Monday, November 30, 2015

Mo' MOBAS, Mo' Problems

So this was going to be about Aeronaut's Windlass, but I'm still only about half-way through. My back-up was Mr. Robot, but I'm not done with that either. Both of those things are good things, but neither one grabbed me by the throat like Jessica Jones did. You can expect write-ups on both next month. But I have an unbroken two review per month stream to maintain and I'll be damned if I break it. So I thought I would take a stab at describing the gaming genre that has sucked away the most of my time in the past two years: MOBAs and League of Legends in particular.

I didn't really plan this one out in advance, so it rambles. A lot of this will be me trying to explain a very complex genre to people who know jack all about it. Those of you who know it know it well, so there may not be a lot to glean from this monster for veterans. So much has been written about League and its ilk that there isn't an obvious avenue towards originality. But I think I eventually get at what I like about the genre and my chosen genre.

League is a game where two teams of five heroes fight on a square map with two bases at opposite diagonals, divided into three  lined with turret-like towers. Between the lanes there are jungles filled with monsters. Each base spawns waves of other monsters that do battle in the lanes. The goal of the game is to destroy the enemy team's base. This main map is always the same (with some year-to-year changes), like a chessboard, and playing the game is like inverse tug-of-war meets Diablo with a splash of real time strategy.

The real core hook of the game, the source of its seemingly endless variation, is that there are over 100 different playable characters (or champions), and each has their own spells and abilities which can be powered up as you level up, as well as a huge host of items you can use to further power up and customize  your play style. All of these fundamental gameplay mechanics were cribbed from DOTA, or Defense of the Ancients, which was a modded map from Warcraft III, and also serves as the basis of Valve's DOTA 2; League's primary competitor.

It is so similar in fact, that for a while, games in the genre were called "Dota-clones," until Riot Games, the creators of League of Legends, introduced a stupid new name for the genre that seems to have stuck: the MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena). That uninspired acronym could just as easily apply to any online game that features a death match mode. I'd personally call them something like "tri-laners," because, you know, the game is really about controlling those three lanes of aggression. "Pusher" would also work, because knocking down towers with teammates and waves of minions is called pushing, and the companies that run the games push them on you like drugs. Well, League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm do anyway; in those games, there is a free rotation of heroes that you can try every week (first hit is free). In order to have those characters available whenever you want, you have to buy them with real money (get bilk't), or a sizable sum of in-game currency accrued through many hours of play. DOTA 2 makes its money exclusively from cosmetic items, (which is something that the other two games also do).

Another thing MOBA's are known for is toxic communities. That can be true of gaming in general, but whereas COD and Halo kids will brag about how they fucked your mom, DOTA 2 and League players will routinely tell you to uninstall the game and quit forever, or kill yourself in very creative ways. If you are a writer struggling to capture trash talk, spend an afternoon on one of those games and let the bad times roll. Some titles have implemented solutions to try and improve the community. League has an honor and reporting system which can result in (paltry) player rewards, or bans for repeat offenders respectively. Blizzard cuts the Gordian Knot in HotS by disabling cross-team chat altogether, and invites you to turn off team chat at the beginning of every match. Which is... hmm. These are games where team-based communication is key, and honestly, some vicious hazing can be a powerful motivator to improve your skills. And you also miss out some more lighthearted, amusing exchanges.

Much has been written about why MOBAs are so toxic. My theory is pretty simple: it takes a team to win, and just one awful player to lose. See, in these games, every time you die, your opponents get in-game rewards that make them (or their entire team) more powerful. Dying repeatedly is actually called feeding, because you are providing your opponents with succor.

Sometimes I ask myself why I devote so much of time to these games. The matches are time consuming. It's not like I'm going to go pro. I actually have yet to play ranked mode in any of these games, because the pressure to perform is so high, and I have so little faith in my abilities. Really, I think it's because I want to prove to myself that I can become a competent player, and I get to spend time with a few of my exceedingly patient friends on a semi-nightly basis. Also being the weakest link among my friends in a game I admire lights a fire under me. It happened with Mario Kart, it happened with Super Smash Bros; after consistently being the weakest player among my bros, I binged each game until I hit a semi-respectable skill level; topping the charts at times, usually placing in the middle, and only occasionally winding up dead last. After two years of pretty dedicated play (with dry spells here and there), I am still consistently the anchor on my team. And I don't want to walk away from it like that.

I'm not a hyper competitive person when it comes to gaming--I reserve that psychosis for writing. But League helped awaken a fondness for Player-Vs-Player combat that MMOs never really fostered. The big problem I have with PVP in MMOs, and grind-to-unlock shooters is their RPG progression systems. In a RPG, the more you play, the more powerful you get as a character because you level up and unlock better equipment. In a PVP game, you get more powerful as a player because your skills improve. Usually, when you combine the two, players with more time than you get better two ways; they have had more practice, and they have better gear. Don't get me wrong; I love RPGs. I love getting more powerful as I play. But competitively, knowing there are other people out there with huge amounts of time on their hands, possessing vastly superior skills AND gear, kind of saps my desire to play against them. It's a deck stacked twice over. Or maybe two decks stacked on top of eachother. I don't know. This may not be the best metaphor. It's really more like having strangers chuck bricks at your sensitive bits.

Anyway, one of the magical things about MOBAs is that every game you play is a complete RPG progression cycle of fighting bad guys, leveling up, and buying gear (sans narrative--more on that below). You start with a clean slate, and level up as play progresses based on your performance. So it is pure skill, save for how the characters stack up against each-other. (And in ranked play, where draft picking rules are in effect, team composition provides another layer of strategy).

In a perfect world, all of the characters have comparable power levels; in actuality, some are stronger than others, and require consistent adjustment. I imagine balancing these games is a lot like trimming bonsai, and League, with its enormous roster, requires more back budding than most.

This is especially since Riot's primary project is to preserve, legitimize, and refine League as an E-Sport; a videogame with sufficient tuning and complexity to be played professionally for the entertainment of others. More than any other MOBA, League has a bedrock meta-game, where players must adhere to the same general constellation of positions and roles to succeed, like positions on a soccer field: one guy goes to the top lane, one guy goes to the middle, two guys go to the bottom, and one guy goes in the jungle and helps the other lanes. There is nothing that mechanically prevents deviation from that layout, but the team that adheres to it has a huge inherent mechanical advantage, (DOTA 2 and Heroes of the Storm are both much looser). My strongest position is support; the guy who usually guards or heals the Marksman or Attack Damage Carry (ADC); so named because he will eventually carry your team to victory (provided he get enough kills under their belt early on). Right now, my big project is to improve my capability with other positions who actually do damage.

Why League, as opposed to DOTA 2 or Heroes of the Storm, if it has a game that by design, allows for less variance? There are lots of little mechanical reasons. DOTA 2 offers the most variance, and takes itself the most seriously, but it is the most brutal game. Movement is trickier, you have to kill your own minions on occasion to deny enemy players gold, and the games tend to be the longest of the three. Heroes of the Storm is Blizzards new challenger, and it is like the Super Smash Bros of MOBAS, in that it plays around with the genre, has the softest community, faster games, a wider variety of maps, and it does away with a lot of mechanics like buying items. Basically, I like League's balance between the two. Each champion has a kit with a passive ability, three active abilities, and one ultimate ability. You also have access to two 'summoner spells,' which usually serve as some variance of 'get out of jail free or send your opponent to jail cards.' It also currently has the largest roster of characters.

But the thing I think I really like about League is that it's maturation as a game reflects my own as a player. It has serious problems that it has yet to solve. There is a rune system that allows experienced players to give their heroes bonus stats before matches, which is great for experienced players, but it unbalances that self-contained RPG arc for new players. Players have also been clamoring for a replay system, but 6 years in, they still haven't figured that seemingly-basic shit out. They flat out refused to make a real sandbox mode, even though it would be tremendously helpful to people who want to practice. And good god, what they did to the story...

The game takes place in a prosaic fantasy world called Runeterra populated by a bunch of cool characters. It's great strength was the meta-narrative that explained why said cool characters waged a hellish forever war of perpetual resurrection and bloodshed; the titular League of Legends used such matches as a form of governance to settle land disputes and other political problems. Players occupied the roles of powerful magi called summoners who guided the characters in battle. Initially, lore posts accompanied game updates, explaining what the current round of matches were settling, and how they related to the world. This was a powerful system because it gave players an in-universe identity, and made the matches have some semblance of value. But Riot decided such a system was too hard to turn into a franchise and the characters were not getting enough development. Instead of attempting to solve those problems, they abolished all the existing lore, divorced the gameplay from the story, and started doing periodic, character driven updates with some accompanying writing. Their refusal to change the world in the context of their universe was lazy, even craven, and the ligatures they've introduced between gameplay and story are cursory or annoying.

But for each colossal fuck-up, they make considerable improvements. The quality of their writing since the massive ret-con has made marked improvement. The game mechanics behind their characters have made quantum leaps over their original characters. Furthermore, they have started to renovate those older, more generic characters to give them unique identities in modern games. Recently, they overhauled their mastery system, which now allows you to customize characters in impactful, interesting ways. And they periodically implement minor quality of life improvements. Their game design is an ongoing work in progress, much like my attempts to play it. In that respect, it doesn't get old.

That said, lately I've been looking into Heroes of the Storm, and finding more enjoyment there than when I tried the beta and early release. I'm not sure how far I'll go with it, because their pricing model really is punitive, and their matchmaking takes about as long as it takes to play a game, but the variety of maps and looser meta makes for a refreshing breather. But I know where home is.

If you frequent Summoner's Rift, send Sarcasmancer a friend request and we will stomp some scrubs or get rekt trying.

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