The MOBA is here to stay. Its appeal to gamers is obvious--you don't get to 12 million players a day on a single game without doing something right--as is its appeal to developers, rooted in its perfect framework for stealing from players time and their wallets. Its presence was welcomed at first, when games like Demigod were still fresh to most, then annoyed as we saw squabbles between a number of very similar games.
But now, we've started to see games defect from interesting ideas toward MOBAs, and we're seeing developers try to cash in on the genre like never before. It seems like MOBAs are taking over, and a lot of us aren't happy about it.
But there's no point in getting too steamed, because we've been here before. Not only have we been here before, but it didn't even go so badly in the long run. Think back to late 2004 to early 2005. In late 2004, a blockbuster game brought unforeseen attention to a genre that had been doing well, but lacked the mainstream relevancy it desired. In its wake came a scourge of imitators that shamelessly aped its concepts while adding little of their own. It took nearly three years for the genre to turn around, and all the while the majority of the gaming press railed against the genre's stagnancy while claiming that we "already had enough of them."
These three years tracked the rise, fall, and rebirth of the console shooter. The parallels to what we see right now in MOBAs are compelling enough to notice, and maybe even compelling enough to be instructive. So I figured that, by looking at what happened in the wake of these three years and how they came about, we might gain some insight into what could happen with MOBAs in the future, and determine whether we really need to be worried about them taking over.
The chart above tracks the 88 non-shovelware shooters released on Sony and Microsoft systems between January 1st 2004 and December 31st 2009. (There's also three SOCOMs in there because I'm an idiot and forgot they weren't FPSes, and I excluded any games like Doom 3 that were released on consoles long after their PC releases) On the top is the Metacritic score of each, with a line for each year showing the average score weighed by sales--in other words, demonstrating the approximate quality of the games people actually played in that year. The bottom half displays the total PS2/XBOX/PS3/360 sales of each game in millions. I've also marked any games that sold over 2.5 million or had a Metacritic above 85 along the central x-axis.
Going back to the analogy with MOBAs, we're currently somewhere in the 2005 period--the smash hit (Halo 2 for shooters, LoL, or even DOTA 2 for MOBAs) wasn't all that long ago, and we're in the midst of a seemingly unending deluge of mediocre-or-worse titles. With that out of the way, let's see what happened from this point with console shooters.
1. It took a while for things to get better.
Halo 2 was a really good game, and a lot of people played it. Meanwhile, Battlefield on the PC and Battlefront on consoles were bringing popularity to "open battlefield" shooters, while the tail end of the military shooter binge shuffled us down corridors and espoused the virtues of scripted, linear levels. These three games set up a strong template for success, and almost every single shooter released all the way until the middle of 2006 blatantly cribbed one of these templates. The few that didn't--games like Brothers in Arms, Urban Chaos: Riot Response, and Star Wars: Republic Commando--quickly became cult classics, but had virtually no effect on the scene as a whole.
The breakout success of these few titles seemed to force a set of blinders onto developers, who became content to distinguish their games on the merit of simple gimmicks. And while some of these gimmicks were relatively ambitious, like Prey's dimension-bending environments and Black's destructive excess, their core gameplay played the same tired tropes over and over again. This lasted well into the shooter doldrum of 2007--note that the stinker that was Hour of Victory, despite being only the 4th shooter released in 07, came out all the way in late June.
2. The revolution happened quickly and somewhat unexpectedly.
In retrospect, the success of the 2007 holiday season seems obvious. Hindsight is 20/20, and it seems like we should've known before Bioshock, The Orange Box, Halo 3, and Call of Duty 4 came out that we were in for something special. But at the time, that wasn't the case. The former two were kept under tight wraps before release, and represented concepts so new that many were wary of them before release. And the latter pair were new releases in standby franchises, and while we knew they were going to be good, the glut of uninspired sequels and "me too" shooters didn't exactly breed enthusiasm. And who can forget the rage of Call of Duty adherents who were aghast at the betrayal of the series' WWII roots. When you factor in that, within just the past year, Prey, Resistance: Fall of Man, Shadowrun, and The Darkness had all failed to meet their enormous critical and commercial expectations to varying degrees.
Of course, all this skepticism was then rewarded with the two greatest months in console shooter history. But even among this, note that the exact kind of games that made us so jaded kept coming; in fact, late 2007 and early 2008 marked the absolute nadir, with a stream of titles so hopelessly generic and mediocre that I'd find it hard to believe most gamers these days even remember any of them existed.
3. The cycle repeats.
Throughout this graph, it's easy to see a constant cycle of peaks and valleys; the 2007 bonanza was followed by a relatively dull 2008, with another surge in quality in 2009. You see it in sports, movies, markets, everywhere--something works, everybody jumps on a bandwagon to follow it, and a lack of innovation and an abundance of "me-too"ness drags down quality, until a rare combination of talent and arrogance either makes something different or does the same thing so exceptionally well that people take notice. But this doesn't discount the forgotten masses, either--Shadowrun emphasized the player choice and distinctive character shapes that Team Fortress 2 would perfect, and the satisfying scale of games like the Battlefronts may have contributed to Halo 3's more epic scope.
So we can all agree that where we are right now, MOBAs kinda suck. But they don't really suck any more or less than shooters seemed to suck in 2005. A lot of failures will be thrown our way, a number of good franchises will senselessly defect toward conformity, and a lot of games will be released that utterly fail to make a lasting impression.
But if console shooters can teach us anything, there may be a light coming. Somewhere out there, maybe in a year, maybe in two, maybe in more, developers will look at the corpses of these dozens of failed projects, and start thinking. They'll start tinkering and pulling things apart and bringing things together and thinking about the genre in a different way. And out of all this machinated chaos will come a glorious reinvention of the genre, a game that elevates what we thought was already perfect or that shifts the playing field entirely. We will cheer, we will celebrate, we will call it a classic. And a few years later, when the next genre gets hot--and oh, how I hope it's a light gun game renaissance--we will grumble once again.