Every now and then, a game comes out of nowhere with such incredible financial success that it causes the games industry to completely lose perspective. All it takes is one game to start raking in the millions for developers, publishers and investors to stumble around with dollar signs in their eyes for years to come. Innovation grinds to a halt and everyone starts blindly copying whichever game just hit the jackpot. It's like some huge industry-wide superstition takes over and convinces people that if they do the same dance the same way, it'll rain again.
World of Warcraft has consistently had this effect since shortly after its launch in 2004. To this day, several studios per year excitedly announce yet another fantasy MMO that lifts its entire feature set and every gameplay mechanic wholesale from World of Warcraft as if it were a model for automatic success. The same thing is happening again in online gaming today, not from MMOs but from MOBAs, a new genre based on the competitive gaming classic DotA. Developers are still chasing the massive money made by yet another hugely successful game, and this time it's League of Legends.
Proliferation of MOBAs
League of Legends arrived on the scene in 2009, rapidly growing to reach worldwide recognition and transforming startup studio Riot Games into one of the biggest game development companies on the planet. With millions of players logging into LoL daily, everyone and his dog is now making MOBAs. The most interesting part is how quickly developers flooded into the genre once they realised there were millions being made. At the time of LoL's release, the main competing games were the rushed-to-release Demigod and the original DotA.
Today we have Heroes of Newerth, Rise of Immortals, Super Monday Night Combat, Realm of the Titans, Smashmuck Champions, Bloodline Champions and a dozen other MOBAs all in various stages of release or development. Even BioWare jumped on the bandwagon with Wrath of Heroes, a first-person Warhammer MOBA in which the strategy amounts to running at the enemy and mashing all the number keys.
Money kills innovation
Big money has drawn some big names into the MOBA scene lately, with Valve producing the AAA-quality Dota 2 and Blizzard putting out Blizzard All-Stars (formerly Blizzard DOTA before the company settled its lawsuit with Valve). There's even a new Lord of the Rings-themed MOBA called Guardians of Middle-earth on the way, and you can bet it wouldn't be inbound if LoL weren't raking in money like it's got its own personal money tree. What bothers me the most though is that the big money involved seems to stifle innovation as studios don't want to take unnecessary risks.
Heroes of Newerth was in development at the same time as LoL, and the two games were very distinctly different. HoN went for a Guild Wars-style initial purchase model in which all the heroes were accessible to all players, and then it focused on the hardcore competitive gaming scene. Bloodline Champions was similarly under development in 2009, and it's as far from LoL as a MOBA can get. There was genuine innovation starting to happen, but once word of LoL's colossal financial success got out, everyone just started copying it. Even HoN has migrated to a free-to-play model and has switched part of its focus to casual gameplay.
Formula for success
I think the big problem is that people see success and assume that what the other guy is doing is a magic formula for that success. It's tempting to think that if we use a successful case as our role model and copy it as closely as possible, we'll see the same success, but that's completely incongruent with reality. It's like seeing a guy in an expensive suit being hired for a job and thinking, "Wow, I should get an expensive suit." I get the feeling that game studios are very prone to this kind of cargo culting, to copying a game's mechanics wholesale without fully understanding why each part of it works or why the game was successful in the first place.
Rise of Immortals was one of the first of a new generation of MOBAs with gameplay clearly based on League of Legends. It uses the same free-to-play business model with a free champion rotation and has features like rune pages, mastery trees and persistent levels. While the first MOBAs were iterations on DotA with new features, game mechanics, and ideas, we're starting to see a lot of games using League of Legends as their magic formulae.
The perfect storm
I think game studios and publishers need to get it into their heads that they aren't going to reap the same success as WoW or LoL. Both games were perfect storms; they were the right games at the right times and succeeded massively beyond everyone's expectations. You can't recreate the conditions that made World of Warcraft so successful, primarily because one of those conditions was a gap in the market that WoW has since filled. Likewise, you can't recreate the magic that led League of Legends to global fame because League of Legends is already in that spot.
When the amount of money or number of players a game has gets into the millions, there's a huge temptation to rationalise cloning it by saying, "If we get even 1% of those players, we'll be rich!" I think this is the rationale behind all the Facebook farming games; I highly doubt they'd be so common if FarmVille weren't pouring more money into Zynga than the GDP of a small country. Unfortunately, there's a whole continuum of numbers even smaller than 1%, right the way down to a big fat zero.
Are investors and financiers supporting only games based on proven game design concepts, in the process writing off innovation as risk? If that's the case, then AAA innovation really is dead, and it could be up to indie developers to produce the next big thing. No matter where it comes from, I can say with confidence that the next game to get as huge as World of Warcraft or League of Legends will come out of nowhere, and it won't be a clone of an existing massively successful game.
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