Vague Patch Notes: MOBAs, battle royales, and shallow genre pools in the online gaming space

This is not about Pokemon Unite, but it is

    
12
Make them fight.

This past week, Nintendo announced Pokemon Unite, and then I had to go to see a doctor because I rolled my eyes so far that my retinas were at risk of detaching. It’s an upcoming MOBA, and while that genre seemed to have suffered the death of a small yappy dog sometime in 2017 or so now we have another one coming down the pipe and I just feel myself sighing like I’m going to be on the phone with an elderly relative explaining what the heck it is.

This article isn’t really about that. It isn’t really about Crucible, the first game that finally launched from Amazon that’s a team-based PvP shooter and oh sweet lord no this isn’t landing. It’s also not about Dawngate Revival and its attempt to bring a MOBA that never got out of beta into a launch state because this time will be different. But it’s about all of these, and Gigantic, and Population Zero, and so many other games where you can see what’s coming and you just want to call someone making decisions here and say stop.

Let’s make something clear. MOBAs, as a genre, have never actually existed. There are exactly four games in the genre that have actually gotten over. League of Legends made it up by hitting as a free-to-play version of a very popular map in Warcraft III, and then… well, Dota 2 and Heroes of the Storm both managed to at least appear to get over due to huge cash infusions by companies that had huge amounts of cash to spend, and Smite just happened to hit at the right time.

We’re not even talking about the fact that the whole esports thing has never made any money (something I’ve already written about). This genre has never made any money. It doesn’t exist. I am pretty sure that I could name twice as many MOBA titles that failed and shut down as that list, and I am pretty sure that’s not even scratching the surface. It’s a huge history of gigantic failures marked by a handful of successes, and two of those successes were mostly a testament to buying their way in.

Of course, once PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and then Fortnite hit it big, it was all battle royale games. We fit a fair number of loose survival sandboxes in between. Go ahead and count for yourself how many of those were successful, too. The number is really, really small.

And as someone writing in this industry, it is just… exhausting. It’s a rabbit hole of pointless waste.

Pshew, pshew, pshew!

Let me make something clear. As someone who loves games and loves examining them critically, I get this. I really do. Remember that I was one of the people who would, at almost any opportunity, gush with enthusiasm about Rend looking like a piece of absolute brilliance. In fact, from a system standpoint, the only really bad thing I have to say about Rend is that its command of interesting systems was only matched by its complete inability to sell itself to a potential audience and then flopping horribly.

Having new ideas in a played-out genre doesn’t actually matter. You need to actually be drawing things in for the ideas to matter.

This is not new to online games. Video games have always had also-ran copies that are iterations on existing elements. Not ripoffs, exactly, but you can’t look at Croc without seeing that someone really wanted to take on Mario 64. It’s not even necessarily a bad thing; Spyro the Dragon came from the same place, and look how much fun that was.

Heck, it’s not even unusual in other fields. There’s a term in tabletop gaming, “fantasy heartbreaker,” that is literally about how often new designers will gleefully create a game that’s trying to be Dungeons & Dragons again. It almost always comes with a few unique ideas stapled on to a bunch of house rules, made by people who really genuinely love this game and want it to succeed.

And I get it, I do. But if you’re a developer working right now, I want you to read this sentence and really think about it. Internalize it. Let it sink in. All right? Read carefully.

This impulse is bad and it is not going to work.

The world does not need more MOBAs. It does not need more battle royales. It does not need more survival sandboxes. It doesn’t need another hardcore open PvP sandbox MMO that thinks that was the popular part of Ultima Online. We’re good. We don’t need any, thank you, please suppress that instinct. Sit in a cold bathtub for a few minutes if you need to let it pass. It’s all right, we all get these moments.

You’d be entirely correct in saying that, say, there is definitely a market for League of Legends. That market exists. It’s just already playing League of Legends. In order to draw a substantial chunk of that market away, you have to convince it that your game is not only addressing that audience’s specific pain points, but also that the game will still be there in a month or a year or further on. And you have to get that critical mass to make it self-sustaining.

Oh no.

That’s the real kicker, isn’t it? If people think your game isn’t going to be around in a year, they’re not going to spend money on it. And if no one spends money on it, the game isn’t going to be around in a year. The game industry has always been momentum-based, and it’s easy to think that with online games being a sustained marathon that the momentum matters less… but it doesn’t. It still relies on getting enough momentum to convince people that this is worth playing now and is still going to be here, getting that crucial mass going.

And I’ve written about this. I’ve talked about how trend-chasing just doesn’t work in online games in a way that offline games can work around. Your solid mid-tier single-player RPG can be a success because you spent less money on developing it and people are going to need more single-player RPGs to play through, and every so often one of them winds up being surprisingly good on top of it (looking at you, Greedfall). Your MOBA doesn’t have that advantage.

If all it took was throwing money at something, then Riot Games wouldn’t have brought itself up from a tiny studio to a big one and Blizzard or Valve would own the genre instead of throwing money at games that may be kind of money pits right now. If all it took was hiring big names, Artifact wouldn’t have been a catastrophe. If all it took was just having neat ideas, we’d be talking about Rend in the present tense.

No, these games are not for me, and that’s fine. I don’t begrudge them existing just because I don’t want to play them. But I don’t like seeing games shut down, I don’t like seeing fans disappointed, and I don’t want more shallow rushes after one surprising success as if the “success” was the important part instead of the “surprising” portion of that phrase.

I also really don’t want to hear people defending how long it takes Nintendo to catch up to basic trends any more.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

12
LEAVE A COMMENT

Please Login to comment
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
smuggler-in-a-yt
Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
smuggler-in-a-yt

So much packed into this conversation. I know it isn’t a popular opinion on this forum, but the assertion that eSports don’t make money isn’t true. Someone is making money off these events and tournaments, you can see it in the overall spend in the ecosystem. Better to say that no single eSports company has made silly profit margins yet. This is a society/culture shift we’re seeing. It will happen., especially in this new environment. Competition in western societies is just too fierce for it to up and dissipate.

The rest of the article is spot on. One of the first things you read or get taught in any entrepreneurship book/class is to be where others aren’t if you’re looking to create new markets and find new demand. The challenge is that there’s something to the tune of a 1:100 ratio of successes to failed attempts, and so far the gaming market has shown itself to be surprisingly conservative in its investment tone. Just look at the reactions to kickstarters here; that’s enough to dissuade many from even trying something new.

So what are you left with? Big players who want to establish a presence in a particular genre (say, EA or Amazon) and have deep enough pockets that they can just keep going at it until their position needs (note, I didn’t say anything about the game) is met. GameBros who came out of the 80s and 90s with wads of cash from their studio buyouts and are looking for the next thing. And start-ups who just need enough revenue to pay the bills or have a cheaper, but better strategy (which is a valid disruption approach).

The whole scenario is further complicated by the ecosystem buy-in costs for talent and software, the locked in nature of the intellectual property, and the fact that gaming is still seen as a hobby by the corporations and entities in this country with the most cash to spend and invest.

What would be great? To see one of the industry groups, or a new industry group pull cash together from all the studios and just fund great ideas coming out of events like the Global Game Jam or similar. A lot of these games do make it to market, but getting out of the signal/noise morass is a whole other conversation. So in this regard, you’re correct, the industry – not the game devs – need to spend the time to understand and develop the ecosystem.

smuggler-in-a-yt
Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
smuggler-in-a-yt

Oh, and if you are a dev reading this article and comment, you should go take the MITx entrepreneurship classes. Great modules, and they were free to audit last time I checked.

https://www.edx.org/course/becoming-an-entrepreneur is a great starting point.

Reader
sophiskiai

The impulse may be bad, but if a studio’s making the “like X but better” dream game of a few hundred passionate players I can see why it’d be seductive to think that community is the vocal tip of a huge silent potential audience rather than a niche market that won’t be able to sustain your game.

Reader
Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor
Sykes

To rehash the same ideas I left on the last post…Not only does the MOBA genre exist on mobile (Arena of Valor/Honor of Kings/Heroes of Order and Chaos), but I feel Pokemon Unite makes a few minor adjustments that could cause this to fill a missing niche in Asia and succeed:

1) They have TiMi’s proven touchscreen MOBA talent (AoV/HoK’s playerbase dwarfs WoW’s) with Tencent’s money AND the Pokemon license
2) They have a built in timer, addressing concerns from the People’s Daily in China about gaming addictions that threatened Tencent in 2017. This will make the Chinese market considerably easier to enter, as the Chinese Internet Addiction Monitor allows an hour of play without a national ID for age verification.
3) They’ve changed the map to two lanes, simplified the game considerably, and replaced towers with capture points that allow players to continue to focus attacks while destroying nodes, and use nodes as spawn points instead of spawning only at entrances.
4) Cross-platform play

Is it exciting? No. Revolutionary? No. But it is doing something different enough to be profitable, I’d wager.

As for the genre itself, it needs work. I would like to see an asymmetric map where teams play offense/defense, then swap roles to compete similar to WoW’s Strand of the Ancients. A mode where players respawn as a random hero. A mode where players play co-op against bosses while defending three lanes, or a boss-rush mode similar to MMO raiding, with teams racing to complete bosses against another group of 5 visible in a picture-in-picture window, perhaps with mariokart like items to mess with the other side and disadvantage winner enough to keep things close. Huttball-esque modes.

MOBA is the RTS where players control a single hero unit as part of a team – a team based diablo-like game where RPG progress resets after short matches. DOTA 2 seemed to be experimenting with co-op modes and events. I do think there’s room for this as a genre.

Reader
Anstalt

I know that the term MOBA usually only refers to games like LoL, but in truth it also includes CoD, Battlefield, Battlefront and all the other online battle arenas.

And it’s a hugely popular genre with tons of successful games. Its just that the narrow, shallow style of games like LoL only has a few successful titles. There is tons of room for improvement in the genre in general.

(This isn’t me sticking up for mobas btw, I dislike all of them. But thats only because the typical implementation isn’t my thing. I would love some battle arenas with tab-target style combat with a ton of depth, with fantasy stylings.)

Reader
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
Schlag Sweetleaf

#PikachuToo

pikametoo.gif
Reader
Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor
TomTurtle

Clearly the answer to this problem is that we desperately need a MassivelyOP-themed MOBA of course! Who could say no to playing Mo?

Reader
Patreon Donor
Kickstarter Donor
Loyal Patron
Stormwaltz

As I said in response to Ben below, Eliot’s assertion here:

But if you’re a developer working right now, I want you to read this sentence and really think about it. Internalize it. Let it sink in. All right? Read carefully.

This impulse is bad and it is not going to work.

…is fundamentally mis-targeted. It’s not the developers you need to convince of this, it’s the publishers and investors.

You would be hard pressed to find a working developer who wouldn’t love to try risky new things, who doesn’t have a wholly unique personal project somewhere on their home hard drive. But as dev costs skyrocket, no one with money wants to risk it on a concept that hasn’t already proven it has an audience.

I have no insight into the minds running the Dawngate campaign, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

That circle of ex-players has been trying to get the game reverse-engineered and running again since it shut down in 2015.

I don’t believe it’s an attempt to make a profitable game so much as a labor of love “rogue server” that claims to have a unique opportunity to buy the game from the original publisher and keep it up by legit means. Not an attempt to resurrect a moribund genre, something more like City of Heroes: Homecoming.

Ben Pielstick
Reader
Ben Pielstick

“But how can you be sure this game idea of yours is going to make money?” the investor asks.

“Well because its a cool, fun, and unique idea!” you say.

“No thank you.” the investor says.

“What if instead I make a game like League of Legends?” you ask.

“League of Legends makes lots of money! This means your game might make lots of money too. I will give you some money to make your game.” the investor says.

Reader
Patreon Donor
Kickstarter Donor
Loyal Patron
Stormwaltz

This. New, fresh, and different almost never gets funding from traditional publisher sources. Sometimes they can make a go through crowd funding, but MMGs are so expensive to build and run in the first place, they’re rarely possible in that model.

Build “Known Game X, but with changes Y and Z!” you have a chance.

Reader
sophiskiai

Heartbreakingly true. Warframe is a great example, it’s become a big success but only after it spent years trying and failing to get investors interested and ended up gambling the studio’s existence on self-publishing.

Reader
Michael Fuchs

You say that MOBAs aren’t a genre, and that there are only four successful titles. But what about Arena of Valor, Mobile Legends, and (when it was doing well) Honor of Kings?

There’s a huge mobile MOBA market that’s mostly being capitalized in with Asia. It’s not that there’s no genre, is that players say why would I play a crappy knockoff when I could play one of the original good titles, since they’re still being updated and they still hold up.

The problem with MOBAs is the same problem that MMORPGs had ~10 years ago. The developers see how popular one is, trend chase as you say in the article, and then realize they don’t have WoW subscription numbers and close. You can name hundreds of MMOs that have closed for this reason, and there’s really only 10-20 actual successful ones.

It’s just how game development works as a whole when people trend chase. To say that the genre doesn’t exist though isn’t true. It’s that the genre doesn’t tolerate trend chasing. It’s especially worse when studios don’t understand what makes the genre successful and then goes after Esports without realizing, as you said, that Esports doesn’t make money and it’s for marketing. (Looking at you Stunlock).

Pokemon Unite looks like it potentially could bring fresh ideas to the table, and because it’s based on a popular IP and has mobile, it should be wildly successful in the Asian market. Moreso, the game should also be fairly popular with Switch players because there’s no alternative in F2P games for MOBAs there.

If it was PC only, it would fail. No doubt about that. But it’s not.