MOBAs MOBAs everywhere, and most of them did stink / MOBAs MOBAs everywhere, not a single one unique

With the release of Battleborn, the major changes to League of Legends, and the promise of more Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs) to come, the conventional wisdom for designing these games appears to be, “Make DotA with a twist.” I’m reminded of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” more accurately the Magic: The Gathering card of a plague rat that had a line of the poem in the flavor text. So many MOBAs yet so little variety.

Battleborn makes use of the first person shooter perspective, Smite rolls with third person, Supernova utilizes a minion-purchasing mechanic, and the upcoming game Master X Master has settled on what appears to be twin stick shooter controls and a tag teaming between two chosen characters. Yet all of these feel to me like old hat with a fancy new button pinned atop it.

You’re the King? Well I Didn’t Vote for You

It all began with a Warcraft III custom map. Adapting the hero mechanic in Warcraft III, in which your army of units was complemented by unique heroes that could equip items, cast spells, and level up, Defense of the Ancients rose up from the slush of custom maps to be the go-to game for what would later be called a MOBA. By now, I’m sure you’re familiar with the genre: minions push up lanes, players choose heroes and then kill those minions—and each other—for gold and experience in order to gain advantages over their opponents; and when all is said and done, the game ends when the enemy’s main base structure goes boom.

This was when MOBA conventions were established, the core features of the genre that many of us take for granted that are implemented into the “new MOBA with a twist” genre games simply because they were present in older games. Things like mana bars, how currency is earned (especially how support characters earn currency), starting at level one with only one skill point, and even things like consumable items. These aren’t so much features that define the genre but rather are tried-and-true mechanics. For example, both League of Legends and Smite utilize mana bars for the vast majority of their characters, while Battleborn and Dawngate (RIP, sweet prince) predominantly focus instead on cooldowns on skills.

wizard v warrior

Wizard vs. Warrior

One of the big conventions in MOBAs has always been the split between the magic user and the weapon user. Warriors buy swords, axes, and bows, and wizards buy tomes, staves, and magical trinkets. To maintain this fantasy, many MOBA item shops, like DotA2’s for example, have become huge warehouses for items that, for the most part, your character cannot use effectively. This split is also seen in League of Legends, where the added character stat of Ability Power (AP) is assigned to nearly all of the items appropriate for magic wielders. Thematically, this makes sense, but in practice, it creates a messy item interface that is incredibly daunting to new players.

Allow me a moment to hop up on my Dawngate soapbox. Dawngate was a game whose designers took the philosophy of questioning every MOBA convention. In regards to the Wizard vs. Warrior problem, their design decision was delightfully minimalistic: consolidate the character stats into Power, Haste, Mastery, Health, Armor, and Magic Resistance. Power was the deal more damage stat, Haste was the do things faster stat, and Mastery was the multiply my base damage stat (it functioned as both %crit chance as well as %damage increase on abilities). What this simple consolidation of stats did was omit the need for an inflated item shop. The Tier 1 Power item was the same item you got on both your gun-toting mercenary and your tome-wielding mage. There were, of course, optimal items once the tier of items advanced and the choices branched out a bit, but there were no items that were worthless on any character.


Size Doesn’t Mean Everything

Map size and number of lanes is crucial to how the flow of a game plays out. DotA2 and League of Legends are notorious for having long, drawn out games where mobility becomes a crucial factor. The number of lanes, also, creates a situation where a minimum number of characters need to be present to kill minion waves for gold. With three lanes and a maximum of five players per team, that usually leaves two players to do things, with one of them often babysitting a character that doesn’t take off until they’ve collected quite a bit of gold.

In Dawngate, the map was smaller than League’s and much much smaller than DotA’s. In addition, there were only two lanes, as well as four currency generation nodes that could be captured by either team. League’s designers have been doing their best to promote early game objective-based play by increasing the snowball mechanic of early large monster objectives (elemental Dragons and Rift Herald). While the props have changed, what hasn’t changed is the stage that all this plays out on. Regardless of how the objectives change, characters must still travel the same distance to get to certain points. Dawngate’s map, on the other hand, allowed for up to three players to roam the much smaller map, leading to very early skirmishes that could turn into 5v5 team fights as early as a few minutes into the game.

Character Role vs. Player Role

League of Legends has constantly struggled with this idea of Character Role vs. Player Role, evidenced by the constant threat of mage characters filling the support player role, vice versa, and the unviability of playing certain characters in certain roles (“Master Yi support? WTF?”). For the player, the first question they must ask themselves before picking a character is, “What role do I want to play on the team?” rather than, “Which character do I want to play?” To me, this feels like a small failure in game design, in which the player wants to do one thing but instead must do another because what they want to do “doesn’t work.”

And another step onto the soapbox. Dawngate introduced a “Role” system, in which generating currency differed depending on which role a player chose. Gladiators earned bonus currency from killing minions. Hunters earned bonus gold from killing jungle/neutral monsters (and would have later earned bonus stats against those monsters, as well as automatic execute against the large objective monster, removing the need for a “deal true damage to neutral monster” spell). Tacticians earned bonus currency from being near dying enemy minions and for harassing enemy characters with attacks or spells. And finally, Predators earned bonus currency from kills and assists (this would have later been altered to bonus currency based on a percentage of the enemy’s health damaged to accommodate aggressive supports in lane as opposed to just being a do or die role for assassins).

So in Dawngate, the question a player first asked themselves is, “Which character do I want to play?” and they could choose a role accordingly because it was built into the game. That, right there, is good design in my opinion.


Dawngate Died. Get Over It

Dawngate did die, much to my chagrin. I’ve done my fair share of mourning. It was doing so much right and was planning on doing even more. It wasn’t a DotA-like or League clone with a twist, but rather its own unique entry into the MOBA genre, a game that would have been absolutely stunning and was certainly the most fun I’ve ever had in a MOBA to date. We hide behind MOBA conventions by calling them things like mana management, orb walking, mobility creep, etc.. They are legitimate skills, for sure, but they exist on an anti-fun foundation rooted in conventions of a game almost fifteen years old.

I’m not advocating for throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but should the time arise that you, poor soul, are tasked with designing a MOBA, question everything.


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