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!

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.

The MOBA genre is generally thought to have gotten its start in custom StarCraft map Aeon of Strife. Picture credit: Lane-Pushing Games

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.

Warcraft III’s World Editor greatly simplified custom map development and spawned many new evolutions of the genre.

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.

The MOBA (or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) is a subgroup of the strategy game genre, which pits two teams of players against each other across a typically symmetrical, laned map. The goal of these games is destroying the opposition’s base, situated at the other end of said lanes.

MOBAs typically feature two teams of heroes battling across a laned map, with the objective of destroying each other’s base.

The means to achieve this differ per game, but generally involve strengthening one’s team through the securing of various map objectives. Eventually this will then allow them to change the equilibrium of the NPC minion waves rolling across the lanes in their favor.

You kill stuff, you level up, you help your minions (or “creeps”) beat theirs and you win, basically.

It’s a simple formula, but it’s survived for nigh twenty years now. Even with the rise of the Fortnite phenomenon, three MOBA titles were in 2018’s top ten of largest prize pool esports and Valve’s Dota 2 comfortably lead that list with available winnings that almost doubled those of the runner-up. That game also saw its equivalent of a world championship draw in 15 million peak viewers, while competitor League of Legends’ World Championship final alone had an audience of almost a 100 million.

League of Legends’ Worlds 2018 final saw a world-wide viewership of a 100 million.

Them’s fighting numbers. And still, there’s only a few successful MOBAs out there. This is not for lack of trying by developers. Before everyone built a battle royale, a lot of people were trying to make a MOBA. Some still are, be it by leveraging new technology or by marrying the game type to another popular one. Yet few succeed.

In this series I will take a look at what makes a successful game in this genre and explore its different evolutions, both proven and new. I intend to do this not just through text, but also through code. Which is to say that we’ll be writing our own, fully functional, MOBA title.

Some have tried marrying the game type to another popular one, like the battle royale.

For accessibility reasons we’ll be doing so in HTML5, so if you’ve not done a lot of programming you will likely be able to keep up. If you have, however, I still hope to provide you with enough of a framework to continue on with the toolset of your choice, as well as give you plenty of interesting ideas to make it something special.

I’m aiming for this to be a weekly series, which you can access directly through this link. Alternatively, following me on Twitter is usually a good way to keep track of the things I’m up to.

We’ll start next week by looking at the history of the genre and into the reasons why those which did survived. I hope to see you then!