The Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game has been around for a fairly long time now, since the days of AOL and dial-up internet. They kicked around for a few years, but didn't gain much mainstream attention until people began getting addicted to EverQuest. And then, a few years later, along came World of Warcraft, and everything changed.
More than any other game, World of Warcraft defined the MMORPG. WoW was not the first, nor is it even "the best," but its influence and success is undeniable. Blizzard created a perfect storm: they had a popular IP, a product that appealed to a very broad audience, an outstanding reputation as developers, and enough money to build a juggernaut of media hype, complete with celebrity endorsements. WoW continues to be so successful that its influence is still seen in games being developed over ten years after its launch. Start into any new game at launch and you'll see WoW expatriates making bold comparisons, often decrying such things as "this game is a WoW clone."
But there's a new wind blowing through the online gaming community. Many gamers are growing less interested in immersing themselves in a deep story, or they prefer to get their deep immersion from single-player games. They want to get right into the action, but they don't want to have to commit hours to just one dungeon. Players want to get right into the game with powerful characters that don't take weeks to level up and outfit with gear.
Enter the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Matches are relatively short and intense, there's no lumbering "story" getting in the way and no tedious leveling needed. You can get in and play a half-hour match a couple times a week without feeling like you are lagging behind. And most of them are free-to-play, so there's no need to live up to any financial commitment. It's the perfect solution for the ever-shortening attention span of the average F2P gamer.
The genesis of the MOBA can be traced back to Blizzard real-time strategy games, to custom maps for Starcraft and Warcraft III. The Defense of the Ancients map for Warcraft III spawned a separate standalone game that became popular enough to spawn its own sequel, Dota 2. Dota 2 is the EverQuest of MOBAs - the first game of its type to gain widespread attention outside of a niche community. And that makes League of Legends that genre's WoW.
League of Legends hasn't been around as long as World of Warcraft, but it has built up a large player base that is just as passionate and dedicated. Released in 2009, LoL is currently the biggest name in MOBAs, and has been called the "most-played PC game in the Western world." Dota 2 is not far behind, but LoL is the king of the hill at the moment, with millions of players worldwide. It's only natural that other developers are noticing this and seeking to cut themselves a piece of that pie.
MOBAs are popping up everywhere now. Even Turbine, who made their bones with a string of outstanding MMORPGs, is throwing their name into the ring with Infinite Crisis, a battle arena set in the rebooted DC Universe. It's kind of interesting that they went in that direction rather than continuing their work with the Lord of the Rings, but their parent company (and owner of the Lord of the Rings IP), Warner Bros, decided to give that job to a different studio. Guardians of Middle-earth, the Lord of the Rings-themed MOBA, is currently available on consoles and is scheduled for a PC release later this month.
The MOBA might be the genre of the moment, but it's not likely to out-and-out replace the "traditional" MMO. The gameplay is very, very different - MOBAs have no real Player-versus-Environment content. They may have deep and intricate lore (Infinite Crisis draws on 70-plus years' worth of DC comics, graphic novels, cartoons and other media), but players are not adventuring their way through immersive storylines. Hero characters level up in a match, and players gain rank by completing objectives and such, but it's not the same experience as gaining levels in a MMO. These are the things that some of us live for.
And the MOBA is pretty much pure PvP. A lot of players prefer the cooperative aspect of MMO PvE content, and don't care for the competitive environment of PvP. PvP is usually a major aspect of the modern MMO, but it's usually optional and players can reach the endgame without it. MOBAs are PvP-only. You can train against bots, but it's not the same thing as true PvE.
The MOBA offers a very different gaming experience than the traditional MMO, and in effect replaces some aspects of them. The new genre is a central pillar of e-sports, and professional, sponsored teams compete in MOBA tournaments. What started out as a single custom map has blossomed into triple-A titles. But this sort of game isn't for everybody.
Because the traditional MMORPG satisfies a very broad range of gamers' needs, the genre isn't going anywhere anytime soon. But neither is the MOBA.