E3 2013: Hands-on with Zynga's Solstice Arena MOBA

E3 Solstice Arena EMBARGO
I wasn't sure what to expect from Solstice Arena when I walked into Zynga/A Bit Lucky's meeting room. I'd heard about the whole "speed MOBA" thing, but I love playing as Nasus in League of Legends, so having no mobs was a bit conflicting. The game's also only being released on the iPhone and iPad, and I use an Android smartphone and a tablet running on Windows 8. But I wasn't worried. Fredrick Descamps and Jordan Maynard, co-founders (and former Trion members) of A Bit Lucky , were on hand to share their vision, but truthfully, the hands-on time won me over.

From the start, I was told this game was supposed to have double Fs: free and fair. If you lay down cash, it's for cosmetics or oracles. You have to actually play the game to get levels. Several talking points were made that we've all heard before: The team has people who are former competitive gamers, including former RIFT team members; each game averages between eight to nine minutes long; and it's supposed to appeal to hardcores and newcomers. However, once I got my hands on the game, I felt it was more than just something we've seen a half-dozen times before. Descamps and Maynard spent some time with the game details, but the game honestly was intuitive and spoke for itself. Yes, there are great visual slides that help new players. However, just starting the game, I felt I had an idea of what to do already: go forward and kill.

E3 Hands on with Zynga's Solstice Arena MOBA
I've done ARAM in LoL and never really felt comfortable with it, but in Solstice Arena it just clicked. The middle isn't just sitting there waiting for people to fight or go to a tower; there's a chest. Chests mean treasure, and that means I need to kill anyone who tries to get between me and it. Once people were dead, I selfishly tried to open the chest for myself. One of my NPC team members jumped on it too and we opened the chest a bit faster. The game's only 3-on-3, but the rewards are for everyone. As in other MOBAs, money is used for items, and for newbies like me, there's an auto-buy feature (you sadly can't program a custom auto-buy list, but that may come later down the line).

Now, while there is only one "lane" and no mobs, you still have some things to consider. There's no place to hide on the map from what I saw, but there's a river in the center that slows you down. You can opt to go a bit more slowly to take a shortcut or stick with the bridges and possibly go a bit slower. Scattered around the landscape are various stat-boosting effects that must be channeled to utilize, much like opening the chests. Towers also stop firing when the entire opposing team is dead, so you can still tower dive, but you can also try to lure the other team away from the tower, take them out, and then move forward to hit the tower unmolested. Yes, this latter option is usually what mobs are for, but I think SA's solution is elegant and helps keep the focus on the players rather than the AI.

At the end of the match, players get achievements and bonuses (i.e., if you bought something that healed team members during the match, you'll get a bonus). While fighting against easy mobs did give me coins, I was told the currency scales with difficulty, so harder AI enemies are worth more, and players are worth the most. End-of-game bonuses grant you coins to use to buy oracles (your heroes), which work a bit differently than in other MOBAs. Each oracle levels up, and as it levels, you get skill points to modify its moves.

For example, a knockback move i had could have its damage, range, or knockback distance increased. You're limited on how far you can go down each path, but those who commit to one path can actually change their move (for example, the final talent for a damaging move may add a stun to it). Characters have their own levels, but even if you're playing a free oracle that gets rotated out, you'll retain how you specialized that character the next time it's available.

The oracles and skins are quite fun too. There will be a new skin released every week and a new oracle every two weeks. If you watch the trailer closely, you'll see a teddy bear fighting. This character will be downloaded when you first install the game, but he won't be released till later, so consider this a preview! Also, in addition to some fun skins, it seemed like every character also could have a "big head" model, which reminded me of some of the games I played as a kid that also had this option.

E3 Hands on with Zynga's Solstice Arena MOBA
Now, even though I know a bit about MOBAs, I'm no expert. I have trouble with skill shots, I get kited into towers -- the usual stuff. And let's be honest, certain communities are lacking in social graces. For this reason, in-game matches do not have chat enabled. The game uses a smart pinging system, so clicking an ally that is low on health will announce that that player should be healed, while pinging on an enemy will indicate that you should focus fire. Again, another elegant solution, which shouldn't surprise me knowing this team's history. The meanest thing you could do is not hit the "gg" button at the end of the match, which one NPC mob didn't do for about two minutes after his butt got kicked. I forgive him though since it may have been a small bug. Or maybe his AI feelings were hurt.

Still, I thought I'd be safe. Like I said, the game's for iOS systems, but one thing that's currently being used in-house is a multi-platform server. That is, iOS products, Androids, PCs, and other tablets can all internally run Solstice Arena, play with each other cross-platform, and transfer stats between devices. The team has run metrics to see if any device holds an advantage over the others, but any leads were statistically insignificant. Though some people felt certain oracles were easier to use on different devices. Again, this won't be available for release, but it's something that's already working internally, to the point that the company brought photographic evidence of one of its tournaments where this occurred.

Solstice Arena should be out... now. Like, literally now. We couldn't print this till the game was released, so those who are trying to introduce a friend to MOBAs or want to get through matches in much less than an hour may want to look at getting SA for their iProduct.

Massively's on the ground in Los Angeles during the week of June 10-13, bringing you all the best news from E3 2013. We're covering everything from WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online and ArcheAge to FFXIV's inbound revamp and TERA's latest update, so stay tuned!
This article was originally published on Massively.