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Why jumping on the MOBA bandwagon now will only end in disaster

Wednesday, 9th July 2014 09:52 GMT By Matt Martin

Everyone is making a MOBA. Matt Martin sees an MMO-style genre crash coming.

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“Jumping on the MOBA bandwagon now is an act of desperation, a last roll of the dice from studios gasping for air in an increasingly tough market.”

The thing PC gaming does really well is mastering a niche. MMORPGs, real-time strategy, card battling games. These are the sort of games that one or two PC developers create and drill down on until it’s as perfect as it can be. Once that’s done, the numbers of players go up and the amount of money they spend in the game climbs. Then a bunch of other developers think they see an opportunity and jump on it.

They don’t see an opportunity, they see a bandwagon that’s already leaving town. They go to investors and bankers who don’t really understand video games very well – but do claim to understand money – and they see World of Legend Warriors is making loads of money and their pupils turn to dollar signs and their jaws spring open like a cash register. Ker-ching!

So the project gets greenlit. What neither of those realise is they’re seeing something that happened in the past and they will inevitably be too late with their efforts. Online games take an age to make – two years at least – but they can take another two years being tweaked and redesigned and relaunched. This whole process is too slow. Any developer thinking they can jump on a PC gaming bandwagon has left it too late.

The current bandwagon is the MOBA game. The Multiplayer Online Battle Arena – and variations on that – is the genre de jour. There’s not a week goes by that a well-respected developer announces a new MOBA game. But look at one of the market leaders, League of Legends. It came out in 2009 and at the start of this year had around 67 million people playing it a month. 27 million people play it a day, 7.5 million concurrently.

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When you have no previous experience in the genre – when you lack years of trying, failing, experimenting in a niche business – how are you honestly going to compete with that? MOBA is already an esport, it’s an industry on its own. And the companies that are leading the pack are not going to let down their guard when new challengers approach.

Yesterday Gearbox went and announced its MOBA game, Battleborn. Last week CD Projekt announced The Witcher Battle Arena. Last month Crytek revealed Arena of Fate. These will be competing against Heroes of the Storm, Sins of a Dark Age, Infinite Crisis, Dawngate, Dead Island: Epidemic, Adventure Time: Battle Party, Smite, Transformers Universe – all of which are currently in open or closed beta.

These new MOBAs that are being announced now insist they are doing something different. It’s for mobile formats, it’s free-to-play, it’s a first-person MOBA, it’s for consoles, it features a well-known brand. This is starting to sound really familiar.

It’s hard not to be cynical. Do Transformers, DC Comics’ superheroes and a surreal Cartoon Network show really lend themselves to an online action strategy game? Of course they don’t. It’s a square peg, round hole situation. Developers are asking, “what license have we currently got, what genre is hot and how can we force them together?” If it was five years ago these brands would be looking at the MMORPG market (Transformers Universe openly started out as an MMO remember, it’s just taken so long to make it’s changed directions completely).

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“Crytek, Gearbox, CD Projekt and friends are all coming into this too late. They want to make the next game to be accepted by esports but not only is the market crowded, the audience’s attention is already taken.”

Ah, the MMO. Remember when everyone started making massively multiplayer online role-playing games after the success of World of Warcraft? Even the most appropriate license in that genre struggled, with developers and publishers going bust or scrapping projects at the cost of millions. Good games sank, bad games limped on. Free-to-play hit shortly after and screwed games that had been built around subscription payments. It was a disaster and there was only one game that came through that unscathed: World of Warcraft.

It also had the knock-on effect of scaring off investors who saw their cash disappear. Those very same investors then helped fuel a jump to Facebook gaming, to casual games, to “console quality games on mobile”. Where are all of those now, eh? Dead in the gutter with only a handful of successful survivors.

Because the games business has these cycles of The Next Big Thing, where a successful formula hits the spot and others throw money around to grab its coat-tails. MOBA games are in a genre that many think is going to become hotter but in reality it’s already blazing away and if you touch it now you’ll only get burned.

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Crytek, Gearbox, CD Projekt and friends are all coming into it too late. They want to make the next game to be accepted by esports but not only is the market crowded, the audience’s attention is already taken. MOBAs, like MMOs, are a time sink. New players will try them when they launch but they’ll go back to what they’re comfortable with once the novelty wears off.

There will be serious challenges to League of Legends over the next year or so – most likely from Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm or Hi-Rez’s Smite – but there will be plenty more casualties as companies throw cash blindly in the hope of hitting it big. For some, jumping on the MOBA bandwagon now is an act of desperation, a last roll of the dice from studios gasping for air in an increasingly tough market.

The champions of MOBA are already dominating the arena. A lot of challengers are only going to be left bleeding on the floor.

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13 Comments

  1. CyberMarco

    Over-saturation at its best! When someone succeeds at creating something new that turns out to be a massive success it’s no surprise others will jump the wagon, capitalism 101.

    As it seems companies are more keen on replicating what is already established thinking they’ll revolutionize the industry only to deliver an epic fail.

    #1 1 month ago
  2. dsr

    Great article, Matt. Sums up my thoughts pretty much.

    Everyone but those developers seems to know what MOBA is not the way to go. And yet they still try, only to fail miserably.

    The biggest revelation is CD Projekt going with the flow. I didn’t like their games personally, but I always held them to high standard compared to most developers out there. I thought they are the people who are inspired by their own ideas and make the games they want to make instead of making what sells well. Now they show their true colors, jumping on both mobile and MOBA bandwagons at the same time, shame to them.
    I wouldn’t mind it if they made a new IP with that, but Witcher does not fit there, period.

    From all of those games I think only Blizzard HOTS has a chance. First, its Blizzard, second, Blizzard knows how to make games for casual players. They struck gold with WoW, then with Hearthstone and now they seem to be doing the right thing for MOBA genre. I can certainly see myself playing their game even though I dislike both LoL and DOTA2.

    #2 1 month ago
  3. wamp

    True that. Although the Battleborn concept sounds a bit fresh, but will see.

    I am still waiting for tons of new cyber-punk RPGs to start coming out and be the new trend.

    #3 1 month ago
  4. The_Red

    Matt, thank you.
    Thank you for this timely and rather informative article. I didn’t even know about the Transformers MOBA. After reading this, the MOBA situation looks even more ridiculous. The MMO boom comparison is also spot-on since most WOW wannabes only came out way after the old MMO market had crashed (Talking about Elder Scrolls Online and SWTOR).

    CD Projekt’s gambit is the smallest but I fear both Gearbox and Crytek are in trouble. The latter is already near bankruptcy and the former (Gearbox) doesn’t have another Aliens Colonial Marines to steal its budget for Borderlands 3.

    #4 1 month ago
  5. CyberMarco

    @The_Red yup…

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2014/05/01/free-mmo-transformers-universe-offering-450-founders-pack/

    #5 1 month ago
  6. TheWulf

    I see a number of problems with this.

    1.) Oversaturation exists in successful genres.

    See the third-person action genre. That Uncharted exists doesn’t make Aassassin’s Creed any less successful, despite how I may personally feel about the genre. So oversaturation doesn’t necessarily kill a genre, for better or worse.

    2.) A comparison between MOBAs and MMOs is, to put it charitably, an oxymoron.

    MMOs require vast time investments. It’s hard to break into a new MMO because you need to spend six-eight weeks of your life to fully acclimatise to it, and gain any decent gear. Sure, the hardcore who don’t sleep can do it faster, but most of us don’t have that kind of free time. That’s why most people stick with the existing investment they have in the devil they know, as opposed to opting for a new game which may end up being much less fun.

    But a MOBA can be broken into and tested with ease. So whereas one person can realistically only play one MMO, a person with limited time can make room for 5-6 MOBA-like games. To me, it sounds almost like saying that it’s desperate to create a new competitive FPS because Team Fortress 2 exists, but that’s a silly thing to say.

    It is sensible to point out that creating a new MMO when most of the MMO will stick with Blizzard is pointless, yes, because of the time-investment. But there’s no such time investment with MOBAs. I know one person who plays TF2, LoL, Smite, Warframe, and DOTA 2 on a regular basis, without feeling the need to drop any one of them. He just plays what he feels like playing at the time, because he doesn’t have the investment-addiction that MMOs cause.

    Myself, I don’t play MOBAs and I don’t even like the genre, but even I can see why this is an illogical argument.

    #6 1 month ago
  7. Erthazus

    Great article. I like how MOBA became the new “MMORPG” of previous gen when everyone tried to create it’s own WORLD OF WARCRAFT.

    Now after success of LoL, DotaII and maybe HOTS. Everyone is trying this shit now and no one will succeed in that because these three companies are ahead of everyone.

    @TheWulf nope. Not true. MOBA games require an investment too. LoL requires a significant investment because of runes, masteries, characters that you need to open. Not to mention that to be good in this game you need to play a lot.

    Same goes to MMORPG.

    #7 1 month ago
  8. Kreion

    @TheWulf “But a MOBA can be broken into and tested with ease. ” Yep, I can tell from that that you don’t play MOBA’s. Your dismissal of the argument makes no sense, you cannot compare Assassins Creed and uncharted to Dota 2 and Lol.

    First of all, I could pick up Assassins creed now and it’d be as easy to play as it ever was. It requires no time investment to get started. The same applies pretty much all action games . If I were to even switch over from Dota to Lol…I would get destroyed. I have no idea how I should play each hero and know nothing about the ins and outs of the game.

    Let’s move on then – I’ve never met anyone who plays more than one Moba consistently. The only example I can give is that I know people who play Dota and dip in and out of Smite – but they don’t play it anywhere near as much. Simply put, unlike an action game which I could pick up and play as many of as I wanted – I would not want to pick up another Moba. Your friend may play multiple, but he’s in the minority in my experience.

    Also please don’t misuse the word oxymoron. It’s inappropriate here, if you don’t invest time into a game like Dota, you will be bad at it. Just because you have no consistent character it doesn’t mean you forget everything about the game when you stop playing. The styles of the game may be at the opposite ends of the scale, but it’s entirely possible to compare to things vastly different if you are using only one aspect of it as reference.

    #8 1 month ago
  9. GrimRita

    Well written article! I think on mobile, a good MOBA is needed and Riot are developing one but could be too late to take a dominating position like they have with LoL.

    Personally I love the MOBA style – drop in for a few games, drop out and Riot have struck the right balance of Free to play with MTs.

    With other developers playing catch up, MOBAs will end up being the next cash sink like MMOs have been and just look how they finished off developers cash reserves, putting many out of business or forcing job cuts.

    Only time will tell I guess.

    #9 1 month ago
  10. rockman29

    The only one that will be able to survive with a reasonable player base is Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm.

    The rest of them don’t even have a chance. The success of DOTA, LOL, HON, and HOTS was brewing since the beginning of WarCraft III multiplayer in 2003 and 2004.

    These other developers, who barely understand the fan-made genre I bet, are not a few years late to the party. They are over a decade late to the party… lol.

    #10 1 month ago
  11. RomusLupos

    Smite is no longer in any form of Beta. It was fully released months ago. Please do better research in the future.

    #11 1 month ago
  12. Gama_888

    @Erthazus
    Very true. I can’t imagine starting another moba after the amount of time I have invested into lol.

    Erth what is your summoner name??

    #12 1 month ago
  13. Fex

    I don’t completely agree with the article. It seems to be overly simplified.

    I’ve been playing MOBAs since the original DotA and burned thousands of hours to the genre total. The article seems to ignore the fact that developing is an evolution based process which iterates over the previous titles – you take what works and discard what doesn’t.

    I consider Dawngate to be the most interesting MOBA title atm due to the truly different meta. Items have noticable passive effects and by combining those there are millions of variations teamwise. Point is – if you manage to craft a game that offers something worth playing, players will follow.

    At same time very few MOBA players play a single MOBA exclusively. If the upcoming titles manage to interest just few percent of the LoL’s player base, they would do just fine.

    Certainly few of the upcoming MOBAs will faceplant (eg. Dead Island and Infinite Crisis are terrible) but that should discourage you. Instead find out WHY those will not succeed.

    Summa summarum: Great games thrive, specially the free ones.

    #13 1 month ago

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