A Meaningless Term
Yesterday I witnessed a conversation unfold that I have had a dozen times myself with various folks. A friend of mine made the idle comment that they would really like to see a “PVE MOBA”, to which someone else predictably replied that you cannot have a “MOBA” without PVP. The problem is that there is absolutely no clear definition of what exactly a “MOBA” is. Additionally each player seems to refer to a slightly different set of mechanics when someone says “MOBA-like”. So for some people it is all about the match based pvp action, and others it is all about the interesting class design. If you simply dissect the term “MOBA” you get Multiplayer Online Battle Arena… which in itself is another absolutely meaningless term. Multiplayer Online is clear enough but the Battle Arena part is complete nonsense. What are you battling and what sort of arena are you battling in?
For me personally the key elements of what make a MOBA intriguing have nothing to do with player versus player combat. I like the different characters and their unique sets of abilities, and the way they interact with other characters and their abilities. In fact I would be happy spending my time in lane killing creeps because I honestly enjoy doing that way more than engaging with other players. When I play League of Legends I will almost always play against bots, and have long thought that it would make an interesting game to make it purely co-operative against interesting challenges. The problem is if you say this.. you get the reaction above that it cannot be done… because MOBAs are PVP games dammit! But what I am presenting is that folks are assigning a specific mindset to a term that is absolutely meaningless on its own merit. Multiplayer Online Battle Arena can describe so many games and is likely why the term gets blurred so much to describe games that are absolutely nothing like the original Defense of the Ancients roots.
Keep the Interesting Bits
For me the interesting bits about what we generally refer to as a MOBA are the Character design that I have talked about before, and ultimately the payment model. I like this concept of purchasing individual champions, and having a rotation of free champions to play to consistently keep testing the waters and trying to branch out. The key part as well for me is the way that MOBA titles grow over time. If you look at the evolution of League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm, in both cases they are constantly releasing new content to satiate the appetites of players. I think this has been key to the success, that every few weeks there is something new being introduced to the game to shake up players expectations. League for example has over 120 different unique champions that they are doing a decent job of keeping balanced against each other, and Heroes is adding at least one champion a month it seems to catch up. So I feel like the big success of this genre has been constant incremental evolution of the product.
This variety helps deal with the “special snowflake” syndrome that happens in MMO design. Often times there is a demographic of players that wants to play a specific class in a manner that was not intended to be played. Granted this happens to some extent in build system MMOs like league, but it is always clear that this is not necessarily a “supported” play style. The champion system instead lets companies roll out lots of hyper focused characters that play to very specific niches. So in this case what would be a “special snowflake” like the “melee hunter” would simply just be another champion they could build to fill that desire. So instead the focus becomes on mastery of a specific set of abilities unique to that champion, rather than a much larger set of abilities as seen in most “talent tree” systems. I feel like this is crucial in allowing someone to adapt to a brand new champion quickly, but at the same time feeling confident enough to branch out into things they have yet to try before. There are game play modes like ARAM (All Random All Mid) that encourage this branching out because it forces players to play with a random champion.
Chasing a PVE MOBA
So the quandary I am in is that I love the League of Legends lore and champion design, but don’t love the game itself. I have long thought that it would be awesome to have a PVE centric version of League of Legends where you play the same champions with the same abilities in a Diablo like setting. Instead of fighting in Summoner’s Rift against five other players in a battle to destroy the opposing teams nexus, it would be a co-operative experience as five players venture into a procedurally generated dungeon with a treasure at the end. The idea is that each map would be harder than the previous until you reach a boss battle for the final treasure in the dungeon. You could even keep the build mechanic in the form of at the beginning of each map level you could have the same merchant that exists just outside of your teams Nexus in the Rift. After venturing a certain way into each map level he could travel to the next level, making it so that players could only buy new items at the beginning of each map.
For the hyper competitive players, you could still keep all manner of stats from number of monsters killed, their average difficulty rating, how fast it takes your team to clear a map, and of course how many times you have died during a specific encounter. Personally I would go with a counter strike approach where each player gets a single life per map, making it progressively harder the more players that you have lost. I would introduce the ability to purchase resurrection potions, but again that is an opportunity cost… since you have limited item inventory slots and limited gold to keep purchasing items with. Similarly I would introduce a “lives” mechanic in the number of times your team can retry during a specific dungeon crawl sequence. This would encourage the team to stick together and work on group tactics rather than going off on their own and risking getting overwhelmed. The thing is… I would absolutely pay to play a game like that, and would probably rope my friends into playing it to. The key impediment however is that folks seem to keep thinking that “MOBA” style mechanics cannot also apply to PVE game design. Someone make this game happen… I am looking at you Riot.