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The persistent myth of the "MOBA market"

With Valve and Blizzard struggling to carve out niches and Warner Bros cutting its losses, MOBAs are stalled

If you haven't played Warner Bros' now-doomed MOBA game, Infinite Crisis, I encourage you to go off and watch a video of the game in action (there are plenty of them on YouTube). Doesn't look cheap, right? I mean, even leaving aside the fact that this is a game featuring almost the entire roster of top-end DC Comics characters - one of the richest and most valuable libraries of IP in the world, for all that it's presently being disastrously and incompetently mismanaged - this is also a slick, well-produced game. It's developed by Turbine, a company with an excellent track record in online games; it looks great, plays smoothly and offers a huge amount of variety to its players.

Only a couple of months after it was officially launched at the end of March, it's already on borrowed time. Warner Bros will shut it down for good before the summer is out. People who bought large "packs" of content and currency for the otherwise F2P game will be refunded; the publisher is so determined to cut its losses on the project that it's even willing to hand back the money it's already received from consumers. Don't get me wrong, that's laudable and morally right, but it's also pretty damned astonishing.

It's not that games don't get cancelled all the time, often pretty deep into development. There are even some pretty famous cases of games being cancelled after their development was entirely completed, but before being launched on the market - the logic being that it's often more expensive to manufacture, distribute, support and market a game than it actually was to make it in the first place, so if a publisher loses confidence completely, they can avoid sending good money after bad with even a last minute cancellation.

"Somewhere in a slide deck at Warner Bros' headquarters, there's a graph that caused this; a graph that looks like a lose-your-lunch rollercoaster into a mineshaft"

I cannot, however, recall an instance of a publisher spending years working on a major online game release, let alone one with the backing of such impressive IP as the DC Comics characters, bringing it the whole way to launch, putting it on the market - and then unceremoniously dumping it after the first couple of months. (I've wracked my brains for an equivalent case; if any readers know of one I've missed, please do let us know.) That's something really quite extraordinary. It almost certainly represents a truly enormous write-off for Warner Bros., and the collapse in confidence in the game which caused this is absolute.

Somewhere in a slide deck at Warner Bros' headquarters, there's a graph that caused this; a graph that looks like a lose-your-lunch rollercoaster into a mineshaft. I want to see that graph. I'd wager that I'm not the only one who wants to see it, because I don't think that graph was exclusively about Infinite Crisis. The game had its issues, unquestionably, but it received moderate to good reviews and a lot of review comments noted that it had a friendlier experience for first-time players than most MOBAs - a common criticism of the genre as a whole. It might not have been a world-beater, but it ought to have been doing okay.

So what was the graph about? I'd hazard a guess that it was less about Infinite Crisis and more about MOBAs in general. I'd go further and say that it was a graph predicting a bloodbath; suggesting that this market, spawned from humble beginnings as a Warcraft 3 mod and grown to dominate the competitive PC gaming scene around the world, is going to break just about any company that thinks it's witnessing a new easily cloned model for success. This isn't the kind of bright new game genre that you hitch your IP to and earn an easy win; this is a pit of razor wire and broken glass.

To put it in context; this is a genre which Blizzard is entering now, and we find ourselves asking serious questions about whether they've got what it takes to succeed. Blizzard, creators of the world's most successful MMO by an order of magnitude, progenitors of the world's dominant RTS and its associated pro gaming leagues, oh, and by the by, creators of Warcraft 3, the game that spawned the whole MOBA genre to begin with; we're not sure they have the chops. Valve is in the fray already, but while their MOBA title, DOTA 2, is doing okay, it's not taken the world by storm either and gets by on a relatively small but very devoted fanbase. That's Valve, creators of Half-Life, owners of the Steam platform that basically resuscitated PC gaming from its deathbed; that Valve. They're getting by in the MOBA market thanks to a devoted following.

These are world-beating companies. They're the best, or damned near it, at everything they do - and they're struggling, or expected to struggle, to make an impact on the MOBA market. That's because, if we're being entirely honest, there isn't a MOBA market; its very existence as a "genre" is a fiction dreamed up by marketeers and producers with dollar signs in their eyes. There's a League of Legends market. It belongs to Riot Games. It's got something like 150 million people playing every month. It's approximately as welcoming to newcomers (new players and new games alike) as a kick in the teeth with a steel-capped boot. It's an out and out phenomenon, but it's one game - and the notion that it's just a dominant player in the "MOBA market", as distinct from other MOBAs being also-ran clones of League of Legends, is a fantasy, even if you're Blizzard or Valve.

It's sure as hell a fantasy if you're Warner Bros.; even if Batman's got your back.

"Before you set your copy machines running, make sure that what you're about to attempt to copy is actually a genre, and not just one extraordinary game"

The MOBA gameplay model is a very narrow one. It's interesting, but pretty inaccessible to the majority of gamers; often more fun to watch than it is to play, which might be why LoL is so compelling as a spectator sport. This isn't to say that innovation isn't possible within the confines of a MOBA, or that those confines cannot be broken in interesting ways; but the precise mixture that League of Legends has struck upon, the formula for taking frantic clicking, steep learning curves and a community whose notions of civility make Mad Max' War Boys look like your local knitting circle, and transmutating them into a steady stream of gold, that formula seems to be very much locked down. You might make a better game than LoL by tweaking its formulae; you'd be deeply unlikely to make a more successful one, because LoL is more than a game, it's a society and a shared banner, a community and a rallying point, and you can't build those things into game mechanisms.

I don't mean to knock LoL; it's a wonderful game, and one I very much enjoy watching, although I don't think I'll ever actually play it again; it's not for me, on so very many levels. Rather, I'm knocking the companies who thought to copy something without understanding it. We saw this before, when World of Warcraft inspired identikit clones by the bucketload, but their fate was rarely quite as absolute as what's happened to Infinite Crisis, perhaps because World of Warcraft was more game than community and thus its clones could at least copy a reasonable part of what made it whole; League of Legends is far more community than game, for its sins, and its clones are necessarily rattling and hollow unless the company behind them can craft a soul of its own variety to animate the bones, as Valve has done, as Blizzard hopes to do.

It may be cynical to think this way, but I suspect I'm asking a little much of many decision-makers at game publishers to try to fully comprehend the reasons for the popularity of an online game or service before blindly rushing into cloning it, with or without your own IP in tow. That's been a business model for many years, and while it's generated a great many failures, it's also generated enough hits to propel producers behind such unthinking cloning efforts into senior positions across the industry.

Rather than asking for such a huge sea-change in thinking, then, let me request something simpler; before you set your copy machines running, make sure that what you're about to attempt to copy is actually a genre, and not just one extraordinary game, something that stands in a unique position on intersecting lines from many different sides of the industry, something that is, inherently, impossible to copy with any true success. If there was a MOBA market, Infinite Crisis would probably still be alive and kicking; if its creators had realised that what actually exists is a League of Legends market, with some of the industry's most powerful and talented creators hanging on at the edges by their fingernails, perhaps all that talent and resource might not have been wasted at all.

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Latest comments (8)

Ron Dippold Software/Firmware Engineer 6 years ago
There is a fairly large 'MOBA market' - but I think your main point is spot on - they already play LoL. 85% of the MOBA market last time I looked. You can't just decide to make a LoL clone and cash in. LoL and DoTA are already there and DoTA's not doing great. Blizzard just arrived. Do you really think you can beat them? Steam is filled with the corpses of moribund MOBA games.

Heroes of the Storm will probably be okay because Blizzard is good at cross-promoting, good at making stuff casual, and has enough fanboys/girls to keep the servers running at least (I personally know at least four WoW players who also play Hearthstone and now are looking at HotS, but that is self-cannibalizing). Besides that, I think Smite was doing okay last time I looked, but... that was about it?

I certainly hope people figure out the MOBA deathtrap faster than they figured out the WoW deathtrap.
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I cannot, however, recall an instance of a publisher spending years working on a major online game release, let alone one with the backing of such impressive IP as the DC Comics characters, bringing it the whole way to launch, putting it on the market - and then unceremoniously dumping it after the first couple of months.
I can think of one ;3

Transformers Universe had one of the biggest IPs in the world and the considerable publishing muscle of Hasbro to back it, a dev team of over 100 people and several years of development behind it, but it was canned about six months after release. Possibly at least one factor in that was that the game shared some similarities with the MOBA genre - but that would only be one factor amongst many...

Good article as usual, Rob. I do hope Heroes of the Storm sustains itself though - it's the only MOBA-type game I can bear to play, and it's pretty damn fun too!
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Mark Reed Chairman, Heaven Media Ltd6 years ago
AAAAHHHHH.... This article is a litany of assumptions and inaccuracy. I get Rob you have some views on Warner cancelling the game but hearing you talk about online gaming is painful...

Rob Fahey: Valve is in the fray already, but while their MOBA title, DOTA 2, is doing okay, it's not taken the world by storm
REALLY? Look at the stats they often peak past LoL on Twitch and have more active players in many top countries in the world than LoL. The Invitational will be one of the largest eSports event this year. Doing 'ok'?? There is not one top Publisher that would want their game to be doing as 'ok' as DOTA for player demand and financial success.

Rob Fahey: I cannot, however, recall an instance of a publisher spending years working on a major online game release...
REALLY? Transformers?? Also why is it a MOBA thing? the ever failing Starwars Old republic, as big an IP as DC.

Rob Fahey: LoL often more fun to watch than it is to play
REALLY? 150m players in LoL, can you really suggest more people have fun watching than playing.
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Show all comments (8)
Anthony Chan6 years ago
hmmm first your article on Android + Nintendo + NX and now this.... not sure what to think.

I only have these two comments. Frist, the statement about MOBAs being more fun to watch than play, you really should keep it to yourself. Your tone states it as fact, but really its only your preference. You are supposed to "report" fact not present your gaming preferences as fact.

Second, you are missing, even though LoL by numbers is the clear leader, you forget Blizzard as a marketing machine. It may be a bit cliche, but looking at their sales and revenue from the annual shareholder presentations, Blizzard has not really flunked anything yet. In fact, the shareholders agree they have yet to see anything that Blizzard has produced to be a flop.

You write with such pessimism about Blizzard's addition to the fray, and frame it with one-sided figures and assumptions to support your pessimism; but the fact that really still holds is Blizzard has a prove track record of converting the NON-TYPICAL gamers of one genre to play another genre religiously. World of Warcraft, Diablo 3, and Hearthstone are perfect examples.

Hence the argument of a saturated market loses value, given Blizzard, has a proven track record of selling games based on its brand alone, and converting "gamers" least expected to play a certain genre.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 5th June 2015 5:53pm

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 6 years ago
It seems a very confused article. Okay, MOBA isn't a "genre", but the same could've been said about FPSs when Doom first released. FPSs weren't a genre then, games were just "Doom-Clones". A genre becomes a genre by maturing (or not), and it does that by there being more and more instances of it to play.

And then you have, re: Valve/DOTA
They're getting by in the MOBA market thanks to a devoted following.
That devoted following's created a massive prize-pool. The largest in eSports. And this isn't new - The International's had millions in prize-pools in the past. If you're saying that DOTA can't beat LoL, that's one thing. But it sounds like you're dismissing the complexity (both in-game and in-community) of a rival because it doesn't have the numbers of the number 1 in the market. Well, by that logic, MMORPGs outside of Warcraft should pack up. FPSs outside of CoD should pack up. Third Person action games outside Uncharted should pack up.

The thrust of the piece is that it assumes there's only room for one MOBA. This isn't anymore true than there being room for only one MMORPG, or FPS. There's a limited amount of space for MOBAs now, but to assert that it isn't a genre at this stage...

To me, Infinite Crisis closing so quickly shows that the protracted development of videogames means get-rich-quick development isn't going to work. By the time a publisher has caught-on to a genre being worth money, it's too late. DOTA's been in development since 2009 - the same year LoL released. What's happened with Infinite Crisis (and MOBAs in general) is exactly the same thing as happened with MMORPGs, Survival Games, Zombie Games.

Edit: Interestingly, it's possible to re-write this article and come out saying Valve are visionaries for seeing the potential in the MOBA market. Reading Wiki it appears they started development of DOTA 2 a matter of weeks before LoL released.

Edited 5 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 5th June 2015 6:57pm

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George Williams Owner 6 years ago
This kind of reminds me how the current MMO genre is, with Riot swapping places with Blizzard for top dawg. Then comes the endless flood of clones offering nothing new, wondering why they can't attract players, then either shutting down, or going Free to Play (not the case here, as MOBAs already are).

You need to give players a reason to play your MOBA. If someone has invested 2-5 years of their time in LoL, try one of the new arrivals and thinks 'meh, its the same game with a different skin', they wont stay and give up on that investment made elsewhere. The same is true of MMOs all trying to copy WoW and the same for MOBAs trying to copy LoL.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
I found three things fascinating while playing DotA. Firstly, immediate feedback when you broke one of the stalemate situations in your favor and pushed a lane. Secondly, the fact of being very close to an opposing human player in your lane and that constant scraping on the edge to get a kill in or avoid being killed while collecting and denying resource. Thirdly, the sudden way in which the whole team shifts its attention and has to charge into an uncertain situation.

While a lot of games have tinkered with the minutia of characters, items, maps, etc, there is still no game outside of LoL and DotA who got the big three things just right. Take Heroes of the Storm, map objectives might sound fun, but that is ditching two of DotA's strengths in favor of one and losing the balance between the three in the process.

Imo, there is more to it than the idea of people sticking to the first one. The first one just happened to make thing right that required no further iteration. That made LoL big, pointless iteration made everybody fail from Demigod onwards. DotA came late to the party, fielded the most shameless of clones and it worked. Because the core strengths were retained.
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Anthony Chan6 years ago
@Klaus and George; while I do agree with the assessments, you are still comparing LoL and DoTA to HotS - which is causing the inaccuracy.

LoL is very similar to DoTA when just a mod on WC3. The greatest hook for this game was the character customization as a progression. The objectives were simple. It all came down to efficient resource management, using said resources to get the best equip upgrades that would maximize skill damage and efficiency. People who memorized the item progression tree and knew what exactly to buy at the right time did well in the game. But it was punishing to many who were new to LoL (or even new to DoTA way back when).

DoTA2 is all in all very similar DoTA the mod. It came with skill balancing, tweaks, and graphical overhaul, but it still smells of DoTA1. And as such, it can be easily compared to LoL since they come from the same origin.

HotS is a MOBA, but only because it has the premise of one. The game could easily be called Blizzard's rendition of Smash Brothers (ARPG edition), or Diablo 3 PVP (the one everybody has always wanted). But if compared to the mod that made MOBA famous, it is not really close. The key defining factor is the removal of the "ever-present in all MOBAs" item shop. This changes the dynamic of the game and removes a very tight restriction to entry.

As I stated in the last post, Blizzard is amazing when it comes to creating games that break "genre" barriers and introduce non-players of one genre to another. Now the hardcore would be like "this game sucks, its like <name of game> on 'easy' mode". People said the same thing about Hearthstone and compared it to Magic The Gathering and other card battling games that had much steeper learning curves. Now look at the game, HS is one of Blizzard's darlings and not slowing down.

So by removing the item shop, and removing the need to memorize item evolution and progression while trying to multi-task actual precision clicking and coordinating team combos, they stripped away complexity preferred by HC MOBA players. But they replaced it with the simple skill tree, one that is loved by many Blizzard players- now the centre of hero customization. A player will no longer be rated based on his/her ability to acquire enough resources to purchase godly items, but more based on their ability to gain xp through active participation in game to hash out a skill setup that works within the team they are in. The game focuses more on picking a hero and learning how to best use that hero. Skill trees also are great in the sense they provide some customization/builds - something that is important in D3 or WoW.

So Blizzard with HoTS has nailed ease of entry, focus on team play, and recognition of it's brand's biggest heroes. What else doe it need? Marketing. And boy does Blizzard know how to do that. While the first every official tournament with a substantial cash pool for HoTS was a flop regarding organization, it does say something about Blizzard's dedication to this game. Who holds an official tournament with 100K cash prizes while the game is still in beta? Somebody who understands the draw to competitive team games. Blizzard is ready to carve out a piece of the pie in an already "over-saturated" market by throwing money at it where it makes sense. In addition to throwing money, getting ESPN coverage goes a long way. HoTS like HS is as much a spectator "sport" as it is a game for the players - and so far, Blizzard has the most spectated games under one brand than any other developer out there. This will help with HoTS' longevity.

Comparing HoTS and basing its potential success off of the best MOBA in market today is inaccurate and misleading. HoTS is a great game that will bring many "noobs" to the "MOBA" scene. People will hate and doubt - but HoTS has already earned its place. Anyways, I am sure we will be doing this again, when Overwatch comes out - headline: "Can Blizzard's FPS make it in an oversaturated FPS market?".

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 8th June 2015 3:33pm

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