Demystifying MOBAs - A History of Speed

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. This is part 6.

Last week’s Demystifying Mobas examined the ways that the resource gathering models of MOBAs highlight their differing ideas about balance and fairness. But to fully understand some of the curious complexities of why lightning fast mirco-games of precision and speed like last hitting, are not just prioritized, but even possible, it is critical to understand how MOBAs are a mutation from the Real Time Strategy (RTS) genre. Warcraft 3 (by Blizzard Entertainment), which is the fantasy flavored brethren of StarCraft (also Blizzard), is the source for the entire MOBA genre.

The original DotA was not a single game, but rather the most popular iteration of a style of Warcraft 3 fan-made multi-player maps. All the assets, skills, and mechanics of the progenitor of the moba genre were made using pieces of Warcraft 3 remixed in different ways. Every other MOBA game, including LoL and HotS, are variations and clones of DotA iterations. Because of this, MOBAs have inherited many obvious aspect from RTS games including 3/4 overhead view, many units which each have different skills that interact with each other, combat-centric interactions, and a large map that is played double-blind. A major difference is that RTS games are traditionally played as 1v1 in professional settings, which means one player controls a whole army, including all of the buildings, workers, and combat troops all at once in real time. Having a game system that can handle that massive series of player interactions at once as the underlying structure for MOBAs is one of the reasons the whole MOBA genre can seem so unfathomable but also why it has such massive amount of mechanical and strategic depth that keeps players engaged.

Real Time First, Strategy Last

Though “Strategy” would seem paramount given the formulation of the genre title, it’s vital to note that RTS games actually exhibit the opposite emphasis. It is the “Real Time” designation that is by far the most important element of RTS games. Mechanical mastery—raw precision and speed of using buttons and clicking a mouse—defines even the highest levels of play in these games, and as such was accidentally enshrined as a core aspect in MOBAs. To give a sense of just how fast RTS games are played, top StarCraft players can sustain 300-400 actions per minute during a game. That means 400 precisely coordinated keyboard presses and mouse clicks to direct units per minute (called APM), all without making a mistake, during games that can range upward of 45 minutes. For reference, a full-time professional typist will be maxing out at around 325 characters each minute. In fact, APM is so important in RTS games that any semblance of creative strategic decisions are mostly nonexistent until a player reaches complete intuitive technical mastery, which only happens at or above the the Grand Master (GM) level. Even GM level players often get there through highly prescribed and practiced game plans that bulldoze enemies through rehearsed speed. Think of it this way: if one player can click his soldiers to shoot at an enemy, but the other player can click to attack and also tell his base to make more soldiers in the same amount of time, the first [slower] player will fall exponentially ever further behind.

In most games, additional amounts of input does not automatically equal better play. In MOBAs, speed became the primary marker of skill.

But this design element wasn’t entirely intentional. One could easily imagine a world where strategy was prioritized over real time. In fact, if you listen to stories from players like Day9 about the earliest days of StarCraft (the first major esport), no one, not even the design team had any idea just how fast it would be possible for a player to play RTS games. After the games were out for a while, and players got more practiced and found more efficient ways to bind their keys and set up their mice (there is a 100-some page document on the Team Liquid site that talks about keyboard and mouse setups), play speeds kept going up in RTS games. In fact, a new player to StarCraft might only have 30 or 40 APM, and a good amateur who plays a lot might have an 80 APM average, so the game was tested and initially designed around those lower speeds. But once prestige and money was involved, and professional teams grew up to find and nurture players, an entirely new conception of the game started to evolve explicitly for these stratospheric heights of virtuosity. This might not seem like a big deal, but most curiously as more people got toward this unfathomable level of speed, they discovered that the game seemed to have no limit to the benefit of faster play because so much of a player’s APM was able to be used to generate resources and micromanage battles. Basically if someone could physically do it, the game would allow it.

This seemingly banal “feature” is weird because in most games, additional amounts of input does not automatically equal better play. Wether it is Mario or Street Fighter 5, Pac-Man or Call of Duty, it is the precision of movement at a specific moment—in fact, it is economy of player input—that determines success. i.e. Pushing more buttons in Street Fighter to get more moves doesn’t equate to better play, in fact, it would leave your character perpetually out of position and open to counterattacks. Firing more shots in Team Fortress 2 doesn’t make you a better player, in fact, it would mostly mean you were out of ammo from taking shots that were almost guaranteed to miss. Through the StarCraft expansion Brood Wars, which solidified the Korean obsession with esports and spawned the first cable channels dedicated to professional video game play, it became clear that the excitement such virtuosity brought was perfect for a television broadcast event. So speed became the primary marker of skill and the game was increasingly balanced and designed for on that near-infinite horizon.

Video: Notoriously fast StarCraft 2 player Losira.

Lest I draw only parallels, it’s critical to note that the evolution of MOBAs and RTS games diverged immediately and deliberately. Even the early fan-made iterations of DotA were designed as a way for high level Warcraft players to relax and have fun between practice and matches. Instead of having to multitask 200 units, you’d just get one (or a few) units. Instead of each unit being some peon, with one or two abilities, you could play as the coolest hero characters in the game with spectacular attacks. Instead of managing a group of buildings for resources, the single character could gather them. Instead of playing by yourself, you could bring four friends. In fact, much of the success of both LoL and HotS can be correlated with their continuation of these trends toward individualizing the player and emphasizing team interaction. But while each of these differences changes where the complexity and conflict occurs in the game, the understructure of RTS mechanical play and game design still drastically affect what skills players need to have to be good. Though sustained APM is not as high in MOBAs as in RTS games, the average keyboard and mouse interactions at a professional level are still stunningly high, and wrist and hand injuries are common.

Though the RTS scene was dominated by an arms race of raw clicking speed it quickly became clear that two other major elements separated the best players: multitasking and mastery of the double-blind vision mechanics. With hundreds of units to control across a large map, players who could multitask while paying attention in more places and interacting with more units at once had a massive edge since they could, in a simple scenario, defend against an attack but also counter attack their opponent at the same time. In more abstract terms, they could unitize their APM for more complex tactical decisions. This combination of speed and multitasking still defines the highest level of play in MOBAs. The most famous player in LoL, Faker, achieved his fame by being the first pro player to be able to simultaneously perfectly last hit minions while at the same time being able to maximize the amount of time spent attacking his lane opponent. Even other professionals say playing against Faker is like playing against two people because he has an uncanny ability to be able to see and respond to all aspects of the game at once, including moving his screen around to watch the rest of map and interact with his teammates as needed no matter where they are. It is interesting to note that due to the sheer levels of reflex speed and mental multitasking needed the average age for professional RTS players is very young. Even though StarCraft 2 has made some moves to limit the effectiveness of ultra-high APMs (there is very little benefit for sustaining APMs above about 350) most players who are great start when they are in elementary school and retire in their early 20s.

The Mechanics of Vision

That said, in RTS games both speed and multitasking can be taught the same way fundamentals are taught in any sport. With professional coaches and vast feeder systems similar to sports drafting, it became clear that aside from raw speed, the top players were doing something phenomenal: they were utilizing the fact that the games were double-blind to trick their opponents. With a game-mechanics version of vision rather than a simulated optical vision, and the units in the Blizzard RTS games are designed to counter each other in a circular way like rock-paper-scissors, the same mental bluffing and reading skills as are utilized by professional poker and chess became immensely valuable. In fact, many professional RTS players are world-class poker or chess players (with many after-hours poker games happening at RTS tournaments).

In some ways, these skills of reading player intentions from small clues and bluffing the other players offset the sheer race for speed. For instance in a simple but common example if your enemy scouts your base, a high level player could fake-build an air unit until the scout leaves or is killed, then cancel it once the enemy can no longer see the base, thus baiting them into building tons of anti-air units, while all the while you actually built tanks. But this sort of shenanigans are only possible because of the way that both RTSs and subsequently MOBAs construct “vision” as a core game mechanic.

In a first person shooter, your character’s vision (also known as sight) and the vision you as a player have of your screen are the same and designed to seem naturalistic. Though often slightly caricatured, this means that a player sitting in the chair seeing what is on the screen better (such as catching a glint of a red uniform through a gap in a stone wall) effectively means the character in the game sees better (shooting said red-uniformed enemy through that tiny hole with a laser rifle). This naturalistic vision is not the way that MOBAs and RTS games work. What you the player sweating in a chair in the Los Angeles summer heat can optically see is overtly modified and limited to represent what the character on the map could ostensibly see. Most notably, this means parts of the screen are often rendered as blank or mostly darkened to represent areas that the character couldn’t see on the battlefield, called evocatively “The Fog of War.”

Your character has a vision radius, as do your structures and minions, but these circles of sight are highly modified by the aforementioned bushes, architecture, and the general shape of terrain. Keeping tabs and predicting the movement of the opposing team even when they are not in vision is often one of the most frustrating aspects for new players and one of the defining characteristics of great players. Any player action has to be weighed against the abstract potential of any absent enemy: where they were, how fast they can move, teleports, their abilities to cross walls, bushes, etc. Short of having someone on your team have a character in vision, they could literally be standing right next to your character around a slight curve or in a bush. In fact, the colloquial term in LoL for this phenomenon is rated in “potential dudes in bush” such that if you can only see two enemy players, any given bush on the map potentially has three dudes in it waiting to clobber you. Calling “MIA” is one of the first things most new players learn to do, since the moment the opposing player in your lane isn’t visible, they could be headed anywhere to cause havoc.

Keeping track of these complex dark actions (or exploiting them yourself) is heavily influenced by two features, the mini map and wards. In all three MOBA games as well as StarCraft and WarCraft, there is a mini map which sketches out a small iconographic realtime representation of the general form of the map and everything your team currently has in vision and shares this information with your team (so everyone on a team has the same mini map). These maps are curiously interactive, and a player can actually click on them to move their character around in the same way as the “real” game map. Getting “mini-mapped” is the term used to describe clicking just slightly to far toward the bottom right of the regular game screen and accidentally clicking the upper left of the mini-map, thereby causing your character to walk in the exact opposite direction intended, usually toward certain doom. All three games now have an elaborate system that allows players to use key plus mouse combinations to signal missing enemies, potential objectives, retreat paths, and help requests both generally and on the mini map. DotA2’s map even allows players to temporarily draw on it, which as far as I can tell is mostly used for drawing penises while waiting to respawn after being mini mapped.

DotA2’s map even allows players to temporarily draw on it, which is mostly used for drawing penises while waiting to respawn after being mini mapped.

In both DotA2 and LoL the vision metagame is explicitly engaged with via the use of “wards” which are items that can be purchased with in-match resources (or as part of other items). Wards basically come in two flavors: ones that are invisible but grant normal vision around them, or the more expensive version that are visible but grant vision of invisible units as well, which most importantly allow a team to destroy their opponent’s wards. Placing and maintaining ward coverage as well as removing your opponent’s vision is a large part of competitive play, with numerous strategies and optimal warding points that have to be constantly contested. The latent large-scale combat strategy simulation aspect of these games is always present in the war for vision—trying to have knowledge of your enemy’s movements while masking your own—that visible territory is claimed territory. Vision is so critical, but simultaneously so banal, that in professional LoL, fans often cheer semi-ironically whenever a ward is destroyed during slow games. LoL’s focus on having jungle as a core position really ramps up the necessity of vision competition, since it is a whole position that exists out of vision most of the time and only shows up to leap out of the shadows when least expected. In fact, like last hitting, vision has become so central to LoL’s evolution of DotA2 that the game has recently added a separate class of free items with their own inventory slot called trinkets which every character can choose that specifically either places a ward on a cooldown, grants vision of invisible units in a area on cooldown, or scouts a faraway location on command. Interestingly, vision and particularly wards have other odd uses and interactions since they are technically units. Some characters can use them as a place to jump to, and in DotA2, wards can block jungle camps, preventing them from spawning. Additionally, many characters have vision enacting or vision denying abilities which vastly complicate this perennial dance of the double-blind in RTS and moba games.

Form feet and legs; form arms and body; and I’ll form the head!

Everything else aside that the two genres have in common, the fact that RTS games are played 1v1 and MOBAs are a team sport has grown to become the most critical difference. In professional games many StarCraft players will have specific selections of music on in the background, which are the same as they use to practice, while in MOBAs even with a professional team, the soundtrack every player hears is a chaotic barrage of 5 players yelling and trying to communicate via microphones. Ideologically, this change of focus from the self to the group radically affects the way the player identifies with the game. In an RTS, you are the top-level commander, or the hive-mind; you as a player are the abstract force that is sitting above the board controlling and binding together one army against the other mastermind’s army. Any mistakes are your own, and anything units that aren’t owned by the other player are yours to do with what you will. Your chance of winning is based on how in sync you are with yourself; how much you can both outplay and outthink your opponent.

In a MOBA, you the player are embodied with an avatar in the game. Yes, the view is from above but the player is reaching into the game to manipulate the champion. You can only directly manipulate yourself (with some exceptions). The other four players have their own autonomous will, all while most of the creatures on the map are manipulated by AI and interact only through combat. Yes, speed, multitasking, and mind games are paramount, but now a new element is added: synchronization with other humans. In real terms, in StarCraft if your siege tanks move the wrong way and fire on the wrong enemy, it’s your fault while in HotS, unless you are playing the siege tank, you have no control over if your siege tank will even connect to the game, let alone attack a certain enemy!

So much of the general tension in the overly-emotional tenor of the players in MOBA games seems to come from this general loss of control. Plays that can happen anywhere on the map are decided in fractions of a second and can spell disaster or success for the whole team. Even if players are both good, it is very easy to, with all of the guessing about vision and the frantic mechanical scramble, have differing reads of how to act in a scenario. For instance, in one recent game, I was playing as ADC (the high damage but fragile ranged attacker) and all four players in bottom lane stepped within range of fighting each other to contest a wave of minions that had gotten all tangled up. My support powered forward to attack their support since they saw an opening. At the same moment, I was already in process of retreating a few steps because of the other ADC pressuring me. I had seen the other ADC was taking heavy minion damage which would have left them horribly behind in lane. Honestly, either decision would have worked in our favor but in that fraction of a second we both chose the opposite reaction and he died and I was zoned out from the wave. Even on pro teams, finding players who can intuitively work together is a huge part of the support staff’s goals. At the biggest tournaments with the best teams and players, all of whom live and train 24 hours a day, coordination and synchronization mistakes regularly happen. The infinite-ceiling of speed in RTS games has been inverted to an infinite ceiling of multi-player coordination in MOBAs.

This notion of player synergy—of all five players of a team acting like the five lions of Voltron—is ultimately what defines MOBAs from RTS games despite the bevy of legacy elements such as speed, multitasking, and vision as a mechanic. All three MOBAs are quite different though, and the elder DotA2 can many times still feel a bit like being part of the RTS army of yore, with some heroes that barely have active abilities and others require lots of multitasking, some heroes even kill themselves to do damage and others require frantically micro-managing a dozen units all over the map. After all, the principles of having each part of an army do a specific job is still embedded from the RTS model. The MOBA middle child’s, LoL’s, major breakthrough was doubling down on DotA’s move toward a game of individual agency. They did this by bringing in a design team inspired by professional fighting games who reoriented the legacy RTS ideas to the highly controlled frame-specific animation interactions that defined the best games in the pro fighting game scene. They really reworked LoL to be about these “outplay” moments - where rather than long stretches of high APM, small lighting fast correct motions were prioritized and more importantly, rewarded, even during average moments of play.

HotS, with it’s radical removal of items and farming, moves even further away from the RTS legacy (and the label MOBA and is trying to focus on what game mechanics can push ever further toward multiplayer synchronization as the core skill required for a “hero brawler.” By giving players more embodied characters, and by creating a palpable narrative and pathos around team dynamics something quite interesting happened. Suddenly these esports games had vast stockpiles of inter-team stories to tell, and most importantly, unlike the inhuman speed of RTS players, they were stories or teamwork and comradery that any player could relate to, no matter the skill level. MOBAs were perfectly situated to become the nexus of the explosion in popularity of esports.

Next time, we’ll take a look just how these games translate into the realm of professional sports.

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

Part 7 - Demystifying MOBAs: The Grand Spectacle

Part 8 - Demystifying MOBAs: The Heralds of High Drama