The MOBA Scramble: Surviving Decline

If you saw Startale’s podcast which I frequent, you’ll have heard me talk about the “MOBA Decline” and how the genre has plateau’d. I feel this could use some background and why I feel this way, albeit some of this will be less raw and heavy facts and more so looking about to infer meaning.

King of the Ring

For just under a decade, MOBAs have been the most enormous and possibly profitable genre bubble to hit video games. League’s explosive success in 2009 followed by the arrival of DOTA2 and more caused a scramble to get into the MOBA industry. It harkens back to the days of World of Warcraft where the MMO caused the entire genre to explode, albeit nobody expected it to last forever. Just as the MMO slowly phased away, so too would MOBAs eventually die out.

Now, to their credit, MOBAs are a part of the free-to-play explosion that has rocked gaming harder than any scandal could. League of Legends still makes money hand-over-first despite being almost a decade old. In fact, the only game that comes close to it is…WoW. A game released in 2004. Granted, WoW has a subscription fee but the sheer money coming in still speaks volumes. Along with that, DOTA2 is still the most played Steam game of the year and regularly smashes the prize pool record from each previous international.

You’d assume that there is nowhere but up, right?

The Scramble

Well, not quite.

If I had to put it to a single thing, I’d say the advent of the “hero shooter” (A FPS game with MOBA-esque mechanics like abilities and ultimates) has caused the biggest alarm for this genre. A genre that erases some of the biggest complaints people have about MOBAs such as long match times, steep learning curves and painfully annoying “It’s everyones fault but my own” mentalities. Sure, some of these still exist in hero shooters, but not to any degree they do in MOBA-style games.

It’s difficult to gain actual data but compare Google Trends for how often League and DOTA have been searched for. Since their peak around 2013, the games have slowly been looked for less and less. Sure, there are major tournament spikes, but people have either found their game or avoided the genre. New blood isn’t really coming into these games and they hold a static playerbase save for the occasional investigative “taste test” of the genre. Interesting enough, when I looked at DOTA2’s Playercount, the number spiked to nearly 14 million unique players. Yet according to Steam Charts (While they don’t tell the whole story), the average player count has dropped since December’s big announcement. What was December’s big announcement?

A Triage Situation

I’ll be blunt: Both games are attempting to triage the situation in their own unique way. While you could argue they’re just trying to keep both games “fresh”, reading between the lines shows more factual information that neither company would truly care to admit.

On League’s side, they’ve basically been making good on promises they made years ago: Replays and Practice Tools have come out alongside a new client, as well as increased bans for pro play.

For DOTA2, the 7.0 update includes a far-cleaner HUD, visual updates for heroes who have desperately needed it, and new gameplay updates that speak more of more casual games than of DOTA2.

When you step back, the intentions are quite clear. League is pushing updates to entice their more hardcore fanbase while DOTA is making a push for the more casual fanbase. Both games are attempting to draw in fresh faces as well as re-incentivize those who may not have wanted to play the game.

But most of all, these updates come off the back of one major thing: Overwatch. Blizzard’s hero shooter has blasted all expectations and has become a worldwide phenomenon. For how long, nobody can say, but it’s more than a coincidence that this game explodes onto the scene and suddenly two industry titans suddenly make sweeping changes to appease the other side of the fence.

Death Knell?

For those who fear for the game you love: Relax. These aren’t going anywhere. MOBAs are far too large to up and die. It’s arguable that they won’t even truly die, just not be number one anymore. Building on this, it’s possible League/DOTA will forever exist as esports. Games we watch rather than play. They still pull in enormous numbers and both games are still considered the pinnacle of esport play along with Counter Strike.

But Overwatch was a wake-up call. They won’t be number one forever. You can’t get by with just what you have as your game gets older. There will be challengers to your playerbase and throne…and that has sparked a massive change-of-pace in both games. MOBAs still have plenty of life in them and we’re not going to see them rot away too fast…but the question is how long they’ll be at the top as time goes on.

And that? I have no idea of.

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Viability vs. Optimal

A common error I see when people talk about video games is mixing up viability and optimal picks. This extends to both League and Overwatch but it’s an important distinction that needs to be made, especially when one is arguing about the state of the game.

“Viability” Being Misused

Often, when people talk about viability, they look at it from the perspective of “Is this character in the best spot they could be right now?” which isn’t the case at all. When it comes to viability, it simply means “Can I play this character to an effective level?”. In nine-out-of-ten circumstances? Yes! You can use almost any character in these games. League’s massive one hundred and thirty-plus roster is filled with playable, workable champions. I’d argue about ninety percent.

“Optimal” Being Understood

Optimal, however, speaks strictly about the power behind a single character. There are only a handful of optimal picks in Overwatch right now, the common combination (If I am remembering correctly) being Lucio, Ana, Reinhardt, D.Va, Roadhog and Zarya. This DOES NOT MEAN that all the other heroes are bad, per say. This simply means that in your best state, you’d want to play these heroes.

Blurred Line

The best question to ask is how did this get so mixed up. The answer? Esports. Simply put, since the advent of esports, people look to the pro leagues and the highest echelon of play to determine the state of balance. But balance for the common masses and balance for the top tier is a vastly different ball game. As an example, DOTA 2 balances strictly around the pro scene and results in an incredibly diverse game for them. However, for the common players, some heroes shine far brighter than others. During The International 6 (The biggest DOTA tournament), Omniknight was picked once and lost in all games. However, in normal queues, he was boasting an incredibly high win rate.

In this regard, people will look at the LCS or the upcoming Overwatch Pro League as a metric of what is “viable”. The truth is that in your silver games, anything can be played effectively. Offensive Torbjorn? Sure. Bot lane Yasuo? Go for it. You’re playing at a level where comfort picks are far more useful than any sort of meta strategy.

Balance is a different story but just remember: Just because something isn’t optimal doesn’t mean it isn’t viable.

On Sexual Diversity in Video Games: “Vi stands for…Bi?” (Part 2)

This is a continuation of my last musing article so if you haven’t read it, I suggest you do. Don’t worry, it’ll open in a new tab.

Following up from last week, I wanted to talk about sexuality in another game I play (being League of Legends) and how sexuality gets assigned when it comes to a void. I actually wrote a paper on this back in college when it came to a class so some of this might be recycled.

In the Void

When it comes to a game like League with hundreds of characters and not enough time to write a novel for all of them, you cut corners. For most characters, a single short story and background page is all we have outside of the core game’s VO and how they play. As such, sexuality gets left on the cutting room floor. It is, after all, one of the lesser aspects of a character.

When you think about it, only a handful of characters have actual sexuality when it comes to the game; Illaoi was dating Gangplank and flirts with Braum. Taliyah has small flirtations with Ekko. Garen and Katarina are in some sort of lovers feud. Lucian had a wife. Tryndamere and Ashe are married. In these cases, even the revealed facts are pretty bland. Which does make sense. After all, a majority of the populous is heterosexual.

When it comes to characters, we have two prevailing schools of thought: The “Everyone’s Bi” argument and the stereotype argument.

The “Everyone’s Bi” Argument

Most of this comes from the fact that giant IPs have so many artists, writers and more who all draw characters in different pairings and different ways. What’s the point of saying “Well canonically Miss Fortune is gay!” when you have a hundred aspiring artists and writers who are going to tell stories about her psuedo-boyfriend anyways?

In this argument, there’s no point in discussing sexuality because people will assign it on their own save for story hooks. Even in story hooks, such as last week’s “Tracer and Emily” information, will be disregarded to fit what fan writers and artists do. Everyone’s bi so who cares! I wouldn’t say this is a particularly diverse way of looking at things but it also gives players the most freedom to think however they wish.

This is also a feeling you generally have when it comes to make-your-own protagonists. Commander Shepard is Schrodinger’s sexuality: He’s simultaneously gay, straight and bi all at the same time. In this regard, League and games like it don’t need to talk about sexuality because everyone will make their own…and it cuts through the rough things that can happen in countries that don’t approve of such things like Russia.

The Stereotype Argument

Conversely, there are those who NEED the writers or story people telling them who is what. If you don’t, people instead default to what they know about a character. In a game like League, where most characters have very little writing to them, you end up playing heavily on stereotype and fan theory.

Take for example Taric. A soft-spoken, handsome man with a fondness for beauty and shiny things. All we know about him is his backstory (Demacian Soldier who is now Avatar of Protection) and a handful of voice lines. In trying to figure out who Taric would love to date, people asked Riot. They gave the non-committal “He loves everyone”. Thus, people default to stereotypes…which means Taric is about as gay as a triple rainbow over a pride parade.

In a vacuum with little/no writer input, people just default to stereotypes. It’s easier that way, after all. Of course the counter-argument means that Riot was implying Taric is bi or even something more like polyamorous. We don’t know their true intentions, however, and it’d be pretty bold to include such an underrepresented thing in fiction. (Sadly some people, myself included, need a cheat sheet for all the sexuality there are today.)

The Part Where I Talk About Vi

And now we come to Vi. Part of why I devote an entire section to this is because this is where all of this writing comes into play. When Vi came out I was smitten. She encapsulated everything I love in a female character and looked damn good doing it. Of course when I talked to everyone about it, I got the same feelings: “Oh yeah the lesbian.”

My personal belief was that I always saw Vi as bi. Which is also why I defend the idea so heavily. On one hand, I don’t feel like her story or upbringing makes her out to be someone who sticks with one person or someone who doesn’t flirt with others every chance she gets. On the other hand, I also hate the idea of putting her entire character in a lesbian box because she’s a stereotype many people see: Short, pink hair. Rough tomboy. Snarky and rude.

In this case, Riot eventually came out and somewhat “subtly” said Vi likes guys and girls. About as subtle as a taco and hotdog metaphor can be anyways. Yet this is again a non-committal answer. They can easily twist or change this however they want. Personally, I like the idea of Vi being bi. It gives us an underrepresented sexuality, keeping true to the character (at least in my mind) and adding one more layer to a character without going too deep into it.

Conclusions

Much of this probably reads like rambling. Like someone who has too much time on their hands to worry about what fictional people do in their love lives. To me, it’s an important issue. It’s not a damning one, sure, but I think it’s necessary to talk about this sort of thing. In games, we often have the saying of “Show, don’t tell”. People don’t respond well to just saying “Oh yeah whatever he’s gay”. We need to see it with our own eyes.

It’s also why the Tracer comic was such a big deal. We got pretty damning visual evidence and it was quite a bold move. That is unless you’re a denier, in which case Tracer is kissing a very good friend on her open mouth. Either way, League could take some steps in my mind to further push these boundaries. We can have more beyond stereotypes or just wondering if everyone is bi until we get a clear answer.

Hopefully one day I can see a comic of Vi hanging out with her lovers in an open relationship.

Ludonarrative Dissonance in League and Overwatch

As a fan of lore, backstory, and the general storytelling of video games, you can imagine how much I scratch my head at these two games. While I understand the reason for it, both of these games exhibit extreme cases of ludonarrative dissonance. Rather than specifically state my opinion, I’d like to go over the pros and cons of this divide and further explain the intricacies of this system, maybe even determine why more and more games are moving toward such a style of story telling.

 What is Ludonarrative Dissonance?

Ludonarrative Dissonance is a phrase coined in 2007 by Clint Hocking, a creative director at Ubisoft. He used the phrase to specifically describe the disconnect between Bioshock’s storytelling and the gameplay elements related to the game. It drives a wedge between what we’re told (The hero is a heroic, kind, selfless soul) and what we’re actually doing in the game. (Ransacking every house we find.)

Games are unique to this problem because we can’t see a dissonance of this scale when it comes to movies, writing or television. Yes, we can have awkward moments but that is the sign of a poorly-written story where we question the writer breaking character. Comparatively, games have the dual-function of serving both a story element and a gameplay element; Even the most story-driven game has to have some gameplay and even the most nothing story in a video game has to have some overarching goal.

As an example of this, my character in World of Warcraft (at least in roleplay) is a weak human noble with very little battle-based skills. Yet I’m a max level hunter who regularly goes out and murders whatever the baddie-of-the-week is. It’s a clear disconnect between who my character is and the gameplay related to my character, although that’s entirely of my own choice.

Ludonarrative Dissonance in League and Overwatch

Perhaps more than almost any other game, both of these games have become extremely disconnected to the story of their respective worlds. League famously had a massive retcon due to the “Institute of War”, a powerful association of mages, causing a lack of conflict resolution or even conflict. To Riot, it was a confusing plot contrivance where characters could not change and all the champions of League had to be on a power-level below these summoners.

In Overwatch, there’s no connection at all. While characters interact, it’s clear from both a story and gameplay perspective that nothing is canonical. Characters die, respawn and fling each other all over the map in the pursuit of..well, either pushing a cart to the end of the map or capturing a control point. Any story elements told are given through cinematics, comics or other forms of media that are passingly related to the game in a stretched scenario. Perhaps the only connection is the small bits of dialogue characters say but, even then, it’s a dream scenario.

The Case for Ludonarrative Dissonance

When you consider these multiplayer-only or multiplayer-focused games, there is a core and damning narrative term that permeates everything: Static. Characters are often static. Characters cannot die and more often than not, story hooks can’t be directly resolved because everything resets at the end of the match. So what if Soldier 76 kills Reaper and captures Hanamura’s point? Is this really where the story is meant to end?

When you look at League, there was a major event early on that was touted as a story change in the game: The Ionia-Noxus match. In this game, players picked predominantly Ionian and Noxian champions who fought to determine the fate of the island nation. After a match done with some roleplay, Ionia was the victor. And….there are Ionian boots in the store now. What? There was no major change in character story arc, no alteration of their voice lines, no nothing. The Ionian champions succeeded in their goal but they still had to fight for…reasons. The conflict was “resolved” yet the only change was the addition of shoes to the shop.

Situations like this outline how forcing a game to work within story contexts can lead to disconnects and frustration. You have to come up with a reason for resurrection yet bend rules so that it’s not an easy out. You have to create change just enough that more of the story is told yet there is a net-zero outcome when the characters have to act-or-play differently. This unintentionally gates the story and makes players wonder if change is even possible.

By separating gameplay and story, you don’t have to worry about these situations. Players are free to enjoy a character without worrying about the actions in the game affecting the character. Those who enjoy the story and background can also go and find it, giving a massively deep layer that isn’t available directly in the game. It also prevents those who don’t really care about story to be subjected to it. With ludonarrative dissonance, you can technically have your cake and eat it too.

The Case against Ludonarrative Dissonance

In many ways, the disconnect is often the coward’s way out. It’s the point where a designer and a writer go “We can’t work together. Let’s just do our own things separate from each other”. This disconnect creates a massive divide in the playerbase and forces players who care about the world to watch a character they love never truly evolve in the game, only in the background.

No game is ever truly separated from narrative, as much as one might like to argue. Story hooks and elements are brought into play regardless of if you place a ten-story building between the two. Camille might not interact with Caitlyn in the story but her speech lines do speak that she knows something about what Caitlyn is after. Soldier 76 and Winston might never meet in the story but they are still sharing story elements in the game itself.

Just because there is a separation between game and story doesn’t mean changes cannot happen either. Yes, it’s more work for the company, but you can arguably change voice lines and character dialogue as things change in the narrative. Even if this is a dream scenario, have characters grow and change. Forcing a disconnect between story and gameplay only happens when you make it happen.

I’m not directly advocating that you MUST have change in the game but to say that you cannot have any change at all is confusing to me. Characters can grow in a story AND in the game. Maybe you can’t change how they play but you can change how they react and how they deal with situations. Dissonance is only dissonance if you refuse to work with the game. Yes, there will be times where the character acts out of turn but a little dissonance is better than separating the game and story like the moon and the sun.

My Personal Opinion

You might have gleamed a bit of this from my word choice and the way I spoke about pros and cons, but my personal belief is that ludonarrative dissonance is fine in most cases. Not every game can have a story that completely syncs with the game you’ve made and that’s alright. No game, not even the best narrative-driven game of all time, will be entirely functional with the game you’ve made. I both understand and respect Blizzard and Riot’s decision to focus on the game itself but allow for a rich and deep story that’s told outside the confines of Summoner’s Rift or Watchpoint: Gibraltar.

My praise given, I disagree that the disconnect has to be complete. I feel like characters being given additional dialogue, new story options and more in the game should be allowed. Give us cosmetics that reflect what happened to these characters. Alter maps to show us what happened in a cinematic without designing the map around it (ala King’s Row). Give us story elements in the game that make us want to go looking at your fancy comic or your narrative hub deeper than the Mariana Trench. There can be connections without having to hamfist or slam a wall between the two.

Perhaps more and more games are moving toward this because less and less people care about the story behind these games? How many of us just rapidly slam the skip button during dialogue? How plentiful is the number of players who go on that secondary website and read all the short stories and comics? How substantial is the divide between people who enjoy the background and world behind these games versus those who just enjoy the game itself?

Ludonarrative dissonance is a tool. It is one of the many little gadgets in a writer’s toolbox that lets them alter and change the story as they wish in relation to the game. Just like any other tool, it’s strongest when it’s doing an appropriate job…but it’s not a universal tool that can fix every problem. There needs to be a fine line when to drop ludonarrative dissonance and work on ludonarrative consonance.

Creating Champions in League of Legends: Breaking Rules

It was around 2012 that I took my first stab at creating a champion concept for League of Legends. Suffice to say, I’ve been working on it and others ever since. Almost five years old I think? Either way, I learned very quickly on that making champion concepts for League of Legends forces players and creators to break unspoken rules related to OCs (Original Characters) in canonical universes.

The “Rules”

Generally, many of these rules are not explicitly enforced or stated.. However, play any MMO in an RP community (as I did for around ten or more years with World of Warcraft) and you’ll quickly see things that are OK or not-ok to common players. Some of these rules include:

  • Not being related or involved with canonical characters.
  • Your work or job being toned down. (You’re not the best warrior in Azeroth.)
  • Separating your character from the canonical events of the game, such as major raids.
  • Not directly affecting major events that occurred in the game.

There are always people who break these rules, sure, but I’ve often found them to be pushed to the side or ignored. Roleplay communities seem to thrive on original characters who are downplayed or are one of many, as any world would allow. Not everyone can be the heroic titan who stands head-and-shoulders above others.

Do be aware that these rules are quite often enforced in RP communities when they’re related to League but not directly related to champion creation or design. That said, when you put champion creation into the mix, things become increasingly messy and break further and further rules.

Breaking Conventional Rules

In every champion release or new character, regardless of if it’s League, DOTA, or otherwise, you have a character who has to compete with or excel against the best warriors, mages and assassins in their respective worlds. You can have normal soldiers but even then, they are above and beyond those who serve alongside them. We’ve already had to break one rule in giving that character the power to face a cavalcade of others.

A staple of these characters are being related or connected to others in some way. Be it rivalry, implied love interest or otherwise. Even if your character is completely unconnected, he/she/it will need lines in relation to encountering other characters in the game. This includes events in the story. After all, if your champion is important enough to be a champion, they likely did something of note.

These facts alone force you, if you want to create a champion, to create someone of major significance in the League universe and beyond. Which also might be why so many creators are looked down upon when it comes to these rules. Yes, you can be the greatest warrior the Freljord has ever known but many will shake their heads and be disappointed in how much importance you’re putting into your character. Same goes for any other major point of note be it romance, relationship or legendary weaponry.

Of course, you can make original characters separate from champion concepts but those characters cannot be heroes in the game itself. You have a clear divide between someone strong enough to be a hero/champion and someone who is merely strong enough to get by in the world they live in.

A Standout Crowd

The purpose of this wasn’t to make people go “Ugh yeah I hate those dumb people who do that” or to somehow get sympathy for character creators who want to be the greatest samurai Ionia has ever known. What I merely wish to point out is that League is a game where creating playable characters requires you to bend the rules of original character creation, even if they are unspoken.

It’s certainly not for everyone either. You will get people criticizing your character because they are far too important or far too powerful. There will be critiques made at how your character is related to or interacts with a character who is canonical. At the end of the day, everyone is vying for the same goal: Get their creation noticed and perhaps one day work at these studios to put their pride-and-joy in the game.

No matter what, these jobs are rife with critique and will always have someone questioning the character’s inclusion in the game unless they’re the first there ever was. All one can do is maintain an open mind when looking at champion concepts and to understand that players aren’t the cause of these characters: it’s the environment.