A MOBA is distinctly affected by the community and the branches from the game itself that spring up, possibly more than other genres. This is double-edged since a MOBA can be as accessible and inviting as the developers want to make it, but the genre demands time and commitment to get anywhere. What distinguishes the genre from others is that this commitment is not finite. While you can often pick up a first person shooter again a while after stopping, changes to a MOBA’s itemization/passives, abilities, hero remakes, and even simply a frequently changing meta based on everything from game changes to eSports who start using a hero in a specific manner can make players have to relearn their characters and the current play strategies over and over.
One of the hooks in the explosion of MOBAs, as well as evolutions springing from the MOBA genre (additional lanes, mobile, no minions, and other additions) has been “accessibility”. “If a game like DoTA or League of Legends seems hard to crack, then our game will have a simplere learning curve” comes every other MOBA development out there. The MOBA genre isn’t unbearably dense for people with some experience playing games, but some of the older conventions can read as difficult or obscure, and the highly competitive, aggressive environments lead to some notoriously awful community experiences. That said, accessible gameplay is a buzzword, and one that comes up short in one key way - it fails to guard against the ever-changing nature of the genre, fueled by the community. That inevitably lets some players down. What is missing is a sort of middle ground. Where are our casual MOBAs, the ones players can feel safe leaving and then returning to later without drastic changes?
Discussing League of Legends recently with people, I mentioned that I would love to be able to return on a casual basis, and to also play with my first (and still favorite) champion, Annie, in mid lane. The game has changed so much since I learned with Annie, and even Annie herself is considered slow by most, and no longer suitable for a mid lane game. Annie reemerged with support builds and is at roughly the bottom 20% of popular champions now. Having not played much support, if I want to play my favorite champion in a game, I’d either risk being yelled at for trying to take her mid or have to go and learn the support role. Riot leads the way sometimes on these moves, increasingly making supports more active in combat, rather than stay behind healbots. In any case, with a genre mostly running on free to play, profits rely on sales of new characters and skins being sold, so treating the older or existing players right is going to be an afterthought. Only so many players will be simple collectors, with the rest just being driven out and away from their beloved roles or heroes out of a combination of company and community influence.
Before anyone reads into this as a request for MOBAs to simply be easy and cater to everyone without regard for taking time to put work into honing their skills, that is far from what I’m talking about (and not a solution). There’s simply a negative side to all of the constant change inherent in MOBAs, a large part of which is community-driven. Many players will necessarily get left behind. And if the developers keep wanting to tout the accessible nature of their MOBAs, it might be about time to also build some staying power into the games’ heroes and meta in order to let players return long term, and yes, even on a more casual basis if they choose to do so. This could even be accomplished by a specific mode that isn’t just the general solo queueing experience (and let’s face it, random solo queues can be improved anyway). In doing so, there would still be incentive for players to learn their characters and roles, but others wouldn’t feel pushed out or like they always have to retrain if life gets unexpectedly busy or they simply feel the urge for a break.
Normally, the community having a significant influence on a game is a positive thing for me. In this case, perhaps leaving much of the pull over the meta in most MOBAs to such strong community influence (and especially with the cooperation or encouragement of developers) is shutting players out and encouraging the notorious community behavior reported in the genre. As I said earlier, this arose out of a discussion over League of Legends, but I think it applies to MOBAs in general, of which many have appeared over the past few years, many with promises of a low barrier to entry and simplified or evolved gameplay that still aren’t prepared to support players for the longer haul.