LoL and Dota have ascended to the top of the MOBA mountain. Some games never made it out of base camp.
When you logon to Twitch and sort by games, you almost always see at least two MOBAs in the top five. The origins of the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game began with a mod of Blizzard’s real-time strategy game Warcraft III, called Defense of the Ancients. Taking the heroic characters from the Warcraft universe and dropping them into a three-lane 5v5 arena, the original Dota was received exceedingly well by Warcraft players, and was already featured in gaming tournaments less than two years after its release.
Since then, the MOBA genre has grown to unimaginable heights, with the most successful versions being being Dota 2, developed by Valve after Blizzard sold them the rights, and League of Legends, developed by Riot Games. The two stand near the top of list of the most influential gaming titles, having spawned many spiritual successors and imitators.
While Dota and LoL stand at the top, other MOBA titles have had measures of success as well, with most finding a niche that helps it stand out amongst the others. This list includes SMITE, a third-person variant with playable gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures, Awesomenauts, a 2D platforming take on the MOBA, and Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s return to the MOBA genre that features heroes from all of their franchises. Even games like Overwatch have aspects of MOBA in them, with each hero having abilities and ultimates similar to characters in either Dota or LoL.
But few have soared to heights that League or Dota have achieved. In fact, some haven’t even come close and are either dead or have a sliver of health left. And here they are..
The Dead Island franchise hasn’t exactly had the most stellar track record. While the original Dead Island was released with a ton of hype, technical difficulties soured the launch and many fans felt the game didn’t live up to expectations. The stand-alone expansion Riptide did little to fix previous issues, and the survival adventure spin-off Escape Dead Island felt like a comic book brought to life that should have been put to sleep.
Enter Dead Island: Epidemic, a game that never made it out of its beta phase, and for a lot of good reasons. First of all, they neglected to include the standard MOBA gameplay mode of the 5v5 base destruction race, a mode that’s been a staple of all successful games within the genre, and instead put all their chips on what they called a “PvPvPvE 3-team 12-player scavenger mode.” In this game mode, three teams of four players would compete against each other and against AI-controlled zombies to control checkpoints and resources around the map. The mode was an absolute mess, and on top of that, impossible to unlock without spending several hours doing the co-op modes vs just AI. Additionally, they tried to incorporate Dead Island’s weapons crafting system into Epidemic, but provided no rhyme or reason for equipping certain weapons to certain characters, and failed to highlight the end-all purpose for crafting weapons.
The game was also, as is Dead Island tradition, riddled with bugs and graphical errors, even more so than a closed beta should have, and the developers announced in 2015 that they were shutting down Epidemic before it would even leave open beta. The Dead Island developers rebounded with the game Dying Light earlier in 2015, with many including myself hailing the game as what Dead Island should have been all along, and thank god they put down Epidemic with a bullet to the head shortly after.
The relationship between the epic Tolkien saga and its video game counterparts has been up and down to say the least. For every decent or stellar game like Shadow of Mordor, Battle for Middle-earth or The Third Age, there have been duds like War in the North, and outright catastrophes like Conquest.
Another down for LOTR games was Guardians of Middle-earth, which released for consoles in 2013, then for PCs a year later. While initially viewed as a more-than-solid MOBA for console gamers to get into, the PC port proved to be the game’s downfall, as it suffered from a severely cluttered screen covered in UI elements, as well as a general feeling of awkwardness controlling the camera and your character. Many outlets recommended the use of a controller over mouse and keyboard, but that’s a recommendation that really can only aid a PC sports game or action-adventure game, and is more of a detriment to a MOBA.
On top of the issues with gameplay, pricing a MOBA on PC at $20 when there are better games out there that are free can only hinder a game’s success, and we can see the results today. The game is still on Steam for the same price, alongside an astoundingly high $80 special edition that doesn’t even include all the DLC (Smaug’s Treasure is an additional $10). The game has averaged less than three players (that’s right, three) over the past thirty days, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pass on to the Grey Havens in 2017.
The third installment of this list is yet another game that's basically an established franchise plastered onto a MOBA. It just goes to show that despite the popularity of the genre, you can’t just copy and paste characters from other games and franchises onto a MOBA and expect it to sell. Infinite Crisis is yet another of example of this, taking the standard MOBA formula of lane turrets, jungle enemies and a primary core to destroy and sticking the heroes and villains of the DC Universe in there in a 5v5 format.
The developer, Turbine, made a few mistakes that would result in the game’s servers shutting down just months after its official release in 2015. Rather than focus on promoting and improving the game in its beta stages, they instead devoted a lot of resources trying to kickstart the esports scene in order to compete with the likes of LoL and Dota. In doing so, they put a lot of money toward getting tournaments hosted by names like ESL and Major League Gaming, but couldn’t attract enough players, or get their player base to pony up via microtransactions. It had also spent so much time in beta that a lot of the initial buzz wore off by the time it released, and simply put, there wasn’t nearly enough money coming in to justify keeping the servers up.
While the moral of the story is clearly not to copy and paste an established franchise onto a MOBA and expect it to succeed, Dawngate showed that even with a big time developer in EA and some fresh IP, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. And this is perhaps the saddest tale of a MOBA that died, as the game definitely had the largest number of players and buzz at the time of cancellation, and didn’t particularly do anything wrong like any of the previous entries on this list. The gameplay was above decent, with interesting characters and rich lore, and an amount of character customization and optimization options that were unique compared to other MOBAs at the time.
But unfortunately, with not enough to make it truly stand out relative to Dota or LoL, EA didn’t see enough progress in the year and a half in beta, and pulled the plug in November of 2014. What’s most confusing is that no one really knows what EA’s progress goals were when they were developing it, only saying that what they achieved wasn’t enough when they announced the shutdown. A few community-run renewal projects have popped up here and there over the past year or so, and many names from the company that developed Dawngate are now with Spiritwalk Games, who are currently developing a new game called Shardbound, currently in alpha. So not all is lost.
Agree with the list? Any game we missed? Leave a comment or tweet at the author @scottraid.
SCOTT ROBERTSON / AUTHOR
Scott has been writing about video games for over four years, specializing in news and features regarding esports for the past two and a half. He's written for organizations such as Ninjas in Pyjamas, PGL, E-Frag, and Splyce. He joined Dvsion to help create a service and community that rewards fair play and helps the players grow in more ways than just their in-game play.