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