Make My MOBA – Key design factors

This post is part of a series. Start from the beginning here.

To better visualize the differences between the various MOBA types, we will use aforementioned “big three” titles of the genre as our goal posts. There are of course a lot more games out there, all with their own idiosyncrasies, but we’ll visit these as we go more in-depth on specific features.

For now, if we place them in the order Dota 2, League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm then, in a general sense, we’ve also captured them in decreasing order of complexity. Dota 2 has the largest variety in mechanical goings-on and item/skill timings, whereas Heroes has the least. Similarly, Heroes has the largest action focus with 10-20 minute brawls, while Dota 2’s regularly hit an hour or more and League sits comfortably in between.

It’s important to note that this does not make one or the other better, just different. These differences in complexity do result in very different-looking play for what, to an outsider, are essentially the same games. They can be boiled down to a triplet of design considerations we’ll refer to as micro, macro and map. (I appreciate that the last one probably requires a better name at some point.)

Micro choices in MOBA design have to do with direct player actions. This means things like moving one’s character, last hitting and denying but also the design of character skills themselves. Dota 2 has long animations and turn rates, neither of which League has. This results in fights in the latter feeling much faster, even though they take place under the same premise in both.

Macro decisions, in turn, deal with economy. It’s not just gold that we’re talking about here, it goes for any “currency” in the game, however intangible. Yes, Dota 2 has two different types of gold. Heroes for its part has none, but it does distribute its experience very differently. Both have a significant impact on the balance of power in their matches.

Whole spreadsheets have been dedicated to the most efficient way of using the jungle to a team’s advantage.

Lastly, there is the map. The map’s layout and the additional objectives provided on it greatly influence the ebb and flow of battle as well. This is the one we’ll start with, before circling back to the other two for their implementation.

To understand how map design influences gameplay you need not look further than the towers, a mainstay in all three titles whose demise is an integral part of winning them.

Towers serve to maintain a certain equilibrium in the creep waves and deter the enemy force from coming too close. Even in death they exert an influence on the match, however. After a tower falls, opponents will find themselves with a larger attack surface to defend, whilst the “home team” is left with fewer places to obtain money and experience. This makes the when and where of their destruction an important timing issue, especially when you take mechanisms like first tower gold and turret plating into account.

A similar equilibrium can be found in other non-player-directed map objectives. League, for one, has consistently been balanced to always have one team member jungling, which is the killing of creep camps in the areas between lanes. This adds another threat, as this person won’t always be visible and depending on what character they’re playing, where they were seen last and which route they’re taking, they are a threat to look out for at specific times. Whole spreadsheets have been dedicated to the most efficient way of combining these factors to a team’s advantage. Then there are runes, boss monsters, buffs and item shops to consider, all of them creating additional factors players have to take into account to achieve victory.

How do you decide which to use in your game and where? A good rule of thumb is that the more things you put on the map which require player attention, the more spread out said players will be. If there’s only one thing to defend, after all, it stands to reason that this is where they’ll congregate, whereas if there’s multiple, decisions will have to be made. Similarly, if one objective provides a much larger advantage than the others, it’ll again take most of the player attention. A balanced spread is required to ensure this pull does not become too strong.

Another consideration is that, the more there’s to do, the harder it will be for players to spread their attention to cover it all. If you have to last hit, harass, pull creep camps, get runes, buy items on time AND watch enemy movements, at some point you’re going to run out of brain-space. It’s a fine line between creating a skill proposition and overwhelming your players.

Next time, we’re going to start on a simple map design and see how putting things on it will change its flow. I hope to see you then!

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