What is this strange new genre?
As the gaming industry progresses in leaps and bounds, it comes as no surprise that the lines between genres and subgenres are steadily becoming more blurred. It was not very long ago a game could easily be defined by its characteristics as belonging in a single genre. However, innovation in the industry has seen the emergence of new and different styles, making it increasingly noticeable that modern day labels are becoming insufficient.
Recent years have seen the rise to prominence of the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre, sometimes referred to by the title of the popular user made map Defense of the Ancients (DotA). Other incarnations of the label include Tactical Team-based Role Playing Game (TTRPG), Action Real Time Strategy (ARTS) and the original inspiration for the map, Starcraft’s Aeon of Strife (AoS). If that wasn’t already complicated enough, DotA is also sometimes written as DOTA, Dota or even dotA. This popular new genre has certainly had its fair share of change, something its many names can attest to. For the sake of simplicity, it will simply be referenced as MOBA throughout this article.
Those who haven’t had any personal experience with a game in the MOBA genre are likely to have heard of it in some other way or form. Games such as Demigod, League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth are all titles which cite DotA as an inspiration – the original MOBA game to hit mainstream success – and have each has secured a respectable player base.
For a title to be defined as a MOBA game, it requires a few key features. Each player controls a single unit which possesses an arsenal of skills and sides with one of two teams. Each team has a base which they must defend whilst they try to destroy that of their opponents. Teams typically are comprised of five players and the unit each player controls is unique among their teammates.
The bases are located at the opposite ends of the map, with three lanes linking them. Preprogrammed lesser minions will spawn in each lane and make their way to the opposing base to clash with each other. It is the goal of the players to push each lane inwards to their opponents’ base and destroy it before their own is taken.
The core gameplay in MOBA titles is based heavily in Player versus Player combat, making games in this genre competitive by nature. Whilst AI controlled bots can act as opponents, their usefulness does not extend past practice.
Where did it come from?
Whilst it is difficult to trace back the exact moment the genre was created it is simple to pinpoint when the game style began to gain attention. Blizzard Entertainment’s Real Time Strategy title Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos and its subsequent expansion The Frozen Throne was a commercial success. However, perhaps more influential was the map editor the game was shipped with.
Based on Warcraft 3’s engine, the map editor was a powerful tool that allowed for extensive user generated content. As a result, the community spawned a massive collection of custom maps and scenarios that extended the life of the game long after it was released.
One of these maps was the original Defense of the Ancients (DotA). Although the map was new to Warcraft 3, it reportedly drew inspiration from another user made map, Aeon of Strife. Aeon of Strife was created with the map editor included in Blizzard Entertainment’s earlier sci-fi RTS Starcraft and contained elements of hero creation that were eventually carried over into DotA.
The newly introduced DotA initially saw little interest in comparison to its popularity today. It went through various changes and was taken by a number of users who sought to change the map as they saw fit. Of the range of DotA maps that emerged from this, the most popular was DotA Allstars, modified by Steve ‘Guinsoo’ Feak (whose alias also serves as inspiration for an in-game item). Guinsoo’s version succeeded where others did not by combining and fine tuning the best elements of DotA’s gameplay to create a truly fun and strategic experience. DotA Allstars is still played to this day.
At present, the DotA map circulating online is the product of many years of tweaks and adjustments. However, because the content was built on what is essentially now a ten-year old engine, DotA has limitations that it’s spiritual successors have overcome, titles such as League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth, which will be discussed later on in this article.
What’s this trademark controversy about?
As a user-made creation for Warcraft 3, the DotA map was freely available for players to modify as they saw fit. However, in October 2010 Half-Life developer Valve unexpectedly filed for the right to trademark the term ‘DOTA’, which would grant them exclusive use of the acronym. Blizzard Entertainment’s Rob Pardo told Eurogamer that Valve is “taking it away from the Blizzard and Warcaft III community and that just doesn’t seem the right thing to do”. If Valve does gain control over the term, it is unknown what repercussions it will have on the current DotA map circulating online and whether the player base will react negatively.
League of Legends developer Riot Games responded by seeking a trademark for ‘Defense of the Ancients’. Riot Games’ Steve Mescon told PC Gamer that the move is designed to prevent a monopolisation of the name and ensure that “the game can continue to be worked on and enjoyed by the independent community.”
How important is the pro-gaming aspect of MOBA?
The inclusion of a DotA Tournament at BlizzCon in 2005 demonstrated Blizzard’s acknowledgement of the user made map as a competitive game. Since then, DotA has been increasingly featured in a variety of international tournaments including the World Cyber Games (Asian Championships), Dreamhack and the SMM Grand National DotA Tournament. However, the spotlight has recently shifted to newer titles League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth.
MOBA releases typically have a steep learning curve. Gameplay revolves primarily around combating other players and working with your team. There is no storyline for a player to progress through, very few (if any) single player components and each game will pit you against human opponents. These all factor into the extremely competitive nature of MOBA titles and higher level gameplay requires coordinated strategies and teamwork. As such, it comes as no surprise that MOBA titles boast a healthy eSports scene which continues to grow, something the increasing amount of attention that each tournament gathers exemplifies.
The pro gaming aspect of MOBA games has certainly pulled enough figures to warrant media coverage in the last few years. The most prominent events include Valve’s recent DOTA 2 tournament, featuring USD$1 million for first place, and League of Legends Season Two tournament, sporting an impressive prize pool of USD$5 million.
It would be fair to say that eSports and MOBA go hand in hand. The existence of each benefits the other, and neither would have garnered as much awareness without this relationship.
What games are currently out there?
Although the MOBA genre has a constantly expanding range of titles on offer, there are a few select games that appear to dominate the player base.
Obviously, one of the available choices is the original DotA. With no tutorial built in, a large cast of heroes on offer, and the complex nature of the gameplay itself, it is undoubtedly the title with the steepest learning curve. To be able to play DotA, users would require a copy of Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, it’s expansion The Frozen Throne and a Battle.net account.
According to developer Riot Games, League of Legends boasts nearly 15 million registered users. With regular tournaments and one of the largest prize pools in the history of eSports, it remains a popular choice for players wanting to partake in the MOBA craze. In addition to its growing player base, League of Legends also offers the option to practice against AI controlled bots. Whilst League of Legends does contain elements of the original DotA, map some of the more complex aspects of the game have been simplified, making it ideal for new players who have no experience in the genre. The game also comes with a tutorial that assumes no prior experience with any MOBA styled titles.
Close competitor Heroes of Newerth, from developer S2 Games, has also demonstrated popularity in the eSports sector. The game was part of the lineup that featured at this year’s Dreamhack, the world’s largest Digital Festival. Heroes of Newerth is likely the MOBA with the closest resemblance to the original DotA. A number of heroes are exact replicas of their DotA counterparts, higher level gameplay strategies remain in place and the majority of DotA items have been kept.
Other less prominent titles include Demigod from Gas Powered Games and Rise of Immortals from Petroglyph Games.
Will it evolve beyond its very rigid structure?
It is difficult to predict whether MOBA games will change over the course of time. Given the large player base, it is at least predictable that each game will be subject to regular tweaks and patches, however the core gameplay will likely remain chained to its current structure.
League of Legends has already attempted a push towards introducing different game mechanics with the recent introduction of a new gameplay mode. Whilst core workings of the game remain the same, a few key features have been modified to alter the way League of Legends is played in this new mode known as Dominion.
The fact is, the heart of MOBA gaming doesn’t leave very much room for change. The genre itself has a structure that, if altered, will deviate too far from its original scheme and risks being classed as something other than a MOBA title. Player demands in the past have pointed to tweaks in hero balancing and item changes, not changes to the way the game is played.
What new examples of the genre can we look forward to?
The most obvious title to keep an eye out for would be Dota 2 from Valve, tentatively scheduled for full release in 2012. Dota 2’s project team is headed by Abdul ‘Icefrog’ Ismail, one of the key people who worked on the original Warcraft 3 iteration of DotA.
Not one to sit out on the action, Blizzard has announced Blizzard DOTA, a free mod that will allow Starcraft 2 owners to partake in some MOBA gaming of their own. Built upon the StarCraft 2 engine, Blizzard DOTA will feature various characters from the developer’s most successful games. This includes appearances from characters hailing from the Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo universes.
The MOBA field is steadily growing larger. With games such as League of Legends enjoying over 1.4 million daily users logging in, one can only speculate what influence such a large player base will have on the development of the genre. The reaction of the community to Dota 2 and Blizzard DOTA will no doubt be as interesting as it is unpredictable.