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The decline of MMOs the rise of MOBAs?

September 27, 2012

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So finally I have managed to find some time to write an update on the blog, apologies on the wait, but university assignments completely took over my life this week. As an added benefit and due to me being away this week-end today’s update will be two posts instead of one.

A bit of background story to this first update: About a week ago the gaming society of my university had a night out and after a couple of pints, we had the discussion of whether MOBAs were “taking over subscriptions” from MMOs. This question was very interesting to me so I decided to write a blog post about once I had collected my thoughts on it (which is now). While I do not support the idea of MOBAs having taken subscriptions from MMOs, as I do believe that gamers are completely capable of playing multiple games at the same time, the arguments of my fellow gamers in the society were so sound that, I after discussing the topic with Doone over at T. R. Redskies, decided to play the devil’s advocate on this one and explain why the question posed in the heading could be true. Doone will then provide you with counter arguments to this. We’d also be very interested to hear what others have to say on the topic so we are hoping for others to catch onto it. A quick reminder before I start laying down the arguments that while the discussion of my society was on MMOs and MOBAs, we generally used WoW and LoL as “champions” for their respective genre.

DISCLAIMER: I realise there are many more types of playing an MMO or MOBA than I list in this post, but for the sake of the argument I focused on the most common forms. For MMOs this would be an endgame focused play style in the form of raiding and arenas!

So why would it be true that MOBAs are taking over MMO subscriptions? Well for one both games are, if you get into them and don’t just want to be very casual about it, very time-consuming which leads us automatically to assume that by playing the one it would be difficult to play the other on the same “level of play” due to the time constraints we all have. What do MOBAs then have that makes them more attractive to MMOs? For one the activity of playing a MOBA is far more flexible than that in an MMO. What do I mean by flexible? Playing for instance LoL you can just hop in for an hour or 2 and play a few matches and feel like you have accomplished something, whereas in an MMO you might have done something like 2 or 3 dungeons, but at the end of the day that was not as consequential to the game at large. Doing 2 or 3 random dungeons is after all a time-sink, something you do when you don’t really have a lot of time. What at the end of the day most MMOs are about is the raiding or Arenas if you are into it and doing a bunch or random dungeons or battlegrounds does not really make you feel like you are progressing in your goal of raiding/ arenas. In LoL however the activity of doing your random matches directly contributes to the main goal (winning matches and making a more powerful character). In that sense MOBAs while requiring you to invest a lot of time into them still allow for the feeling of progress even if you only have a few hours to distribute every day to play the game and are more flexible in what you can do with that time, than MMOs, where progressing in endgame content requires larger chunks of your time (or usually at least did). The self-evident conclusion of this is that MOBAs can attract a wider audience, for example MMO veterans, whose real life duties give them less time to play.

The “flexibility” in how you much time you can distribute in order to feel an effect in the main goal of the game, brings me to my next argument. MMOs are generally divided into two stages of the game: levelling and the so called endgame. The activity of levelling being far different from the endgame activities, thus creating a disconnect between the two stages. While MOBAs also have a character progression one could equal to levelling, the activity required to do them is the same as what you do when you have reached the end of the character progression: win as many matches as you can! This makes the invested time into MOBAs seem more efficient as you are not “wasting” time doing an activity with no relation to what you really want to do in the game (raiding/ arenas) and what the game expects you to do once you have reached level-cap. Not only does it feel like you can “play the game” sooner in MOBAs, the activity of playing fast paced matches is also far more engaging, than the far more long term oriented levelling process. In other words MOBAs allow you to get that adrenaline kick in every match you play, whereas levelling really fails to do that as it’s a lot more slow-paced in the form of kill X/ Y rinse and repeat. The opponent being a fellow human instead of an AI in these activities also make the base activity in MOBAs more challenging and varied and make the whole process much more competitive than levelling. And competition is something most gamers enjoy a lot and it is a big reason why we think games are fun. Evidence to support this for instance is the CEO of EA stating that “I have not green lit one game to be developed as a single-player experience. Today, all of our games include online applications and digital services that make them live 24/7/365.”. So all in all the base activity of the game is more engaging due to its competitive nature in MOBAs, meaning they could be perceived as more fun than MMOs.

On the thought of a game being fast paced equalling more players it is also worth to note that WoW and MMOs in general are evolving into becoming more fast paced, Tera’s combat system as well as those of GW2 and TSW being one such evolution, or the fact that Dungeon and Raidfinders seem to be more and more implemented into the games to allow for a smoother time distribution. All these developments seem to point at the fact that that is what the consumer is looking for: A fast paced gaming experience with little to no down time. Making MOBAs for reasons stated above more optimal than MMOs at this.

Now one of my counter arguments in this discussion was that MMOs allow for me to be more social than a MOBA. I’d for instance only play MOBAs with previous friends and find it very daunting to find new ones in for instance LoL (or SC2 which is not a MOBA, but that is similarly to LoL a lobby based game in which the main objective is to win as many matches as possible). I was quickly countered by the fact that many players had met new players in LoL, who quickly became their main gaming partners. And while LoL does not encourage social behaviour much, in order to fully enjoy the game you do not play in the random queues but in organised teams. Meaning it is needed to be social. Smaller teams, as opposed to guilds, also involve less drama making the game experience more relaxing than in a guild of often over 30 active members (and that is still a small guild). Even in my guild of 10 members we had plenty of drama. So MOBAs could provide a haven for all those who have gotten fed up with the drama that ensues of a very social game. On the other hand the question was posed if players really want to be that social? Recent (and not so recent) changes in MMOs like the cross-realm-systems would indicate at least that the developers don’t think so. Once again meaning that MOBAs have been a step ahead and in order to accommodate this problem MMO developers try to make these changes into their games, leading us to believe that there might be some connection between MOBAs grabbing the subscriptions of MMOs.

Another aspect as to why the question in the heading might be true is a financial one. Doone pointed out to that while LoL is free to play and WoW for instanced is not it will always have a larger audience in being free to play. The fact that many MMOs have adapted free to play options also seem to indicate that this is true and a viable way of getting more subscribers or grabbing the subscribers of other games. But LoL is not exactly free is it? In the gaming society we call LoL a “freemium” game: Meaning that once you have the game you almost without noticing start to spend money on new heroes and skins and what not, making you get the feeling that your account has some kind of value attached to it and making it harder for you to leave the game. But wait a minute the same guy who offered this argument in the discussion owns 5 WoW accounts (at least one of the m active) and plays mostly LoL, would this not mean that the financial aspect of the games is rather insignificant? Well yes and no. The argument why MOBAs might win subs through this “freemium” mode of games is that you as a consumer are far more in control of what you spend your money on, one month you might buy a new hero and then play two months without paying for anything. It is this choice which players like, not being forced to pay in order to play. The fact that they very often do pay for stuff in the game only further cements it as it adds value to their account, but at the same time they can say: “well I don’t have to pay I chose to and could quit paying at any time and still play” (like that’s ever going to happen). It is this choice that (very rarely is used) that makes them more attracted towards the “freemium”, while at the same time being just as financially hooked to it as if it was a pay to play one.

Doone also objected that MOBAs were a far more niche type of game since only the really dedicated were good at it and thus experiencing the real game. Whereas in MMOs everybody could be at the endgame by virtue of reaching max level and do whatever they wanted and experience the game. But was that not what we praised about WoW (at least some of us), that it was great how effort and reward were being given in raiding for instance in TBC? And let me remind you according to Blizzard only 1% of the player base reached the Sunwell raid. Would this not mean that while MMOs today seem to be trying to give everyone everything, MOBAs still have this form of rewarding effort, which we want from the “good old days”, by only having a select few who are very good at the game? Are MOBAs not giving us back something that a lot of players seemed to enjoy in MMOs and would it not be conceivable for those players to have moved to a game that provides them with that kind of reward system for effort?

So while I definitely do not think MOBAs are stealing, at least a substantial amount of the subscriptions of MMOs those were arguments that in my opinion did a good job of explaining why it still might be the case. As this was a rather long post I shall quickly recap the main arguments: MOBAs allow for a more flexible distribution of time and target thus a larger player audience. Its “freemium” mode of play combine the attributes of player choice in the non-obligatory payment, with the perceived value of an account, as playing the game without paying anything is quite a feat, keeping the player financially hooked. MOBAs do not have two distinctively divided stages of the game, making you feel like your time spent in the game is more effectively spent. While it still manages to be social it is not so social as to incorporate the ever persistent drama that “more social” games like MMOs have. MOBAs also provide a system where effort is rewarded, something a segment of the MMO player base miss (just look to the endless TBC/ Vanilla was better than WOLK, Cata, MoP posts on the forums). Due to these reasons and recent development made in MMOs in general and specifically WoW it is conceivable that MOBAs in fact are grabbing subscriptions of MMOs.

Your turn! Any comments, thoughts, objections etc.?

I’m looking forward to hear from you!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2012 8:19 pm

    There are widely different types of MMOs and MMO players to account for. You’re mainly referring to WoW, but you mention WoW veterans, who would have probably been in the sandbox era of WoW, and thus conceive MMOs in a different light. Those WoW veterans, such as you and me, are interested in other aspects of the game, not available in lobbied systems. Then there is another type of player who might be interested, but then this player has WoW, and WoW is catering to the same population that would enjoy a lobby-based game, with some extra kicks, flavour, and the enticement of a habitable world.

    The current MMO player who subscribes to the mass MMOs would be much more similar to the MOBA player, indeed, as WoW slowly turned into a lobby game over the years, with everything being accessible from the capital city, de-emphasizing the “world” aspect of the MMO. But even current WoW still retains a world feeling, and could never be comparable to a worldless game such as LoL, for those MMO players who fancy that aspect of the game.

    Actually, Tobold has been commenting over the years how we bloggers conceive the population of MMOs in a wrong way, viewing our experiences in endgame as globally shared. Instead, we should realize that most of the MMO players do not reach endgame or engage in adrenaline-kick-inducing activities such as PvP or raiding, unless very casually. Why would those players be interested in such activities in MOBAs then? You could argue that it is the veterans such as you and I who are now turning to MOBAs, but that certainly is not the case. Then, who? Other types of veterans who just wanted a no-strings-attached progression game? WoW and its clones have turned into that over the years, appealing precisely to gamers with less time or willingness to commit.

    For that reason, and because of the lack of a world-feeling, I don’t think MOBAs are in direct competition of MMOs.

  2. October 1, 2012 5:25 pm

    Well I woulld cite my fellow society member, who held 5 WoW accounts as a a veteran, who started playing LoL. A few of my old guildies in both SWTOR and WoW have done so as well and I’d classify a good two thirds of them as veteran MMO players in their mindset, the other third I did not know well enough to judge. I think the fast action packed play of MOBAs is appealing to those, who ohave no time to commit to raids anymore or who were appalled by the time it took in TBC for instance to get into raids and raid with a serious guild. It is important not to forget in my opinion that as good as those days were a lot of people dont want that kiind of timesink back and the MOBAs win on it as they have adapted quicker to this more casual shift in the player gamestyle (once again I digress that I am playing devil’s advocate here, principally I agree with you that there are just as many reasons why MOBAs do not compete with MMOs as there are for that they do). Thanks for the reply! =)

  3. October 3, 2012 2:08 am

    Hmmm. I’m late to the party, but I think you will forgive me.

    I like some of the points Lady has brought up. They echo some of my own initial thoughts on this.

    First, the assumption about who plays MOBAs from MMOs is risky. You say that time efficiency is a huge factor for these players, but I don’t see why this has to be the case. You can spend countless hours in both games and arguably even more so in LoL *because* a “round” is more well defined. I won’t say shorter because that’s subjective and depends entirely on the skill of the teams involved, but a gameplay session is definitely more well defined in the latter than in an MMO. But I don’t see why time is important to either of these groups of players, whether the MMO gamer or the MOBA. I think I do understand the thrust of what you’re trying to say, but I guess I’m saying I don’t think your premises hold up here. You’re saying that MOBAs are targetting the same lot of players as MMOs. I don’t see how this is true. Some MMO/MOBA players may find one or the other appealing, but I think these are more likely different target audiences.

    The financial model is a very good point though and significant too. I think it’s one of the main arguments for why MOBAs have gained greater popularity over the years. I also think it has much stronger appeal to esport athletes, which in turn targets a different demographic of players. By removing money from the competitive equation, tearing down 2 barriers at once: game entry and fair competition.

    • October 3, 2012 3:06 pm

      Hi Doone,
      Yeah I agree the assumption I made is risky, but in my opinion also neccessary if we want to have something like a target audience definition (of course it is only to be used as a guideliine not a general rule). And I’ll try clarifyng my time efficiency argument a bit. So what my first premise was is that there is a disconnect between leveling in an MMO and what is now widely perceived as the goal in an MMO (reach level cap and clear end game content). This means you have to spend some time before you get to play the “actual game” (I use the quotatioon marks here as I am not thinking endgame is the actual game but there are many who do and in order to grasp the argument you have to adapt that train of thought), something you do not have in MOBAs, you jump into the game and you will be doing the same thing regardless of how long you have played the game and this time dump of leveling might frustrate this kind of player. It is also a phenomena that a few of my friends (long time MMO players in this case)I have talked to, have noticed in themselves. Mainly that they cant be bothered with leveling anymore as they have done it in a few other games and it feels like a stale old recepy, but they’d like to play a game, that involves group play and different roles and classes (heroes in MOBAs would qualify for them in this regard). Ergo they mostly turned to MOBAs. And I’m also thinking about what often happend in the guilds I was in when there was no raid: Option a) people logged off and did something else, option b) they farmed or leveled an alt or did a few dungeons that they really did not need. All of those activities are activities people usually do when they have nothing better to do and they merely want to kill time in the game. There is no real single player endgame in MMOs (and rightly so), but what do you do when the group activities fail for one or more reasons? Well not endgame activities anyway.
      And these two things are what I mean with time efficiency and flexibility. You don’t have a time dump before endgame in MOBAs, but most of all you can always play the game and progress towards its goal. In MMOs you still need a group to do that. In other words MOBAs require less synchronization of people’s time to play which make them easier to just hop on and play and get something done (aka progress), than MMOs.
      Also you say you do not believe MMOs and MOBAs compete for the same players. I know I only have anecdotal evidence of this and some game design changes to back my view up but still why would they not compete for them? Why are MMOs, especially WoW moving to a more lobby style of game? I have seen some guilds raiding collapse since players simply preferred playing LoL to raiding in both SWTOR and WoW. Of course it is merely anecdotal evidence but dont you think it can hold some grain of truth? You also said LoL applies more to esport athletes. So does SC2 yet alot more people play both games, than there are esport athletes in them. Why is that? I thnk it’s because competition is so central in both games and something that is not really there anymore in MMOs. Competition is something we are more or less naturally drawn and attracted to, we always want to show others we are better than they. Even though not everyone is an esport athlete in LoL everybody who plays it a lot has the drive to become one or at least triumph over his/her oponents. In MMOs yes there are famous guilds and WoW personas but they are far more abstract than the LoL or SC2 equivalents. You could draw a paralell to the Yukon goldrush, I mean how many people did not migrate to Canada/ Alaska because of the promise of riches and how many actually found some? It’s the same thing with LoL only you replace riches with fame, people are drawn to this abstract promise of becoming famous, especially now that SC2 has really hit the mainstream gaming community (you could say Brood War did that as well but not in the same degree imo).
      Anyway sorry for the wall of text and thanks for the comment! I hope it might have clarified my train of thought a bit more, nevertheless I agree with both you and Milady a lot!

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