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

This is not about Pokemon Unite, but it is

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.
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