First things first, let’s establish that almost all traditional MOBA games are essentially the same game. The differences crop up when you exam how certain staples of the genre are implemented. My MOBA of choice is League of Legends. It happens to have the largest pro-scene at the moment, which is always entertaining, but its popularity is a coincidence. I’ve been playing since beta and have really loved it the entire time. My experience with the original DOTA was limited, but I’ve spent my fair time with Heroes of Newerth and have really come to the conclusion that if you’re looking for a traditional MOBA, League of Legends is the way to go. My main comparisons will be between these two games, seeing as I have the most experience with them, and they’re also the two most popular titles out at the moment.
So what separates League of Legends from its competitors? What lead to it being far and away the most popular title in the genre? Contrary to what you might think, it’s not actually champion design, in my opinion. There are so many champions for all of these games (80+) that you’re bound to find a solid collection of awesome champions regardless of game. In fact, one of my favorite champions of all time is Polywog Priest, in Heroes of Newerth.
So what is it?
Now, many of the differences between these titles are actually topics of fairly heated debate, fans of each game insisting that “their game does it best” each with their own arguments. Before we’re done, I’ll address those, and make my personal arguments, but I’ll try to start with the least controversial of them. So let’s begin.
The Jungle describes the area between the lanes, and is divided by the river. The river is the quickest way to jump from lane to lane, and is free of obstacles, while the jungle consists of winding paths and is populated by neutral creeps. NPCs that can be attacked by either team. This holds true across the genre. What League of Legends does differently than the other two is that it fully intends the jungle to be an alternate leveling option, separate from lanes.
This version of of early game, referred to simply as jungling, allows for a much different type of play. Players must play mind games with the opposing team, to appear and assist different lanes at unexpected times, while also countering the opponent jungler by disrupting is path. It is also up to the jungler to secure the Dragon spawn, a particularly strong neutral creep that, when killed, rewards each member of the team with a large amount of gold.
In Heroes of Newerth, jungle creeps come in “weak” “medium” or “strong” camps, as well as Kongor and “The Ancients”. There are only two things I don’t like about the Heroes of Newerth Jungle, and one that I really do. Firstly, I don’t like how there are very few champions designed to operate in the jungle, and it’s not designed to be a standard leveling option, this eliminates an entire form of early game play, leaving standard laning as the only option.
Also, the rewards for killing The Ancients and Kongor reward only a single player. While Dragon and “Baron Nashor” (The Kongor analog) provide active benefit to the entire team. While yes, giving the Kongor buff to your carry will increase your likely hood of winning, which is beneficial to the entire team, it’s not a tangible benefit. The players don’t get to feel that reward.
The one feature I really prefer from Heroes of Newerth though, is that there are champions and items designed around utilizing neutral creeps as pets. Mind controlling them and using their special abilities to fight the enemy team. This is a technically demanding, but very rewarding approach to using the jungle, and I think any MOBA could definitely benefit from including these types of features.
The lane is interacted with in 2 main ways. Firstly, it is where champions do most of their leveling up and gold acquisition. In addition, it is where team push towards the enemy’s main base to win the game. Lanes are by and large the same across all MOBA, but there is one specific difference in how these titles deal with creeps and guard towers within the lane. Namely, In Heroes of Newerth and DOTA, you can kill your own creeps and towers to deny experience and gold to the enemy team, where in League of Legends, you cannot.
This however, does not actually change the way players approach this phase of the game. The goal of the early portion of the game is to get the last hit on every creep you encounter. This is the way you ensure yourself the most amount of gold and experience. In League of Legends, you are dealing with 6 creeps per wave, and in Heroes of Newerth and DOTA, you are dealing with 12 (6 of your own, and 6 of the enemy’s), but your actions and interests are actually no different: Last hit everything.
The difference merely comes down to focus. In League of Legends, since you are concerned with half as many creep, the rest of your time goes to harassing and zoning out enemy champions. This happens in DOTA and Heroes of Newerth as well, but less so, simply because more of your time is spent focusing on creep. I consider this a high point for League of Legends, as last hitting creep is generally considered the passive, mundane portion of the phase that is required simply because it makes you stronger for the “real game”: The champion fight. Zoning and harassing is a much more organic and interactive process, and the more you do that, the more entertaining that early game phase is.
Team fights in MOBAs are exactly what they sound like, 5v5 confrontations. It’s pretty hard to get in to specifics here, as it depends on what champions are present. The “metagame” is a shifting thing; One day heavy focus on durable champions may be a fad, and 6 months later, maybe the craze will be all teams that have AoE damage. It’s impossible to pin down these specifics as they’re so malleable. One thing that I can say on the subject though is the different fundamental design beliefs we see in how champions interact with each other.
In League of Legends, champion abilities are meant to be used consistently, defining how that champion plays, while items are used as passive stat increases, determining how effective that champion will be. In Heroes of Newerth, and to my understanding DOTA as well, champion abilities are not in any sense “spammable”. With heavy resource costs and game changing effects, landing or missing a handful of abilities can change the entire outcome of a game. In addition, there are many on-use items that players have access to. This lets players have access to powerful abilities that are useful to almost all champions, but at the cost of spending gold on them.
Again, I tend to think more highly of League of Legends’ design scheme. Heavy on-use item utilization begins to homogenize play styles: All carries should get Shrunken Head, so when fighting an Agi carry, they’re all going to have the ability to become immune to skills for a short amount of time. In League of Legends, you make a lot more sacrifices, because you can’t just guarantee that you have an escape mechanic, or a surviveability tool. If the champion you choose doesn’t have an escape, you have to learn to play with that weakness.
This is the same line of reasoning that views frequent ability use in a favorable light. It defines champion choices the entire game to a greater degree than does a champion who uses a standard auto attack half the time, and only unloads abilities in team fights or ganks. I’m not saying that champion selecting in DOTA and Heroes of Newerth is irrelevant, anyone who has played any MOBA knows that is the opposite of true. However, what champion you chose is necessarily only relevant when you are taking actions specific to that champion. This comes in to play in primarily two situations: When you are auto attacking (you are ranged or melee) or using your abilities. The more you take these actions, the more you are realizing the uniqueness of your choice.
It should be noted that as a result of the frequency of ability use, that ability power scales inversely with this. The fewer abilities the game intends you to use, the more powerful they are. In fact, even in general, team fights in League of Legends are resolved less quickly than in other MOBAs. Again, I prefer this method simply because longer confrontations let shine better players. The more actions people are requires to take, the more time there is for the best players to separate themselves from worse players. An example I like to use is while playing an FPS game, I enter a room and see a guy facing the other way with my retical right on his head, he loses. He could be the best player in the world, but in this case, he lost, because all it takes is one bullet. In reverse, I will never be able to beat a pro-StarCraft player, simply because one “exchange” is 20+ minutes long.
Odds and Ends:
A few things that don’t really fall in to larger, over arching categories are:
- When compared to League of Legends, the other titles posses visuals that are less readable, with less contrast due to color choices being restricted, and the lighting doesn’t help define areas. In comparison, the ground texture has too much contrast and therefore leaps to the front to the attention of the eyes. This leads to visuals that are much more difficult to keep track of.
- The item shop in League of Legends is better organized. While all the titles split items up by intended use, Heroes of Newerth and DOTA stop at broad categories like “support”, where League of Legends will have a “Defensive” tab, and then “Health”, “Armor” and “Magic Resist” sub tabs.
- League of Legends utilizes more distilled design. To use the aforementioned creep denial as an example, simply put, more complex mechanics do not make a game better if they focus on the wrong things. This address, and refutes, the core stance of the very common argument that “Heroes of Newerth / DOTA are harder to learn, therefore better. League of Legends is for noobs”.
In the end, League of Legends has improved about the strengths of the genre, while putting less emphasis on its weaknesses. As such, we’ve seen a very organic growth in its popularity compared to its competition. The average gamer may not be able to articulately convey why League of Legends is the better game, but the massive popularity difference is the side effect of its superiority simply “being the case”.