As I am increasingly disinterested in StarCraft 2 or C&C, traditional RTS-style economy management, a number of other options for alternatives have opened up to me. It’s a pretty short list, as the RTS genre itself is pretty niche. Tactics games, or “tactical RTS” games which either simply focus more on unit management or completely do away with base building and resource mining altogether, are even more so.
I was fortunate enough to get the chance to play through Blitzkrieg 1 and 2 thanks to RTSGuru.com, and I very much enjoyed playing these. They have tons of units, a robust unit interaction system, aircraft, ammunition management, a pretty well implemented reinforcement mechanic… They were just really good. And of course, there’s Wargame: Airland Battle which just launched, an immensely complex tactics game that I’ve yet to barely scratch the surface of (thanks to it not having even a rudimentary tutorial, this should be… fun. By which I mean painful) and the breathtakingly stellar Company of Heroes 2, which is an RTS, but really emphasizes unit interactions over economy management.
And then, of course, there are the MOBAs.
MOBA. It’s an acronym pretty much no one seems to actually enjoy. It stands, of course, for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, which is a bland and somewhat inaccurate description of how these games work. Action Real Time Strategy is another alternative that’s sometimes used, but also seems to miss the point. Players that discovered the genre thanks to League of Legends might call them “League Clones” and players who discovered it through DOTA might call them DOTAlikes. I actually like “Defense of the Ancients” as a generic genre name, kind of like Kleenex or Xerox, as it does really capture the essence of what these games are about. But I don’t think calling all of these games “DOTAs” would ever catch on, and I’m pretty sure that Valve, publishers of DOTA 2, wouldn’t appreciate the theft of their game’s name as a generic… Much like Google is trying to fight their name becoming a generic term meaning “search” in Europe right now.
But anyways, love it or hate it, the term is what we have right now. So, here’s my “expert analysis” (read: rant because I have nothing better to talk about right now) of the current state of the MOBA genre right now. I’m going to touch briefly on the 2 big titles, LoL and DOTA 2, then whine for a bit about how everyone and their publisher wants to cash in on the MOBA craze (and is completely missing the point) and then ramble pointlessly about what I’d personally like to see in this space. If this hasn’t completely turned you off to reading this (you poor bastard) then buckle up. And thanks for sticking with me.
The Big Dogs
I’m going to be completely honest here. I don’t really play League of Legends. I was in the beta, and have tried it… Once a year since then, but I have no idea how its meta works, what players like about it, what keeps them into it or anything. But I do know enough to talk just a bit about its dominance and how it’s going to be increasingly difficult for anyone else to assail its position. From the highest possible altitude: League has well over 100 heroes/champions/what have you, several maps (ARAM, Dominion, 3v3) for varying play styles… that is, every new MOBA that comes out has a ton of catching up to do if it attempts to even remotely follow the LoL model. LoL is, for all intents an purposes, the World of WarCraft of MOBAs. They got there first, they provided a simple and accessible model, and they kept shoving content into their game. Now, games like Sins of a Dark Age or Dawngate or even Infinite Crisis, despite any minor differences they attempt to tack onto their model, are quite easy to dismiss by the major contingent of League players simply because League has… more stuff than these new games will.
DOTA 2 is a new iteration of the granddaddy of the genre. Sure, DOTA itself was based off of mods like Aeon of Strife, but like WarCraft 2 did for the RTS genre, DOTA pretty much put MOBAs on the map for most players. It was the first game to make large numbers of people realize “huh, there’s something here” and eventually led to LoL. DOTA 2 carries on the spirit of this first game quite closely, and eschews many of League’s simplified or streamlined mechanics in favor of a tested system that’s been perfected for years. It and League are pretty much the 2 games of this type to beat, though most other studios seem to want to try to ape the successes of League while not worrying about copying the greater complexity (or depth, depending on how you look at it) of DOTA.
There are some other contenders out there, S2’s Heroes of Newerth and HiRez Studio’s Smite are 2 that are perhaps closest in population count, though I doubt either is really close to DOTA or especially League in terms of population size. And HoN, for one, has one of the most awful and vitriolic gaming communities in existence.
The Lack of Innovation, and Some Iterations with Potential
At first, I was kind of excited to see lots of companies coming out with MOBAs (well, as excited as I get about MOBAs. I play DOTA 2, but the genre itself doesn’t really excite me). I “got into” the genre with Gas Powered Games’ Demigod, a unique take on the genre that actually did mix in faction upgrades, hero units that could command small armies, and control points which featured highly into the fight for the map in addition to the standard lanes/tower model. Also, it featured a ton of different game modes, map sizes and more. Highly influential and trusted figures such as Totalbiscuit might not like Demigod (I believe I saw once he said it was terrible) but I think that, out of any MOBA, it’s been one of the more innovative I’ve seen. It broke the DOTA/LOL paradigm in ways which mixed in more traditional tactics/RTS features, which I really appreciate personally.
Another game which attempts to innovate in a meaningful way is SMITE, which has a first person perspective. That seems to be paying off for them, and I’m glad to see HiRez mix things up a bit by doing something different. But the rest of the landscape is looking… pretty repetitive.
So far (pardon to any fans of these games who have the misfortune of stumbling across this post), Sins of A Dark Age is looking like… League of Legends with additional minigames or side-quests. Its initial planned implementation, with a Commander role and super units controllable by that player. I understand that, and why, such a design might not work, but what it’s becoming is purely underwhelming when placed next to the polished monolith of League.
Likewise, EA’s new MOBA, Dawngate, is looking a lot like… League of Legends with some new map mechanics and a more dynamic Summoner Spell system (along with some welcome anti-snowballing features and a touch of RTS style resource generation). It certainly might have some potential for me as a player who still wants to cling to my RTS gamer roots, but most of what Dawngate looks to be trying to do seems relatively easy for League to copy if they so desire. That’s dangerous for the upcoming title.
Infinite Crisis appears to be going in a unique direction with its introduction of the DC Universe as its theme, but depending on the included mechanics, it might just be… League of Legends, DC Universe edition. Where’s the innovation? Going down the upcoming list of MOBAs, it’s hard to do much besides compare them (often unfavorably) to existing titles, even with their unique mechanics/gimmicks. I truly think that games like Dawngate or Infinite Crisis won’t be the ones to advance or evolve the MOBA genre, since (as we saw in an excellent Extra Credits video about MMO games) they’re essentially trying to beat the leader of the pack at its own well polished and established game.
What I’d Personally Like to See
As a strategic title that steers clear of the RTS convention of basebuilding, the most popular alternative (and indeed, League and DOTA2 are both arguably more popular than StarCraft 2, the most played RTS of all time) is the MOBA. This is inescapable. There’s something about MOBAs that draws people in (perhaps the topic of another article) in a way that more… tactical, unit-based games like Dawn of War 2, Company of Heroes, Wargame: Airland Battle et cetera don’t seem to. I have yet to fully wrap my head around the phenomenon, though I do enjoy DOTA 2 quite a lot and am preparing again to dip a toe into League and see if it sticks this time.
I keep waiting for a game like End of Nations, Petroglyph’s aborted Victory, or TCA’s upcoming Total War Arena to take the success of the MOBA and marry it to more strategy-game-esque gameplay. Or, perhaps, Wargame or Company of Heroes 2 will fill in that role: it’s team-based, objective oriented but still has that RTS or tabletop wargame essence that I so crave. There’s nothing out there yet that hits the nail on the head for me as a gamer, though I think that some games currently in development might come really close. I certainly hope so.
My bottom line is this: MOBAs are less stressful than RTS games, which is great. They have a lot of diversity in hero types and roles, and some of the more interesting ones provide lots of maps/game modes to keep users interested. They’re objective based, and though they focus heavily on combat, make it possible to succeed without directly killing other players. Jungling, creep killing, support/disabling, tower pushing… there are alternatives to just straight-up powering down other players for those gamers who aren’t that great at twitchy combat. There are still complex interactions, and multiple skill sets that can succeed in their own way. That’s great.
But, there’s something satisfying about RTS games. As Mike Legg, Petroglyph’s president, said in my interview with him for RTS Guru: “At the foundation of the modern RTS genre is the wish to recreate, as a computer game, the quintessential boyhood experience of playing with toy soldiers and tanks in a sandbox.” And MOBAs don’t give you that. But I can feel it in my gut, there are games out there that do, and will. And I think Company of Heroes 2, Wargame, End of Nations, and others are moving down that path. The challenge will be whether sufficient numbers of other people also feel the potential in this type of game to make it a viable alternative to MOBAs or RTS games. I guess we’ll have to see.
It’s a game of waiting, and seeing which way the fickle consumer base drifts. Because as fun as any multiplayer game is, it’s only as good as the community it can draw around itself.