MMO Mechanics: MOBAs vs. MMO battlegrounds

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It may feel as if MMOs have always existed as a core part of our gaming repertoire, but the genre made its indelible mark on the industry just over a decade ago. MMO titans like World of Warcraft, EVE Online, and City of Heroes shaped the mechanics we now use as markers and basic standards for the quickly growing genre, and those mechanics have been reiterated and reforged by the countless additions to the MMO clan that we know and love today.

This new MMO Mechanics column aims to navigate the mechanical minefield that is the modern MMO through in-depth opinion pieces, comparative analysis, and a little bit of Irish wit, starting with a peek at what distinguishes MMO PvP battlegrounds from Massively Online Battle Arenas.

If women are from Venus and men are from Mars, MMOs and MOBAs must be from different galaxies altogether. Despite the similarities between MMO PvP arenas and MOBA matches, the two take very different approaches to progression, persistence, and matchmaking. This leads to two very separate yet equally engaging ways to test the mettle of your character against the might of a human opponent.

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Loot and experience: Lose it or use it?

MMO players thrive on developing their own uniquely designed and geared characters and are usually able to bring this progression with them into PvP. The reward for putting your baby out there in the big bad world of battlegrounds is often even shinier gear, reputation, or XP, and we keep pushing ourselves in PvP to strive for that progress.

MOBA players instead select from a list of pre-made characters, throwing them into the meat grinder and tossing them aside when they're done; whatever gear and experience your heroes gain will not be kept with them for subsequent plays. There are some notable exceptions, of course: The now-defunct title Rise of Immortals released with a shared 3-D lobby and a unique persistent progression tree for each Immortal. This game's unique take on blending MMO persistence into the MOBA mix couldn't exactly be called a success, as moving against the tide of new wave MOBAs proved to be RoI's downfall. Trendy Games also planned to experiment with persistent MOBA progression in Dungeon Defenders 2, but the company's plans changed recently when it decided to go back to its tower defence roots. It seems that MOBA players crave less progression and more bloodshed for their buck.

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Fair's fair, or is it?

It's often difficult to detect unfairness in MMO battlegrounds due to the large number of players and variables. Differences in character levels, talents, gear, and stats can make fairly matching players into teams more difficult, and organised guildmates who work together enjoy advantages over randomly selected opponents. Complexity builds disparity, so more variables going into the mix inevitably leads to unfairness in MMO battlegrounds. This usually evens out over multiple matches; there'll be some battlegrounds in which you'll be part of a team filled with superhero demigods of epicness and others that will make you call for your mummy by the time the battle is through.

With the hardcore competitive nature of 5v5 DotA-style gameplay, MOBAs have become expert at arbitrating the difference in experience and skill between players through stat-recording systems. League of Legends also assigns players persistent account levels, but this mainly reflects account age and is used to separate new players from experienced ones. In the absence of persistent characters to throw into the MOBA gauntlet, the disparity seen in MMO battlegrounds is inherently minimised. Starting each match on equal footing also gives an addictive sense of hope, driving the urge to play just one more game in the same way progression does in MMOs.

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Might MOBA mechanics hint at the future of MMO PvP?

World of Warcraft came out of Warcraft, funnily enough. WoW was intended to be a persistent PvE-focused and story-driven world, while DotA, also spawned from Warcraft, took the competitive PvP route. The two paths are starting to merge together as game developers start borrowing ideas from each other in innovative ways.

Even one of the most archetypal MMOs, World of Warcraft, may have borrowed some typical MOBA features. Back in January, players datamining the World of Warcraft public test realm discovered files relating to an unannounced battleground map named Defense of the Alehouse. The convenient use of the DotA acronym aside, the map bore a curious resemblance to the typical 5v5 three-lane setup that has become the norm in MOBAs.

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Mechanical crossover is good for both genres

Conversely, MMO playstyles and terminology are also permeating into the MOBA scene. League of Legends already features a tank role, albeit one based on disrupting the enemy team rather than using the MMO standard aggro system. Guild Wars 2 tanks are similarly CC-based, and its healers are more akin to a MOBA's support classes than a pure MMO healer role. Positioning and timing of affects has become more of a requirement in MMOs, particularly for boss fights, with active dodging and aiming becoming critical skills for the MMO enthusiast.

Third-person MOBA SMITE has borrowed more than just its camera angle from traditional MMOs; players exercise their gamer digits by using the WASD keys for movement instead of clicking their way to lane ganking. Hi-Rez Studios favours terms like NPCs over creeps and mixes the traditional MOBA support role with the DPS, tank, and healer trifecta we normally associate with post-WoW MMOs. This may not seem like much to write home about, but it breaks down the intimidating wall that exclusionist players have forged between the MMO and MOBA camps.

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MMOs often have a hard time ranking players fairly, since there are so many variables to consider when comparing persistent characters that also need to function in the wider game world. They may never be able to match MOBA competitiveness, but they compensate with a stronger sense of progression that ensures even a lost match isn't a waste of precious gaming time. Conversely, MOBAs thrive in the individual competition of each match and segregate players through tracked stats to create as fair an environment as possible.

The MOBA genre has exploded in the last few years; its gameplay has proven to be a very effective form of competitive PvP. It now accounts for the majority of the global streaming and competitive gaming scene, and MMO developers are taking notice. MMOs are starting to incorporate traditional MOBA ideas, but this sharing also goes the other way. MOBAs like SMITE and Rise of Immortals offer us a glimpse of a world without the us-and-them mentality we see in the MMO and MOBA playerbases.

As new games continue to be imagined each year, hopefully we'll see these genres collide in ways that enhance both the competitive online gaming scene and the MMO genre. For now, though, the everlasting Groundhog Day of MOBAs may be a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively's Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. Her column, MMO Mechanics, explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs every Wednesday.