The Big Bad MOBA Bubble

MOBAs are very chic right now, but are they here to stay? How the big MOBA scene could burn out like a flash fire.

I wrote a bit ago that I enjoyed my time with Heroes of the Storm, the upcoming team-based MOBA from Blizzard. I said that the game could finally open MOBAs up to a much wider audience, with some of the gameplay staples of the genre either streamlined or removed.

But as I looked across the landscape in the last week, another thought occurred to me. Do we really need yet another MOBA?

The Time of the MOBA

League of Legends owns the genre with its industry leading number of active players. DotA 2 continues to make headlines on its own accord, the latest being a ridiculous $10 million and counting prize pool for The International 3. One day, Blizzard’s rabid fanbase may very well allow Heroes to take its place side by side with these titles, but for now, the MOBA scene feels to me like it’s League, DotA, and a whole bunch of me-too games trying to cash in on Riot and Valve’s success.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the roster of already released or currently in development titles: Infinite Crisis, Heroes of Newerth, Dead Island: Epidemic, Guardians of Middle-Earth, Dawngate, Awesomenauts: Starstorm, Prime World, Magicka: Wizard Wars, End of Nations, and I could go on. And that’s not even counting games that are “inspired” by the MOBA genre but not quite traditional MOBAs like SMITE.

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League and DotA have both been popular for a while now, but taking a look at that list, you really have to wonder if the market can continue to sustain all of these new titles. And based on past experience with another popular genre, I can’t help but feel that we’re currently in the middle of a “MOBA bubble.”

MMO Madness

If you want a snapshot of where this MOBA mess is probably going, just take a look at another Blizzard game. When World of Warcraft released in 2004, it changed the entire industry, much like League of Legends did upon its release. Blizzard’s game dethroned EverQuest as the king of MMOs and ushered in an era where every game developer was scrambling, if they were honest, to basically make a WoW clone. We’ve seen so-called WoW killers like Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic,and many more get their day in the sun, only to all fall far short of WoW‘s success. We gamers are an intelligent bunch and we can spot a clone from a mile away, no matter what the name on the box says.

Hell, you could argue that people are still chasing Blizzard even today, with titles like The Elder Scrolls Online, WildStar, and EverQuest Next recently released or on their way. And despite the declining subscription numbers and all of the constant hate it gets from some gamers, World of Warcraft continues to maintain the largest active MMO player base 10 years after its launch.

The point here is that I’m just surprised that none of these MOBA developers seem to realize that we’ve seen this movie before. The chances of any one of their titles obtaining the success of a League or DotA seem awfully slim. Even Blizzard is playing catch-up this time around. Sure, MOBAs have a much smaller budget than most MMOs so I suppose it’s possible for some of these games to turn a quick profit, and maybe that’s really all some of them are going for. But as a player, do I really want to spend my time learning yet another MOBA when the market leaders are so superior in quality?

Tick, Tock

There’s another similarity between the current MOBA bubble and what happened with MMOs a while back. MMOs, like MOBAs, are a very time intensive endeavor. In order to truly experience everything some of these virtual worlds have to offer, the player has to commit a very large chunk of their gaming time. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve only ever maintained one active subscription to an MMO at a time. Looking back, what often happened with many serious MMO players is that they would drop WoW for the “next great MMO,” only to end up crawling back to WoW within a couple of months. The players recognized that the new hotness was essentially just a rip off of their original favorite, so why not just go back and play the real thing?

I suppose it’s a little different with MOBAs in that they’re all free-to-play titles, allowing players to jump from one to the other whenever they like. But any serious MOBA player will tell you that if you actually want to get good at a particular game, you have to seriously invest time into it. Sound familiar?

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Games like League, DotA 2, and all of their clones have massive rosters of characters, all with different skills and abilities to learn. If you want to actually climb the ladder in any given game, you often have to dump dozens if not hundreds of hours into the game, playing as many characters as possible so that you can understand everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.

How many players are going to have the time to dump a hundred hours into some of the lesser known titles on the list mentioned here? More importantly, why would they even want to? I sure know that my own gaming time is finite and valuable to me. I could see maybe trying out a new MOBA from time to time, but am I really going to want to stick with it for hours on end when all of my friends are playing League?

I suppose if you throw enough new games up at the wall, some of them are bound to stick. It’s also true that while some of those MMOs I mentioned earlier didn’t overtake WoW, they remain profitable enough to stay online.

But with every new announcement, I just keep wondering when this MOBA bubble is going to pop.

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