To accomplish this ideal of deep, competitive play on a phone, Lee and his studio Smilu are keeping the game simple. ICON: Arena is a sport in which you catch and shoot a ball to attempt to pass an opponent's goal. It closely resembles Pong-style games, but the inspiration is more specific.
"We built this game off of a game from the early mid 90s called Windjammers," Lee says. WindJammers was released in 1994 for the Neo Geo, and added multiple characters with various attributes and special abilities to the basic Pong-style gameplay. That inspiration combines with a bit of League of Legends – Lee worked at Riot in production, after being hired on as head of recruitment – resulting in a set of "champions" players will control.
However, unlike League of Legends, they won't be sold individually. "I don't believe in that model for a head-to-head game," Lee says. Instead, champions will be given away for free.
ICON: Arena is designed in Smilu's own cross-platform environment, allowing players on Windows and iOS to play with each other. The interface is intended to confer no advantages to players using any type of controller. "It's designed for mobile interfaces to be competitive with keyboards and controllers," Lee notes. The Smilu environment will be available for free to developers of Smilu's choosing at a later date.
The cross-platform play makes the idea of an eSports-like mobile game even crazier, considering that a PC is about as different an environment as one could get from a phone. But Lee can't help but conjure eSports-like talk when referring back to play tests: "When you get into game 30 and 40, the game becomes markedly different. It can be a position battle, it can be an ability spam battle ... it can be a battle of attrition."