The rise and fall of Super Monday Night Combat helped make me better

torygorilla

I don’t think many will mourn the death of Super Monday Night Combat. Uber Entertainment’s free-to-play follow-up to XBLA smash Monday Night Combat was something of a hidden gem, albeit one with its die-hard fans. It still sits at the top of my Steam most-played list, and I promise this piece isn’t just an excuse for dumping over a thousand hours in a game few people bothered to look at.

The fact is, the writing was already on the wall back in 2013. Servers might have kept running for another five years, but concurrent players have struggled to break double digits in all that time. Uber Entertainment cite the recent GDPR ruling from the European Union in finally killing off SMNC, but it feels like Kirkland studio shut the door on the game a half-decade ago – and only now remembered to turn off the lights. Nobody’s mourning, because we all moved on years ago.

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The Monday Night Combat games sat at a crossroads between Dota-likes and multiplayer shooters. Back then, both genres were hotly contested spaces. With specialised classes and vivid colours, there was a lot of comparison to Team Fortress 2 flying around MNC. But while it wouldn’t come out for another five years, MNC shares a lot more DNA with Overwatch. Even setting aside Uber and Blizzard’s shared a love of tanky gorillas with Tory accents, Monday Night Combat smashed hero abilities onto hectic gunplay years before Blizzard took their shot.

Super Monday Night Combat ramped up the MOBA parts of its predecessor, and made things free to play. Heroes (or “Pros” in the game’s parlance) rotated weekly, with meta-layers of stat boosts and game-changing buffs. Pushing lanes and gaining levels became far more important, and with the presence of environmental hazards and lucrative jungle mobs, map control was vital. It had the fast-paced action of a first-person-shooter, with the strategy and synergy of Dota – all within the manic wrappings of a dystopian bloodsport.

But the best of both worlds came with the worst of both worlds. FPS fans found it sluggish and confusing, while limited heroes, abilities, and a lack of items meant the breadth of options in play didn’t come close to that of a Dota or League of Legends. Concurrent player figures peaked at just above 1200 back in 2012, and from then on the game was in a slow, painful decline. Being an online game, there were inevitably nasty elements and moments of tedious drama in SMNC’s multiplayer scene, but its smallness also made for a vibrant, passionate community, determined to keep the game running as long as possible.

* * *

Somewhere in The Netherlands, south of Amersfoort, an American and I are sitting around a kitchen table. Late at night, we’re playing by lamplight and laptop glow. The building itself is open-air, which is a nice way of saying a couple of walls are missing, and we have enough power sockets for a small lamp and our machines. The shadow of a mouse darts across the floor every few minutes. Our volunteer shifts are over, there’s internet, a bunch of folk have logged into Mumble. This is my experience of Super Monday Night Combat at its purest.

My teens were defined by online communities. Awkward early years were spent buried deep in (frankly, disastrous) Garry’s Mod servers. I’ve written about the ways World of Warcraft guilds were a playground for exploring my identity. Where the support of scheming elves (more so the scandinavians behind them) helped me come to terms with my queerness. Where I felt the real world had failed me, online spaces became my home.

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Super Monday Night Combat was the last time I went all-in on a community like this. It sat in something of a transitionary period, between those painful teenage years and what would become a more defined adulthood. Playing SMNC at its peak was about bouncing between Mumble channels for homebrew tournaments, delving deep into scraps of lore in buried corners of the forums, and spontaneous duelling to prove that, yeah, I’m better at this Pro than you.

It was about drinking through community calls, where players gave tours of their garage through grainy webcams. There was also a nonsensical amount of bullshit – typical internet arguments, subfactions within subfactions of players. Looking back at your own forum posts from six years ago isn’t a punishment I’d wish on anyone. But when I remember SMNC, I remember this communal spirit. Doomed optimism for a doomed game.

* * *

Super Monday Night Combat didn’t die quickly. Player counts began to slip soon after the game came out of beta. The addition of TF2 hats, new game modes and Pros, and positive critical reception stemmed the bleeding for a while. But marketing was poor, the on-boarding was rough, and the overlapping segment on the venn diagram of shooter and MOBA fans weren’t convinced. Uber’s attention moved elsewhere. Uber Entertainment are studio formed by RTS veterans, and it eventually became clear a lot of the company’s excitement (and budget) moved towards their next game, Planetary Annihilation.

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Community events became less and less frequent. The Mumble channels became quieter, then silent. You stopped seeing familiar names in games and matches stopped filling up to capacity. Forums posts became less regular; once-vibrant subforums went quiet for weeks, months.

I was sort of done with the whole game-forum-community thing either way, at this time. The fall of SMNC maps out pretty perfectly with my own breaking out into a better person. It would have been easy to coast through university as a shut-in – remaining reliant on established online spaces, begrudgingly taking part in the real world as I had to. But long-time homes like Super Monday Night Combat were dying. If it had shut down in an instant, people might have migrated to another game, the community might have remained. Instead, regulars drifted away one by one. Slowly losing online spaces, I replaced them with offline spaces.

It wasn’t seamless. Figuring out who I wanted to be as an adult was rough, and I often found myself jumping back into old habits. This fed my Warcraft habit for a long time, naturally, and it brought me back to Super Monday Night Combat more times than I’d like to admit. There were enough players, I’d argue to myself. I could maybe get a few games in if it was peak hours in the US.

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But much like my consistent attempts to find MMO guilds, the spark was gone. These scenes are unrecognisable nowadays. I’m likewise no longer filled with free time and teenage angst – I’ve got bills that need paying and can’t spend all my time deep in lore arguments. Super Monday Night Combat died slowly, but in its death throes I learned to spend less time playing games, and more time working on myself.

* * *

Shuttering Super Monday Night Combat now, in 2018, doesn’t feel like a loss. For years, I’d pop back into the game with the hope of getting a match together – relive the glory days. Of course, all that’s been there since 2014 is a broken main menu and empty chat rooms. At best, there might be a couple kids grinding custom games to unlock the TF2 hats.

I’m not going to miss Super Monday Night Combat when the servers go down on May 23rd. The game I love has been gone for years. SMNC marked the final word in a weird, confusing, and extremely stressful chapter of my life. Shutting it down is an excuse to finally leave it all behind.

I’m a better person these days – to myself, at least. In part, I have this awkward, failed game to thank.

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19 Comments

  1. dontnormally says:

    I loved the original Monday Night Combat and appreciate this article.

    Super Monday Night Combat didn’t really do it for me.

    I hope they make a new one, and include some of the stuff I liked about the first – mostly the original Support character; I liked playing the turret game.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I think lots of people have “that game”.

    I’ve heard people, for instance, go on about City of Heroes. I think some of the RPS crew, or at least the old guard, did.

    I think for me it was farther back, but CoH was a good community while it lasted, too.

    Monday Night Combat was bright and cheery and interesting looking. I’m fairly certain I owned it for… something. Xbox 360 maybe? But I never really got into it. It was nice reading about someone who did.

    • Ushao says:

      My girlfriend and I still talk about CoH every once in a while. We were both avid players and were quite sad when it died. The community was great and we made a lot of friends we both miss.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        Champions Online tried, but… shard-based pseudo-MMO just doesn’t have the same feel. I miss Atlas Park costume contests.

    • Ghostwise says:

      I think lots of people have “that game”.

      Yep, my memories of early Everquest resemble Ms. Clayton’s article. With less community toxicity in the water, but then that was a dozen years earlier.

    • TrophySystem says:

      I have many of “those games”.
      -C&C Renegade
      -Runescape
      -(Super)Monday Night Combat
      -Megaman Legends

      I can say, for all the optimism I had as a kid, I now have alcohol. I’ll always be here for wherever and whenever these games crop back up though.

  3. bramble says:

    Natalie, this assignment is not complete. C+.

  4. Stevostin says:

    My understanding it that it’s TPV shooter, hence a hard fail in game design that shall never be played. Am I wrong?

    • Kitsunin says:

      Third person is ideal for shooters with a heavy emphasis on (certain kinds of) movement. For instance, Splatoon wouldn’t in a million years work as an FPS. Most characters in SMNC had abilities which would have been difficult to design for a first person viewpoint, like charging around while knocking enemies back, having a melee moveset, or leaping high up (keeping in mind there may or may not be a roof above you)

      • pigy33 says:

        Using third person for these types of games is a crutch for players who don’t have good awareness skills.

        Ex: look at the review of Battleborn on RPS which is supposed to be very similar to SMNC. It’s not much of a review actually but more the RPS team complaining about all the visual “clutter” since it’s in first person, while if they had good awareness skills instead of playing 3rd person games then they actually might enjoy the game rather than get stomped because they don’t know how to use their ears or don’t know how to look at a mini-map.

        • Sunjammer says:

          This is the worst comment. You start by claiming third person is a crutch and then end by pointing people towards minimaps, an ACTUAL design crutch that a third person camera solves elegantly with a perspective shift.

          Boo, hiss

        • Kitsunin says:

          You’re telling me that first person is better because unlike third person, you get to spend your time looking at UI? You’re seriously saying that tons of UI clutter is not a crutch, but moving the camera a bit is?

          I mean, you completely ignored me to make the point you wanted to make, I just can’t believe you did so in order to make such a hilariously awful argument.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      Warframe, a game which can be found in the top 10 most played games on Steam with over 50,000 active players every day, would like to have a word with you.

  5. Jalan says:

    I only briefly played it when it was less of a ghost town. I didn’t care too much for it – just not my thing – but I will never forget the time I played a match and most definitely annoyed the high hell out of a player on the other team who consistently thought he was going to hit the (I forget exactly what it was called, so people who cared more about the game forgive me if I’m misnaming it) Doomsday button to temporarily wipe out my team and I so his team could take the advantage.

    What he didn’t count on was me being near the button and just waiting for someone to try to go for it – each time he did, I just locked him into a grapple and sent him packing off it. It went on like that for at least 5-6 repeated tries until he thought to grapple me in hopes that I’d be deterred long enough for him to hit the button. Turns out: I wasn’t. Eventually he started calling for backup to get me away from the button that never showed but weirdly for me, a teammate showed up and when I grappled him off the button AGAIN, my teammate swooped in on the button and I just locked the guy in a grapple loop while they activated it and got the win.

  6. mike69 says:

    If they had to shut down due to GDPR then they’re basically saying that running their business is impossible while being respectful of your personal information privacy – or they’re just using it as an excuse. Perhaps the 2 hour consultant fee for someone that had read the regulation was the straw that broke the camel’s back?

    The major takeaways are:
    – Don’t store shit you don’t need.
    – Only collect it if you need it.
    – Don’t do shit without people’s permission.
    – Provide info or delete it on request where applicable

    If that spooks you, you probably shouldn’t be collecting peoples data in the first place.

    • ColonelFailure says:

      Far more likely is that the work needed to make the game fully compliant is not worth the investment given how few people are playing.

    • mitrovarr says:

      Honestly for some of these games, it probably is the consultant fee.

      Games like this, or the other one that was mentioned (Loadout?) are very nearly dead already, and probably losing money or at least not making any (I think the loadout devs specifically said it was losing a lot of money). The parent companies need very little incentive to shut them down. Just the cost of the audit to see what they needed to do might not be worth it when the game is only being kept online as a courtesy to fans and to improve the studio’s reputation.

  7. sonofsanta says:

    The personal articles about the texture videogames give our lives are my favourites round here, and this one was a lovely read.

  8. CGgg says:

    I feel like most people never understood this game. It was a third-person FPS MOBA. The emphasis being MOBA. You farmed lanes, you couldn’t team fight early. But then mid-game and on was about map rotations and pushing towers and objectives. It played more shooter-y than something like Smite though and that is what I liked. I feel like the only other game to take a stab at this type of game since then has been Battleborn, which I also loved, but again just didn’t pick up steam. I hope someday we get a really good shooter MOBA. I think this game had a very high competitive potential, but it was hard for people to pick up and understand.

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