Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The MOBA Muffin

So, Defence of the Ancients. It always struck me as odd that the territory carved out by DotA didn’t have a genre with which to define itself for a period of time best measured in the decay of Carbon-14 isotopes. It lacked a box in which we might place (and judge) it, and people love placing things. DotA’s weighty legacy is almost clear by this point, save for a few minor ambiguities. For one, folks can’t seem to decide what to call the follow-ups. There are only three prevalent genre-titles, but that’s enough to draw confusion as to whether there are actually any fundamental differences that come with the tag. There aren’t, by the way. The first I encountered was ‘Action Real-Time Strategy’, which sounds like Command & Conquer with Bruce Willis and a generous helping of quick-time events. The worst thing about ARTS (other than the fact that at first glance it looks like I’m talking about some kind of Humanities pressure group) is that a key part of this genre is that it has removed almost every conventional aspect of RTS games: the ‘A’ may as well stand for ‘Antithetical’ in this scenario. It’s completely unintuitive.

Another tag used for these games (I’ll save the best for last) might actually be the laziest label I’ve ever seen. It is, simply, the Dota genre. That’s right: the name of the game that brought attention to this genre is this genre. Talk about dicey positions to occupy: all I need to do to irk a fan is imply that Dota represents its own genre like Halo games aren’t really FPSs. That is, imply DotA’s attraction amounts to bells and whistles. Not that I think that this is true (although prolonged exposure to Warcraft 3’s ladder will induce this sentiment), but this kind of low-hanging categorisation invites incredulity.

And I come to an abrupt rest with the suddenly-not-so-silly-seeming moniker ‘Multiplayer Online Battle Arena’ (MOBA): simple, to the point and, as an added bonus, kind of rhymes with ‘DotA’. It’s always a good thing for people to be able to say ‘I want to play more games like this’, with the correlation in mind that they can then punch that genre acronym into Steam and go nuts. Even with this convenience at my finger-tips (and ignoring the fact that there’s a certain degree of ambiguity surrounding the genre’s name) I still feel that there’s a slight futility in it all. Like the best one can hope for is a tag that isn’t too obtuse, deliberately euphemistic or outright vague. These tags come to mean far more to people who have experienced a genre than they could possibly mean to the curious newcomer, and that isn’t really the case for more traditional media. The fact is, ‘MOBA’ could stand for almost anything and still be more useful than say, ‘JRPG’, whose highly informative components advise us that these are indeed Japanese Games in which you Play Roles. Okay, so this is a kind of shaky analogy, but the point is there: JRPGs have many common themes. There are conventions which familiar players will pick up on and expect, but they lie ruthlessly unapparent to the new. MOBA games are just like that.

I realised a little while ago that I was around at the dawn of this stuff. It sounds kind of clichéd, but I couldn’t believe what Defense of the Ancients turned into. This was due in large part to the fact that I backed a losing competitor, Tides of Blood, and bore DotA a special kind of hate. It wasn’t just that its popularity gobbled up Warcraft 3’s custom games lobby, but that it held onto some philosophical premises that were pretty harsh to me: choice and capability superseded simplicity and balance, and the general community struck me as somewhat insular. It was equal parts prejudice and calculated self-dissuasion on my part, but I’ve since come full-circle to find a rekindled interest in MOBAs. In any case, this kind of digression deserves its own space. For now, on with story-time!

Back when Warcraft 3 was my game of choice I hit the custom games a lot, trying out new or familiar maps on-and-off for half a decade. The idea of League of Legends, Heroes of Newarth or million dollar tournaments coming from this was not insanity to me, because ‘insanity’ implies that I had given this outcome any thought. There are only so many permutations for how things can unfold—factors go in, results come out: never a missed communication. (relevant)—and the branch where the originally-awkward, chaotic Hero Arenas eventually coalesce into an actual genre was unexplored.

When you take away the tech trees, the production timing and the unit placement of traditional RTS games, you’re left with the Heroes of Warcraft 3. Hero Arenas were the earliest manifestation of this sentiment, pretty much as I just put it: stripped down, pick a Hero, go crazy. This all came from Blizzard’s ideal of special units you may equip, can gain EXP, but are not some form of deity to whom the player-camera offers eternal tribute. Shit’s happening elsewhere. This general principal was rinsed and repeated by map-makers for years, while the consuming public would allow the superior products to shine and the inferior to fall by the way-side. As I mentioned before: the idea of a genre growing from this was beyond my conception. The scale for success for a custom game on Warcraft 3 (or the one I would conventionally ascribe, anyway) was that I saw people hosting it with frequency. Genre-creating wasn’t on my scale.

There were many maps that applied the basic principal of Warcraft 3’s Heroes to their design, with extremely diverse sets of circumstances, and equally varying degrees of success. As a simple example of the tool being pushed in a very different direction to MOBAs, there was the popular Enfo’s Team Survival, which held—other than a couple of key oversights in its earlier builds—a sound principal in equipping your Hero to defend from waves of monsters which would eventually over-run you. The meat of the competition here was the ability to either cast supporting skills to bolster a failing defence, or to hurl annoyance at the enemy team’s heroes in an attempt to throw off their survival. The very controlled and limited nature of the human element in competitive gameplay meant that it was possible to plan out what you would do for the majority of the game. Sadly it also sapped at the map’s lasting appeal.

Defence of the Ancients emerged as the dominant map for a number of reasons. For one, it had an impeccable support community; new versions were frequent, adding Heroes, options, items and bug-fixes. But if I had to guess why it really stuck, it would have to be the game’s encompassing focus. As I mentioned before, the MOBA genre is essentially the concentrated innovation of Warcraft 3, minus every conventional RTS aspect: it needed a similar appeal to stick. The way you micromanage your Hero and distribute ability-points mirrors that of Warcraft 3; the optimisation of limited inventory space; the importance of choosing when and where to engage—all rooted in this genre’s make-up, just as they were indispensible pieces of Warcraft 3’s standard game. It seems stupidly obvious, in retrospect, but if you’re using an RTS interface for something that is fundamentally not an RTS (and what you are playing is certifiably Not Dumb) then it must be something else.

So, Warcraft 3. If DotA represents a stylised version of Warcraft's innovation, was its creation and refinement—or something very much like it—inevitable? After all, if DotA hadn't accrued its enormous fan-base, another custom map would have. The hooks, the map-editing tools, the potential fans: they were always going to be there. Maybe I'm passively handing over too much credit to Blizzard, but it's not every day a game gives life to a new genre.

In the next post of, er, PLB? Ahem. Why e-sports is ruining e-sports, and why sensationalist previews produce a narcotic-like effect upon their writers.

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