Is Orcs Must Die Unchained a multiplayer online battle arena? Ian Fischer, design director at Robot Entertainment, has grudgingly accepted that the term might be inescapable. "When we first started working on the game," he said, "if you could take a time machine back two years, 'MOBA' never would have come out of our mouths. If we were explaining it, we would say, 'It's like playing two games of Orcs Must Die simultaneously' or 'It's like Orcs Must Die but now you get to do the offensive side too.' The game that we compared it to the most at that point was TF2. 'Think about TF2 but more strategic,' that's how we'd describe the game."
But at a certain point, it became clear that players saw the game differently. "When we were getting ready to go to PAX and show the game for the first time," Fischer said, "we got two dozen people from the college down the street from our dev studio, and we didn't tell them anything. We just had them sit down and play it. They helped us immeasurably to refine our demo for PAX, but also, to a person, all two dozen of them said, 'Your game is a MOBA.' We got to a point where we were saying, 'We have to come out and tell everybody we're not a MOBA. We have to position ourselves as not being a MOBA at all,' but everybody said 'MOBA,' so at that point, it was like, why fight it? I'm not gonna spend the next year trying to convince you that it's not a MOBA. You think it's a MOBA, it's a MOBA."
Now, I'm not a big MOBA player, so I'm not in the best position to determine whether the various elements that compose Orcs Must Die Unchained make the game a MOBA or not, and in the end, I'm not sure it matters. When I got to play Unchained last week in advance of the game's beta, my feeling was that it was a more accessible game than something like League of Legends or Dota 2, while still having enough facets to allow for deep, rewarding tactical play. It probably helped my experience that I spent most of my time playing as Blackpaw, a powerful and agile offensive hero with whom I could confidently leap into the fray and deal damage to enemy minions or players.
Unlike in a traditional MOBA, minions aren't generic units that are automatically generated and sent toward the enemy base. Instead, each team has warcamps where you play cards from your deck to determine what types of minions are sent forth. Minions have all kinds of different characteristics--some are pure damage dealers, others disable traps, others heal--and putting together a more effective combination of minions than the opposing team is important, since victory goes to the first team that gets 20 minions into the rift in the opposing team's fortress. As you play, you earn leadership points that can be poured into either upgrading existing warcamps, enabling them to send out more powerful minions, or opening up new warcamps, allowing you to assault the enemy team down multiple lanes.
On the defensive side, there's the traditional Orcs Must Die element of traps. You can spend gold you earn during the match on traps designed to prevent enemy minions from getting anywhere near your rift, and placing traps, like choosing minions, is a tactical concern, because certain types of traps work better against certain types of minions. Heavily armored minions, for instance, are especially susceptible to the electrical damage of Tesla coil traps.
The action moves fast, and between offense, defense, setting traps, choosing minions, and upgrading warcamps, there's a lot to think about. Fischer hopes that these elements make Unchained a game that can stand out in the increasingly crowded world of competitive online games. "We have a bunch of guys in the office who play a lot of League and a lot of Dota," he said. "Those people tend to look at [Unchained] and say it's not a MOBA, and list off all the reasons, if you're a purist, why it's not a MOBA. But it obviously borrows from MOBAs. It borrows from TF2. It borrows from Magic: The Gathering. It borrows from Warframe. We think that with the traps, the offense, defense, the minions, the different kind of combinations of stuff in there, whether it's a MOBA or not, we're still giving you a pretty unique experience. We're still doing something that players haven't seen before."