This post is part of a series. Start from the beginning here.
While some trace it back all the way to video gaming’s earliest real-time strategy titles, the MOBA genre is generally believed to have gotten its start with the release of Aeon of Strife around 2002. At the time labeled as a “hero defense” game, this custom map in Blizzard Entertainment’s StarCraft pit a team of humans versus an AI controlled one. It introduced now staple features like a laned map layout, the healing fountain and unit progression, although the latter aspects were still quite limited at this point.
Eventually the original AoS would see further updates like multiplayer and expanded hero abilities, but by then Warcraft III had come along. This new Blizzard game featured much more powerful modding tools, which included features like item collection and hero progression out of the box. This greatly simplified development of AoS-like maps and while the original was ported to the new engine, it arrived there with many would-be rivals on its tail. One of these was Eul’s variant titled Defense of the Ancients.
While its name has survived, Eul’s map itself was actually relatively short lived. By the time Warcraft III’s Frozen Throne expansion came along he’d already stopped updating it, but others had taken up the torch. Using the popularity of the DotA name, and borrowing the most popular hero units from both Eul’s map and its direct competition, modders Meian and Ragn0r created DotA Allstars. This would quickly become the dominant version of the game type. Over time, the map was passed on by a long line of maintainers, each of whom updated it to fit their own tastes, while always taking direction from a growing community of passionate fans as well.
There are many versions of what transpired to cause this community to eventually fracture, but when the dust settled Riot Games had come along. Having hired several community personalities to develop a DotA title of their own called League of Legends and seeking to distinguish it from its competition, it was Riot who coined the term “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena” or MOBA.
Valve Software Corporation and Blizzard Entertainment followed with entries of their own, Dota 2 and Heroes of the Storm. In time, these three became the top dogs of the genre, monetizing their games through the micro-transaction model that Riot had been one of the pioneers of. They also started promoting their respective games through for-money competitions, with both the first edition of League of Legends’ World Championship and Dota 2’s The International taking place in 2011.
Besides their action-packed nature, the large knowledge and skill requirements of these games turned out to make them ideally suited as spectator sports, to the point where an esports component has become kind of expected of new entries in field. While this doesn’t mean that our own MOBA will have to come with a million dollar tournament attached, the potential for it to be considered competitive is definitely a draw to new players. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how Heroes of the Storm will do without, although currently fan efforts are trying to prevent us from finding out.
Another thing the more successful MOBAs have in common is that they don’t rock the boat too much. After all, it took players years to develop their skills and insights and having to throw that all out of the window for a new suitor is a barrier to entry.
What does that leave us to work with though? How can you make the same game and still be original? We’ll explore this next time as we dive into the incumbents’ mechanical differences.