Demystifying MOBAs - A Charming Stroll Through Flatland’s Battlefield

Bridging Worlds is a series by LA-based artist and VGT author Eron Rauch about the blurred line between games and art. His multi-part essay "Demystifying MOBAs" takes an in-depth look at the game design of esports and MOBAs.

In today’s instalment of “Demystifying MOBAs” we’re going to move on from the characters and take a look at the maps and landscape of Valve’s Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA2), Riot’s League of Legends (LoL), and Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm (HotS). One interesting way that many MOBAs resemble traditional sports fields (and chess) is that they have a single standard map for all competitive play. LoL has added a couple of variant game types which each have distinct maps, but these aren’t used in professional play so the focus here will be on the core map.

In DotA2, the map is rather massive and is significantly asymmetrical (both functionally and aesthetically) between the two opposing sides with three lanes running top, middle, and bottom with jungle interspersed between them and a river bisecting the whole to delineate sides. One side is called Dire, and has a diabolical and burnt-out look, while the other is termed Radiant and has the look of an elvish forest. The entire DotA2 map even has day and night cycles which affects how far characters can see at any given moment, with some characters like elves and demons having better night vision, or even additional powers once the sun sets. The sides are asymmetrical particularly when it comes to access to the various jungle camps and the routes that lead from the sides into the lanes. Radiant’s mid-lane is vastly more protected while Dire’s side has far more open space that enemy players can access. The layout of each side’s jungle is different and favors different characters and strategies.

Significantly, Dire has vastly faster access to the biggest and most critical NPC monster, Roshan, which is one of the core objectives in the later parts of a match. One of the ways these differences affect high level play is that in pro matches, teams start by flipping a coin and the winner gets to pick if they want to choose their side or to pick the first character, so the best teams have worked out strategies for either outcome.

LoL has a very similar map to DotA2, which is to be expected given its history as a DotA clone, but while the LoL map is still fairly large it is more compact than DotA2’s sprawling map. Additionally, Riot has over the years made changes to the map in LoL to make it more symmetrical so there are not as many differences between the two sides. There are still a few differences, primarily in access to the two large NPC monsters located by the river, but for instance the jungle layouts are almost a mirror of each other. There is no day/night cycle in LoL so character vision remains consistent throughout the match. Rather than having one evil and one good side, the only visual differences between the two sides in LoL are the glow-colors in the depths of the jungle (which given the type and density of plants resembles more of a well-manicured park than a jungle).

As with DotA2, teams get to select between picking sides or picking characters fist in professional matches. With both games there is a statistically significant difference in win-rates between the two sides, with DotA2’s difference mostly explained by Dire side’s easier access to Roshan. But in LoL the side advantage in pro matches can shift depending on the patch (basically depending on how valuable first pick is versus access to the big NPCs). Some top teams have figured out excellent strategies for playing the less advantageous side and can gain a large perk from being able to cede picking sides and get the first pick of characters or vice versa. That said, in amateur level play the side differences in LoL feel mostly negligible. As anyone who has tried to jump over a wall that they have jumped over for a hundred games and randomly failed has found out, it’s important to note Riot regularly makes changes to both the cosmetics of the map as well as the individual placement and size of terrain in their quest to make the two sides more equal.

HotS breaks with the long MOBA tradition of utilizing a single map and instead has some similarity to Super Smash Brothers or World Of Warcraft Player Vs. Player Arena combat with a rotating map pool, currently made of nine different maps (called “battlegrounds”) with more promised to come. In StarCraft 2, Blizzard’s first successful esport, the Korean professional scene started rotating maps at the start of each different season as a way to keep strategies, metagames, and play styles fresh. One change that tends to disorient new players to HotS is that both LoL and DotA2 both are oriented diagonally from lower left to upper right while HotS is played left to right. Every map in HotS has been highly symmetrical, with a few occasional changes in placement of NPCs to make sure that they don’t counter each other by being in the same lane. Most maps in HotS have three lanes, though not all of them. With the need to farm resources removed, each map additionally offers different objectives or mechanics that assist teams in winning, such as collecting resources from certain events that allows NPCs to fire artillery on enemy structures, or to work to raise a giant golem to fight for your team.

Some maps are massive, others are tiny. Some are focused around a single objective, others require the team to split into groups. Some are open, other have twisty little passages. Some almost always have really short games, others almost always require very long games. In this way, each team has to come up with strategies specific to the map, rather than one master plan. Similarly, character selection becomes even more dynamic, since some characters excel on certain maps while being virtually useless on others. In basic casual play, this aspect is one of the most frustrating for new players, since the map is randomly determined after you pick your characters.

If A Tree Falls On A Character And No One Hears…

One of the truly novel features of the DotA2 map is that the trees that make up a large portion of the terrain are destructible with certain items and spells. Even the basic consumable healing item that most players buy for their character at the start of a match devours (destroys) a tree to heal the character. This leads to all manner of tricks, hidden pathways, and escapes that utilize this destructible terrain function to hide characters since the newly axed coves have the same rules for vision that make so much of the rest of the game blind. But environmentalists fear not, the trees always grow back quickly. The terrain in the HotS maps have cosmetic destruction that takes place when battles are fought nearby so if a spell is cast or a character is body-slammed nearby, pillars and walls will crack and crumble. But these changes are purely cosmetic, since the ruins still retain the identical functionality to block movement and vision. There is a separate sort of mini-structure which can be destroyed, but we’ll look at that later in this article during the discussion of towers since they are directly attached. LoL’s map has neither any changeable nor breakable terrain.

Though lacking in destructible trees, one addition that both LoL and HotS use to make the map more interesting is that there are swaths of high grass (usually called “bushes” by players) that a character can stand in to hide. While in these bushes, the other team is totally unable to see the character unless they too are standing in the bushes. These are, of course, utilized quite extensively for surprise attacks, retreats, and fancy footwork plays since both top and bottom lanes have sections of bushes readily accessible in the sides of the lane. In both games, one amusing play that tends to happen even at the pro level is to have the whole team hide in a single shrub and all leap out at an unsuspecting passing enemy. In LoL they colloquially call this a “death bush” while in HotS they call it a “party bush.” Because of this, players will often call out a number of “Potential Dudes In Bush” to teammates who are wandering around. For instance, if no one on a team has vision of where four of the enemy team are, the team has to play as though any given bush could have four people in it, waiting to pounce.

DotA2’s map has no bushes, but offers one more mechanic, terrain level, that helps make it feel more like a real space than a flat chess board. In HotS and LoL the maps are exclusively two-dimensional maps (any visual elevation or recess is absolutely inaccessible or merely cosmetic) but DotA2’s map has what amounts to three or four levels of terrain in the game, with players on a level below having a chance for their attacks to randomly miss and lacking complete vision to the spaces above. Coupled with its radically more complex destructible tree-terrain and significantly larger size, DotA2’s map can often seem to be as much of an obstacle as the characters.

Lace Up Those Brown Bags And Hit The Trail, Er, Lane

Before I delve too much further into the idiosyncrasies of the maps, it is important to acknowledge that in all cases, traveling around the map is critical for any player. Each game has differing basic rules about character movement, as well as innumerable special cases and character powers which create a similar dynamic to how the different types of pieces in chess have different rules for movement. In DotA2, each character has a set basic movement speed, some faster and other slower, and then all characters can buy various kinds of boots in a match which can increase their speed (among other things). Additionally, each team can buy a courier which can be used by anyone on the team to shuttle items around to other characters and shops.

The opposing team can kill the courier, putting its items in limbo for a number of minutes until the courier respawns. Especially in lower level games, this mechanic can be chaotic with multiple people randomly grabbing and resending the courier around, leading to it having the wrong items on it, since it has a limited carrying capacity, never arriving, or turning around just before it deposits the items. [Note: Most players in DotA2 hold a grudge about the number of times they’ve been desperate to get a fantastic item delivered only to have another play waylay the courier to run their own errand.] While walking around is the typical mode of travel in MOBAs, as is fitting in a world of high fantasy, there are gobs of items and powers in DotA2 which affect travel and team play drastically. For instance, for a tiny sum of in-match resources a character can acquire a consumable teleport scroll (assuming the courier isn’t doing laps in the forest) which can be used to move to any friendly building for a last second defense or to reinforce a big fight.

At 1:20, you can see Looper, aka “God of Teleports” come crashing into an otherwise lost team fight.

In LoL movement is similar, with each character having a unique base move speed, some slow, some speedy, which can be changed by buying one of the assortment of available boots. But LoL adds a convenient feature that enables any character to return to the place they started the game, called the “fountain.” This spell, called Recall, requires the character to do nothing but cast it for eight seconds and any damage or crowd-control (stuns, roots, or knock-backs) taken cancels the recall. Many, many ridiculous deaths have occurred from casting this spell in poorly chosen places. Korean pro players are quite notorious for getting cocky and Recalling in the middle of an area swarming with enemies and ending up as a humiliating casualty.

Characters in LoL can, as part of the pre-game tuning process I’ve already discussed, choose one of their options to be a teleport spell which lets them go to any friendly unit (building, object, ward, or character) once every four minutes. I bring this up because in the current version of LoL (which is critically the same version that the World Championship will be played on) games are often made or broken on a team’s teleport coordination. Imagine the potency of having your jungler show up to make it a 3v2 in bottom lane when suddenly, via Teleport, the enemy top laner evens out the fight by spamming spells in your midst.

HotS has a much simplified version of these systems. All characters travel at the same speed on foot (with one exception) and most have a mount they can get on and off at will (with a short 4 second cooldown) which increases their speed but which instantly goes away if hit by any attack. A couple characters transform into their mounts, and the shapeshifter Rengar is even allowed to switch in combat to his wolf form. Like LoL, all characters can recall to their fountain at any point.

Fancy Footlesswork

Across all three games, characters have a variety of abilities to speed themselves up, speed up other characters, or even teleport in various ways, though LoL has marginally less characters with built-in long distance teleports than DotA2 or HotS. But one telling feature of the MOBA genre is that all three major games include a way for every character to teleport short distances instantly. This short ranged, instant movement can be used for innumerable purposes and the way that all three games give players this genre-defining power is very different, and is telling of their overall design philosophies. LoL technically has two slots for tuning your character out of the match with “Summoner Spells” (there’s that legacy term popping up again) yet one of them is almost always the “Flash” spell, which instantly jumps you a short distance on a three minute cooldown (a cooldown is merely the term for the length of time when a spell unavailable until it is useable again). This spell so vital to the game balance that it is basically a core mechanic for how everything interacts. 99% of players take it every match and the characters all have to be designed with Flash’s nearly infinite uses in mind. For instance when designing a hypothetical character, even if Riot provides the champion with no gap-closing ability but their own two stubby legs, but gives them an awesome area-of-effect (AOE) stun at short range, the designers have to take into account that with Flash selected, our hypothetical character can hide behind a wall, Flash over the wall and stun a whole group of unsuspecting opponents every three minutes no matter how slow they are the rest of the time.

Flash interacts equally deeply with defensive aspects, since it allows immobile champions to instantly escape an otherwise inevitable death. In fact, if Flash were removed tomorrow, vast swaths of characters would be abandoned because their very viability is hinged on having that Flash either to engage or escape. At the pro level, knowing whether enemy Flashes are available or on cooldown is one of the core elements of choosing opportune times to fight.

With DotA2, there isn’t any equivalent ability selection like LoL’s Summoner Spells, but you can trade in-match resources for a Blink Dagger, which you can activate every 20 seconds to instantly warp to a spot near you. The reach is much further than Flash but because a Blink Dagger requires quite a bit of resources to get, takes up one of the only six inventory slots, and provides no additional combat benefits usually only characters who can utilize it directly build one. In LoL you can see the other side’s summoner spells at the beginning of a match, but in DotA2 items are hidden until the other team is physically close enough to click on the opposing character. Since Blink Dagger is an item, this can lead to very dramatic and tactical reveals where a dangerous character suddenly warps into the middle of a seemingly safe team and casts a massive spell that decimates the unsuspecting team.

Characters with spells that are centered around the character but do massive AOE damage and stuns, like Tidehunter’s “Ravage” which throws all enemies up in the air cancelling whatever they were doing, or Earthshaker’s “Echo Slam” which causes a shockwave all around himself that stuns and then does compounding additional damage for every enemy player it hits, basically rely on the Blink Dagger to be relevant. This highlights how, though they seem like separate systems, the characters and the items are actually two sides of the same coin, and are intimately interrelated.

HotS with its complete lack of out of game tuning and absence of items has a slightly different notion of how these instant cast teleports impact the game, though their use is very much still based on the understanding of how massively impactful such suspensions of typical movement rules can affect the game. Specifically Blizzard doesn’t provide an instant short ranged teleport on most characters until you hit the in-match level cap of 20.

At that point, the player is presented with four options, some that provide more damage, others that modify a major ability significantly, and one of which is “Bolt of the Storm”, which functions very similar to Flash but on a shorter 70 second cooldown. In this way, Bolt, with all of the ways these sorts of spells radically affect MOBA tactics, only comes into effect at the end of very long games as a way to create exponentially more options for one team or the other to make hugely impactful plays.

The Objective Is In Site

While many games, both analog and video, have two teams playing on a field with opposed goals dabbling with the metaphor of war, in the case of MOBAs, the goal is much more warlike, with the end goal being to physically destroy the opposing side’s architectural structures and ransack their inner sanctum. Thinking about narrative implications, it is curious that in none of the three games under consideration does this core actually provide any sort of in-game benefit aside from being the location where the weakest NPCs regularly spawn from. It is nearly a structural Mcguffin. This structure is termed the “Ancient” in DotA2, a “Nexus” in LoL, and a “Core” in HotS. All explode when defeated. Oddly, the statue that is the core in HotS also shoots out assorted gold and riches, like a thousand Diablo bosses popping at once.

Despite their rather small footprint, there are additional structures on the field that delineate the lines and zones of battle. The primary form of structures on the map are called towers in both DotA2 and LoL. They are a solitary structure jutting out of the landscape that automatically attacks enemy characters (both players and NPC) that come within its range, effectively creating a safe zone for friendly characters. There are three towers in each of the three lane in both games and the towers in front (called “outer”) that must be destroyed before the towers nearer the home base are vulnerable (called “inner”).

HotS, as befitting its interest in creating interesting spaces for team fighting with its maps, has a more architecturally complex system for most of its maps in which instead of a tower, each safe zone is a small encampment with a variety of destructible towers, walls, a gate, and other buildings, which protects a main “keep” and a healing fountain which can help regenerate hurt allies. The destructible walls are an interesting element to HotS because they can cut off vision or block manoeuvres around the tower zones, yet do not respawn after being destroyed. The gate automatically falls when the two font towers on either side of it fall.

In LoL, the attacks from the tower actually do progressively more damage to a character the more hits a target takes within a short period making towers quite deadly early in the game but slowly becoming less effective since beefier characters get items like armor that inevitably make the towers do less damage. In DotA2, towers are quite comparably weak per hit, but they have a longer range and attack much faster, which makes it harder to dodge the damage but easier to predict how much damage you might take if you are targeted. By the end of a game, tower attacks are barely dangerous at all. The tower attacks in HotS are actually quite mild and easily ignorable in the short term after a few minutes of levelling up.

Most interestingly HotS has added a new feature, which is that towers, forts, and keeps have limited ammo which means they can run out of attacks become merely giant brick-and-mortar punching bags so even though last hitting minions is pointless, there is a very real consequence of being undefended by letting the other team push wave after wave of minions against your towers soaking up tower hits. Both DotA2 and HotS have characters with abilities to heal towers, but in LoL there is no way to gain HP back on towers though a handful of abilities can shield towers briefly. In all three games, killing a tower gives everyone on a team, not just the player who killed it, experience points and in LoL and DotA2, a significant amount of gold.

A piece of animation from Carbots Studio that nicely shows the use of towers and healing wells during the laning phase in HotS.

Riot has been tinkering with towers in LoL for some time to give them buffs in the early parts of the game, including more armor and more damage. Inner towers now even give shields to nearby friendly players. It’s a bit obscure how these changes came about, but critical to understand since the towers define such a large portion of the play for the early portions of the game through being so dangerous to low level opposing players. Basically if the towers do too much damage there is no incentive to risk any aggression so the early game becomes boring and static, while if there isn’t enough damage and defensive stats the friendly player relying on its power is hapless against an enemy onslaught. These are both very real issues that LoL has had to deal with over the years.

Particularly with the rise of the professional play, incredibly effective but somewhat bland strategies were discovered where teams could group and tear down a couple towers in the earliest minutes so teams just stopped sending players to fight and both teams would race each other to tear down towers. Similarly, after that it became common for teams to send enough people to disregard the safe zone around the tower and have a nearly 100% chance to kill a player in the first three levels (which was the exact timeframe that towers were supposed to be protecting low level players) so then Riot super-buffed the towers and the junglers had no chance of success to gank (which is parlance for unexpected showing up and killing a laner) and just stayed in the jungle farming for fifteen minutes. So while towers have a small footprint in terms of space compared to the rest of the map, they actually define the movements that are available until the latest portions of the game.

The base, a space that starts at the final tower and extends to the nexus/core/ancient is separated out from the rest of the map by a series of permanent walls & fortifications and houses a series of other structures much like a medieval castle. In DotA2, the base features a bunch of cosmetic buildings and then the ranged and melee “racks,” short for barracks. Destroying these will permanently cause the team who successfully killed the barracks to spawn stronger minions in that lane thus giving them an advantage since their reinforced minions waves will constantly push the line of battle forward. HotS has a “keep” as its second set of structures in each lane which is similar in arrangement to the outer areas but if destroyed causes long-range catapults to be permanently spawned by the team who destroyed the keep. LoL is very similar, but has no cosmetic buildings and only one “inhibitor” (a giant gem structure) in each lane. Once an inhibitor is killed the team who successfully destroyed an enemy inhibitor gets an extra minion, called a super-minion, which is as its name implies, stronger than usual, which moves down the lane. Interestingly, the inhibitor respawns after a short time though not the tower that protects it. In all cases, killing one of these inner structures creates massive pressure in that lane since the extra strong NPCs that spawn force the team who lost it to be constantly and actively working to defend that lane against the increased NPC onslaught.

In all three games, getting an inner structure killed is usually the beginning of the end for a team. In DotA2, losing the first racks corresponds to a nearly 90% game loss rate in pro tournaments, and in fact is usually only attempted late in a game by a team who has accumulated an overwhelming advantage. Much like in professional chess, DotA2 games are rarely played to checkmate (the destruction of the Ancient), but end with the team who lost one or two racks accepting their nearly impossible position and surrendering. It is considered incredibly disrespectful for a pro team to refuse to surrender a clearly lost game (in StarCraft players have even been suspended for this sort of behavior). In LoL, the numbers aren’t quite so bleak, since the inhibitor respawns, and in fact there is a strange tendency for teams who take an inhibitor too early to lose because the waves of minions are mostly near the well defended sections of the enemy base, so the team with the inhibitor down is actually at an advantage to safely farm minions.

Shop Therapy

To conclude our tour of these digital battlefields, at the far back end of the base in all three games is a safe zone (of sorts) called a Fountain which will automatically heal friendly characters over a short time and in LoL and DotA2 also unleash very strong attacks on opposing players which almost instantly kill them. The “almost” portion is critical because it shows just how ruthless these two games can be to new players, since even the most protected space on the map includes the possibly of an opposing player making a nearly suicidal dive and killing you. Particularly, this is used as a way to flaunt a victory at the very end of a match, butchering the opposing team on their own Fountain. The Fountain also is where you start the game and where characters respawn after dying.

HotS has made this zone completely inaccessible to the other team. In both DotA2 and LoL this safe zone is also a shop that allows you to shop for items with the gold you earn in the match by killing minions and characters. Between respawning, healing, and buying items, throughout any game any player will be spending a significant amount of time using it as a hub for their forays out into the wilds of the map.

DotA2 has a pair of additional shops on each side of the map. One is a small side shop which has a limited selection of rudimentary items conveniently located near the battlefront, which is useful because unlike HotS and LoL, there is no spell to get you freely back to base. Additionally, DotA2 has a “secret” shop sequestered in each side of the jungle, which sells a small selection of exotic and expensive components that the main shop doesn’t have but which are required ingredients to assemble the most potent items in the game. One of the fascinating decisions in DotA2 was to allow players to buy from any shop they can physically access, not just their own team’s shops, so invading teams often make a quick purchase as they retreat out of the other side’s jungle. Though I don’t exactly know what to make of it, it seems worth noting that in both of these games, the safest, best defended place on the map, which is also where you return from the dead and where you heal your battle wounds, also is a store. Maybe that just shows good business sense from the vendors. In HotS there are no items and the only other benefit you get from the Fountain is that you can mount instantly, but while seemingly small, this is yet another place where Blizzard tries to remove some of the typical MOBA barriers, like DotA2’s extended walk to the outer tower which can take over a minute each way, which is almost 3% of the length of a match.

In this chapter hopefully I have been able to show how the various aspects of the games that seem unrelated (characters, maps, items, and structures) are actually critically related to each other in one organic system. If a change is made to any element, no matter how seemingly insignificant, there can be drastic effects on the perception and value of other elements in the system especially at the highest levels of play where fractions of a percent can be game-changing, finding, understanding, and utilizing information can define victory. In a basic way, things like the tower buffs in LoL or character movement ability cooldowns in DotA2 are why so much effort is spent scrutinizing patches from every angle.

Next week, we’ll look at how the inhabitants of these eternal battlefields are a form of resources and how the different ways each game distributes these resources are based on differing views of “balance.” Additionally, we will examine these three games’ use of “vision” as a game mechanic, rather than a simulation of optical vision, and how this mechanic is one of the most defining elements of the MOBA genre.

Part 1 - Demystifying MOBAs: An Introduction to an Introduction

Part 2 - Demystifying MOBAs: Characters - Representing A Digital Pantheon

Part 3 - Demystifying MOBAs: The Pantheon in Action

Part 5 - Demystifying MOBAs: PLAY - The Gory Farming of Glory

Part 6 - Demystifying MOBAs: A History of Speed

Part 7 - Demystifying MOBAs: The Grand Spectacle

Part 8 - Demystifying MOBAs: The Heralds of High Drama

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