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A Brief History Of The Battle Arena, Part Two

Further Down The Lane

Yesterday saw part one of our brief history of the games which followed in the lanes of DOTA. Part two looks at what happened next.

The Business Of The Battle Arena

What followed, in short form, determined the fate of what would eventually become MOBAs. Launching the two titles the same year, whether or not either developer realized it, put Demigod and League of Legends in unwitting competition with one another over which would play a greater part in shaping the genre to be. That is, of course, if either turned out to be particularly successful in transforming a nebulous modding community into what a tech journalist today would probably call a unique “intellectual property.”

Furthermore, the competition was pronounced by the divergent ways the two companies planned to distribute and monetize their product. Demigod was published by Stardock Corporation, a software developer based in Plymouth, Michigan that came onto the project about halfway though production.

“From the moment Stardock took over publishing,” Bingham tells me, “the distribution model was essentially locked in as-is.” The company decided to release the game in the traditional; boxed-copy format and support online play with internal software they were developing concurrently, and they considered Demigod “a high-profile, but exclusive leverage title to jumpstart the [new] digital distribution platform, Impulse.”

Bingham explained it to me this way because I posed my original question from a very present-minded perspective, basically asking as politely as I could: “why didn't you make your game free-to-play?” But, really, in 2009, the more sensible question for any major U.S.-based game developer would have been something like, “Why on earth would you give something away for free?? Something you worked so hard on?” Keep in mind that Zynga itself was only founded two years before this. FarmVille came out the same year as Demigod and League of Legends in 2009. “Freemium” was something that happened on Flash websites and in Korea.

When asked about the choice, Caldwell shrugs that “free-to-play is just a publishing and distribution model,” claiming that Riot “always envisioned an aggressive content and balance update schedule for ‘League of Legends’”—a type of fast-paced, short term development and production that still pervades FTP games to a much greater extent than their premium brethren—“regardless of how we decided to bring in the bacon.”

But that doesn't do much to explain the difference between Demigod and League of Legends’ relative success. Critics said that Demigod suffered from bugs and occasional lags, sure. But anyone who’s struggled through the early history of an online game expects a certain gap between performance and expectation. Otherwise, League of Legends wouldn't need quite as aggressive an update schedule, after all. And on Metacritic, often the driving force of the game criticism’s commercial relevance, the Demigod only lags behind League of Legends by two percentage points.

In other numbers, the game fell much further behind. When I ask Bingham about Demigod's user base, he replies, “We never quite hit the half million mark, but we were in the ballpark.” To this day, he admits, a lot of gamers don’t know what Demigod is. The size of that discrepancy alone is a sign that Riot’s real success was tapping into freemium’s enormous potential. And much like Zynga did with FarmVille(though many a LoL fan would bristle at the comparison), they were able to make a run at the market long before a direct competitor could muster up a rival IP.

Yet there’s a reason that League of Legends has been able to maintain that first mover advantage and Zynga hasn’t, and that’s because MOBAs, in their own way, are the ideal partners of free-to-play business.

What is it about MOBAs that fits so well with FTP? In a Wired article about Farmville 2, Ryan Rigney criticized the game for being a “perpetual motion money machine.” Really, all free to play games are perpetual motion money machines. The art of game design comes in concealing just how explicit that fact is wedded with the game design philosophy itself.

Vineet Kumar, a professor at Harvard Business School currently completing a study of the model, tells me that compared to other freemium products like, say, LinkedIn or DropBox, games face a particular challenge because the only thing of value they can offer is “engagement.” But unlike a coherent ecosystem like a social network that remains essentially intact and simply amasses user-generated material, “if you’re building a free-to-play game, you have to constantly be producing new content.”

And here’s where the art comes in. FarmVille 2 seems like a perpetual money machine because its content stream consists of random, meaningless rewards like “seasonal” crops and promises to “win exclusive chickens.” League of Legends doesn’t because it feels like a sport. As disgusting as the online player community can be in a game like LoL or HoN, and despite Riot and S2’s constant reassurances that they are doing their very best to control just how despicable their players can be, the irony is that the ferocity that propels Reddit-like trolls is the same zeal that spurs the games’ essential spirit of competition, the some one that makes more than two percent of their users want to buy new stuff.

After all, one of HoN’s core premium products are special in-game taunts to better antagonize your opponents, Brad Bower, S2 Games Director of Operations, tells me proudly. While HoN was originally released through traditional retail in May of 2010, it had switched to free-to-play, or what Bower calls “free to own” by July of the next year.

Valve, meanwhile, was starting work on Dota 2 just as “the Team Fortress 2 team was off learning about free-to-play economies, and more specifically, how the community itself could be involved in creating value within it,” Johnson recalls. Seeing the rapid expansion of its game alongside the standard experiments Valve was running with Steam and beyond, he says the producers “felt like the Team Fortress 2 team was moving forward incredibly fast with some really interesting ideas, and we wanted to see how the community reacted before we made any decisions about how to build the business of Dota 2.”

Ironically enough, making a free-to-play game is now too expensive for the young upstart developers trying to move into the space such as Awesomenauts developer Romino, a small independent studio that made one mobile game before trying their hand at the genre.

Institutionalization and Proliferation

A 2011 Eurogamer article suggests that the history of MOBAs, or at least of DotA specifically, ultimately coalesced around two major players: Valve and Riot. The distinction makes sense, on one level. The companies are the only two that have the key figures that rose from the original DotA community. And after a longer and complicated legal battle between Valve and Blizzard that settled with the former accepting the acronym “Dota 2” for its game, the two also have the most recognizable brand names in the field.

But what really happened after the explosion of Riot’s cunning experiment in business and game design was an explosion of the form itself beyond its original underpinnings. And, if anything, League of Legends, Dota 2, and (maybe) the ridiculously named Blizzard All-Stars, are just the ones that have stayed closest to the coop.

“I think the elements are still being defined,” Bingham says when I ask what he thinks a “MOBA” is today. “At some point, someone will break with convention enough to create another subgenre. Perhaps lines only get drawn when you can point to something within a genre that is distinctly not the genre.”

Ronimo was started by a group of game design students at the Utrecht School of the Arts. Jasper Koning, one of the designers, tells me over Skype that they got the idea for Awesomenauts much like the first generation of MOBA designers: by “playing a lot of MOBAs!” Though he admits, “When we started out, we didn’t know it would be so MOBA-like.”

Their first game, Swords & Soldiers, was a similar attempt at transferring a complex game system—real time strategy—into a smaller platform with a matching pared-down cartoony feel. League of Legends, Jasper says, was already a 2D game in some sense given the emphasis on the verticality of the game’s lanes. The hope with Awesomenauts was to offer the strategic engagement of LoL but the heart of Worms: Armageddon.

“A lot of other MOBAs are very dark and serious, Jasper says. “Our hope was that if you make the game a little less serious, maybe players will take it a little less seriously.”

For inspiration beyond strictly Worms and DotA, the team looked to other “hybrid” MOBAs, if such a thing existed at the time. But all they could find was Team Fortress-style games like Monday Night Combat.

“When we started making Awesomenauts three years ago, we figured another companies to do what we doing,” Jasper says, laughing. “But it never happened!” The trepidation of moving over to consoles may have prevented more of the industry titans from first taking any interest in the space, given the general concern of companies like Electronic Arts and Take Two to churn out yearly sports and War on Terror-titles to appease their loyal Xbox fans combined with the fact that even John Carmack claims he doesn’t develop with the PC in mind anymore.

“If we were to make a console MOBA,” Bower tells me when I raise the hypothetical, “it wouldn’t be as simple as porting Heroes of Newerth. There are just too many difference as a game console.”

Of course, the move eventually did happen, with Awesomenauts and soon with much larger capital investments. In May 2012, “Guardians of Middle Earth” was announced as an XBLA/PSN game developed by Monolith and produced by Warner Brothers Interactive. And now that League of Legends is officially the biggest thing ever, it’s only a matter before more of gaming’s old guard follows suit. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if people start arguing about the next Command & Conquer being a MOBA when it finally comes out, freemium convert that it is.

And what of the genre's detritus, the last forgotten remains?

“Production quality and character depth still have a long way to go in current games,” Bingham says when I ask him what he thinks Demigod’s legacy will be to the form it helped create and just as quickly lost control of. “That is really just a technology and budget limitation. That should open the door to ever wider audiences.”

“We still get fan letters from people whose eyes were opened to computer gaming by Demigod because they saw or heard something they felt was unusually beautiful,” he ends. “Team advancement still is a deep well for the genre to pull from, and rewards team communication, coordination, and self-sacrifice.”

There are many lessons in the history of battle arenas, and not all of them are about what IceFrog's real name might not be. One thing is certain, though. The future of these games, whatever its exact form, will involve heroes, lanes, creeps, and many, many millions of players.

Yannick LeJacq is a technology reporter for the International Business Times, though he also writes a lot about video games for Kill Screen, Bit Creature, and The Wall Street Journal entertainment website, The Speakeasy. His work has also appeared in Salon, The Atlantic, and The Huffington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @YannickLeJacq, and will almost certainly kick his ass in Dota 2 or League of Legends.

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