I wrote this rant/opinion piece a week ago for Gameverse. The editor finally got around to it today...and rejected its current form because I need more facts to back up my opinion and expand my views more or something. So, I decided to post it here instead. Now I'm just waiting for my Ring Runner review, which I submitted over two weeks ago, to be edited so I can post it.
It seems like a new Dota-style game is being announced every week, and it's getting really out of hand now. It's no secret that League of Legends and Dota 2 are industry juggernauts. With enormous player bases and huge eSports scenes, both games are making their respective developers more money than they know what to do with. Naturally, the rest of the game industry wants a piece of the MOBA pie. Techland recently announced, of all things, a Dead Island MOBA. Yes, it has gotten to the point where developers are taking preexisting, established franchises from totally different genres and making a MOBA version, because LoL and Dota 2 are big and everyone seems to think that aping them is like creating a machine that prints free money. Of course, with all big trends in the game industry, no one is stopping to think why this is a terrible idea.
We've seen this all before. Whenever a particular genre or game setting gets popular, everyone and their dog starts making games like it. We saw it with WWII shooters many years ago, we saw it, and to a lesser degree still do, with WoW-clone MMOs, and we are still seeing it with modern military shooters. In many cases, this ends badly for the imitators; EA's attempt to "update" the Medal of Honor series with a modern setting to compete with the current Call of Duty games ended in disaster. The 2010 reboot was met with fairly positive reviews and ended up being a commercial success, while last year's Warfighter was such a gigantic flop that it killed both the Medal of Honor series and its developer Danger Close Games. While we are on the subject of massive failures, how much money has been wasted trying to create a "WoW killer" MMO that ended up dead and forgotten before its first anniversary?
So what can we learn from all of this? Well, trying to dethrone--or at least take gamers away from--a massive, established series like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft is really freaking hard. Activision is still swimming in money from the latest Black Ops II map pack, and even though WoW is hemorrhaging subscribers, they are still above the 7 million players mark. The same thing will happen with anyone trying to take on LoL and Dota 2, and in this case it is even harder to take players away from an established MOBA because of the very nature of the genre.
MOBAs (A term I've never really been a fan of myself) have an extremely high learning curve. It can take a very long time just to get the basics down, and it gets even more complicated when you consider all the champions/heroes/whatevers, all the items and builds, etc. This means that once you really get into a game like Dota 2 or LoL, you probably won't be leaving it for another MOBA. It takes such a huge investment of time to get halfway decent at these games that the idea of relearning all this stuff in another game is just too daunting.
This isn't even taking into consideration the persistent account you may have built up; all those skins you bought in LoL, all the items you acquired one way or another in Dota 2...it is hard to leave all of that and start from scratch in another game. You probably have friends who play a particular game with you as well, and you don't want to go over to a game they don't play. It's for these very reasons that most people only seriously play one MOBA, be it Dota or LoL, and maybe dabble in something like Awesomenauts or Smite. It's the same with MMOs. You spend so much time, and possibly money, building up this persistent character that you become too invested. You don't want to leave it to start all over again somewhere else. This, and the friendships you've established in the game, is ultimately what keeps bringing long-time players back to WoW.
Honestly, I also feel that most major companies just don't even have the right mindset and business practices to create a thriving MOBA. I don't think many publishers realize just how much you have to put into a MOBA to make it any good. Games in the genre require very regular updates to tweak the balance, add new heroes to keep people interested, make sure these new heroes are properly balanced...These games require years and years of proper support, almost like an MMO. A far cry from the practices of the current mainstream, AAA industry that craps out a game and four DLC packs before doing it all over again next year. This is exactly what Warner Bros. did when they published Guardians of Middle-earth by Monolith Productions. They released the game, tossed out some token patches and updates, and created a season pass DLC that added some new guardians. Now the game has been abandoned less than a year later for the DC Universe MOBA Infinite Crisis. You CANNOT take this "fire and forget" approach to MOBAs.
Then there is the eSports scene. A huge part of why LoL and Dota 2 are so big is because of the massive eSports support provided by Riot and Valve. These two companies are in a pseudo-arms race to one-up each other and provide the biggest prize pools in eSports history. The currently ongoing The International 2013 for Dota 2 has a prize pool of nearly $3 million. Valve and Riot know that throwing all this money at the eSports scene is worth it in the end because of all the coverage their games get. These tournaments bring in a lot of viewers via streams, and this coverage can also bring in new players and keep current players interested. I don't think that companies like EA and Warner Bros. understand this, and probably aren't willing to invest so heavily in the eSports scene. This is actually fairly important if you are trying to build a Dota or LoL-style game, which is exactly what they are trying to do with Dawngate and Infinite Crisis. Oh sure, you can ignore the eSports scene entirely, but don't expect your MOBA to bring in huge numbers of players unless you are doing something really unique.
This is the other big problem that publishers don't seem to understand. You can't try to beat a really popular game by just copying it as closely as possible. This has been said many, many times regarding WoW and all the MMOs that try to clone it: Why would I play something exactly like WoW when I can just play WoW? Likewise, why would I play a copycat of Dota or LoL when I can just play the real deal? These games have large, established player bases and you can expect them to be supported for many years to come. From what I've heard so far, Infinite Crisis plays a hell of a lot like LoL, with the only real gimmick being that it involves DC superheroes. Will the DC gimmick help the game stand out and survive where others have failed? Probably not, in the long run.
If you look at the MOBAs that have carved a successful niche for themselves in the shadow of the big two iron giants of the genre, they all offer something very unique that you can't get from Dota 2 and LoL. Awesomenauts is a very popular game, and quite a few Dota and LoL players play it as a fun side game. Awesomenauts takes the core idea of a MOBA, building up a character and pushing lanes to destroy the enemy team's base, and turns it into an extremely charming 2D platformer. Smite takes that MOBA gameplay and changes the perspective, making it a third-person, over-the-shoulder game instead of the traditional overhead view for the genre. AirMech gives you direct control of a transforming mech that you can use to pick up and place creeps around the map. Instead of making something that looks and feels like LoL/Dota and just tweaking some stuff here and there or trying to get by with a gimmick like being set in the DC Universe or Middle-earth, try thinking outside the box and fusing that core MOBA experience with another genre. It seems like this is the only way to really succeed alongside the likes of Dota and LoL, and it gives us gamers a refreshing and interesting new game to play.
Make no mistake, most of these MOBAs popping up are going to fail horribly. We are seeing it happen already. Battle for Graxia, formerly Rise of Immortals, by Petroglyph is one such example. Petroglyph used the setting from their rather decent turn-based strategy game series Graxia and created the Battle for Graxia MOBA. Battle for Graxia was shut down around eight months after release. Then there was EA's previous attempt at making a MOBA, Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes. This extreme distillation of Warhammer Online's PVP was such a complete and total flop that it didn't even make it out of open beta before being shut down, which was likely due to the game being absolutely terrible.
You might be asking why I care about this so much. Why am I writing this rant, instead of simply just ignoring all these MOBAs that the industry is crapping out in our general direction? Well, because it is also starting to affect other games I do care about. Dungeon Defender, a fairly good co-op third-person action RPG/tower defense hybrid, is getting a free-to-play sequel that is mainly focused on a new MOBA mode. There will be content along the lines of the previous game's co-op tower defense gameplay, but the main focus thus far has been this new MOBA mode. Admittedly, Dungeon Defender 2 is trying some interesting new things in its MOBA mode, but it is still an example of a non-MOBA franchise getting a MOBA sequel because that's the new trend.
What I'm more angry about is End of Nations and how it was retooled into a freaking MOBA. I liked the old End of Nations, before Trion Worlds took over and decided to screw everything up. It was a bit janky and needed some polish for sure, but I was really looking forward to EON when it was a team-based RTS with match sizes more reminiscent of an FPS than your typical strategy game. Then Trion took over development and decided to retool the game to "improve" it, and now we have this vehicular MOBA thing. Yes, it's true that we still know very little about the EON redesign, but the fact that they are actively calling it a MOBA now instead of an RTS greatly disappoints me.
I guess the point I'm vainly trying to make here is that Dota clones and MOBAs are the new bandwagon genre that all the developers and publishers are trying to jump on as quickly as possible...And this path will only lead to disappointment and failure. Tell me, how many times have you heard a gamer say "Gee whiz guys, I could really use another MOBA to play!" You haven't, because everyone interested in MOBAs already plays Dota 2 or LoL and have no interest in another one. They don't want more games just like Dota 2 and LoL because they are already playing Dota 2 and LoL. People simply don't play multiple MOBAs; you find one you like (Dota 2 or LoL) and you stick with it. Transitioning from one to another is simply too big of a time investment for most people.
Most of all, I don't want to see companies blow money on pointless endeavors when it could have been used on something good. I especially don't want to see more franchises twisted into something they aren't in some grossly misguided cash grab chasing the new bandwagon genre. If you are going to make a MOBA, give us something really new and unique. Awesomenauts did it and last I heard the developers are doing very well for themselves. Don't just try to copy Dota 2 and LoL because you think that a game similar to those two will draw in a bunch of players, because it sure as hell won't.