Opinion: Don't Say The M-Word

by Jeff Marchiafava on Jul 14, 2014 at 12:56 PM

There's a new four-letter word in the industry that has some players denouncing developers and publishers and avoiding games like they've been afflicted with some kind of leprous plague. Like other maligned buzzwords before it, if you're dismissing a game out of hand because of a single term, you're only hurting yourself.

Let me tell you about a new game. It's a team-based cooperative and competitive first-person shooter – you like those, right? It comes from a developer that has innovated in the genre before, and the game has a ton of playable characters, each with their own unique weapons, abilities, and different play styles. The game features an added layer of A.I.-controlled bots that goes beyond what Titanfall did and affects the overall flow of the game's tug-of-war matches. It's also got a rapid leveling system that resets after each match, so everyone starts on the same playing field and can experiment with different builds instead of being locked into a lengthy progression path. Sounds like a game that's got some interesting ideas, right?

Now say the word "MOBA," and watch how quickly the disposition of your fellow gamers turns from interest to disgust. You don't even have to say that the game is a MOBA, but merely incorporates some MOBA elements into the first-person shooter genre, and suddenly – magically – the game is just another mindless cash-grab clone of other games. Another League of Legends wannabe.

That's how some gamers reacted to our reveal of Battleborn, and I wish I could say it's the first time a new IP on our cover has been met with unfounded cynicism, but Evolve was similarly dismissed by a vocal group of complainers for its smaller-than-average player count – before going on to win numerous Best Of Show awards and enrapturing fans all week at last month's E3. Running the gauntlet of hypercritical gamers has become the price developers pay for trying something new, but even so I've been surprised by the pessimism Battleborn has faced because of a single word, in part because what we played feels so different from what people assume the game to be.

I get the skepticism when it comes to MOBAs; like many gamers, the term floods my mind with thoughts of insular and hostile communities, single-map games, and clicking on enemies ad nauseum. What I don't understand is the aversion to any elements found in MOBAs that might make another genre more interesting. What is it that's so frightening? The wide range of gameplay variety that a large cast of playable characters offers? The "games-as-a-service" model that has developers continually tweaking, adding to, and improving their game based on community feedback? God forbid if some day a developer decides to make a triple-A quality, free-to-play shooter that doesn't exploit its player base...

But the potential of those elements doesn't matter to the vocal subset of the gaming community that has more fun complaining about games than actually playing them, and "MOBA" is just the latest buzzword to make their hair bristle. Before "MOBA" it was "free-to-play;" before "free-to-play," it was "mobile," and "social," and the dreaded "casual." Each of those trends has produced more than its share of bile, to be sure, but that doesn't mean you should revel in the subsequent toxicity or ignore the developers and games that do good things with those ideas.

There's nothing wrong with knowing what you like and what you don't, and for many gamers (myself included), MOBAs may fall into the latter category. However, that's not an excuse to couch your aversions in unwarranted criticism. It's an unnecessary shifting of responsibility from your own personal taste to blaming someone else for your indifference; I know I don't like fighting games, but I don't think any less of gamers who do, and I don't blame NetherRealm for making another Mortal Kombat for fans of the series. More importantly, if a developer were to incorporate an element of fighting games into a genre I do like, I'd be interested in hearing more about it before I jump to any conclusions or start sharpening my knives. I learned a long time ago that in order to discover a new favorite game, you must first be willing to play it.