The MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre (also known as the ARTS or Action Real-Time Strategy genre) is one that has become all the rage, to both the excitement and exasperation of the gaming community.
With MOBAs being one of the most publicized and frequently developed online gaming genres at this time, it should come as no surprise that nearly every MOBA announcement is accompanied by tired cries of "ANOTHER ONE?" from the gaming community. Indeed, it would seem as if most new MOBA titles are brushed off or discredited at the moment of their announcement by people who are too closed-minded (or perhaps too ignorant) to care.
In this post, I'll explain, in simple terms, why it's happening and why it may very well be a good thing.
Why are there so many new MOBAs?
This is an effect with multiple causes:
1) The MOBA/ARTS genre is young and its popularity is recent and exciting by the standards of the gaming industry.
2) MOBA games have a low development time compared to many other genres. A MOBA game can enter open beta and thrive on just ONE map, a plethora of items, and about 30 characters, each of which only needs 4 skills as a genre standard.
3) The genre has already shown wild success in its two flagship titles - League of Legends and DotA2. But, as is the case with all gamers, moba gamers tend to be experimental, if judgmental with new titles. Newer titles - namely Smite, Awesomenauts, and Dawngate, have already proven that a new MOBA title can claim its own piece of the pie and establish its own existence, even at an early stage of development.
4) MOBA's are an incredibly vague and generalized genre framework that can encompass a great deal of different philosophies and designs.
The significance of this
Note that at no point during those four reasons did I ever provide any negative motivation for the creation of new mobas. All of these reasons have merit and can work together to fuel a genre that can quickly grow and mature in new and interesting ways.
Reasons 3 and 4 are particularly telling. What do they entail for the genre? In effect, they highlight that MOBAs are a genre with great potential for games that are wildly different from established titles and which can succeed on their own merits.
The MOBA flood is an exaggerated problem
There are about 20 (if that) commercial moba titles in the NA scene. Off of the top of my head, I can think of:
League of Legends
Heroes of Newerth*
Super Monday Night Combat*
Guardians of Middle Earth*
Sins of a Dark Age*
Heroes of the Storm (Alpha)
* Denotes games that are struggling and which will probably die due to redundancy and poor management.
Underlined titles are in open beta or an even earlier stage of development.
While it should be noted that I have left out titles that don't really constitute a MOBA except in the vaguest definitions (such as Bloodline Champions), dead titles (such as Rise of Immortals) or titles that have died in or have not yet made it to the NA scene (such as Realm of the Titans or Core Masters), I believe I've made my point. There are NOT that many current or upcoming MOBA titles, particularly when one considers the low development time for a MOBA and their surge in popularity.
And new releases can and WILL, as I have marked, be balanced out to some degree by the deaths of more derivative or poorly managed titles - those titles that represent directions that the genre must not go.
Where do harsh judgments of new MOBAs come from?
This part is quite simple. MOBAs are plagued by the same stigma that holds back the MMO genre. Too many copy-cats. Rather than say who ripped off of whom, I will cover mechanics and derivatives which have held the genre back.
Now, as a general disclaimer, let's hold back from condemning the genres first three major commercial titles, League, DotA, and HoN, due to the early births of the first two and the fact that the last of these was originally intended to be DotA on a commercial engine.
The traditional trilane map:
Often hailed (fallaciously) by closed-minded members of the community as the only legitimate competitive map style for the genre, a refusal to significantly deviate from this map style has held back new titles. It is the central competitive map style for League of Legends, DotA, Heroes of Newerth, Infinite Crisis, Smite, Prime World, and the upcoming God of Destiny, among other titles, both living and dead.
This is NOT to say that trilanes cannot be unique or revolutionary, but I will make the bold statement that they have not been significantly re-invented yet.
Some notable exceptions -
Dawngate with its competitive two-lane + control point map.
Awesomenauts - an oddball to the genre
Gigantic - which will apparently focus on a unique control point map.
Deadbreed with its dungeons, boss instance, and two-lane structure.
Sins of a Dark Age - utilizes a trilane, but its dynamic event system and somewhat different map structure help give it identity.
Refusal to create custom item systems:
Most item systems are derivative of either League's or DotA's, right down to the stats and passives of specific items.
Notable exceptions or partial exceptions -
Dawngate with its branching item trees, simplified universal stat system, and unique items.
Smite - an exception in its item system but not in its items.
Prime World - Leaned more towards MMO mechanics.
Awesomenauts - obviously
Deadbreed - Items are divided into MMO style gear slots. Too shallow at the moment, however.
Most new mobas include a summoner spell system, directly ripped off:
League's Summoner spells were an interesting, controversial idea. There's no problem with including them in your game. The problem comes in when a new game uses a summoner spell system that is too similar to and uses spells that are clearly ripped off from League's system. For this derivative, exceptions will be those games which INCLUDE a spell system but which divert from League's.
Notable exceptions or partial exceptions:
Realm of the Titans - Limited to one spell per player. Players could evolve their spells as the match progressed, even swapping one spell out for another (with a long cooldown). Some spells were derivative, others were not.
Dawngate - The system is unique (three spells at max level, 1 at the start of the game). The spells are not.
Characters clearly inspired by the characters of other games:
This one shouldn't need a terribly large amount of explanation. It's also grounded on more reasonable factors than the other derivatives, as the genre has hundreds of characters and the number of REALLY unique design possibilities drops with each release. It's also less immediately noticeable and less important than the other derivatives.
What must a new MOBA do to be successful?
For a new moba to be successful, it must find a niche. In other words, it must be significantly unique in a way that catches the attention of potential players. Surprised? You shouldn't be. That tends to be the case for every genre.
A new MOBA developer should first ask themselves a question. The common question seems to be "how can I attract players from League of Legends or DotA?" This is ill-founded and leads to derivative design. The real question should be "what kind of players do I want to attract?" This is where innovation and coherent design is found.
The most important step a new MOBA can take is to readily define their map and their art style in a way that leaves a lasting impression. If it has a trilane, it better be a UNIQUE one or supported by unique game mechanics. If it doesn't have a trilane, it best make sure its map style is deep and fun to support its unique nature. A new MOBA only needs ONE map to be successful, and I'd personally recommend that it stay that way, as it is best to flesh out one map to its highest possible quality. A unique art style (which we have seen in titles like Gigantic, Awesomenauts, and Dawngate) can go a long way in establishing a game's initial reception.
There is one all-important word - IDENTITY. If a game cannot boast enough of a distinctive identity to warrant its existence in the genre, it will cease to exist, and probably quickly.
The un-explored potential of the MOBA genre
"MOBA" is a highly general term, but even within the generally expected (but not official) identity used to define a game as a MOBA, there is ENORMOUS room for experimentation and innovation.
Let's cover the areas which can be experimented with:
The number of skills on each character's skill bar
The combat system
The item system
The number of players per team
The number of teams in a match.
The objective of the match (base destruction, point control, capture-the-flag, etc.)
The camera view (top-down, first-person, third-person, etc.)
Integrated elements from other genres (character creation from an MMO, an RTS-style player commander on each team, etc.)
Bosses (including player-controlled bosses)
The boss system
Account/Out-ofmatch Progression (such as rune pages), if any
Summoner spell systems, if any
Entirely new mechanics which I can't even conceive of
And most, if not all, of these can be changed while keeping the game competitive!
So, my conclusion is this:
Keep an open mind. We've already seen unique titles step forward. We've already seen new titles be successful. We've already seen titles suffer or entirely die because of their failure to further the genre. We KNOW that the genre has a lot to offer and we know that it is young enough and has enough interested developers to see that potential reached.
So keep an eye out for new MOBA titles instead of dismissing them outright. Give your feedback to developers. Express discontent over a genre's faults and condemn games that fail to make an identity for themselves. Do not judge the right of the genre to exist and receive new, interesting titles. The result may surprise you.