MOBA’s battle to become a genre

Matthew Jarvis
MOBA’s battle to become a genre

The ‘M' in ‘MOBA' may not stand for ‘Money', but given the number of companies jumping on the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena bandwagon, it wouldn't be hard to believe.

With the success of League of Legends and Dota 2 continuing to grow (the average number of monthly minutes of League watched on Twitch during 2013 was up 258 per cent year-on-year, while Dota 2's average monthly minute count rocketed 508 per cent) firms from across the gaming spectrum are launching their own take on the fast-paced competitive genre.

It's normal that different companies try to make new games of an obviously popular genre,” observes Benjamin Lee, creative producer for mobile MOBA The Witcher Battle Arena at CD Projekt Red.

Some will just copy, others will elaborate and iterate on gameplay concepts and ideas. Others will find a completely different approach to the subject. This is how the industry develops, and, frankly, if we stop trying, we'd end up playing three or four games at the end because there would be no other genres around.”

BREAKING THE MOBA MOULD

Obviously going up against two of the biggest games in recent history is a tough ask. But even the big two MOBAs are very similar to one another. So developers see an opportunity to innovate.

The reason why you see the similarity in the iconic MOBA tri-lane map [the traditional MOBA level used by both Dota and League] is because of two things: either confusion around what ‘genre' means, or really smart people on development teams that know breaking that mould is going to be really fricking hard,” explains Dave Cerra, lead producer of EA's recently-cancelled MOBA Dawngate.

In a MOBA, mode is the map.”

Cerra adds his belief that titles can successfully evolve the well-worn construction of Dota and League, without simply becoming lost among an ocean of ‘copycat' games.

We should be able to break down what makes the likes of Dota and League tick in a meaningful way and build something that's actually very different,” he says.

What I see happening in the space is a lot of recreation, and my guess as to the reasons why is because of the hell we went through to find Dawngate's unique angle. We tried things like removing laneing, but it does a lot of things for the MOBA style of gameplay very efficiently and eloquently, so we put lanes back in the game. MOBA is a genre, and we want to do something new.”

Kaeo Milker, senior producer of Heroes of the Storm at Blizzard, agrees that ‘MOBA' refers to a diverse breadth of titles, rather than reiterations on two titles.

There's a bunch of people making games with a very similar framework and doing their own thing with it,” he says.

Some of the dominant games have done some very similar things. We've come into it like we have done with other types of games; we look at a genre and say: ‘There are lots of things we like about that, there's a lot of stuff that's fun.' And then we say: ‘What if we took this thing away, or changed this thing. What does that leave us with?' We're trying to distill the fun.”

LANDED TITLE

A common tactic of games hoping to differentiate themselves is to create an entirely new sub-genre.

From Deep Silver's ‘ZOMBA' Dead Island: Epidemic to ‘MOTA' Transformers Universe, there's seemingly a new acronym for each and every new entry.

David Nicholson, vice president of Jagex, explains that the term ‘MOBA' hampers new titles with the immediate challenge of taking on Dota and League.

MOTA (‘Massively Online Tactical Action') was a neat way to try and sum up what we are making with Transformers Universe,” he says.

We didn't want to get pigeonholed into a specific genre, nor did we want people's expectations to be set by the acronym we used before we were able to reveal more about the game. If we had said ‘third-person MOBA' people would have had some very specific views on what the game was going to be like.

‘MOBA' means very specific things to people, and that's driven by what's gone before. When you say MOBA, players think of the two biggest games in the market and their expectation is defined by them. But games like Transformers Universe and others are already bringing their own angles to the genre, and I suspect we'll see more variants as time goes on.”

Peter Brolly, brand manager for Dead Island: Epidemic at Deep Silver, agrees that the future of the MOBA lies in increasing diversity.

We came up with the ZOMBA (‘Zombie Online Multiplayer Battle Arena') acronym to distance ourselves somewhat from being classed as a pure MOBA,” he comments.

We're testing the outer limits of the definition of the MOBA genre and wanted to reflect that in a way with the ZOMBA acronym – we're not simply retreading old ground.”

Milker remains similarly defiant about Heroes of the Storm.

We call Heroes a ‘team brawler' – it's not a MOBA,” he explains.

The reason we say that is because it's actually different. We've twisted it and turned the dials and decided to intentionally remove and add to things in a way that we think makes the game more fun.”

IP EXPECTATIONS

Many of the bigger firms creating MOBAs are utilising existing IP to entice fans of these already successful series across to the genre – Dead Island: Epidemic, Transformers Universe and Lord of the Rings spin-off Guardians of Middle-earth are just three examples.

However, for others, attaching a beloved franchise is a risky move, especially when you're trying to reinvent the MOBA.

Attractive licenses introduce constraints that are going to dictate your gameplay,” says Cerra.

If you're trying to iterate on gameplay and do something different, the worst thing in the world is to have to say ‘That's not canon, it doesn't work in this universe'. IP will have very specific needs that won't necessarily be best for the game.”

Heroes of the Storm uses Blizzard brands. But the studio says it was also concerned about how that would impact player experience.

We intentionally started with a first map that is not a Blizzard world,” Milker explains.

If we'd taken players to a StarCraft, WarCraft or Diablo world at first, there would've been expectations about what that would've meant for gameplay. So we started off in a neutral area. There's the opportunity for new characters and new worlds.”

THE START OF SOMETHING NEW

With the genre evolving by the day, it's certain that new titles will continue to redefine what makes a ‘MOBA'.

We're going to continue to see the MOBA go from strength to strength as a recognised genre,” says Brolly.

However, what exactly constitutes a title being classed as a MOBA may shift over time, as new and innovative approaches continue to sprout up in an effort to stand out from the crowd. This is only good news for players, who will have even more choice and unique experiences to look forward to.”

Brolly compares the rise of the MOBA to the explosion in first-person shooters during the middle of the last decade, catalysed by the success of Call of Duty: It's a very competitive market with some established franchises with huge player bases, so just joining the party with a cookie-cutter game isn't going to cut it.

"You're going to have to bring something new to the table, which ultimately results in innov

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