Hello there. This week, I’m writing not just as an RPG columnist, but as president of the newly formed League Of Folks Who Don’t Really Play MOBAs But Are Bizarrely Hooked On All The Trappings. As far as I can tell, our membership is roughly a billion people and counting. That’s what happens when the likes of Blizzard and Riot spend literally tens of dollars creating gorgeous videos to promote their worlds, yes, but it goes somewhat deeper than that. Have you ever watched a new character reveal for a game you know you’re never going to play? Then the sickness might have spread.
I remember being somewhat scornful of this a few years ago, particularly when games like Vindictus started showing up. Instead of classes, it offered characters. You wanted to be a buff warrior? You were a guy called Lann. Magic? Meet Evie, your new shell. There’s quite a few characters now and those two might not have been the first to show up, but you get the basic idea. I remember really, really hating this concept. Why would you want to give up the chance to create your own character from scratch in favour of taking what a developer thought was cool. You couldn’t even dress them up properly, since clothing in these games was typically per-character and treated as a premium offering (with Vindictus sticking in my mind mostly for combining destructible clothing with the wonderful phrase, ahem, ‘inner armor’ – which is to say the ability to buy sexy underwear for your characters to reveal with bad play. Verging on naughty.)
Slowly though, that started to change. Not necessarily for better or worse, but definitely in a specific direction. More and more games began defining their protagonists either by force or in subtle ways. Bioware for instance pushed their vision of both Commander Shepard and Hawke on players by not only presenting their canonical version first, but making them look notably better than generated faces (at least until making a canonical female Shepard, after two games of ‘eh, whatever’). Or just look at Bethesda’s last couple of games. Skyrim – bar a little prophetic nonsense and a few unique tricks, it left you alone. Fallout 4? Obsessed with creating its story and your place in the world, which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t do it so poorly. The obvious example of it not being a bad thing is The Witcher 3, which just wouldn’t be the same if you weren’t Geralt specifically, sorting out problems like Geralt does.
And all of this makes sense. The more nailed down a character is, the easier it is to tell stories about them, to create recognisable characters to make toys and ghastly Funko Poop figures of, and there’s been no real suggestion of late that most players actually mind having this creative weight lifted. The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine for instance has received far more plaudits for offering dye to recolour Geralt’s armour than people clucking that it only applies to actual Witcher armour, not any old cloth.
Elsewhere, MMOs still offer plenty of choice, but the growth of personal stories, limited skill-sets and very few armour options mean that realistically there’s rarely much separating your vision of a wizard from the next player, and most of that is cosmetic. World of Warcraft for instance long since dropped its skill trees, intended to allow that kind of freedom, in favour of just straight-up telling you “Okay, you’ve chosen Frost Mage. Here’s what that means. Fire Mage? Be with you in a second.”
More to the point though, there’s precious little fantasy to the choices you can make in most fantasy games. There are builds. There are paths. But at this point, they’re incredibly well-worn, and most of us already know more or less which ones we’re going to follow. There was an interesting test of this a few months ago, which you can find here, where players were put into a simple RPG using Legend of Zelda sprites and just left alone without instructions. Somewhat inevitably, they took it up on themselves to play a specific role – specialising in what felt right and doing it to the exclusion of all else. We see this a lot in MMOs especially, where players have to be part of a team. Even in games that actively try and move away from the holy trinity of tank, damage and healing, people tend to fall into line, and design characters accordingly. Whether this is natural instinct or because typically jack-of-all-trade builds don’t do so well when the difficulty ramps up doesn’t really matter if it’s always the default.
Add onto that the usually limited opportunities to directly role-play outside of a dedicated group, the need to follow specific upgrade curves, and there’s not much of a personal stamp to put on most characters. You’re not there to forge a legend, like the adverts love to claim. You’re there to do a job. To be a team-player. To be predictable. Efficient. Dull. Nobody wants to go questing with LEEEEEEEEEEEEROY JENKINS.
Again, this is speaking in generalities. Specific games obviously offer different features. World of Warcraft for instance has Transmogrification, a system for separating the look of a thing from its actual stats. An older method, which I’ve always liked, allows for two slots per armour piece – one for stats, one for visuals. Superhero games though tend to be the only ones that really passionately believe in player freedom. Saints Row III and IV will happily let you run around in a suit or a hot-dog costume as you prefer. City of Heroes (RIP) didn’t give a damn what you wore as long as you thought it looked cool, using upgrade talismans to affect the strength and effects of your various attacks and skills. More recently, The Secret World did the same with mostly saner clothes, befitting its urban superhero fantasy style. DC Universe Online meanwhile has a great system where you just add any costume pieces to your collection as you find them, with the only catch being that you barely get any up-front when you’re actually trying to make a hero costume from what feels like the dregs of some Metropolis charity store. Never mind thinking of a fitting name.
Maybe if more games had that kind of freedom, we’d have objected less to losing it elsewhere. Piece by piece, at least in games where it mattered. We’ve gone from playing classes to playing ourselves, via moral decisions, to simply choosing what our current avatar thinks about things. Most games don’t even allow you to claw back the classic joy of at least having everyone in the party run around in their pants for your amusement, unless of course that’s what they consider a suitable battle outfit.
Instead, MOBAs in particular have picked up the baton, sometimes, up to and including the running around in pants bit, though the major Western games at least have dialed that down in recent years and save it for expensive skins and special occasions. It’s almost a 180 degree flip from the games of the past, which tended to be about their worlds first, characters second. Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Ultima, Ravenloft, Septerra Core, Silver or more or less whatever gave the location the star treatment, with the main characters primarily quest-meat to the point that Knights of the Old Republic was being able to make actually being someone interesting into a massive plot twist.
MOBAs do things differently, of course. They don’t expect you to know or give a damn about Summoner’s Rift or Drow’s originals or whatever, but they put in the same amount of effort with things like custom barks and responses and how the character background affects who we see and how they approach the round. Most importantly, of the 20-100+ characters, there’s going to be someone who takes your fancy or fits your playstyle. You can be a generic wizard, or Zeus! Some regular archer or Windrunner. Or something far crazier that most fantasy games aren’t going to touch due to being either too specific in style or too crazy to build round. Most recently for instance, League of Legends basically unveiled Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender. That’s the kind of announcement I’m going to notice.
Without looking at the actual games at all, it’s not hard to see why these modern heroes typically offer a better fantasy experience for the average player than just creating an avatar. You don’t control the personalities, but at least they have them. Lines of dialogue between characters help reinforce their place in the world, and allow for a level of fantasy of playing alongside specific characters rather than them simply being a shell – at least on a casual level. Spending money on skins and things… well, it’s not how I can imagine really choosing to spend mine, and obviously you’re not creating anything original when you do, but it is still depressingly more dramatic control than most games without a mod scene get these days.
But of course, I said that I say this from the League Of Folks Who Don’t Really Play MOBAs But Are Bizarrely Hooked On All The Trappings. I tune in for the videos. I imagine playing as the characters. Occasionally I even download a game and then never quite get around to trying it out, save for looking at who’s in it and what they can do. No group of fellow newbies to play with. No interest in dealing with the horrors of ‘friendly’ public chat. No chance whatsoever of being able to put in the time to, as they dribble, ‘git gud’, instead of simply ‘ply fur fn’. Every time I look into it, I know it’s not My Genre. I’m just a tourist, peeking in at the edges, and enjoying the show. Also sometimes giggling at spotlight videos, when the announcer excitedly talks up a character’s unstoppable, god-like power of legend and then demonstrates it by having them do about as much damage to one of their peers as rolling up a newspaper and whacking them on the noggin. I know that’s not how it plays in game. I know everything needs to be balanced. But still. If you’re going to sell me the idea of playing, say, a time controlling dragon of myth, give me something a little cooler to look forward to than literally just throwing sand in people’s eyes. I mean, really. Come on.
Even that though, I’d take over another 50 hours with another generic mage. I just hope MOBA players occasionally take time to appreciate what they’ve got, because while other worlds may be deeper, more interesting, and have stories that people actually care exist (sorry, lore writers), pretty much no other genre is spending as much time trying to make our specific role in their universe both cool and worth personally investing in beyond the classic ‘well, I’ve been playing this character for 10 years’ level. Even if their big reason for doing so is the hope that you’ll also invest in their funky new hat, it’s honestly better than nothing. We just don’t see the likes of Geralt, The Nameless One and Commander Shepard often enough to risk spurning it.