Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) is a rapidly emerging sub-genre of the Real-Time Strategy genre and e-sport that may well be on its way to a full blown genre of its own. The concept started in the Blizzard Mod community in the mid 2000's and has since proliferated out into standalone AAA releases. As of this writing the business model, nature of the sub-genre and even its' very name are all in a state of flux.
As of early 2012, The emerging genre has yet to have attained a universally accepted name although many acronyms have been proposed. MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) seems to be emerging as the leading candidate as of this writing. The MOBA moniker was proposed by Riot Games who developed League of Legends.
Other names include:
- AOSs (Aeon of Strife)- Aeon of Strife was the original Starcraft:Brood War map from where the genre arose
- DotA (Defense of the Ancients) - The other leading contender to MOBA, DotA takes its name from the Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos mod that propelled the genre to popularity. The DotA alias also shows up in different variations such as "DotA clone", "DotA-like", "DotA-esque", "DotA-style" etc.
- ARTS (Action Real Time Strategy) - proposed by Valve who launched Dota 2
- HAG (Hero Action Game) - one of the the less popular options at the moment.
- LoMa (Lords Management) - coined by Idle Thumbs and used by its community.
- Team Brawler - Used by Blizzard to describe Heroes of the Storm.
There is considerable debate among fandom as to which name suits the genre the best.
A further complicating factor is that Valve has filed a trademark on the term "DOTA" (all in capital letters) in August 2010. This likely severely limits the chances of other developers ever embracing the "DotA" nickname for the sub-genre in their marketing despite the term's popularity among players. Immediately thereafter Pendragon (Steve Mescon), founder of DotA Allstars the official community site of the DotA and an employee of Riot Games, filed a trademark dispute against Valve.
Another dispute was filed by Blizzard against Valve on November 26th 2011 over the trademarking of the term "DOTA" asserting that since "DotA" was created as a mod for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos it falls under the purview of the game's End User License Agreement (which states that all content created with Warcraft III's editor tools belong to Blizzard).
In early May 2012 Blizzard's dispute was settled, with Valve retaining the commercial rights to the name DOTA and Blizzard users being allowed to use the name for non-commercial uses only. This outcome makes the adoption of the MOBA acronym more likely for the sub-genre.
The MOBA genre is rapidly evolving, and while it is unknown what characteristics will ultimately be defining of the genre and what won't, there are many emerging commonalities between the games.
The objective for the player teams is to defend their homebase from being destroyed by the opposing team. Each base may or may not have tower defenses and may spawn ally NPCs that auto attack the opponent's defenses along specified paths, known in the games as "lanes". The player characters can freely navigate most of the map, but usually engage in the most of the fighting with opposing players in the lanes. The first team to destroy the opponent's base wins (usually a single structure in the center of the base, often referred to as an Ancient, serves as the game ender)
Most of the games share some key central characteristics
- Top Down Perspective - owing to their lineage from Real Time Strategy games, MOBA games usually but not always take a fairly pulled out view similar to most games in that genre.
- Single Hero Character per Player - Unlike RTS games players control one hero unit (which may have summons or other controllable sub-units), there generally is no army management aspect.
- Team Multiplayer Co-op - Most MOBA games are comprised of two opposing teams of anywhere from 2-6 players on each side working cooperatively to defeat the other team. Skillful players will often use ganking as a means to defeat other players, forcing them to respawn on a time delay if successful.
- Tower Defense - In many of the games the bases are defended by towers that auto attack opposing players and NPCs automatically.
- Creeps - Along with the hero characters, the bases spawn Ally (enemy) NPCs to auto-attack the other base along lanes. Killing these creeps give the Hero experience. Some MOBAs have neutral ambient Creeps in between the lanes, in an area often called the "jungle", the Hero can farm to level up on as well.
- RPG Elements - Hero characters can level up by killing creeps, felling enemy structures or opposing players and gain better stats and new abilities. Additionally some MOBAs offer opportunities to gain extra experience and gold by "last hitting" enemy heroes, towers and creeps, as well preventing enemy players from gaining experience by "denying" kills (by killing a friendly unit before they can kill it).
- Mini Maps and Fog of War- Many MOBA games include a Mini Map in their HUD and have some element of Fog of war that encourage ambush ganking attacks on opposing players.
- Powerups - many MOBAs have powerups strewn across the map, usually in between the primary lanes, that can be used to augment their hero characters for short burts of time.
- Weapon Enhancement - Players can gain better weapons by purchasing weapons and recipes from their base. When the correct ingredients are assembled players can combine the ingredients to create new more powerful weapons, augmenting the player's stats and buffs.
- Automatic Resource Generation - accumulated by the passage of time and by assembling killstreaks players can acquire currency which they can use to purchase weapons and items.
- Multiple Lives - many MOBAs allow you to players to use any remaining resources they have to revive themselves, provided they have enough currency to do so.
- Match Length - unlike many RTS games MOBA games are fairly long by comparison, often taking thirty minutes to an hour to complete.
- Online Play - While the DotA mod could be played offline, in LANs, and even single player ( in single player the player is accompanied by and competes against AI controlled bots), the vast majority of MOBA games today are played exclusively online vs live opponents.
- Fighting Elements - More recent MOBA games, such as League of Legends, The King of Fighters Online, and Heroes of Newerth, have incorporated fighting game elements.
Noticeably absent from MOBAs are some RTS game hallmarks such as base and army management and resource collection. MOBAs to date noticeably also lack single player campaigns or much of a story.
For an excellent in depth retrospective on DotA see Ct Chockula's series on GosuGamers (external link) at Gosugamers.
An early predecessor to the genre was the 1989 game Herzog Zwei which is considered to be the progenitor of the modern real-time strategy genre. One key difference between Herzog Zwei and modern MOBA games is that Herzog Zwei allowed the player to command an army of units, while the modern MOBA genre either features waves of uncontrolled units that spawn at set intervals or doesn't feature other units at all. Thus, in some ways, Herzog Zwei was more or less in middle ground between a proper RTS and a MOBA game, before either genre existed. Herzog Zwei's formula has recently been revived by the MOBA game AirMech in 2013.
Starcraft : Brood War
The MOBA genre came to life in the Starcraft: Brood war mod community on a Use Map Setting map created by user Aeon64. It featured the genre's hallmark creep, lane, base and hero mechanics. Unlike later iterations players would not get multiple lives.
Warcraft III : Reign of Chaos
After Warcraft III's release in 2002, almost immediately the mod community started creating new versions of AOSs in Warcraft's more robust map editor. A user named Eul created the version that would become most popular called Defense of the Ancients. The genre's mechanics and staples would get more or less fully fleshed out in the way they are known today in this iteration.
Warcraft III : Frozen Throne
With the Frozen Throne expansion pack released in 2003, Eul created a new version of DotA that proved not to be popular. From there DotA branched into several variations, the most popular of which would be aggregated into versions modded by Ragn0r & Meian. In 2004 the community would re-coalesce onto a new map version that would become known as DotA Allstars, which would usher the mod into explosive popularity. New lead modder Guinsoo (Steve Feak) would add new wrinkles such as item combination and a super boss hidden (Roshan) on the DotA map. His warcraft clan (team TDA) would also start the first competitive DotA league, and Guinsoo's variant would become the dominant and genre defining map of DotA. TDA clan member Pendragon's newly formed forum community for Dota Allstars would become the official hub of the DotA community. In 2005 Feak passed on responsibility (Feak today is lead designer on League of Legends) to his lieutenants IceFrog and Niechus. Icefrog would take the lead and is perhaps the best known modder of DotA. The DotA allstar community would continually refine and balance the mod until it became suitably balanced and stable for competitive play. By late 2005 live tournaments were occurring in Asia, including being part of the World Cyber Games in Singapore. Today DotA and its' sucessors remain popular e-sports with prizes usually ranging from $1,000.00 and up.
By 2008 DotA was generally considered by many gamers to be one of the most popular and influential video game mods of all time.
IceFrog would steward DotA allstars until 2009 when he left to work on Dota 2 for Valve. DotA Allstars would close altogether in 2010, and the Wc community would move to playdota.com. Icefrog as of 2012 still mods new versions of the WC3 DotA Allstars version in his spare time for Playdota.com , a site affiliated with Valve.
Onward from Blizzard
In 2009 the DotA community began to fork into new directions. With the release of DemiGod early in the year, players had an actual commercially supported game to play, however for purchase. Many of the top devs from Dota Allstars including Guinsoo would form Riot Games and release League of Legends (LoL) in 2009. With the release of LoL, Riot announced a new name for the potential genre, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA). LoL took MOBAs in a new direction by introducing a new business model to the sub-genre. LoL is free to play and is somewhat controversial for its various in-game content for sale, such as experience boosts, the playable hero characters, and cosmetic skins for those characters.
The genre saw further expansion and new ideas in 2010. Monday Night Combat is notably the first MOBA game to abandon a fantasy setting, taking the genre in a new direction. S2 games took their Newerth IP and adopted it onto a DotA map as well, released as Heroes of Newerth in 2010.
Due to its popularity, LoL is generally considered the heart of the MOBA competitive community today, although Valve's Dota 2 has already gathered a large following in spite of remaining in closed beta. Valve has revealed that Dota 2 will also be free to play, nearly replicating the existing business model for Team Fortress 2. Players will be given random cosmetic items as a reward playing with the option of buying from the store or trading with other players to get any specific item.
In 2012 the genre continued to gain diversity, with games like Awesomenauts and Guardians of Middle-earth aiming to use simplifications of the formula to find success on video game consoles while Super Monday Night Combat and Dota 2 continue to confirm free-to-play as the business model of choice. The growth of the genre is also obvious, with LoL far surpassing World of Warcraft and all other games for hours played. (source) Riot offered $5 million in prize money over the course of LoL's second competitive season. Major tournaments including MLG and IEM have seen stream views for LoL games exceed those for StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and have consecutively set new records for concurrent viewers.