There’s some not-very-different alternate reality where I’m obsessed with MOBA (Multiplay Online Battle Arena) games. I’m not just talking about being one of the folks who picked up League of Legends early on and got way into it; I’m talking about playing these damn games from the beginning. The real weird folks.
I played a lot of Starcraft back during the heyday of the original game. More importantly, I played and created a whole bunch of Starcraft custom maps. Including a map called Aeon of Strife. The Aeon of Strife Starcraft map is sometimes considered the very beginning of MOBAs, though that discounts how many MOBA-like elements were present in the 1989 Megadrive title, Herzog Zwei (which is the progenitor of the entire Real Time Strategy genre). Aeon of Strife featured many of the elements that are now central to the MOBA–hero characters, RPG elements, three lanes, towers, creeps, and so on. But it wasn’t the highly competitive game we know today. Instead, it was purely cooperative–four humans against the AI.
Aeon of Strife gets the credit, but it was hardly the only map of its type. There were single-player RPG maps with similar objectives. Others had jungles and bosses, but lacked the typical three-lane structure. Some were simplified to make them easy to win. And a few were insanely difficult. I think I probably posted an RPG map of some sort to battle.net, which shouldn’t be a surprise. And it was probably terrible.
Aeon of Strife has, remarkably, been wiped off the face of the internet. If you look around, you can find maps and screenshots, but none of them are of the original map. They are reconstructions from much later. I never thought that something so (relatively) popular from a time as recent as 1998 couldn’t be accidentally removed from the internet. But there were so many variations and ripoffs that the original has been lost.
I never picked up Warcraft 3, where fans of Aeon of Strife and its derivative maps expanded on the idea and turned it into a competitive game called Defense of the Ancients, which was then further developed into DotA Allstars. Over the years, DotA became the most successful part of Warcraft 3, despite being a free mod of an aging game.
Other developers–as well as some of the folks behind the original DotA maps–decided to monetize the concept. Across the early 2010s, a flood of MOBAs hit the market, but there were two runaway successes: League of Legends and the bizzarely-named DotA 2.
I never played any of them. I’ve written before about why. League and DotA 2 both have extensive meta-games that makes them impenetrable and, largely, unplayable by someone like me. I don’t like a game that I have to play perfectly or waste everyone’s time in an hour-long match. And using a point-and-click mouse interface in a game that requires precise movement and positioning is just as inelegant as using analog sticks for console first person shooters. Sure, you can get used to it, but you know that direct control would be way better.
Despite all of that, I found myself playing Heroes of the Storm a few weeks ago. Heroes of the Storm is a weird sort of homecoming for the genre: it’s the first MOBA developed by Blizzard, creators of Starcraft and Warcraft. As a result, it’s the only game that has been able to legitimately use the names of the characters from the original mods.
I picked up HotS because my wife was playing it, and I figured it was something we could start doing together. Given my apprehension about MOBAs, I didn’t think I’d last long. I assumed it would have all of the problems I’d come to expect from the genre, despite hearing that it was more accessible.
Turns out I was wrong. For better or worse, I have fallen to the dark side. I’m approaching 50 matches now (some of which have been fucking around against AI like in the old Aeon of Strife days) and I can feel its hooks deep inside me, compelling me to play even more. I even downloaded SMITE, another MOBA, to the Xbox One for when my wife doesn’t feel like playing.
Both HotS and SMITE do a lot to alleviate the problems I had with the genre. HotS matches are shorter and less complex–there are fewer ways to build out a character and thus fewer ways to fuck up a character–and the playerbase so far doesn’t seem to scream at me for mistakes even though I can be pretty bad. SMITE lets me play with a controller and that’s glorious. They both do away with infamous MOBA mechanics of “last hits” and “denial”, which is to say that you don’t need to land the killing blow on an enemy to get experience/currency for leveling up your player (and thus you don’t need to kill your own struggling units to prevent the enemy from getting experience/currency). Experience is shared by your team in HotS and gained by proximity in SMITE.
But these are the reasons I’m tolerating these games, not the reasons I’ve become addicted. No, I’ve become addicted because both of these games have tapped into the awful lizard-brain part of my consciousness that likes to see graphs and numbers increase, and the powerful compulsion to collect things.
Both HotS and SMITE are free-to-play games that operate on the same general model. There are a ton of characters you can play as (37 in HotS, 67 in SMITE, with more on the way for both) but you can only play for free with a handful of them. HotS rotates the free characters completely, giving you a different seven playable heroes each week, while SMITE gives players five characters permanently and rotates five every patch. You can buy non-free characters with either real money or in-game currency that you earn by leveling up your profile, your character, or by playing games. And that’s where it gets you.
SMITE currently has a deal where you can buy full access to all characters for $29.99. I’ve looked around and, for a MOBA that uses this particularly free-to-play structure, $29.99 for all characters (current and future) is a fantastic deal. A HotS character costs anywhere from $4.99 to $9.99. There are bundles to mitigate that, but nothing as comprehensive as $30 for every hero. League of Legends seems to follow the old Xbox Points strategy of making it intentionally obscure how much everything costs by requiring the purchase of “Riot Points” that do not correlate 1:1 or even 1:10 with dollars. But it still appears it would cost hundreds of dollars to unlock every champion.
And yes, I’m aware that DotA 2 starts with every champion unlocked but it’s the most complex of all these games so I doubt I’ll ever end up switching to that game. Besides, as I’m about to suggest, I’m not sure that having all the champions unlocked from the start is what I want.
After all, I like SMITE but I’m not gonna buy the $29.99 pack. At least not yet, because earning the in-game currency, buying gods that I like, and trying out new gods as they are rotated in to the free-to-play group is actually appealing to me. I like seeing my in-game currency go up, working towards buying the next hero/god I want to own permanently. It’s a reason to keep playing, even though I’m not particularly good at HotS yet and I only appear good at SMITE because it’s on Xbox One and the playerbase has either (a) never played a MOBA or (b) isn’t used to a controller.
At first, this left me with a funny feeling as someone who really does prefer to pay for things that I enjoy. If you like something you should be willing to contribute money to the people who make it. I’ve played both of these games for hours but haven’t yet spent any real money on them, which actually makes me a little uncomfortable.
But then I remember the axiom that “if you’re not paying for something, you are the product.” This is a phrase that is usually used to describe facebook, and the way that facebook sells personal information to advertisers. That’s too limited, especially when discussing free-to-play games, though also in terms of social networks. Multiplayer games and social networks don’t work without people. If your friends aren’t using them–or there aren’t enough people on them to find friends–then they are completely useless.
Free-to-play games work because the people who spend money are subsidizing the people who don’t, but this isn’t a one-sided transaction. Games that don’t require an initial investment have a much larger playerbase. Some of it is transient–people who download the game because its free, play poorly, then quit. But those people will largely replenish themselves if the game is good. Friends and family will draw them in (like what happened to me) and some of them will stick around.
(The most important thing to note about SMITE is that when Poseidon uses his ultimate attack, as seen above, he yells “Release the Kraken!”)
What I’m saying is this: until I know what part of these games I want to spend money on, I can feel okay about continuing to play and enjoy them because I’m part of the product that’s being sold to the paying customers. The wide userbase–including people like me who are actually motivated by the free-to-play hero rotations–is one of the reasons a successful f2p game makes money. In this case, they get someone to beat up on, because I’m still not very good. (They also occasionally get a bad teammate who gets beat up on, but I’ll try not to dwell on that and hope the matchmaking works that out).
I don’t know how long I’ll keep playing HotS and SMITE. We’re stuck in the dead zone between major game releases, and Rare Replay is only a couple weeks away, so I’ll probably end up scaling back. And I doubt I will graduate to the more “serious” MOBAs anytime soon, though I guess if I learned anything over the last few weeks it’s that I shouldn’t disclose the possibility. I never thought I’d even try a MOBA with any seriousness, let alone get this deep into two of them.