Within the raging tempest of attributes that define who we are comfort zones are a big player. They make us feel safe, protected; in a world that feels forever outside our control they’re a welcome refuge. Typically our comfort zones are the things we enjoy: hobbies, interests but also our regular patterns of activity. Schedule is for many the most comfortable thing of all. Comfort zones exist in many ways, including the type of media we consume: we rarely seek out movies outside our usual tastes for example. The same is true in video games, most players have a selection genre and franchises they stick too and rarely seek explore beyond that.
Generally I’m a very comfortable man, I’m a sucker for routine and get irritable when it’s disturbed. Within the gaming sphere however I’d like to think i’m pretty adventurous. I play almost every genre going, I play everything: indie or mainstream – I don’t really define the two as separate entities, it’s all gaming to me. When I started to think though I realized they were video games I stay away from, those I’m not interested in. Places outside my comfort zone. I decided at that point to start going on a series of gaming adventures, seeking out different experiences outside my normality. For this first exploration I decided to try out a genre that’s becoming increasingly popular, I decided to play a MOBA for the first time.
Intimidating, daunting, hardcore and ultra competitive: all words wary outsiders might use to define the MOBA genre, it’s the perfect trip outside the comfort zone. Those descriptors aren’t wholly inaccurate either, MOBA’s are subject to an array of barriers to entry: their fan-bases are hardcore, mechanically they’re really hard to master and despite their rampant popularity most casual observers probably don’t even really know what a MOBA is. The uninitiated probably don’t even realize MOBA isn’t a single game but a rapidly growing genre. Even knowledgeable folks such as myself who don’t play have a tendency to lump all the games into one big mind vat labelled “MOBA stuff”. Just like every FPS is Call of Duty to Grandma every MOBA is just DotA 2 to me.
With that in mind the first, and arguably most crucial choice in my quest to play MOBA’s is: “just which MOBA should I play”? With the relatively few MOBA’s on offer growing into a verdant range of games in recent years thanks to a popularity burst, which MOBA you choose to play might well be the hardest decision. Variety makes life interesting, therefore the MOBA scene is fascinating. New games like DC’s Infinite Crisis, Blizzards Heroes of the Storm and High Rez Studio’s SMITE are just some recent fascinating takes on MOBA, but the two most popular are also the oldest: League of Legends and DotA 2. Seeing these two as the spiritual birthplace of the genre’s popularity I decided to forgo some of the more friendly genre entries for the older more authentic experience.
Condensing my options down I was left with two choices, League of Legends or DotA 2. In the end I opted into League, not only because it was the first MOBA I’d ever heard of some years ago, but also because a friend told me to dip my toes in there. Thankfully almost every MOBA is free to play and not graphic intensive, as a result jumping around to try new ones is pretty painless. So just what exactly is a MOBA then? I was about to get my first taste.
Jumping into League for the first time the game suggested I undertook a simple tutorial, clueless and utterly lost I obliged. I was dropped into a map reminiscent of a typical Real Time Strategy location, games like Dawn of War, Age of Empires and far more importantly: Warcraft 3. That’s significant because the MOBA genre actually started out as a mod for that game, the so called “Defense of the Ancients” mod, or the acronym DotA. Coming together now isn’t it? DotA expanded on Warcraft 3’s hero system. Heroes were powerful units who were capable of leveling up during battles unlike regular units around them, upgrading them was regularly the key to victory. The MOBA genre took this idea and expanded upon it greatly, until players were only directly responsible for the control of their Hero unit.
Naturally then when I first took control of my unit it felt incredibly reminiscent of the little Warcraft 3 I had played, or more generally: like an RTS. You may find this peculiar, but as someone whose shied away from the genre for a long time, this surprised me terribly. I didn’t know quite what to expect going in, but for some reason it wasn’t this. Quickly mastering the basics like movement and pressing the q,w,e,r keys to attack using my abilities (still find that unusual) League determined I was ready to learn the mechanics of a match.
Simply put, opposing teams are tasked with destroying a structure of importance inside the other teams base – that is the only victory condition, other than surrender. In order to reach that base a team will need to battle their way to the gates with the backing of NPC controlled chaff units: the minions, more widely known as creeps. Three roads, or lanes, connect your base to a rivals, dotted along the way are powerful watchtowers that belong to each team. Players must actively defend their lane whilst trying to battle ever closer to the enemies base. Killing waves of monsters earns experience which causes a hero to level up making them more powerful. To compete players must distribute themselves across the lanes to keep the other team from battling down them too easily whilst simultaneously trying to level up to earn the advantage.
Sounds straight forward? Not really? Well it’s quite difficult to explain, and much better worked out in practice – as I soon learnt. After grappling with the basic tutorials League decided I was ready to go into battle for real. Put into a team of five, the typical amount of players per team, myself and some fellow newcomers were invited to battle a team of NPC’s to better understand the game. In this match things were relaxed, myself and my newcomer comrades learnt the basics, died silly deaths and learnt how best to position ourselves for victory. Sure we were all useless, but it was a great unpressured environment to get a feel for proceedings. The NPC’s were balanced nicely so they were threatening all but guaranteed.
League was sure to keep me shackled to simple five players vs NPC skirmishes for my first few bouts. Cheerfully though it let me play as a variety of the huge roster of playable heroes and plenty of different archetypes like assassin, warrior, mage, marksmen etc. Even Legends of the same type feel radically different, none of the games incredible roster feel the same, each is truly unique. In my early practice battles I really enjoyed the faster assassin characters, but later fell in love with a simple Markswoman: Ashe, The Frost archer. Ashe felt competent, strong and had a range of impressive wide hitting moves. Her only downside was a lack of defensive options, even League’s own guide calls her an “easy gank”. Not inspiring, but her fan of arrows won me over, and so I concluded she would be my hero for now.
Most MOBA are free to play, but that’s not to say they’re free. Like so many F2P games League is only free if you miss out on some important features. Most importantly a vast shop sells heroes, once bought there permanently yours, but before that you’re stuck to free rotation heroes. Thankfully the free rotation is generous and will help players learn who they like, and ultimately who they might buy. Developer Riot games is kind enough to let players have some points for free, and let them spend hard won in-game currency on new heroes too, but that will take a while seeing as each game takes ~30 40 minutes. At this point I had enough in game dosh to buy Ashe, so that’s what I did.
Entering my first PvP game I was getting nervous. I’d heard a lot about the volatility, childishness and out right rudeness of some of the games players. I can honestly say that I never once met such a person, everyone who I came into contact with was mostly silent, aside from a few helpful veterans. I like my games unsocial; I was more than happy to stay quiet. Other players provided a far more solid challenge than NPC’s. I found myself egging enemies on; simultaneously I fell for their traps. I put everything I knew into practice battled hard and eventually.. lost?! Yes, we lost. And the one after that, and even one more after than. But it was fun, it was always fun. The result didn’t matter it was the journey I enjoyed. The tense nature of slowly getting stronger, pushing back against foes in a tight environment and starting to think tactically.
Naturally winning is more fun. But playing League was fun enough by itself. Now with about eight hours under my belt, and not being much better, I want to play other MOBA. This experience has opened my eyes to the genre, it’s something I want to keep playing and urge you all to do so. There’s something hypnotically satisfying about the steady progression and subtle tactics. There’s even fun being kicked in. It’s a rare game who can claim that. If the rest of my adventures in gaming are this good, well, I’ll have a lot more games to play in future. Final verdict? Go get your MOBA on.