Over the past decade, the MOBA genre has become one of the most played video game genres of all time. I’ve been enjoying the MOBAs for a little over a decade now. One of my favorite pastimes is arguing endlessly with my friends about which MOBA is the best! What I’ve discovered is that each of the big-name MOBAs have their own strengths and weaknesses, and these discussions rarely end with a definitive answer to the question.
In this series, I’m going to wax poetic (read: ramble on like a fool) about various aspects of the MOBA genre. We’ll talk about rosters, itemization, progression systems, game phases, and various genre subsystems. In the MOBA genre, the player assumes the role of a hero and must work with his or her team to destroy the enemy base. But… you already knew that. In fact, I’m going to assume you the reader are reasonably familiar with not only the MOBA genre at large, but each of the three games I’ll be discussing in detail: DotA: All Stars / Dota 2, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm.
These three games represent the evolution of MOBAs over the last decade. Dota acts as the old liege. It demonstrates in the genre’s humble beginnings and still today upholds sometimes archaic traditions. League of Legends lead the rise to fame for the genre, single-handedly establishing the MOBA genre as a premiere PC gaming standard. Heroes of the Storm demonstrates the possibility of success through risky yet creative forward thinking.
Today I’m going to prattle on about last hits. Also known as CS, or ‘creep score’, last hits provide each hero with gold income. In fact, last hits gate gold income behind a rather punishing skill barrier. The player must carefully watch each of the mobs in their lane and wait to attack them at just the right moment.
In Dota and League of Legends, last hits are an integral part of a player’s game experience in each match. Properly keeping up with your hero economy is one of the defining traits of a good MOBA player. If you are unable to keep your GPM (gold per minute) at a competitive level, you will be unable to buy powerful items, and therefore you will begin losing battles and ultimately the match. Refining and perfecting last hit execution is one of the easiest ways to level up your MOBA game.
What do last hits accomplish from a gameplay perspective? In short, they reward micro. The skill involved with performing last hits requires practice. Even fairly proficient players miss last hits here and there, and vying for last hits and denying them to your opponent through interplay is the metagame that defines the laning phase of most MOBAs. Rewarding tight micro creates a higher skill ceiling in your game.
Unfortunately, last hits can also represent a rather high skill floor. In Dota especially, where mana to cast wave-clearing (and thus gold-earning) spells is a rarer commodity, last hit prowess is even more important. The difference between someone who can successfully last hit and someone who cannot is enormous, and will determine the outcome of many matches.
Another negative consequence of the last hit mechanic is it actively discourages wave pushing. If I were to describe the MOBA genre to a new player, I would say, “a MOBA is a team-based game where players lead armies into the enemies’ base and destroy it”. A new player going into the game with that understanding will be quite confused to learn that they actually should not actively push towards the enemy base for the first phase of the game. It will take them several games to understand that so-called ‘auto-attacking’ is frowned upon for fear of mis-timing last hits, thus costing the team gold.
On top of last hitting, Dota also adds another level of complexity to the laning phase. Dota is the only moba that features “denies”. Players may attack and kill their own creeps (provided the creeps have less than half their health remaining) in order to ‘deny’ the creep kill from their opponents. Thus, the opponent is denied the last hit gold.
The deny mechanic further emphasize micro. It rewards players who are able to manage more game actions. Again, this widens the gap between newer and more experienced players. This is one reason why Dota is often considered the more ‘hardcore’ or punishing of the popular MOBAs. Players who enjoy a more meticulous and challenging experience enjoy this aspect of Dota.
Denies transform what is ultimately a solitary action (creep score) into an interactive one. Not only must each player time their last hits in rhythm to the creep battle, but they must also time them against their opponents in the lane. Last hits become an intricate fencing match of lunges and feints. In this way, denies act as counterplay to last hits.
However, every other MOBA has omitted the deny mechanic. Instead, they rely on player harassment to provide meaningful counter play to last hits. This keeps the emphasis on hero vs hero combat, a core fantasy of the genre. That’s not to say these elements are missing in Dota. Indeed, denies and player harass are not mutually exclusive. But, each element’s effectiveness and importance is diluted by the presence of the other. There is only so much cognitive attention a player can direct at a given moment. Player harass already serves as viable, interesting, and fun counterplay to last hitting. So are denies really necessary?
Earlier I stated that waiting to time last hits can be unintuitive to new players. This is especially true for denies. Attacking your own units for value is something that is extremely difficult for new players to grok. Additionally, the existence of denies further discourages wave pushing! Attacking the enemy creeps with reckless abandon pushes the creep wave under the enemy tower, thus making denies even more difficult to manage.
On the plus side, denies provide players finer control over the creep equilibrium (the spot where two opposing creep waves clash). If I want to force my opponent closer to my own tower, I can deny my own creeps aggressively, thus allowing the enemy creeps to advance towards my side of the map. Controlling creep equilibrium is an important piece of the laning puzzle. But, pulling the creep line back in this way is directly contrary to the overall goal of the map – to push into the enemy base and destroy it. Should a game mechanic promote behavior that runs contrary to the holistic goal of the game?
Heroes of the Storm has turned the genre upside-down, eschewing many systems and genre tropes in favor of completely new ideas. In HotS, getting the killing blow on a creep does not especially benefit your hero. Early in beta, there existed hero talents that did reward last hits, but they were removed or altered before the game’s release. With no last hits, each player no longer gains gold. This is irrelevant because HotS does not feature an item shop (I have to wonder if items were omitted as a result of no last hit gold, or vice versa).
So, what does this do for the game? Put simply, it makes the short-term goals of the player align with the long-term goal of the game. As I mentioned before, the ultimate goal of a MOBA is to push into the opponents base and destroy it. With no last hits or denies incentivizing the player to hold back, the most obvious action, to push the freakin’ lane, is the correct one. Casting wave-clearing spells and attacking the lane creeps are the most intuitive actions to a new player. The fact that these actions are most often correct makes the game more accessible and easily grokked.
In HotS, the towers will occasionally run out of ammo. Additionally, tower damage is quite a bit lower than in other MOBAs. These mechanics both encourage players to aggressively push the lane. In order to prevent tower diving due to the depowered towers, HotS features walls that protect each team’s bases. All of these features work together to encourage player behavior that is in line with the overarching goal to push towards and destroy the enemy base.
These features, of course, de-emphasize the focus on micro skill. No longer does the player with better attack timing reap benefit over a less proficient last hitter. Is this a bad thing? I would argue that it is not. If I want to engage in a test of twitch skills, I’ll play an FPS. Also, less emphasis on the micro-management of creep waves means there is more emphasis placed on other aspects of the game. In particular, lane rotation, objective capture, and (most fun of all) team fights have a much heavier impact on the outcome of a match.
It is said that a game of Dota or League can be lost in the laning phase. That is a very poor experience for players, especially if they weren’t even in the lane that lost! Moving emphasis away from last hits leaves less room for less experienced players to intangibly lose the game for their team before the real meat of the game begins.
My first MOBA was Dota. It will always have a special place in my heart. But, the more thought I put into game design, the more I realize it is the least well designed MOBA (of the big three). I was very wary of Heroes of the Storm when it first came out, but there’s no denying the elegance in its design. The game and its elements share a holistic vision, making the game and its discrete components very easy to digest.
Whether or not you agreed with all of it, I hope you enjoyed my 1700-word vomit. Until next time, may your skill shots land true and your teammates be excellent to each other.