Demystifying MOBAs - PLAY: The Gory Farming of Glory

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 the previous editions of Demystifying Mobas I’ve broken down some of the basic elements such as the maps, characters, and history of the three major esports mobas, DotA2 (Valve Corporation), LoL (Riot Games), and HotS (Blizzard/Activision). Now that we’ve shaken the hypothetical box, looked at the game board, and examined the pieces, let’s set these games in motion.

In all three games, the timer starts the moment the players load in and everyone is given a couple minutes to purchase basic items and take up positions around the map before the baseline NPCs, called minions, start their incessant spawning. These unfortunate peons come in timed waves and mindlessly charge from the base down each lane and then fight the other side’s minions in a sad little battle when they meet. While they are hapless and fairly weak, there are plenty of complex rules and interactions that make minion movement, aggro (short for “aggression,” as their targeting algorithm is called), and manipulating the underlying logic a fundamental feature of high level play. One of the most critical differences between the DotA2 cum LoL model and HotS is how these minions are utilized as resources in the game. In all three games being near a minion that dies gives a share of its experience to any player character that is nearby.

Not only is gathering gold through last hitting important, it is also shockingly complex.

But in both DotA2 and LoL, something extremely important happens when a player is the one to strike the killing blow on a minion (“last hits”). To this fortunate and ruthless soul, a small amount of gold is given. Yet it is vital to understand that the gold is only given to the player who last hits the minion and that this gold, though seemingly small at first, adds up to be the fundamental mechanic for growing a character in power. Not only is gathering gold through last hitting important, it is also shockingly complex. To even skim the surface of last hitting, think about how at any second in any lane in the game competing players can be attacking each other, using multiple skills limited by health and mana, while either jungler can leap out of the bushes and gank at any point, and two waves of six minions each are in a cluster attacking each other. Do you use your mana to last hit, or to attack the opponent? Can you risk getting close enough to the far minions to kill them without getting low on heath and having to go back to the fountain? Can your opponent push you under your tower so the strong tower attacks hits the minions making it really difficult to predict when you should attack to last hit?

This creates a huge amount of multitasking while in the laning phase, tracking a minimum of 14 characters’ (with three different kinds of minions) positions and health, watching 14 attacks going at once to try to estimate when you can leap in and take the last hit, as well as watching the rest of the map while communicating with your team. It is not an understatement to say that in most games the entire early portion of the matches in these two games revolves around this dance, which is termed “farming” (a gather grisly word for murdering henchmen for gold) especially considering both games are designed with the core ideal that players should be rewarded for being able to last hit near-perfectly and punished for failing.

L oL has made this farming integral to its attempt to construe balance as more firmly in the individual player’s (rather than the collective team’s) hands. To understand anything about pro play it is critical to understand how much of the resources minions make up and how drastically failing to kill minions can hamper a player. Killing a player is worth 300 gold (give or take) which equates to last hitting just around 15 minions. For reference, a perfect minion score at 25 minutes would be 305 CS (“creep score” - aka minions killed) and some pro players can actually hit above that level using some tricks! There is a small amount of ambient gold that every player gains just for being in a game, but just that 305 killed minions equates to 6814 gold gained. Given that big items cost around 3000 gold, a player who CSs 3 or 4 minions in every wave will still be a full item behind a perfect player at 25 minutes just from CS. This is critical because items are often multiplicative. So in real terms, if a player did merely passably by last hitting half of the possible minions, they would be able to buy a magic hat that gives [roughly] 25% more power on their spells at 25 minutes. If the opposing laner is a really great CSer, he will have that same +25% item, but will also [again roughly] have an item that gives them another 10% spell power and reduces the enemy’s magic resistance by 15%. Not only is there a second item for the better CSer, but note that given that CS is durational, the better last hitter would have their first item 30% faster, and their second item at the same time the unfortunate player who only last hit half of the minions got their first item.

While this sound bad, it is actually much worse because the power disparity means that no matter what the lower CSer does the other player will have double the bonuses. Given the very tight balance of the games, this means that under no circumstance can they ever contest the stronger player in a fair one on one fight. In fact, it’s common in many games even at the pro level for it to become virtually impossible for a player that falls behind to even get close enough to last hit with a serious risk of dying. This cycle makes it even easier for the dominant player to perfectly CS and harder for the weaker player to get any CS at all. Getting progressively further ahead owing to maximizing a position in this exponential resource gathering system is called “snowballing.” While DotA2’s numbers are quite different, disparities can grow even quicker because if you’re faster than your opponent you can even kill your own minions (“denying”) to stop the other player from last hitting them. Even more punishing than LoL, in DotA2 you actually lose some gold when you die, setting a losing player further behind. So while there is more emphasis placed on getting actionable items (like last week’s Blink Dagger) the snowballing effect of resources is still severe enough that pro games can be won or lost over seemingly small mistakes.

These continual advantages being given to the players who are ahead is one of the most common frustrations people have with LoL and DotA2 (aside from the player base being abusive, which I’ll cover in a later section). MOBAs are a very curious beast of a sport in this way. While psychological factors can create one-sided matches in some sports, there are almost no sports where this sort of snowballing system is built in to the very deepest roots of rules. The sorts of snowballing resource systems common to MOBAs would be the equivalent of getting an extra player that is allowed on the field every time a team scores in football; being allowed a mulligan for free for every 3 hands of poker that a player won; or getting an extra down for every touchdown that was scored in American football. In hockey, you can end up being down or up a player, but only as a penalty for a team breaking the rules and only until the penalty timer runs out or the team scores. The only similar example in sports is car racing, where the leaders in the time trials are started at the front of the pack of cars, giving them a cleaner track. But this isn’t particularly relevant to MOBAs given that it’s physically dangerous to have slower cars in front of faster cars as well as the mitigation of being ahead that comes from using additional fuel while the cars in the back are able to conserve resources by drafting.

The most pertinent example I could find in any game is the infamous way that the board game Monopoly tends to play out. Repurposed from an old socialist game called The Landlord’s Game which was designed to decry the evils of capitalism, even in the Parker Brother’s sanitized version, you can still ask any child why they hate Monopoly so much and they will, in so many words, basically point out that if one or two players are really lucky, they will get more money, so they can spend more money, so they get ever-further ahead and bankrupt the less lucky players without much those less fortunate players can do to come back. The first casualties then tend to get knocked out early and have to watch a movie for a couple hours while the other players slowly hoard more and more cash and try to grind each other down.

So much of the underlying dissonance between the perception of LoL and the actual way games tend to play out is rooted in the notion that killing your opponent seems to be but isn’t actually the primary objective, even though with a genre name like “multiplayer online battle area” it seems like it should be. Now knocking off your opposing laner is of course useful, but mostly because of how far behind the elaborate time of dying and walking back to lane can set them behind in both experience and gold. A new wave of minions spawn every 30 seconds, so if a player is dead for 30 seconds, then has to walk the minute or more to lane to start farming again, the lost farming time from two or three waves makes dying mathematically at least twice as severe as the the 300 kill gold makes it seem.

HotS makes its stance on de-prioritizing farming as a central element of the genre clear by eschewing the term MOBA altogether and calling the game a “team brawler.” As such HotS handles farming and laning entirely differently than DotA2 or LoL in a quite deliberate fashion. This remains true to the stated goal of HotS to streamline the micro-oriented aspects of DotA2 and LoL to make it more friendly to new and casual players. The minions still provide experience if a player is near the lane when they perish, but each team has an aggregate experience pool so every player on a given team will always be the same level. While there are a fixed number of minions per minute per lane in all three games, because farming is so critical in DotA2 and LoL, the standard lane setups came about primarily to maximize resources per player. But in HotS, the goal is not to farm but to “soak” (which means to keep players gathering experience for the team) but since it doesn’t require anything more than having any player standing nearby at the moment the minions die, teams are free to wander around the map and put the “multiplayer online battle” back in MOBA.

Shopkeepers They Are Not

stacking.jpg ¬ (Well, this screenshot from Land of the Lost is kind of like DotA2 stacking, yes?)

Aside from the lane minions, all three games have additional fightable NPCs scattered around their maps. While these creatures do provide gold and experience, the most powerful of them also provide buffs and as such serve as important mini-objectives for teams to fight over in addition to the towers and nexuses. All of the games have these NPCs located in the jungle portion of the map (with a few exceptions for HotS) and they come in different flavors (called “camps”) which can be killed for resources and will respawn on fixed timers to be slaughtered again and again. In DotA2 each kind of camp spawns in designated areas mirrored on both sides of the map, but the mixture of enemies in each camp is slightly randomized. The hardest camp is called the “ancients” (confusingly, since that is what the main objective is also called) which are strong monsters immune to magic and has a chance to spawn dragons, giant golems, or weird Land of the Lost triceratops-like dinosaurs.

One of the main jobs of supports in DotA2 is to “leash” these ancient camps which means to attack them once to get them to fight, then run away on a wild goose chase through the jungle for long enough that the game registers them as dead. Since they aren’t in their standard zone, this respawns a new set of ancients. After the new set spawns, that is the cue for the support to duck out of vision, causing the first set to go stand in the same camp as the new group of monsters. While this might not make much sense, and actually likely started as a bug, it was left in the game because the designers quite astutely recognized that it provides a very interesting mechanic since that means twice, three, or even four times the resources can be taken in the same amount of time. Since being able to dedicate as much time as possible to farming is critical for non-supports to get items, being able to send a support, who isn’t supposed to get gold anyway (and would get squashed by the powerful jungle monsters) to provide even more efficiency the gold earning potential of more core characters becomes an interesting and important part of pro play. This “stacking” isn’t without risks, since as each camps’ stacks get bigger they can become worth thousands of gold and become ever juicer targets for the other team to try to take.

L oL has various jungle camps that come in standard mirrored positions with a fixed composition of monsters, with two of the harder-to-kill camps providing a buff (one to physical attackers, one to spell casters) to the person who last hits the leader NPC. Most importantly, the “blue buff” (in four years of playing I have never heard it called it by its real name, “Crest of Insight”) that comes with killing the Ancient Golem restores lots of mana, and at some point a smart jungler realized it was possible to almost kill it, but stop long enough for the mid laner, who is usually a mana hungry mage, to come by and take it. This provides a massive advantage so the other team is near-obligated to donate their blue buff to their mid laner too, and as such the securing and transfer of this buff has become a core element of the game. Camps can not be stacked in LoL, and the summoner ability that all junglers take, a spell called “Smite” (also the name of a LoL clone) does massive damage to these jungle minions and provides a different buff/ability depending on which kind of monster it is used on.

By including Smite as a spell, by adding various masteries and runes that directly increase sustainability in killing jungle monsters, and then making sure the lanes had enough resources to exist on their own, LoL was able to formalize the jungler as a full time position in all games. In DotA2 there are only a handful of full-time junglers, and while most of those characters farm in a manner analogous to (and probably inspired) LoL jungling, one of them is a very unique character named Shen which functions by controlling jungle monsters (aka “creeps”) in a somewhat similar way to the direction that was taken by the designers in HotS. In HotS the jungle monsters are treated completely differently. The basic jungle camps are actually termed “mercenaries,” on most maps come in different groupings, some with ranged attacks, some with melee attacks, and instead of dying once defeated join your team and walk to the nearest lane and start fighting for you. There are even abilities that let you convince them to fight without killing them (such as “Bribe”).

All three games have various major NPC monsters which give a significant bonus to the team who successfully kills them, but also requires a large investment of resources or time to kill. Many big battles take place around these major NPCs, so much so that they are termed “objectives”. DotA2 has a single major boss, called Roshan, which spawns at a fixed time and then will respawn after being killed on a randomized timer. This boss drops an “Aegis” which any player can pick up and will resurrect the player that holds it once. If it is killed enough times in a game, usually the sign of a stalled game, later kills of Roshan additionally drops a second advantageous item, a wheel of cheese which can be eaten to restore a hero’s health to full one time. LoL has two major boss NPCs, the dragon, which is a large monster that grants experience to everyone on the team that kills it, but more critically also a stacking series of buffs. A team that kills five dragons has such a massive buff that getting the fifth dragon kill provides a near certain lock on winning the game. This dragon buff win condition was not added to LoL until quite recently. Previously, dragons just granted some gold to everyone on the team, but as players got better and better at farming, this small amount of gold tended to become worthless later in a game and as such games would stall out over the lack of objectives that were worth fighting over late in the game. Now, the dragon becomes a more and more critical objective as the game goes on and teams can even try to rush a bunch of quick dragons which requires the other team to have to contest the fourth and fifth dragon, making for much more action packed games.

Barron Nashor (“Roshan” backwards) is the other boss, who also provides global gold and experience as well as a short duration buff that significantly strengthens your nearby minions. Nashor’s buff has been heavily tuned through the history of LoL as well. In the many years of earlier iterations, it provided a buff to the team that succeeded in killing it that regenerated health and mana. Again, in favor of creating rules and mechanics that lead to dynamic games, this buff was switched so that it now directly buffs minions in lane near friendly players so that teams are encouraged by this temporary bonus to get in lane and make headway against the other team’s structures after taking Roshan. HotS, with its lack of in-match resources, has various flavors of bosses on each map that basically all have the same function as the rest of the HotS mercenary camps, only much much stronger, requiring almost the whole opposing team to group up to fight off its attack. Additionally, many of the maps can have novel but highly powerful NPCs of various sorts which perform specific functions or grant resources that help destroy the other team’s structures. In some cases, players can actually take control of them for a short while, becoming an NPC such as a statue come to life of a dragon knight or a Little Shop of Horrors style plant monster. Many of these encounters directly resemble the various raid bosses in World of Warcraft, with massive HP pools, circles of fire underfoot that need to be dodged, or area of effect stuns that melee characters have to time attacks around.

As you can see, all three of these games are having an active conversation about how resource mechanics should determine the outcome of a games. DotA2 being the first of these games has a diverse set of options. Some like losing gold on death is even more punishing than LoL, but others like stacking and item timings create novel ways around standard farming. LoL’s most fundamental change to the DotA2 model was to create a large focus on individual responsibility by highly emphasizing the micro play of farming through last hitting minions. HotS chose the opposite model, trying to emphasis group play through freeing teams from being tied to lanes by removing last hitting and gold entirely.

A big part of the interest in looking at all three of these games together is precisely to look for these sorts of moments of diverging design so that researchers can understand the historical roots of the mechanics, but also to showcase ways that designers can look at the various older elements in new ways to see new novel solutions for future games. Despite all of these differences all three games still have at their core a sense of balance that rewards victors with ever compounding advantages and losers with every spiraling gaps in resources.

Next week we’ll examine this theme of intentional imbalance further by looking at MOBA’s roots in the real time strategy (RTS) 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 4 - Demystifying MOBAs: A Charming Stroll Through Flatland’s Battlefield

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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