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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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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.