League of Legends is a completely free-to-play game. You could experience the entirety of it without ever spending a dime. And yet I have probably spent more money on it than any other game I own, and I’ve certainly logged more hours on it than any other.
But why is that? What is it about LoL and games like it, games like DOTA 2, Heroes of the Storm, and Smite, that just keeps us coming back for more? The reasons are are simple, when you really think about it, and they’re the things all MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) have in common: they compress advancement into a short period of time, they have a tremendous amount of variance, and they have the most cleverly disguised math you’ve ever not seen.
So, compressing advancement into a short period of time. What exactly does that mean? An easy way of thinking about it is to look at the level progression present in MMO’s like World of Warcraft and, believe it or not, the multiplayer component of FPS’s like Call of Duty.
As you play through these games you unlock new content for your character. This can be in the form of new powers, abilities, and gear for WoW or new perks, equipment, and guns for CoD. Obviously these are dramatically different games but at their core they revolve around this same system. Players are initially drawn into the game because of gameplay but the hook that keeps driving them forward is the promise of more stuff. This stuff that is strung out beautifully along the level progression so as to always be tantalizing.
MOBA’s work fundamentally the same way, but with one key difference: instead of requiring hours or days of logged time in the game, the entire process takes half an hour to an hour. Players rush through level progression, gaining new powers, upgrades, and items every half a minute instead of every few hours.
And then, at games end, the whole thing is reset. The next time the player starts a game and chooses a character they’re back at level one with the minimum gold. In a different situation having to start over so often would be remarkably discouraging, since so much time would be invested. But with MOBA’s the player only ever “loses” a half an hour, an insignificant amount of time they can recoup in the span of a single game.
This ties into the second point in MOBA’s favor well, and that is the massive degree of variance. Think for a moment about any modern FPS. In the multiplayer of such games (with a few notable exceptions) players are all essentially the same aside from their chosen weapons and equipment. Everybody has access to all of these things as well, and everybody has the same core mechanics of running, jumping, shooting, etc.
But in a MOBA, that isn’t the case. There’s still the same core mechanics shared for every players. There’s a small team, usually five, with a large number of weak bots fighting an opposing force and attempting to destroy several structures to win. The difference is that players aren’t going into the game as equals.
MOBA’s always have a large roster of characters. Heroes of the Storm, despite being a relatively new game, still has a whopping 43 available heroes. Longer running games can have rosters three times that. Each of these available characters have completely different abilities and stats, resulting in a completely unique game experience every single time as only ten are ever used in a single game. Even if the same ten are used from one game to a next the individual situations that occur in the game could vary drastically.
Now I suppose it is important I clarify something here. I’ve expounded upon the tremendous value of the variance MOBA’s have, but it’s unfair to say other games don’t have it as well. Call of Duty for example has larger teams with access to dozens of different weapons and pieces of gear. The game definitely varies a lot and every game will have a unique experience.
The distinction that should be made is that when I say MOBA’s have tremendous variance, what I mean is that they have tremendous meaningful variance. If I round a corner in CoD and don’t see a guy hidden in the room, I’m dead. I just am, there’s nothing to it.
Now if I round a corner in Heroes of the Storm, things are going to be quite different. There’re 43 different people it could be, and my response to each of them is going to be different. None of them can kill me in the blink of an eye, so I’m going to get the chance to respond. How I do that requires an immense amount of split second decision making on my part.
Which leads me right into my last point: these games do a beautiful job of hiding some fantastic math. Now I know what you’re thinking, and no, the in game number crunching isn’t concealed at all, and on purpose. You know how much health you have, how much damage you do, and the ratio at which your abilities are affected by your stats. None of that is hidden, and for good reason, as it goes a long way to help you gauging a situation.
But I’m not talking about that math, I’m talking about your math. The math players do in the fraction of second it takes for you to activate one ability or another. The math you run through in your head every time you decide whether or not you can fight an enemy, how you would fight them, and if you should fight them.
It’s like catching a ball. When a ball gets thrown at you, you can catch it. Anybody can, children can, it’s an astonishingly easy thing. If you tried to sit down and draw up the physics involved, equations and all, you wouldn’t be able to. Well most of you wouldn’t, I’m sure there are some physicist nerds out there. The exact same thing applies to MOBA’s, where you have to run through a bewilderingly large number of computations to make a judgement.
Obviously this is true in most games, but it is specifically true in MOBA’s, and mostly because of the meaningful variance I mentioned earlier. To be really good at these games you have to understand the exact abilities and skills of ten unique characters and guess what they will do in the next few seconds. Then, based on the result, you have to make a decision for yourself.
These three things combine to create a dizzying array leaves players happy and eager to come back for more. Obviously game balance is a huge factor and a number of smaller considerations play a big part, but at the end of the day we keep coming back because there’s so much there. So much to unlock, to do, and to think about.