I just came home from work. Instead of immediately going for a relaxing shower, I’m about to indulge in a nasty habit of mine – opening up numerous industry-related outlets and just chilling for about an hour, absorbing new information and advice from fellow developers.
But this time it’s different. A headline over at Gamasutra grabs my attention - Call for Blogs: MOBAs, from design to business, and onward.
I shake my head in disbelief. Oh, heck no! I’ve SEEN this before. The same mistake repeated over and over again.
A quick intro for the uninitiated
Multiplayer Online Battle Arena is a subgenre of the real-time strategy genre, with a mix of both RTS and RPG elements. Games categorized as MOBAs usually have commonalities with a popular Warcraft 3 mod called Defense of the Ancients or DotA for short.
On the surface, MOBAs can seem quite simplistic (I can already hear the maniacal laughter of existing MOBA players and game designers). Their structure stays exactly the same almost every match:
• Two teams of players are pitted against each other, with the purpose of destroying the opponent’s base.
• The game map is separated into several lanes that are used both by players, as well as periodically spawned, AI-controlled troops. There are also defensive towers located at certain points on each lane.
• Players take control of heroes – characters that become stronger over time by accumulating experience and gold acquired by killing enemy troops and heroes.
There is no denying that MOBAs have gotten really popular in the last couple of years. Tickets for this year’s International, a tournament based on Valve’s DOTA 2, have sold out in just 10 minutes. League of Legends, another leader in this genre, has a player base of 67 million monthly users.
The undisputed leaders of the genre enjoy millions of fans around the world, recognition among eSports enthusiasts and a lot of revenue.
It was only a matter of time before other game developers wanted to grab a piece of this delicious pie. We've already witnessed several new MOBAs enter the fray, some more successful than others. The competition will only get worse in 2015 and 2016 as more titles get ready to hit the market.
At this stage, jumping on the MOBA trend may seem like a logical thing to do for some developers and investors. The majority may end losing their money and it'll be too late to change anything by that point. Unfortunately, the impact of these decisions affects not just people's wallets, but also regular developers, their lives and the well-being of their families.
Let’s step back a little and take a look at the MMORPG market, which has undergone a similar process not so long ago.
A fairly well-known studio called Blizzard releases World of Warcraft – their first foray into the MMORPG genre. The game quickly gets popular, enjoys an influx of new players, expands the market and breaks a few records along the way. Within a few years, developers from all over the world, from small indie outfits to established AAA publishers are trying to replicate the success of WoW.
Their line of reasoning? “Well, if it worked for Blizzard, it’ll definitely work for us!".
Hey, MOBA developers, sound familiar?
Working for a publisher in that time period, I saw a lot of these games pitched during my tenure. A seemingly endless line of so called "WoW clones" and their respective developers, each claiming how their game will pull players away from World of Warcraft.
This trend could be seen all over the MMO-games industry. In the pursuit of easy money, investors were increasingly willing to fund games that were "like World of Warcraft, but a little different." Some companies placed their bets on popular IPs. Some tried refitting existing games to make them more in line with Blizzard’s creation.
A fast follower strategy can be a viable tactic. But not when everybody else and their dog is doing it.
In their rush to clone WoW, most game developers concentrated on copying specific features and game systems, completely ignoring the logic behind their effectiveness, as well as other factors that played a role in WoW’s success. The situation only got worse when large companies jumped in on the fray with big budgets and an even bigger reluctance to take risks.
This lead to a huge number of seemingly different games, but essentially the same experience replicated over and over again.
The result? Players were quickly jumping on to the next hyped title, only to return to WoW a month or two later. The average life cycle of a typical MMORPG plummeted, as developers tried to beat Blizzard at their own game by ripping out WoW's systems, copying its progression models and trying to jam them into their own creations.
True - some of them enjoyed relative success. However, only a few titles really stood and managed to retain players among a long line of financially troubled games.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.
- Misattributed to Charles Darwin
Drawing parallels with the MOBA genre - the vast majority of developers seem to be in the "let's make a game like DotA/LoL, just a little different" mindset. This approach greatly increases the risk of failure, as only a few companies are able to create compelling alternatives or ‘side-experiences’ to current genre leaders.
So what do you do if you are working on a MOBA?
Let’s say you’ve read this article and are fully aware of the risks outlined above. What next?
I’d suggest taking an honest look at the game you are developing. Are you spending resources on a fast follow title with no distinguishing features? If the answer is yes, you have a very limited time window and a small chance of succeeding with the right strategy.
However, it might already be too late for that.
On the other hand, if your game presents a desirable product package for players (features, gameplay, brand, etc.), there is still an opportunity to stand out among the sea of hastily-made, ‘me-too’ titles. It comes down to knowing what your game’s strengths are and presenting them in a compelling manner.
What’s your take on the MOBA market? Do you feel there’s still an opportunity for new games to drive attention away from current leaders?
Share your thoughts in the comments below and let’s hear more conversations on this subject.
To stay updated, feel free to add me on Twitter. Next time, we’ll look into how new MOBAs are doing and what you can do to make your game stand out.