MOBAs and Confusion

dota2screen

26 What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should beby two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; 28 but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

1 Corinthians 14

Multiplayer online battle arena games (wow, is that acronym a mouthful confuse me quite a bit!

So, there’s three of them, one mega-popular (League of Legends is the most played game of 2012, they say), one’s based on the original model and became the current competitor/pretender to the successful one (DoTA2), and the last one no one cares about at all (Heroes of Newerth. You may have just learned something new!). So where did they all come from, and why should you care? I don’t know, quite honestly! I’ve never played one, though I am interested in trying this out.

But, on the other end, I’m a little confused as to why a suitably more complex and strategic (read: full of depth) game called WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos got the shaft when it used the same fundamental concepts as these so-called “MOBAs”. I know what you’re thinking: “Zach, don’t you know that Defense of the Ancients started as a WarCraft III modification originally, a custom designed map?” Yes, I do. But I also know that nearly every single fundamental concept of DoTA copies WarCraft III to the letter!

A few examples: the idea of heroes leveling up, creeping (which is called “jungling” now), buying potions items from shops, each and every hero gets exactly four abilities, maps designed with resources and competition in mind. Frankly, DoTA just simplified a game that real-time strategy players found too complex with too much micromanagement. WarCraft didn’t create lanes and towers, that’s for sure, because you controlled the entire army. You, the commander, get to place the turrets and determine the places of engagement through controlling resources (specifically gold, in this case). People didn;t auto-spawn out of base; you directed them towards enemy objectives, and could attack multiple places at a time.

Interestingly, WarCraft III never quite hit the competitive scene like StarCraft – it was, as we see now, simply too different from its RTS predecessors and Blizzard’s previous entries in the series. Thus did the WarCraft brand, wittingly or not, retreat into the most successful MMORPG of all time. It’s a bit sad, really, given that WarCraft III certainly deserves more attention. Alas and alack, what ever will we do?

If anything, it demonstrates that video gamers care little for historical context or, even, complexity when the option’s presented to them. It does explain why WarCraft III entered the dustbin of history while its progeny overtake the world with millions of advertising dollars and competitive scenes up the wazoo. There’s a distinct difference between an RTS and a MOBA, however: community. The same engine that drives MMO subscriptions also drives MOBAs, and the community aspect heightens the interest.

Furthermore, just about anyone could, over a short period of time, watch a match and understand what’s happening. Take this one, for example:

Here’s everything you need to know about League of Legends in one half-hour match. Knowing the basic rules means watching the game actually works as a genuine spectator sport with the possibility of perceiving strategies, habits of players, and a relatively simple (if ever-changing) metagame. It works in the same way FPS tournaments work: I understand directly that shooting a guy in the head kills him, much as I understand that once one team invades the other’s base, that’s about it for them and they may as well give up. The team factor makes it popular on both a competitive and multiplayer level, meaning just about anyone retains the dexterity and knowledge required with enough playtime. Hey, this sounds like MMO PvP, doesn’t it?

And that should surprise you: the companies in charge of these games learned much from the MMO boom, especially in fostering community and friendly (and not-so-friendly) competition. Compare this to a game of StarCraft, While the spectator version of the game looks like many armies fighting against each other, learning the abilities and skills of each individual faction, building, and unit takes a LONG, long time. It takes even longer to turn it into a competitive strategic play, or even into something resembling competency. Add that to the APM required at high levels of play, and you’ll see why MOBAs became so popular:

Who wants to do that? Anyone? The level of skill required looks rather insane, and more power to them, but the casual player will NOT try this anytime soon. MOBAs seize upon an aging real-time strategy model, simplify the core mechanics by restricting you to one unit with special abilities, throw in a few elements of role-playing games, and thus hit that perfect vein of depth and accessibility.

Well, not quite. To watch means to perceive, but not to know how to play. Every reviewers and every article will tell you: these games take complexity to the next level. And not, as you suspect, for any good reason. There’s a host of information and giant reams of text devoted to all three games on message boards and wikis around the Internet, simply because the learning curve start on a vertical sheer cliff face. The community doesn’t help either, inspiring total fear from the insatiable rage of the player base. Not exactly friendly stuff.

You’d be hard press to find out why people take it so seriously! From watching a few League of Legends games, though, there’s a huge amount of downtime and enemy killing; it looks rather relaxed, and rarely requires the actions per minute that most games require. Encountering heroes takes place often, sure, but the turrets ensure that everyone turtles often. Gold’s the primary resource, and comes only from actively killing enemies. To be sure, the game focuses on one objective and does it well, but does it come at the cost of evolving real-time strategy games? From what I can tell, theses MOBAs established a new game type, nothing more. It’s an RTS map based on a modification. This explains the needless complexity of these games, for one thing, as most “fans” are not also “game designers” who know when to kill their babies and when to keep something inextricably linked to a good game.

None of this makes the games bad, or a waste of time; some people love needless complexity for some reason. On one hand, great, an accessible genre for competition…kind of! It neither requires the speed of RTS nor the in-depth technical knowledge and mind-games of fighters, nor the pinpoint accuracy of FPS. On the other hand, having everyone control the same and merely changed by RPG statistics or slightly changed ability sets (every one does fall into the similar holes of RPG tropes like silencing, stuns, etc) makes the game feel somewhat boring at times. Even further, normalizing the heroes so they ‘balance out” makes the game far less exciting over time for the sake of competition. Heck, Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 retained approximately 3 viable characters, with odds team combinations here and there among fifty six character. Somehow, that still turned into a competitive fighting scene that spawned a sequel ten years later. Clearly, just balancing everything won’t do; the game itself needs to hold interest.

Honestly, watching MOBAs isn’t as exciting to a newcomers as you’d hope, mostly consisting of people running around, blinking, and occasionally fighting. I get the strategy, and I see the fun in the concept, but having to grasp a deluge of knowledge to even begin watching it while having fun says a lot. Furthermore, how did team one lose, or team two suceed? Honestly, without a huge pool of knowledge from memorizing and understanding everything, it just looks like a complete mess. A fighting game gives good feedback, and so does an RTS over time, but the 5v5 model, along with the aformentioned complexity, brings this part down. There’s so many combined factors, like in world history, that who could even pinpoint the issues of one build to another? An artificial learning curve and a lack of ways to perceive possible improvements? That’s just strange!

It’s the same thing when people uses tongues in churches – you know, the whole “I’m babbling yet no one understands what I’m saying” tongues. In your private faith life, that’s up to you, but in a public church setting that stuff makes no sense without an interpreter. God is not a God of confusion; good game mechanics don’t try to add needless complexities to mistake it for depth. Rarely have I seen tongues contribute to a church without the necessary knowledge, and most times it just leads to confusion, spiritual superiority complexes, and the occasional church disunity. These are one and the same issues Paul mentions to the Corinthians, who had this exact same problem pinpointing good spiritual depth for spiritual complexity without meaning. We’d rather go with flights of fancy than the clear Word of God. Same goes for video games, looks like.

Hey, doesn’t mean I won’t play it. But it does make the whole model much less attractive when I look at it this way.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.