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MOBA Concepts That Don't Exist (But Should!)

The MOBA genre has been well explored by now, but there's still a few ideas -- or franchises -- that haven't been tapped yet!

As MOBAs have become increasingly popular, more imitators inevitably rise up amidst the video game crowd in an effort to inch in on the lucrative genre and try to make something of themselves. Whether these games use the established concepts of Dota or else try and build a unique spin on the genre is largely irrelevant; it’s safe to say that the genre is getting pretty full and well explored.

But there are a few concepts that haven’t been explored in the world of MOBAs just yet, so I’m going to take a crack at covering a few of them and seeing why they might (or might not!) be interesting for the genre.

An RTS approach… at least to one role

A fairly common staple in a MOBA game is the support class of characters. The name suggests that these kind of characters would heal, buff, or otherwise aid the more heavy hitting team mates, and usually that’s exactly what they do. However, often this role is created not necessarily because it’s ideal, but because the breakdown of basic game mechanics means it’s necessary due to resource starvation.

Let’s look at League of Legends. The standard map of Summoner’s Rift is a three lane map with a number of jungle routes effectively being a fourth “lane”. But given that the game is a 5v5, this means that somebody has to share a lane with a teammate -- and since gold can only go to the person last hitting enemy minions, it’s usually better to funnel all the resources into one of those people. Thus, the support class is born, meant entirely to babysit a scaling carry through the early stages of the game so that they can become a powerhouse later.

Supports in LoL usually subsist off cheap support items and masteries that give them gold passively or through interactions in the lane other than farming. These can have some interesting effects, but more often than not, you’ll only be building a couple of them by the time your partner is nearing a completed item build. Dota 2 proceeds in much the same way, with somebody getting the position of fifth on the gold list. Characters that fit this niche are usually the ones that have high base power on their abilities but little to no scaling -- or else they’re just dedicated healbots.

Some MOBAs have different ideas of how to change this necessity. Heroes of the Storm lacks items and resources, but instead sees a team collect experience together to level up and get new talents. This lack of items means that supports in that game end up just as fully fleshed out and capable as other characters. Still, this usually means they’re just dedicated healbots, and games without them become very different from the norm.

Many games have struggled with the concept of the support role and how best to make a role that doesn’t get all the items and power of their compatriots interesting. So, let’s add one to the mix.

I propose that the fifth player - the support role - is removed from the map and instead fulfills an "armchair commander" role.

MOBAs were originally built in the engines of an RTS game, and since then the parent genre has gone into a massive decline. This is partly because MOBAs have a much lower barrier of entry and require less multitasking, not to mention make for a much better spectator eSport. That said, there are elements of the RTS that could easily be brought back into a MOBA role.

Picture this: a standard three lane 5v5, distributed as normal, but one person plays as the Commander of the team. They don’t have a physical unit to control, but they can manipulate elements of the map. Imagine shifting or empowering minion waves, sending support or items to their teammates (perhaps having them control a Dota-esque courier), and attempting to better control the map based on which allies are in the best position.

To make it really interesting, the game could play like a third person, over the shoulder style MOBA like SMITE or Gigantic. However, players in the field have much less access to a minimap beyond their immediate area. The minimap and camera as we know it would be the realm of the Commander only, so they have to help keep their allies informed of what's happening elsewhere.

I think the idea could be interesting, if nothing else, but I can also see plenty of implementation issues. Depending on how it’s balanced or how the role plays, there’d probably be a serious player deficit either for or against it -- kinda like how most players in Evolve wanted to play the monster. If it’s not interesting, there’d be less people playing that role, and there’s already always a shortage of support roles in pretty much every MOBA (or other game genre!) under the sun.

Then there’s the matter of communication. The Commander role would ideally want to have voice communication just to facilitate their work, and poor implementation or lack thereof could seriously see it being hindered.

It’s something of a pipe dream, but you never know. There’s even something of a push for more MOBA/RTS hybrids, with games such as Supernova or Guardians of Atlas attempting to bring back elements of base and army building to the genre. Maybe we’ll see something like this one day.

The use of verticality and the Z-Axis, aka The High Ground

With the growing increase in more action or third person shooter style MOBAs, this creates the opportunity to utilize something that’s not been fully explored all that much in the genre: a fully realized 3D space.

Okay, so this isn’t the most original idea out there; Super Monday Night Combat was doing it years ago. That game used different paths and higher ground accessible via jump pads to effectively replace a standard MOBA’s jungle. More recently, Paragon has been dabbling with raised and lowered paths along with small cliffs that you can ambush foes from. If we want to get technical, even Dota has the ability to take high ground, making attacks from below have a chance to miss outright.

But I’d like to see the concept really explored further. Ditch the standard lane configurations that so many MOBAs adopt and make a map that’s really different. Use cliffs, archways, high ground, caves and tunnels! We could even get outlandish and have floating platforms, aerial terrain, or even shifting maps depending on other circumstances.

It’d make drafting a team composition quite different if you had to factor in all sorts of different terrain elements. What if the enemy is good at navigating through the caves and gets bonuses or abilities based on that? Easy, just take to the skies and try to beat them that way. This in turn could be countered by more accurate long range characters that you’d need tunneling units to try and get to. There are certainly possibilities there.

If we wanted to get really crazy with the idea, why not go the full sci-fi route and turn it into a space game? Games like Stellar Impact have tried it before, though are now very much empty of players and abandoned by the developers, but that’s not to say it couldn’t be done again. After all, most games still take place on a comparatively 2D plane, they just happen to be space themed.

Let’s get full Homeworld in this arena. Move your ship up, down, and in every direction. Attack from strange or unexpected angles, like diving straight down onto an unsuspecting enemy. So many spaceship style games tend to work like an ocean in space with a flat plane to focus on, simply because it’s easier for human minds to grasp working from a grounding surface -- but this is the realm of video games. Go crazy with the concept.

A first person take on the genre

Once again, this isn’t a purely untested idea. Battleborn is very much a MOBA and features a first person viewpoint, though same would argue that this was part of its swift downfall. People went into it expecting purely an FPS like Overwatch (or MOSA if we’re slinging jargon around) based on marketing and ended up getting something completely different.

That said, the game has some interesting concepts. A fully first person MOBA hadn’t really been done before Battleborn, with many games in that vein being quite light on the MOBA elements. Being locked “inside” the viewpoint of your character really changes the perspective of the game, and means you’re forced to respond to a whole different array of stimuli in order to succeed and capitalize on the situation.

So I’d like to see this tried again. Give me a first person brawler game with a MOBA style battlefield and objectives to push and pull on. Style it after the now very aged Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, with interesting combinations of first person, sword and sorcery fantasy combat.

This might even be the best kind of game to utilize the aforementioned Z-Axis idea. Imagine having to traverse the skies or navigate caves as mentioned from first person, all while a battle is raging around you and teams are being pushed back and forth. I could see plenty of potential in the idea!

Sure, original ideas are neat… but not being original could be fun too!

Perhaps these concepts are all fairly hit and miss. They’re all fairly broad conceptual ideas, and the implementation of them could easily make or break a game. So for this last discussion point, let’s look at something a little different: adopting existing settings.

Heroes of the Storm is quick to come to mind. It’s an excellent game with many original ideas that are quick to move away from the pre-conceived notions of what must or must not be in a MOBA, such as varied maps and lack of farming. However, there’s one uncomfortable truth that is impossible to ignore about Heroes: no matter how good it is, it probably wouldn’t have stood out or been successful if it wasn’t drawing from the many popular characters of other Blizzard Entertainment games.

I love the game, but it’s easy to see that many people only sample the game because of investment in other franchises. Much of the strength of the game is seeing characters like Diablo and the Lich King tag-team Zeratul and Thrall. That attachment to iconic characters is what makes each release more exciting than another new and relatively basic character concept in other MOBAs, regardless of how interesting or mechanically sound their toolkit may be.

Such crossovers and collections of characters have been mashed into different genres of video games before, and usually to excellent results. The console-shifting phenomenon that is the Smash Bros series of fighting games is one example, but one that’s been picking up a lot of traction are games based on Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors franchise.

Nowadays it seems like Koei Tecmo is quick to grab whatever license they can to make a “musou” game with it, featuring that kind of frantic and over-the-top “1v1000” action game that has made their own games so widespread in their appeal. We’ve seen plenty, from popular anime series (Dynasty Warriors Gundam, One Piece: Pirate Warriors) to other video game franchises entirely (Dragon Quest Heroes, Hyrule Warriors).

It’s certainly easier to take that concept and apply it to a beat-em-up action style game, but that’s not to say we can’t try and extend it into a MOBA. Imagine any of these examples, but with slightly altered kits that are vying for control of objectives or attempting to best each other in the arena. Heroes of the Storm already calls itself a Hero Brawler, so why not take that concept further?

My first thoughts for such an idea was the Fire Emblem series. Plenty of people have been hoping after the success of Hyrule Warriors to see that franchise get the musou treatment, but I could easily see it being translated to a MOBA. Plenty of characters to draw inspiration from? Check. All sorts of items and abilities that you could adapt for them? Check. Iconic locations that would make for interesting and objective filled battlegrounds? You’d better believe it’s a check.

Not interested in Fire Emblem? Well, how about we take Dissidia Final Fantasy and make something of that instead? The crossover concept and interesting battle system is already in place, so all you really need is to up the player count and switch it up for a more objective-oriented map -- or else go the approach of Battlerite and distill the MOBA down into its purest form.

The possibilities are certainly endless… the hard part is just getting the licensing. I would have suggested that the focus on console play for many of these franchises might limit it, but some MOBAs are perfectly playable on console and controller, such as SMITE or Paragon. It's not the biggest stretch in the world.

So developers, if you’re listening, get creative! There are a lot of MOBAs out there, but we haven’t exhausted all the possibilities yet, and there’s plenty of ways still for games to differentiate themselves from the rest of the genre. It’s kind of tough to compete with the juggernauts of the scene; best to stand out, be different, and try something new. I know it can be done!

Got any interesting ideas for MOBA concepts that I haven’t touched on here? Share with me in the comments!

Published Nov. 18th 2016

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