The enduring success of the weirdest MOBA, and why online games may never die again

The enduring success of the weirdest MOBA, and why online games may never die again

Can you see the fire in their eyes so bright? Their weapons burst, their iron will so strong! And awesome! Together as a team we’ll surely win the fight! They're Invincible! This must be the place where we belong!The amazing Awesomenauts theme song.

Over a year and a half ago, Ronimo Games released a great little title called Awesomenauts onto Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network. Long before the MOBA genre had been saturated with LoL-alikes and me-too wannabe hits, Awesomenauts was already taking the genre in a wildly new direction. It reinterpreted the MOBA format as a competitive 2D platformer.

But regardless of how unique it was, it’s doubtful anybody expected this game to survive more than a couple months, a common fate for small-scale indie multiplayer games. But through the tireless efforts of the game’s developer and the devotion of the community, this game hasn’t gone anywhere.

We wrote earlier this week about Gun Monkeys and the developer’s struggles to maintain an active online community even for a successful game. That’s not a problem Awesomenauts has ever faced, as this small 12-person indie team has managed to keep this game fresh and vibrant for over 18 months.

Even more impressive, the game isn’t just surviving, but it now appears to be flourishing as it's getting a new PlayStation 4 port, and a newly launched Kickstarter for a DLC pack has raked in over $150,000 in a matter of days. We spoke with the co-founder of Ronimo Games, Jasper Koning, about how Awesomenauts has thrived, and why online games may never have to die again.

We can blaze a path across the atmosphere!

Awesomenauts is MOBA much like any other you’ve probably played. Players from both teams battle to destroy the enemy’s base by killing foes, leveling up, and taking down defensive turrets. The core of the game will be familiar to anybody who has played League of Legends or Dota 2.

This is actually a big part of Awesomenauts’ continued success. When it launched, League of Legends was a big hit, but it wasn’t what it is today. Koning said that about 30% of the people he’d talked to about Awesomenauts had played LoL at the time. Today basically everyone is familiar with MOBAs, and knows the basics of playing one. Concepts like avoiding death and farming NPC enemies are now fairly common knowledge.

Koning said that this has helped players come right into Awesomenauts and appreciate the game immediately. Rather than some players misunderstanding how the game is meant to be played, and having a bad time as a result, League of Legends and Dota 2 have educated the gaming public on how to enjoy this style of game. With that said, there’s plenty to set Awesomenauts apart from the pack.

“I think Awesomenauts is easily one of the most identifiable and different MOBAs out there,” Koning said. “There’s a ton of similarly-styled games. For the unacquainted it’s hard to tell them apart. And our play style is so different.”

Powers breaking loose! The way to Victory is clear!

They may not look like it at first blush, but League of Legends and Dota 2 are very much strategy games. Characters are quite slow, and it takes a long time to traverse the map, which makes positioning, forethought, and map control extremely important.

Awesomenauts is sort of the opposite in this regard. Strategy is obviously still important, but the 2D platformer gameplay makes this a much more twitch-based, fast-paced game.

“In a top-down game like League of Legends the gameplay comes almost exclusively out of combat,” said Koning. “So we wanted to add an extra layer of stuff people could be good at. Switching between lanes in our game is super fast whereas in Dota or LoL…it takes a long time. It adds a lot more emphasis on twitch-based skills on top of being able to make a solid character build.”

The uniqueness of the game has earned Awesomenauts a devoted fan base that makes up for its small numbers in zealous vigor. By coincidence, a few hours after I spoke with Koning, I chatted with David Laskey, lead programmer of indie co-op game Tetrapulse who couldn’t stop himself from raving about Awesomenauts.

“On the surface it’s kind of a goofy game where you punch stuff and hit things with your tongue, and it’s just this ridiculous game,” said Laskey. “But the amount of depth that you can pull from Awesomenauts had me keep coming back and constantly trying new builds.

“It put a new spin on the MOBA that I could really relate to, and everyone on our team jumped all over it,” Laskey continued. “We just love the hell out of Awesomenauts. And it’s also about the huge cast of characters and the continued support.”

That last part is particularly important. Even as a small indie team, Ronimo has persistently supported Awesomenauts throughout the many months of its lifespan, constantly releasing new characters to the point that its roster is now more than double what it launched with in May 2012.

It's rare that a week goes by where Koning’s name doesn’t show up in my inbox as he tells the gaming press about some new feature or character that’s coming to Awesomenauts.

But now, inevitably, the game needs a boost in order to keep going. Rather than doling out small free updates, Ronimo has opted for a large-scale Kickstarter DLC project called Awesomenauts: Starstorm which introduces three new characters, new game modes, and other features. Having built a hardcore community for 18 months, Ronimo is now reaping the rewards as their fans funded the project in just a few days, with cash still piling up.

Mercenaries join the fight! Take it star by star! Charge your weapons, hold on tight! Victory's in sight, it's time for war!

The idea to use Kickstarter as a means to jolt new life into an online game is an interesting one, and it provides an opportunity for a game’s fans to take direct control over their game’s fate.

“It’s been a great experience for us,” said Koning, who noted that many of the features promised in Starstorm would be a huge risk if they had to fund them out of pocket, then hope the fans bought in after release. “We wouldn’t know until hindsight whether or not it was financially viable. A lot of games have passionate communities that could have saved games that were closed.”

It’s tough not to think about games like Star Wars Galaxies that were shut down, but had devoted followings until their final hours. Their developers could no longer justify the expense and risk of continuing to run the game, but maybe it could have found new life if the hardcore fans were given the option to pay extra to ensure additions would be profitable.

Much as it did when it first launched in the MOBA genre, Awesomenauts is bringing some great ideas to an already established formula.