MOBAs: The Most Unlikely Popular Game

Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas. Action RTSes. DOTA Clones. They go by several names, and no one seems to have settled on a single nomenclature. But the fact is that League of Legends, by far the most popular MOBA of all, is by many metrics the #1 PC game in the world. This is surprising because MOBAs have a difficulty curve like none I have ever seen.

I remember an episode of the Gamer Horizon podcast where Anthony buried Awesomenauts. I perked up, as I very much enjoy that game. When asked what it was, he said that it was a “platformer.” I didn’t even have to listen to the rest of the review to know why he hated it: He simply didn’t understand it. He got upset that all the levels seemed the same to him and proceeded to compare it to Contra. I don’t blame him though; the rules of MOBAs take a while to learn. I don’t think people who don’t play MOBAs can be presented with a view of the game screen and have an instinctive feel of what to do; and that is the genre’s biggest weakness. It seems like with every other game genre, there is some kind of instinctual behavior ingrained in the psyche of core gamers that has been developed over years and years of playing all manner of games.

MOBAs punish behavior such as attacking minions or weak enemy creatures. In general, players should avoid attacking minions except to get the last hit to get the kill credit. Players quickly learn that enemy turrets tend to target friendly minions before they target friendly player characters. So why not try to kill the turret as quickly as possible? This seems antithetical to the goal of destroying the enemy base and the sub-goal of destroying turrets.

For one thing, the longer you can keep the fight going, the more your character can level up. Better if you can defeat your lane opponent multiple times in order to outpace him or her. At that point the lane is yours to control, unless the enemy team sends other characters to defend. In many cases, you can smash these other characters as well, furthering your advantage. There is also a matter of positioning; pushing one’s lane too far leaves the back wide open for an attack, or a “gank” in the parlance of the genre. However, potential ganks can be mitigated by placing items that generate vision of the area. Potential attackers can be seen coming early, unless the attackers take a different route that avoids commonly reconnoitered areas. There are counters to counters, just like any RTS or fighting game, and we’re only talking about the initial phase of the game.

When I started playing League of Legends in 2009, all of this was learned over a long period of time as I played the game. The grind of repetition and failure burned new instincts into my mouse and keyboard hands. Nowadays, the game has an advanced tutorial where you can play a guided match with many of the game’s principles explicitly stated and presented as quests to complete, as if the player were playing an RPG. In addition, you are fighting computer opponents. Bots did not exist when I started playing.

It’s obvious that Riot Games has added several features to League of Legends to try and make the game more accessible to people who have never played them. Word of mouth has definitely spread to the point where people feel compelled to try the game and some publishers wanting to get in on the action. But just how did the game get popular in the first place? How did we get to this point?

Pretty much every MOBA follows the Free-to-Play model. Every major MOBA lets you unlock characters with either real money or in-game points, with stat-boosting items available for in-game points only and cosmetic enhancements available for real money only. It can be legitimately said that the games, and the genre, are the only ones who do not sell power for money. The only theoretical exception would be buying a boost, where in-game points accrue at a higher rate than usual. League of Legends was one of the first games that I can recall that successfully implemented the Free-to-Play model, and broke the streak of Free-to-Play games having a reputation of being shoddy or exploitative.

Since League of Legends has been released, other games like Heroes of Newerth have adopted the Free-to-Play model. Valve’s own Defense of the Ancients 2 (or DOTA 2) goes one step further, making every character available to play at any rate without cost, and utilizing the Steam Workshop to allow players to create the cosmetic options for characters, which can be earned in-game without monetary cost. The players then earn the majority of the revenue they generate from item sales.

So here we are, engaged in a popular and rapidly accelerating genre, complete with a fairly forgiving payment model, no barrier of entry, and game mechanics that demand tight teamwork. What could possibly go wrong? I’ll leave that for you to ponder until the next time.

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