Thinking outside of the Arena – The MOBA explosion
You know you’re onto something when even YouPorn has taken note of your impact in the videogame industry and wants in on the action. It looks like the MOBA genre can only grow in terms of popularity, but are they lacking in variety?
The Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, or MOBA, is a relative newcomer to the world of videogaming, popularised a decade ago by a Warcraft III mod called Defence of the Ancients (DotA), but only achieving massive popularity and prominence within the last five years. The explosion of spiritual successors to DotA, such as League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth and Dota 2, have cemented the genre as a staple of PC gaming, and a flagship for esports, streaming, and the free-to-play model.
Game play from the upcoming Heroes of the Storm.
With the alpha of Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm topping many MOBA fans’ wishlists, and the announcement of Gearbox’s Shooter-not-MOBA-but-definitely-MOBA-inspired game, Battleborn, just how far has this genre come from its primitive roots in Aeons of Strife and DotA, and why exactly has it grasped the interests of such a huge pool of gamers?
If you know nothing about MOBA’s, here’s a crash course on what they are all about. MOBA’s are team games, where a player can choose from a selection of characters. The player controls this character (they can be called ‘champion’ or ‘hero’ or a myriad other names) as they move across the map in ‘lanes’. The aim is to defend your own team’s base and towers, while mowing down the opposing team’s defences, and infiltrating and destroying their base. Generally a team is aided by waves of non-playable minions or creeps, uncontrollable characters that push forward in lanes, attempting to destroy everything in their path, but more likely than not to be used as a source of gold.
The games themselves are not long winded epics. All you need to do is queue up, bring some team-mates or get matched up with some randoms, and start from the same playing field as everyone else. Each match is self contained, where anything can happen, and players are more or less evenly matched as they start from a base level and can be developed in different ways. Lost a game? Queue up again and play another. It’s like shaking an Etch-A-Sketch. The games last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, which makes it a game that’s perfect for a short gaming break where you can get the satisfaction of playing from start to finish, without having it take up your whole day.
Game play of Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA 2)
This ease of access is also supported by the vast majority of MOBA’s being ‘free-to-play’, with in game items that players can buy to change the aesthetic appeal, but will not impact game play, avoiding the stigma of being ‘pay-to-win’. In LoL and Dota 2, cosmetic items and skins can be bought with real money, but these do not enhance a player’s abilities.
They are also one of the few genres that cater for the spectator just as much as the the player themselves. If you take a look at streaming site Twitch at any given time, streams for League of Legends and Dota 2 regularly top the viewership lists.
There was something in that formula that worked, and now millions of unique players are logging on every month to get a taste of that sweet PvP action. Valve and Riot sit on a throne above them all, with millions of players, and tournament prize pools that make other games look like they’re dealing monopoly money. A little late to the action, big publishers such as EA, Warner Brothers, Blizzard and Deep Silver, have pushed to develop a MOBA of their own, that try to capture part of the League of Legends or Dota 2 player base through different experiences, characters, or mechanics. While many of these efforts could be described as a grab at a slice of the pie of these successful, formulaic games, recent developments in the industry could be transforming what we think a MOBA can and should be.
For some of these new MOBA’s, the metaphorical minion seems to be wandering farther and farther from the nexus. Recently announced titles such as Gearbox’s ‘Battleborn’ and indie developer Motiga’s ‘Gigantic’, feature team based multiplayer action that invokes the spirit of a MOBA, but eschews the standard tenets of the genre in order to incorporate something different.
Game play of Guardians of Middle Earth
Battleborn is trying to take away any genre stigma and carving their own path by creating a ‘hero shooter’. While it shares notable genre tools such as objective based gameplay and the non-playable characters that aid the flow of battle, Gearbox has said that they have drawn elements from other sources as well, such as role-playing games and fighters, so it cannot be lumped in as just another entry into the MOBA genre. It is little wonder that Gearbox is shying away from a traditional label, as the term itself seems to evoke a very specific type of game. They aren’t the only ones to break tradition, and another game that is taking the genre in a new direction is Motiga’s Gigantic.
Much like Battleborn and the established MOBA SMITE, Gigantic takes away the isometric field of vision much attributed to the genre, and instead puts it into a third person, over-the-shoulder view. It also gets rid of the standard tower defence mechanic an by making the ultimate objective move around the map and fight alongside the players. Gigantic gives each team a colossal AI that joins the battle, with the ultimate goal of destroying these creatures. Due to the leap away from MOBA tradition, commentators have already skirted around the labels, by describring it as ‘MOBA-like’, or an ‘action-MOBA’. As these new games are announced, the definition of a MOBA has become narrower. In order to be a MOBA, you need to be League of Legends or Dota 2 (although, if you were to ask Valve, they’d stray from that label as well, preferring the term ‘Action Real Time Strategy’).
Is the MOBA merely a homogeneous stew of rigid lanes, objective control, never-ending groups of heroes and players that are equal parts passionate and toxic? Is it even narrower than that, with the MOBA only encompassing games that follow the path DotA set for them years ago? Or is it a genre that is as broad and inclusive as the name ‘Multiplayer Online Battle Arena’ implies? As this genre is still in its infancy, new games have not yet been able to develop with a great degree of freedom, and while the MOBA label is used, no one seems to want to use it. Perhaps developers are scared to label their game as a MOBA as they don’t believe MOBA’s offer creative freedom, or any deviation from the norm would not be accepted by the MOBA community at large. While labels do tend to imply rigidity, developers shouldn’t feel so constricted by a genre that has so much more room to grow.