In the last Free-to-Play Cast, I opined that the new trend in F2P seems to be “battle arena”-style games, in the mold of Paladins, Gigantic, Nosgoth, LawBreakers, and even the not-F2P Overwatch. All have been compared – usually fairly – to Team Fortress 2, which came out all the way back in 2007 and went F2P in 2011.
They've also drawn comparisons to – and sometimes been outright labeled as – MOBAs. Many of the above-mentioned games do bear some similarity to that well-established genre, such as fixed team sizes, in-match progression, objective-based gameplay, but I have a hard time comparing those games directly to League of Legends, Dota 2, SMITE, or Heroes of the Storm. I refer to them as “battle-arena-ish-but-not-MOBA” games, or some other clumsy moniker, but is there really an appropriate term?
MOBA in name only
One thing to get out of the way first: I'm going to refer to LoL/Dota/etc. as “MOBAs.” I'm sorry if you don't like the term, but that's what they're generally known as. Whether that's a good term or not isn't what I'm addressing here.
That said, the strict wording of the term itself is so all-encompassing that it could apply to plenty of games that don't have typical MOBA gameplay. “MOBA” stands for “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena,” and on that level, the other types of games certainly fit the description. They're multiplayer, online, and feature lots of battling; “arena” is perhaps a little more open to interpretation, but I tend to think of that as representing a game session in a fairly small area, thus eliminating games with huge “open” worlds like PlanetSide 2.
But gaming acronyms have long been less than adequate to describe gaming genres. Take “RPG” for instance; it literally means “role-playing game.” If you want to get into semantics, just about any game you play where you take on the role of a character – think Tomb Raider (Lara Croft) or any Super Mario game – fits that description. Yet we almost always interpret “role-playing game” as something with a grand story, character development, a bunch of different gear to equip, and so on. Do Tomb Raider and Super Mario have some of those elements? Sure, but I don't know that I'd classify either of those as “RPGs.”
Continuing along those lines, what kind of games are Diablo, Path of Exile, Marvel Heroes, Devilian, and so on? They're all ARPGs, which stands for “Action RPG.” Well, isn't TERA an RPG with action combat? Does that make it an ARPG? No, because we know what we call an ARPG: something with a certain kind of familiar isometric view and “click-to-attack” gameplay. How about an RTS? You need a strategy for a World of Warcraft raid and you have to execute your actions in real time, so...
In that same vein, I think that a “MOBA” is something like League of Legends, even if what the letters stand for could be literally applied to a number of different games. That's what players have termed those kinds of games. Otherwise, Star Wars: Battlefront, World of Tanks, and Team Fortress 2 could all be termed “MOBAs.” For that matter, what if you set up a LAN to play League of Legends? It would be the same game, but no longer “online,” so is it no longer a MOBA? Is it just an MBA?
Hopefully, that puts you out of the mindset of thinking that the term defines the genre, when really, it's the other way around: the genre defines the term. With that in mind, could it still be reasoned that these new games actually resemble “traditional” MOBAs enough to be lumped in with them?
For my money – and your opinion may vary – a MOBA has rigidly defined travel routes (“lanes”) where the main objectives are found and possibly other areas in-between (“jungle”) where secondary objectives can be found. The object of the game is to overcome the enemy's defenses, which are spaced along those travel routes (“towers”) and eventually occupy and/or destroy their base, at the point where those routes merge. Other typical MOBA elements, such as minions and in-match progression are, in my mind, not necessary to fit the genre.
That's the traditional MOBA formula that the kings of the genre use. It's relatively inflexible in terms of strategy and the execution of the team's goals. In my mind, the free movement of the other types of games, and their varying objectives – is a MOBA-ish capture-point match in the same category as a team deathmatch or attack/defend match? – serves as the primary differentiating point.
Even a game like Paladins, which does have in-game progression and an enemy “base” with layers of defense – albeit passive, unlike a MOBA's death-dealing towers – doesn't count as a MOBA to me because of the freedom of map movement and the capture-point mechanic that's used to spawn a siege engine are unlike anything seen in a traditional MOBA (Heroes of the Storm being something of an exception).
The name of the game
So if they're not MOBAs, what do we call these games? I haven't really given it much of a try, apart from occasionally calling them “battle arena” games, which uses the “BA” from MOBA and could come across as confusing. Sure, they're mostly shooters, whether first-person or third-person, but a few – you could lump Chivalry and War of the Roses into this category – focus mostly on melee combat. And “shooter” to me isn't all that descriptive; the aforementioned PlanetSide 2 certainly qualifies as one but is a very different kind of game from the likes of Overwatch.
I'll leave this exercise to you guys. What should we call these not-quite-MOBAs? Is there a descriptive-but-not-too-silly acronym that could apply? Maybe it's as easy as ABC: “Arena-Based Combat”? (OK, that's awful.) Or are you comfortable just sticking with MOBA, even though I think that leads to more confusion with the LoL/Dota/SMITE/HotS crowd, since the two types of games aren't really all that similar?
About the Author
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.
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