MOBA: The story so far

Greg Lockley
MOBA: The story so far

It all started with a mod. Well, actually, that’s not necessarily true.

The origins of the MOBA are far murkier than that. The common conception is that they are the new kid on the block, but they have actually existed for decades.

You can trace the MOBA all the way back to the 1990s and the Sega Genesis classic Herzog Zwei. Credited with spawning the RTS genre, the title had players control a single unit across a sprawling battlefield and defeat enemies. That should sound familiar even to the most novice of MOBA enthusiasts.

Some track the genre back to 1998 and the release of the original StarCraft. The ‘Aeon of Strife’ custom map was created by famed modder Aeon64 and it was the first to introduce the traditional MOBA gameplay.

But most gamers trace the beginnings of the MOBA – and the explosion of the genre – to the release of a community mod for 2002’s Warcraft III named Defense of the Ancients (DOTA). And it’s here that the rise of the MOBA really began.

“DOTA was a massive cult hit, but it was limited by – among other things – its status as a mod,” says Tim Shannon, producer at S2 Games, creator of MOBAs Heroes of Newerth and Strife. “The people involved in its development were by and large donating their time.”

Shannon is right. The early stages of the MOBA and the likes of DOTA were struggling to gain traction in the early 2000s, limited by the fact that its creators were just everyday people with everyday jobs.

But that all changed towards the end of 2009. The genre was attracting mainstream attention and ultimately came to a head as newcomer Riot Games launched their first-ever title. A little game called League of Legends.

And it proved to be the move that opened the MOBA floodgates. 

Just months later in May 2010, S2 Games themselves entered the MOBA arena with its first effort Heroes of Newerth. Valve hired DOTA’s original modders to help create DOTA 2. And Blizzard revealed at Blizzcon 2010 its intentions to launch a DOTA map for its hit RTS StarCraft II – something that would eventually become Blizzard All-Stars in 2012 and subsequently Heroes of the Storm at the end of last year.

“Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends were different attempts to formalise the genre and see where it could go if a company were to dedicate their time to developing, supporting, and improving a MOBA,” explains Shannon. 

“As such, Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends remain pretty faithful to their forebear. This formula has driven the success of these two – three with DOTA 2 – titles and has been the engine behind the emergence and current global dominance of the MOBA genre.”

Succesful doesn’t do the MOBA genre justice. After all, League of Legends now boasts over 27m players every day and a concurrent population of 7.5m. And then there’s DOTA 2 and its 7.8m unique players. 

But how did something that started as a mod gain so much popularity and notoriety that it has become a genre in its own right, filled with some of the most played games on the planet?

“Awesome, isn’t it?” says Dave Cerra, lead producer on EA’s MOBA Dawngate. “MOBA or ARTS [action real-time strategy] or whatever we want to call them are the most exciting thing in gaming.

“Their popularity is the result of several different things that have evolved and converged in the world of gaming. Millions of gamers are mechanically familiar with the control scheme from decades of RTS gaming, so many were able to pick the games up quickly.

“And as with any skill-based competitive experience, these games are intrinsically motivating: players play them to get better and express mastery, not just to consume content. All of this boils down to: once you get into MOBAs, they’re just a ton of fun.

“The traditional MOBA top-down isometric view is easy to watch, allowing the player to participate in the game as a consumer of the experience in addition to a participant. The games are more fun with friends so they spread socially.”

“And as with any skill-based competitive experience,
these games are intrinsically motivating: players
play them to get better and express mastery, not just
to consume content. All of this boils down to: once
you get into MOBAs, they’re just a ton of fun. The
traditional MOBA top-down isometric view is easy to
watch, allowing the player to participate in the game
as a consumer of the experience in addition to a
participant. The games are more fun with friends
so they spread socially.”

Dave Cerra, EA


eSports has definitely been a major driving force behind the success of the genre. According to Twitch, MOBAs like League of Legends and DOTA 2 account for over five billion minutes of content viewed on the live-streaming platform every month.

We’re now seeing players of these games treated like superstars.There’s even a League of Legends fantasy league. Forget Ronaldo, Messi or Bale. Now you can fill your pro gaming roster with the likes of Doublelift and Wildturtle. Or pit team Fnatic against SK Gaming. 

eSports and MOBAs are a match made in heaven. But MOBAs shouldn’t be judged by their massive presence in professional gaming alone. 

David Nicholson, vice president of Jagex’s MOBA-esque Transformers Universe says these games aren’t just for die-hard eSports fans.

“MOBAs appeal to a wide audience of gamers, wider than their eSports profile might initially suggest. They are both aspirational and accessible because people cannot only watch the elite gamers playing them, they can jump online with friends and others at a similar skill level and have a fun experience.

“The good MOBAs are very well balanced in terms of learning curve; you can play a game and enjoy yourself as a beginner, but also see where and how you could improve. 

“I can watch the Premier League and appreciate the skills on display, but I can also have a kick-about with my mates on a Sunday afternoon. Playing the game at any skill level is still fun, and that’s where I see a difference between MOBAs and shooters.”

WHAT IS A MOBA?

For some MCV readers, the MOBA might just be the biggest thing they don’t understand. 

Sure, it’s difficult to imagine anyone in the industry having not heard of League of Legends or DOTA 2. But start throwing in terminology such as ‘lanes’ or ‘junglers’ and you’re likely to be given vacant stares. 

So what is the MOBA? The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre is pretty vague and it’s become a term that’s thrown around quite a lot to generate hype. But the bedrock of the MOBA is a mixture of real-time strategy and role-playing elements.

Unlike an RTS like StarCraft, players control a single unit (often referred to as a hero or champion) and control them across the battlefield. The objective is to eliminate the enemy team and destroy their base before they do you. 

To achieve this players must navigate a map typically based on the design to the left. 

Bases (orange) are located at opposite sides of the map and teams must navigate the three lanes (yellow) in order to reach §the bases and each other. 

Jungles (green) are filled with creeps that can be killed for in-game resources and used to upgrade players’ heroes. Towers (blue) can be captured and are subsequently used to defend across the map.

All the different MOBAs boast their own features, but this is the prototypical design that’s the basis of the concept.


PC giants Valve, Riot and Blizzard helped create the MOBA genre. But now we’re seeing the rest of the industry’s powerhouses size up the competition with their own offerings.

EA, Square Enix, Warner Bros, Deep Silver, Crytek, Creative Assembly. These are all big names who have witnessed the rising popularity of the MOBA and are now rushing to take advantage.

Ubisoft is another big-name publisher that has had its eye on the MOBA market for a long time, and was ahead of the competition as it launched Tom Clancy’s EndWar Online in March.

The publisher says the influx of firms having a crack at the MOBA market is inevitable based on the industry’s track record with ‘the next big thing’. The MMO. The FPS. Zombies. Now, MOBAs are the flavour of the month.

Micha? Madej, creative director at Ubisoft and EndWar Online, says: “They entered that market a while ago – they saw the growing popularity of early MOBAs years ago and quickly decided to develop their own. It simply took some time to make these games and we see them all coming out these days, at the same time.

“I’m not saying it’s a bad move from these companies – but the fact is we observed the same phenomenon after World of Warcraft, when a few years later everyone was publishing their own MMOs and only very few were able to succeed. We are trying to avoid this mistake with EndWar Online by carving our own, unique niche.”

Sure, you could say these publishers are a little late to the party. And some might not boast the expertise of catering to PC gamers in the same way Blizzard and Valve have. But they do have something up their sleeve – existing, successful IP.

“I’m not trying to be crass but it’s basic capitalism.
It’s pretty clear that the massive monetary successes
of League of Legends, DOTA 2 and Heroes of Newerth
have demonstrated the viability of the MOBA market
and provided a pretty strong pull factor for publishers
that feel trapped in comparatively crowded markets.
People have spoken that they want to spend on MOBAs,
and the fact that lots of publishers are jumping on the
bandwagon and greenlighting MOBAs should hardly
come as a surprise.”

Tim Shannon, S2 Games


Warner Bros for instance has built a MOBA called Infinite Crisis, which stars the likes of Batman and Superman.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” jokes Jim Drewry, vice president of digital publishing at Warner’s Turbine studio. “We love the DC Multiverse and we’re excited to bring it to life in a completely new way. By adding these heroes and villains, then twisting things with the introduction of Multiverse variants, we’re offering a fresh take not just on comic-branded games but on the MOBA market overall.

“We’re not just game makers, we’re fans too. Many of us wanted to return to our PvP roots for a long time. A few years back when the MOBA genre was really beginning to gel, we saw an interesting new space where wecould make a game we’d love to play. Combine that with the ability to not just work with existing DC characters, but create our own in the Multiverse? We really couldn’t have imagined a better project for the studio.”

But on the other hand there’s EA. It’s the biggest games publisher in the world and it can build games based on Star Wars, Dragon Age, Battlefield and Mass Effect. Brands that would certainly fit the bill as potential MOBAs. Yet EA instead opted to invest in an entirely new IP.

“It was very intentional,” says Cerra. EA has access to some world-class IPs but went with an original idea for a few reasons. We felt that it was critical that the first MOBA out of an EA studio could stand on its own and not rely on an IP.

“Adding the constraints of an existing IP would make things very difficult at the design level, as we’d have been constantly saying ‘well, we can’t have a mechanic like that because there’s no magic in this world’ or whatever.

“We wanted to invent our own world because we’re a bunch of creative storytellers. We are doing something we think is ground-breaking, telling a story that’s guided by the entire community. We can go anywhere we want with the players. This is new territory, and again an existing IP would make solving these problems harder.”

All be it in cryptic fashion, Cerra doesn’t rule out that some of EA’s triple-A brands could eventually receive the MOBA treatment.

“We’re not saying it can’t be done, but it’s another dimension to the problem. Maybe next game.”

Creative types will argue that the decision to create a MOBA is down to their desire to try new things and expand a genre. But in truth the MOBA explosion come down to one thing...

“Money,” says Shannon. “I’m not trying to be crass but it’s basic capitalism. It’s pretty clear that the massive monetary successes of League of Legends, DOTA 2 and Heroes of Newerth have demonstrated the viability of the MOBA market and provided a pretty strong pull factor for publishers that feel trapped in comparatively crowded markets. 

“People have spoken that they want to spend on MOBAs, and the fact that lots of publishers are jumping on the bandwagon and greenlighting MOBAs should hardly come as a surprise.”

It’s not just competition publishers must deal with in the world of MOBAs but also the ‘toxic’ communities these games can have. Similar to that faced when booting up a Call of Duty deathmatch, MOBAs have become renowned for their hardcore and unforgiving players – something that could prove a stumbling block when encouraging new players to try out the genre.

“While there is definitely elitism within MOBA communities, I think the more common and nefarious conception of the communities is of nastiness and toxicity,” says Shannon.

“MOBAs have toxic communities for two reasons. First is game design. There is a distinct difference between someone with no experience compared to someone who understands the basic game systems. These divisions exist everywhere but are probably more distinct than average in MOBAs.

“The game rules and strategies that are essential to success are not taught by the game at all. 

“Instead, they are learned experientially through playing the game with others. This can be a frustrating way to learn because of the breadth of knowledge contained within most MOBAs means a learning curve that is hundreds, if not thousands of games tall to go from inexperienced to good.

“MOBAs require you to coordinate as a team of five for success. Because you are so dependent on others for mutual success, people making mistakes can quickly turn into conflict.”

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Tags: online , pc , story , MOBA

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