League of Vain Ancient Heroes

MOBA: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena
A game played by a small number of players in a single level. Whilst this moniker can be taken to cover a multitude of games*, for most people it's just synonymous with DOTA game.

DOTA: Defence Of The Ancients.
Started life as a Mod for Warcraft 3 but has since taken on a life of its own, spawning many, many clones.

DOTA games are hugely popular these days. Well, let's be honest here: two of them are hugely popular these days - Riot's League of Legends and Valve's official DOTA 2. There are also a bunch of also rans that come and go yet usually fail to distract enough of the existing player base to hang around for particularly long. But those top two - hoo boy.

Each has a World Championships competition for dedicated eSports teams. This is played out for actual cash money and is hugely lucrative for those involved. Something to show to your parents and teachers when they told you that no-one ever makes any money by playing games...

I started playing LoL back at Black Rock. It came about during the final roll of the dice from the studio when they decided that maybe this whole AAA thing was for the birds and we should be looking at F2P. The problem being that none of us knew a damn thing about F2P. So off we went, playing as many different freemium things as we could find.

Young Ash had a couple of friends who were playing LoL, so he jumped in on their games to see what it was all about. Pretty soon, he started roping the rest of us in and we were soon suckling on Riot's MOBA teat.

...

It was at this point I started on a big explanation of what goes in to a DOTA game for the uninitiated. There was lots of talk of lanes, ganking, jungling, minions, towers and how easy it is to fall off the curve and have your entire game ruined by any number of factors beyond your control.

It was a long post.

And something that Yannick has just stuck up on Kotaku. Here, he pretty much makes every point I was going to, so...

The thing is, I only wanted to go through that stuff so that you had a vocabulary ready for what came next. You should probably go and read that post first.
...

Back? Good.

Bad Bits


Yup. Pretty baffling, huh?
I didn't enjoy LoL at the start. Like many others, I found it an immensely frustrating experience. There were so many counter-intuitive things** and each game would usually end in a hair-pulling hissy fit. But I kept playing. Surely, if that many other people are enjoying it, there must be something there, right?

I stuck with it and in the end, I was invested*** and, subsequently, jobless. This meant I could devote large portions of the day to playing. 8 games in a day was not unheard of - which, at anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes is quite the undertaking.

Probably about 50% of the games were horrific. Hateful experiences that you just wanted to end. But then you'd click the Play button again - if only to remove the taste of that last game. Others would leave you with a sense of satisfaction. Of hard-earned victory. Until, of course, you realised that you'd done nothing else all day...

So after about 3000 games I stopped playing. I've been clean for a nearly a couple of years. In fact, the only time LoL ever comes up in conversation is when I'm talking about 'good' freemium. I occasionally have to use it to bridge the gap between myself and other DOTA 2 players. Like when I was talking to Phil Co about his awesome Free To Play movie - something you should definitely watch (if only to realise how awesome that Dendi chap is).

Glory


A teamfight. In the jungle. On an iPad.
On a bit of a whim and, presumably, to scratch some sort of itch, I picked up Vainglory on iPad. It appealed to me as it seemed a bit of a lighter experience that LoL. There's only a single lane, three champions and, due to the interface restrictions, a bit slower in pace. Perhaps my ageing brain would actually be able to parse the events taking place during a teamfight?

Vainglory is pretty cool actually. The usual tropes are there - lanes, minions, towers, jungle, characters, items, abilities - but it's all just a bit more manageable. For starters there are only a handful of characters to learn as opposed to the 123 in LoL and 110 in DOTA 2, which makes combat much more of a known quantity.

Then they do a neat thing with their 'Baron'. Following the DOTA model, there lurks a big, badass monster in the jungle. Whichever team is able to defeat it gets buffed for a period of time, giving them a bonus in combat and enabling them to push the enemy team right back. Normally it is used as a game-ender - a way of swiftly dealing the killing blow to a vanquished foe rather than letting the whole thing drag out for an insufferable amount of time. Normally, this is purely represented as a swirly effect on each character indicating that they have been powered up.

Vainglory does it a bit differently in that beating the Kraken**** actually causes that badass mofo to get off its arse and stomp towards the enemy base, laying waste to anything in its path.

The ultimate effect is the same - enable your team to push for victory with a significant advantage - but the presentation is just so much better. Pootling along in the wake of the Kraken, attacking enemy heroes or picking off any other stragglers is incredibly satisfying. Likewise, if you're on the receiving end, being able to bring down the beast before it causes any significant damage feels like a victory.

A Storm Is Rising


As part of my recent fall from Indie Developer status to potential wage-slave once more, I was interviewing at a studio when talk turned to that of MOBAs. The weapon of choice in that place seemed to be Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm. They said good things about it, but I was sceptical. I'd seen some footage of a HotS game on YouTube and it seemed every bit as chaotic and baffling as when I first started looking at LoL. Was I really going to put myself through that process again?

I had a lot of concerns - the main one being that, in an act of apparent DOTA heresy, they Change The Map. Whereas almost every other DOTA game follows exactly the same template, Blizzard have given players a suite of different maps to play, each with their own special rules.

I'd say it's the difference between a Sport and a Game. In a Sport, the pitch / court / field / level doesn't change - it is played on a static thing. There is only one level to learn. Introducing more levels makes the whole thing feel like more of a Game to me.

This is not a bad thing at all.

Sure, I'm not sure how it helps the initial learning curve as, from one game to the next, you're binning off the strategies you were just beginning to get a hold of on the previous level and having to start from scratch. But it certainly helps keep everything nice and fresh and should, in the long run, ease player fatigue.

It also means that each level has it's own, stand out feature. For the most part, this means more Krakens...

Yes, like Vainglory, each map usually has some kind of uber beast or beasts that can be brought to bear on your opponents. Simply perform the unique task that the level is built around better than the other team and wanton destruction is yours.

One has you collecting Dubloons for what can only be described as the Ghost Pirate LeChuck in the centre of the map. Get enough to him and his ship will bomb the enemy forts back to the stone age. Another one has you descend into these haunted mines below the main play area to collect skulls. The more skulls you collect, the more powerful a Golem you can summon to trash the enemy base. The coolest one though, sees you trying to control two shrines at opposite ends of the map in order to enable a dragon statue at the centre. If you manage to do that, your character is transformed into a badass Dragon Knight, complete with new move set, and you can stomp around, tearing down anything in your path. Suffice to say that being the Dragon Knight and blatting opposing heroes all over the map is incredibly satisfying.

But doesn't this make the whole thing incredibly complicated and contrived?

Well, no. Not really.

It's balanced out by the fact that the character stuff is considerably simpler.

My current weapon of choice - Big Beetle Guy
Blizzard have eschewed the entire Item / Shop feature from the other games in favour of a much simpler tech-tree. As you level up, you get to pick from a suite of abilities available at that level for that character. It means you still get to personalise your character on the fly but it's much more accessible than the bewildering shop screens you find in the other games.

Then the act of gaining XP to level up itself is considerably easier. Instead of each character levelling up individually, the team levels up as a whole. Bam! In one sweeping move, Blizzard have completely done away with the relevance of Last Hitting - a feature I've never particularly liked. I much prefer it when you can just wade in to monsters and slap them around a bit rather than having to prance around so that my dude doesn't auto attack them until the right moment. It also helps mitigate those situations when one of your guys is maybe not quite pulling his weight and has died a couple of times as the rest of you still earn enough XP to level him up and keep him in the game.

In fact, I think that's the biggest difference I can see in HotS. In a LoL game, as soon as you fell off that level curve and got 2 or 3 behind your direct opponent, you were pretty much done. As it was a positive feedback loop for them, it was very hard to stage a comeback. In just a short time playing HotS I can confirm that this is not the case at all - or, at least, it's much more likely to happen. I've died a bunch of times in the early game only to bring it all back later on.

So now everything sounds like it's far too simple for someone to be able to exploit the systems and get good at it.

It's early days, but I don't think that's the case either. It's just a bit... well, different to the established DOTA norms. I never liked the Shop layer of the other games. Certainly not the in game aspect of it - let me tweak my build before I go in (although that opens up an entirely different can of worms).

Thus far the community seems, well... more of a community. Less vitriolic. More welcoming. Unless that's just down to the fact that people are less talkative thus far because everyone's still learning. But still, because one individual's failure carries less weight than it does in the other games, people are more forgiving. Of course, once the game gets out of Beta and is released to the general public, all bets are off.

But it's also helped by features like Blizzard's approach to matchmaking. Instead of picking your character once you're in the game, you pick your character before. This means you are only matchmade with other characters that would automatically make for a balanced team and you don't get any of those "but I wanted to be that champ" arguments. It's one of those things that make you wonder why people didn't do it like this before?

As someone who never really got in to WoW, I find myself often calling upon Leanne to explain certain character nuances to me*****. But the fact that I want to find out more about them is quite telling.

Go Astronaut Teemo!
In short, I find the whole thing quite enjoyable.

Which is a totally different concern.

* Counterstrike, for example.
** Although they didn't go so far as to allow Denials.
*** Thanks, in no small part, to the awesome Astronaut Teemo skin.
**** Okay, yes. Releasing the Kraken.
*****Her knowledge in this area is possibly only surpassed by her sister's.

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