realize someone else's vision, not create its own. The studio produced about a dozen of these projects in the last year alone.

Not long ago, a representative from Kongregate called the studio to talk about giving Vorp a second chance. They were interested in bringing a MOBA to the platform, and End Games accepted the offer.

The transition was relatively painless, with stripping the Facebook hooks out of the code posing the biggest challenge. Over the last few months, Vorp has been in beta on Kongregate, and the developer's real-time development strategy remains in effect.

As always, when End Games comes up with a new idea, they implement it as quickly as possible. No more developing for five years and releasing a game that it hopes people will enjoy. End Games remains small and agile by design, ready and willing to change the game as soon as it has a good reason to.

"You're just wasting time if you have an idea that just doesn't resonate with anybody."

Vorp's Diablo-esque collection mechanic, which sees players gather loot after destroying enemies, came to the game quickly and revolutionized its gameplay.

"We love the process we've come to now," he said. But it's about more than just the studio's preferred style of development. Creating a game in real-time helps players, too, by delivering a product they enjoy playing.

"Either [players are] going to like the core idea or they're not, and it doesn't matter how many hundreds of features you pile on top of the core idea if people don't like the core idea," he said. "So you're just wasting time if you have an idea that just doesn't resonate with anybody."

That willingness to change cuts both ways and affects its games in the macro and micro. It's not just about adding things, either. End Games is perfectly willing to remove features that don't work.

Being in constant development mode also poses challenges because it sets an expectation. The developers are active members of the Vorp community, often teaming up to play public matches with players, who have grown accustomed to the game's constant updates. But when those updates aren't as frequent, some users worry, a lesson End Games learned this past Thanksgiving.

"We had been working on it a ton over the last three months," he said. "So we kind of stepped away from it a bit, especially during Thanksgiving week. It's funny how quickly the perception of 'Oh, they just don't care about this game anymore!' [grew] because we just weren't there for a week."

The challenges of interacting with and satisfying its community are what that the studio is designed to meet. As the game leaves beta, the studio will create a blank slate, immortalizing the best beta players as "pre-season" champions and welcoming everyone into the fold with Kongregate's help. End Games will still be an active part of the community, there to play, listen and help the newcomers it hopes to attract.

And, of course, there are will be new features designed to help veterans and newbies alike. Following League of Legends' lead, End Games recently added an item shop where players can buy bundles of ships they'd otherwise have to earn in battle. The developer also keeps the experience more casual and, it hopes, approachable by limiting match length. End Games measures every feature it adds against its desire to create 20-minute matches, rather than the typical 45-minute match you'd find in MOBAs like League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth and Dota.

Vorp died on Facebook in 2011, but it has arisen in a community where people go to play games. It's in a far better position than it even its developers thought it could be, and that gives End Games hope for its ideal of real-time development. Perhaps this time it won't fade into obscurity. Either way, Seabury and End Games are up for the challenge.

"Either we're going to do this and it works, or well move on to whatever's next."