Drawing Players into MOBAs Through Accessibility and Investment

For multiplayer games, the balance between fun gameplay, reward and progression is difficult to manage. As more businesses engage with the free-to-play model, there is an emphasized importance of attracting and keeping a large player base. For MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) specifically, getting players to try a particular game in an ever-growing popular genre is half the battle. For many, MOBAs intimidate and for others; struggle to grasp the finer details that give long-time competitors such an edge. However, MOBAs also maintain the strongest sustained player base and continue to rise with international support and popularity. Players who invest their time and money into the game, tend to dedicate their free time more and more exclusively to the specific MOBA over any other. Some only play that one MOBA exclusively.

For this article, we will be scrutinizing the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre as it is becoming the most trending type of game of this generation. In addition to its growing popularity, MOBAs face several adversities that can overwhelm newcomers ranging from the amount of information it demands and its diversity in characters (Heroes, Champions, Characters), abilities and smaller game details. Nonetheless, its competitive nature and one’s ability to execute knowledge and expertise of a character into the game attracts an ever-growing audience. This knowledge, expertise and time is an investment that all games seek as it can lead to a sustained player base, purchases and continued use of the company’s digital platforms (Battle.net, Steam) or other products (Hearthstone, Team Fortress 2). Creating an interest for your specific game, engaging players to try it and ensuring they spend their time and, subsequently, their money is a divided technique. The MOBA genre is currently crowned by two popular games: Leagues of Legends (Riot Games) and Dota 2 (Valve) with a rising star by Blizzard Entertainment’s: Heroes of the Storm.

Each game takes a different approach in their audience and creating forms of accessibility. Accessibility in terms of garnering interest from newcomers and easing them comfortably into the knowledge and world of MOBAs.

  • For Dota 2, Valve has kept everything unlocked and open for both new and experienced players. Players can freely play any hero (character) from the 107 heroes available. For newcomers, this can be intimidating as any multiplayer match can contain up to 10 new heroes that one must be familiar with their abilities (4 skills per hero, 40 total per match) and strategies associated. To combat this uncomfortable feeling, Valve offers players choices to gauge how much they assume they understand about the game and a variety of tools are available to assist them such as:
    1. Tutorial and Training Sessions: Learn the basics of MOBAs, Dota 2 and basic general concepts such as ‘Last-Hitting’.
    2. Limited Heroes Mode: Reduce the number of heroes in a match to 20 in total. Creating less demand to know the intricacies of each hero and more about perfecting your understanding of the game overall.
    3. Bot Matches: Practice vs. AI before playing against other players to improve your overall playing ability.
    4. Coaching: More experienced friends can join your games as a coach, letting them speak to a new player in real-time, draw in their game and inform of them of areas to be careful of, etc.
    5. In-Game Hero Guides: Item and ability suggestions are highlighted and shown for players who choose to subscribe to the guide.
    6. Glossary of all Items and Heroes: All items and hero abilities are available for reference in-client with videos and stats.

Dota 2 Trainings

Dota 2 has an elaborate system to ease players into learning one of the more complex genres in the gaming industry. Smaller nuances such as vision/observer wards and map-awareness are left up to the player to delve into.  

  • For League of Legends, Riot Games introductory system for newer players is less complete but direct. They have two main tutorials: one involving the basics of the MOBA genre and the other about a typical game in League of Legends and using a quest system to guide players into completing their first match. In addition, there are bot matches to play vs. AI and an arching level system that lets players progress up to level 30 as more and more abilities become available for the players, easing them into knowing eventually every champion and Summoner Ability available. However League of Legend lacks in explaining their customization in terms of Runes and Masteries. They make up for it with their more intuitive Item Shop system where you can filter items that you want to buy depending on how you want to play your hero (Attack Power, Ability [Magic] Power, Magic and/or Physical Defense, etc.). Nonetheless, League of Legends assumes players will pick up on the finer details of the game as they play and progress through levels and matches.

LoL Tutorial

League of Legends’ item shop is straight-forward, intuitive and comfortable. However their tutorial may feel incomplete for newcomers to MOBAs and to League of Legends.

  • It’s important to note that Heroes of the Storm is still in a technical alpha with some of its features not yet implemented. However its approach to the MOBA genre is already clear: simplicity. Heroes of the Storm does away with a lot of the smaller intricacies in Dota 2 and League of Legends, going as far as to remove any and all items in the game and globally earning experience. Their tutorial system involves a fast exemplary game and playing vs. AI. However, Heroes of the Storm goes further with their simplicity by restricting ways you can play a hero. ‘Talents’, a customizable form of altering a hero’s ability, is limited to two at the start and as you play more games, more unique ways to use a skill of a hero is unlocked. These fences around customization are for the benefit of the player, to avoid any overwhelming choices until the player has more experience with a specific character.

HOTS tutorial

Heroes of the Storm eliminates a lot of the smaller intricacies of other MOBAs for a more comfortable and casual feeling to the game where teamwork is more stressed over individual ability and work.

These three MOBAs all create avenues to invite players into investing their time in their game. They create avenues of access that ease newcomers into trying their game via tutorials or simple game concepts. Although Valve’s tutorial system has the most pull in inviting players to invest their time into the game, it lacks forms progression or further motivation beyond ranked matchmaking. They compensate this by open-ended content with a full hero roster for players to choose from and no restrictions in game modes. Dota 2 is like a playground in which it is available to access and try (free-to-play) but doesn’t direct or orient people into what to play or how competitive they need to play (you can play vs. AI, ranked matchmaking or more entertaining modes such as ‘All Random’ – where players are assigned random heroes at the start). For League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm, there is a motivation for players to progress and unlock future content. Specifically for League of Legends, players want to reach max level for full access to abilities, currency to buy more heroes/runes/masteries and enter ranked matchmaking for the full competitive experience. Riot Games’ approach for new players is to orient them towards understanding all aspects of the game before allowing them to play their most regarded gameplay mode: Ranked Play.

It is clear that all three systems have different ways of inviting players to invest time into their game. Both Heroes of the Storm and League of Legends create reasons for players to invest into their game. Whether it be monetarily or simply their time, the appeal to play either game is set by the need to unlock all of its content (discounting the interest in its other modes and gameplay). However, all three games approach their audience differently, Heroes of the Storm makes the game quick and simple, making matches less demanding and pressured. Dota 2 is a much more complex game but gives players freedom to play how they want to play. League of Legends markets the competitive height of the game through both eSports (League Championship Series) and a more robust matchmaking system (ranks, divisions and Summoner levels). A simple frame to put all this is a three-step approach in which games want to:

  1. Create reasons or invitations for players of all backgrounds to consider their game. This can range from a competitive and challenging height like in League of Legends and Dota 2 (eSports) to quick, short matches with less demand of one’s time like in Heroes of the Storm.
  2. Motivate players to continue returning to your game. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference of the player but each game has an appeal from rotating champions and unlocks to the style of each match – League of Legends being more static in how Champions and each match should be played while Dota 2 and Heroes of the Storm are fluid.
  3. Convert that investment of time into purchases and additional content that does not segregate the community nor hinder one’s experience for not purchasing. This is where each games diverges and incorporate different philosophies.

For motivations, there are different philosophies on how much each company trusts their player base to continue returning to their game. With Valve, there is a reliance that those who try Dota 2 will also check out their digital platform: Steam, creating an indirect returning customer on one level or another. For Riot Games, the progression system consistently rewards players with earnings (and daily bonuses) and rotating champions to have people returning at least periodically. With Heroes of the Storm, the trust splits in two directions where the concept and goals are incredibly simple to grasp yet they fence off content both to mirror Riot’s ability to creating a sustained player base and to egg people towards purchases, large or small. So while Blizzard’s MOBA achieves step 1, it exaggerates step 2 to the point of backfiring. Let’s take a look at some examples of where disadvantages are made clear and diversity of gameplay is removed to emphasize progression and invitation to invest time:

  • Limited Hero Pool: Newcomers will only have access up to 5 heroes out of 28 (with more to come). This free rotation of heroes is expanded as you play more and experience towards higher account levels (8 and 10).
  • Limited Talents: Talents offer unique ways to customize your hero as there is no currency or items in the game. However, 50% of your talents are blocked until you improve each individual heroes’ level (by playing more games with the hero) to hero level 3 and 4 (“advanced talents” and “expert talents”).
  • Limited Artifacts: Artifacts improves areas of your hero such as mana, life and movement speed. Artifacts, like Talents, are not unlocked until even further in the game (account level 15) which grants you the right to use Artifacts, but not the ability to do so. Artifacts have 10 levels each that have to be purchased individually furthering disadvantaging users over another.

Heroes of the Storm locking Heroes of the Storm is gated in many areas, inviting players into investing more time in the game to unlock features and advantages such as Artifacts (similar to the rune system from League of Legends), Talents for each individual hero and gold to purchase more heroes and each artifact level (up to 10 with the price incrementally rising per level).

Heroes of the Storm goes overboard on player progression and removes curiosity of the game, its heroes and customization opting more towards a ‘commit or move on’ situation. While it is important to note that Heroes of the Storm is still in technical alpha, their direction in inviting players to invest their time (and money) is becoming questionable or perhaps even self-destructive.

The concept of inviting players to invest is something all free-to-play games are trying to balance. How does a company keep the playing field fair and yet get a direct or even indirect return on their sizable player base? Accessibility is fast becoming the commodity in many games and MOBAs are no exception. In a recent Steam Dev. Days event, Kyle Davis from Valve Software gave a talk about in-game economies, player experiences and negative externalities.

Valve’s Kyle Davis gives a talk about creating further value in purchasable goods that both enhance the enjoyment of everyone who plays with someone who purchases content and avoiding negative externalities where everyone’s experience is dampened by the person who purchases an advantage of sorts.

In short, it is important to invite players into wanting to invest their time into playing your game through forms of accessibilities. Accessibilities include robust tutorials that contain the major details to the game, a fair diversity of characters/modes and the positive externality of purchasable content. Positive externality meaning that they do not hinder a player’s enjoyment but enhance others when purchasing goods. DLC is in a similar vein where players should feel that the DLC is an addition and enhancement to the game over a missing part of what would be otherwise a complete story or gameplay. Cosmetics such as skins are only considered once the player has dedicated enough time into a particular character they like. New maps and modes are only considered once the player has invested enough time into the game’s core mechanics to feel he or she can take advantage of it.

Both Dota 2 and Valve’s other product: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have hit a fine line of garnering interest in both playing their game and enhancing the experience of everyone when purchasing goods. For Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, if one of your members in your party has purchased an Operation token (access pass to more content), they gain access to a variety of new features (achievements/missions, cosmetics) as well as new maps that all players in their party have access to (so long as they play with them). Similarly, in Dota 2, players have access to new HUD cosmetics and voice packs if someone on their team has purchased (or earned) it. These small touches give a positive outlook and don’t make customers feel forced to purchase in order to have a little diversity in aesthetics or more maps/modes. Even if a customer never purchases anything from the product they are playing, it keeps them playing without feeling any advantages were withheld. So although potential revenue may be immediately unearned, long-term customers are kept and can be capitalized on in the future (directly or indirectly).

Each company faces a monumental task when it comes to their MOBA and new subsequent games also faces that same monumental task of finding accessibilities that draw new users in and then methodologies to maintain that user base to ultimately capitalize on a small portion of it.

To summarize:

  • Ensure avenues of accessibility are fair and accommodating for players of all levels (tutorials, progression systems, diverse game modes)
  • Said avenues of accessibilities are commodities that need to invite players to invest their two currencies: time and, further on, money.
  • Trust your audience in which you don’t restrict accessibilities when you can provide further options for them to consider.
  • Long-term non-purchasing player bases can be capitalized on later, but disgruntled short-term buyers are difficult to bring back.

These points are a direction that products, especially in the MOBA genre, need to establish and assure customers from the get-go. The balance of making sure it doesn’t fence content from everyone else or hinder their experience should one player purchase goods is another responsibility on the company’s behind these popular games. It’s practically the norm that MOBAs are initially free-to-play but additional costs can make or break the player base in more ways than one.

Filtered Growth & Resulted Decline of StarCraft II

Before Heart of the Swarm, there were mentions about how the scene of StarCraft II was ‘dying’; an unclear term as to what extent the eSports competition of StarCraft would dissolve to. While no one denies that the height of StarCraft II has passed after the mid-season of 2012, it’s important to note that some parts of the scene are, in fact, at a decline while others are just the natural filter of a growing subculture. The need to highlight what is worrisome and what is a natural filtered growth of StarCraft II can help create proper direction in terms of focus and urging for future endeavors in those specific fields.

For the past two or three months, I have been thinking about writing something about StarCraft’s situation overall. Actually, since Travis from League of Legends, mentioned, minorly, about how StarCraft is dying (six months ago) and in relation to how people are jumping ship to produce content for League of Legends; I have always wanted to magnify how StarCraft is coming down from its height of new content, personalities and organizations. In October and November, I noted how we were oversupplied on tournaments, new content and a lack of rotation in terms of progaming champions. Now we are starting to see new victors (usually from South Korea) but perceptively less tournaments and webshows. When people highlight the state of StarCraft, they often compare it to that of late 2011, as if the people involved and those on the outside, maintain a consistent and constant interest in a game for years on end. This coming and going, both business-wise and in general, is a filtered growth of the scene: it is the narrowing of relevant content and the decline of new events, streams and bad practices. I do think, in a lot of ways, StarCraft can be improved ranging from spread player-exposure, cycling through newer iconic people as well as Blizzard’s policy/approach in being involved with the community.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKI01dv4ULw&w=560&h=315] (It starts at 6:15) I suggest you take a listen to it, not all of it is relevant to StarCraft, but his personal concerns are mirrored in all eSports of today and the future. It’s insightful because they were concerns mentioned here or within communities in the past.

However, to claim StarCraft II is dying is to overlook the grand scheme of things and to ignore anything from 2010 to now. In essence, just because there is less of something, does not mean there is less popularity or interest. To put into context: despite there being more talk and more support for Dota 2 and League of Legends, does not necessarily correlate to a major decline in StarCraft II. Audiences are not exclusive to games and they are certainly not a limited resource. We’re concluding that the interest of eSports titles has grown.

It’s dying, right? That scene is kind of dying. Maybe Heart of the Swarm will reinvigorate and I will be laughed at whenever it is a much bigger eSport than League of Legends. But I don’t think that’s the case, I don’t think it will die anytime soon, right? But basically in the StarCraft scene: things got really big but it stopped growing shortly after I sorta started following it and then it just sorta started going  downhill, right? But at the same time, the content started going up and up and there was so much saturation of people doing interviews and shows. It just everything got diluted and what I think is happening right now is that there are a lot of StarCraft personalities and content-creators moving over to League of Legends side […]

Travis from his Youtube series: Monday Musings

The mix understanding of StarCraft’s actual growth is due, in part, of the organizers who stretched their numbers and overhyped their achievements. It’s easy, in retrospect, to look at where we saw StarCraft going and now realizing that perhaps we exaggerated a bit in our feelings of grandeur. Now with RIOT and League of Legends setting new innovations about creating a standard of competition, eSports financial support (Valve especially here) and backing for their competitors, we can’t help but compare it to that of StarCraft II. The notion of the scene dying is due to the disproportion of players in specific regions and the dropping out of organizations, both big and small. However, these should not be the sole factors to make a basis of the scene’s death and in fact, evidence can claim that the fluctuation of tournaments featuring StarCraft and viewership are not as poor as some describe. When the StarCraft scene compares themselves to other E-Sports, the numbers are lost and the discouraged view of “what could have been” ensues. It’s a common issue where people will compare scenes without taking into circumstances of the separate games’ context and this is amongst the strongest reasons these misplaced ideas propagate into real worries.

Monthly viewers 2013 08 all

“What we can say is that SC2 is not dying. The numbers are not going up, clearly, but they are largely stable. Interest in player streams seems to be getting lower, but WCS and other tournaments seem to easily take up the slack to keep the people watching their favorite game.” – courtesy of Conti and his tremendous work regarding Livestream and StarCraft II! I suggest you read all of the topic as there are showings of StarCraft event viewership declining.

Make no mistake, StarCraft II is still a major eSport title and will be for many months and possibly years to come. But the ideologies of it continuing to lead the pack in terms of trend-setting and ushering the general audience of traditional entertainment to eSports is definitely not in the cards. In terms of tournaments, from August 2012 to 2013, we’re actually seeing steady numbers of prize-pools (300 to 650k) across the region (less for North-American and more for Europe and South Korea – thanks to WCS) as well as inclusion of StarCraft II at multi-game events (20 to 18 more or less). We’re not in quite as dire situation as some may be lead to believe, we are just not leading the pack anymore and this is normal in a growing subculture. New foundations are always made to further up the expectations and pull for larger audiences.

Mixed Tournaments

Researched on the 15th of August, so the money is a little outdated (still in favour of the argument however)

eSports Earnings provides a great tool to compare years of tournaments and player earnings. The graphs may feel incomplete, but we’re mainly interested in the prize numbers for 2013 as well as how many multi-game tournaments still include StarCraft II.

What we do see here is less tournament opportunities in place for larger prize-pools by Blizzard Entertainment for each region. So while prize output is good, if not better, the amount of tournaments available for the average competitor is much less. However, without a region lock, we’re seeing a bit of starvation with North-American especially. This starvation of both quantity of major tournaments as well as unlocked regions pushes early retirements for players (fueled by their growing disinterest with the game).

How do we distinguish which is filtered growth and which is true signs of the decline of StarCraft? It’s a matter of context. IGN Pro League’s end and Major League Gaming’s redirection are signs of business: one had bad business practices, as anyone can tell you (though great public presentation), and another saw valuable markets to explore (it could be other aspects as well, there’s never one true reason; just a variety of strong justifications). KeSPA’s restructuring to a more open practice is because of the lack of popularity of StarCraft II in Korea, the WCS format that bottlenecked events and thus the need for that many teams in such a small region (eSF + KeSPA teams all for Proleague and WCS Korea [now OSL & GSL]). These are dissected examples that emphasize context to show which areas are suffering and which are simply moving on.

What I consider to be filtered growth is mostly based on opinion and perception. In 2012, we saw leaps and bounds of major production organization and presentation from the big event organizations. DreamHack always impressed me, but NASL and Turtle Entertainment [IEM/ESL] have also set the notch higher. There is an emphasis on presenters, observers (something Dota 2 hasn’t incorporated yet) and hype. Schedule and time organization have improved and attendance numbers are still very, very high. In essence, while StarCraft is readjusting in their new waistline of competitions and competitors, event organizations are setting new standards of professional work.

Let’s summarize:

  • Prize-pool numbers: Not any lower than we may think, just not as scattered across multiple games. I would say the lack of WCS regions within China and SEA (including Oceania) are issues, including the lack of a region lock to prevent a complete failure of a particular region. Blizzard’s position should be to keep all regions plump with healthy competition while relying on the organizers they commission for WCS production, to attract new audiences (as IEM does with Gamescom and IEM NY with Comic-Con).
  • Tournaments: With amount of reserved time WCS takes, to which no other tournament organizers can broadcast simultaneously with, tournament opportunities have shrunk causing many players to reconsider their options; it also causes team organizations to look into new eSports titles that offer a bit more liberty and marketable numbers for their sponsors.

Additionally, with game developers taking the reins of their scenes, they are also delegating responsibilities and excluding other organizations from producing content. Think how restricted NASL was with StarCraft II content because of Blizzard’s partnership with MLG? This is mirrored across the world and does put a hinder on new businesses. League of Legends also suffers similarly from this issue.

  • Viewership: I find Conti’s consistent work on the subject gives the best evidence. Within this topic, he notes that there are lower viewership numbers, but also that WCS stands on its own successfully. Overall, numbers are stable since Wings of Liberty (more or less) with events still garnering a huge interest (specifically WCS).

In summary, when we saw the strides other eSports titles are hitting, we feel this sense of unaccomplished worth. We compare ourselves to StarCraft of 2009 or StarCraft II of 2011 (Anaheim anyone?) or of Dota 2 and League of Legends. However we never really account for the major flaws of those two games. In many ways, they get things right and take a bigger investment step than Blizzard, but in other forms; the scene still needs growth; similarly with StarCraft. That is not to say that they aren’t doing better than StarCraft, they are just doing things differently and solving areas StarCraft currently suffers from (I’m sure you can think of plenty). Despite this, interest in StarCraft is steady. Declining? At times, but slowly and not looming as near as people may think. It may feel like I’m downplaying the spiraling of this scene, but I rather see it as more of refocusing the factors that matter most and then making note of where we truly stand.