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Guardians of Middle-earth Joins the MOBA Genre

JAlbor December 4, 2012 User blog:JAlbor
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You may not know it, but the MOBA genre is enormous. For those unaware, MOBA stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. It is strategy/action game in which two teams, usually of three or five players each, navigate the confines of a battlefield and attempt to reach and destroy their enemy's base. Each player controls a unique character with their own role and set of abilities. Each team also has a series of defensive towers to destroy and groups of friendly units that continually spawn and move through specific lanes towards their opponents.

While it might sound simple, the genre hides a huge amount of depth in the traditional item system, upgrade opportunities, strategic use of buffs, the management of a “jungle” filled with neutral creatures, and general team composition and strategy.

While Defense of the Ancients (Dota) established the MOBA genre years ago, it was Riot Games' League of Legends that popularized the strategy-game/action hybrid in 2009. Since launch, the fan base of MOBA players have grown exponentially, as have the genre's offerings. Today, Monolith Studios and Warner Bros. Interactive launch Guardians of Middle-earth, a Lord of the Rings-inspired attempt at mastering the MOBA genre on the consoles.

Entering a Crowded Market

While the genre is still relatively niche amongst the gaming community, the number of MOBA games on the market is surprisingly bountiful. Heroes of Newerth launched shortly after League of Legends and earned its place on the scene with a committed fan base.

Since League's rise to prominence, others have entered the fray, all trying to do something a little different. Bloodline Champions and Rise of Immortals arrived for the PC in 2011, following a very similar free-to-play model established by their predecessors. And of course Dota 2, while still officially unreleased, has a huge and avid player base already. Thousands of fans with access to the freely available open beta continue to invest many hours into Steam's expertly designed MOBA experience.

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Guardians of Middle-earth is not even the first MOBA available on the consoles. Super Monday Night Combat tweaked the top-down action/strategy formula by creating a shooter experience in the MOBA genre and earned a great deal of praise for its clever and addictive design. Released earlier this year as well, Awesomenauts took the top-down MOBA experience and flipped it on its side, offering players a welcoming, easily accessible, and thoroughly entertaining 2D platforming game, albeit one that follows the traditional MOBA formula.

The future looks even more packed, with Realm of the Titans, Smite, Sins of a Dark Age, and Heroes of Order and Chaos all on the horizon. To say Guardians of Middle-earth is entering a crowded market is an understatement. That being said, Monolith's achievements are profoundly exciting. Guardians looks to make itself a happy home amongst some of the genres biggest hitters with a style and design all its own.

Designing with Limitations

After speaking with Monolith Senior Producer Ruth Tomandl and Producer Roberts and a recent studio visit, the team seems abundantly clear of the limitations they faced designing not just a unique and compelling game, but a  MOBA tied into the Lord of the Rings franchise and created specifically for the console.

Touching any established lore is fraught with dangers. Fans of Tolkien's literary work have always been sensitive to poorly put-together tie-ins into the universe, and of course with the upcoming launch of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, Middle-earth lovers are surely ready with their criticism. Monolith must walk a fine line between creative freedom and constraint.

Gollum guardians of middle-earth trailer screen

Thankfully as a subsidiary of Warner Bros., Monolith works closely with both film and franchise teams to ensure their material maintains fictional integrity. “Hobbits don't have facial hair,” Tompendl jokingly laments. “We're not going to put Gandalf in a Santa Suit” Roberts adds. All joking aside, this is actually a major constraint for a free-to-play game in the MOBA genre. Riot and many others have successfully monetized the sale of personal skins, often with outrageous themes. Integrity comes at real and almost quantifiable cost.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Monolith are the expectations established by an almost fanatic MOBA community. The genre today is known for its highly competitive players, aggressive and outspoken community, and steep barrier to entry. PC gamers out of necessity, most MOBA fans are accustomed to specific norms, from in-match stores to set jungling mechanics, much of which are seeing significant changes in Guardians of Middle-earth. Monolith's work must walk another slippery path between satisfying hardcore fans of the genre and introducing new players to a potentially overwhelming genre.

Liberation Through Constraint

Despite the challenges, Monolith has shown not just excitement for the game's release, but an eagerness to transform the genre with Guardians of Middle-earth. While, as mentioned above, working with a strong and existing franchise like Lord of the Rings can be a burden, it also provides a unique opportunity to tap the player community and work with characters that already have a powerful look and feel. As Roberts describes, Gollum has a “very manic sort of 'Gollumy' vibe to him.” He is a character fans of the books and films recognize, which inspires both Monolith's artistic approach to Gollum as well as his abilities.

The same care and attention seems applied to all the characters, even those relatively new to the fiction. During my visit, I played both Éowyn and Gothmog. Both characters feel unique and seem to match the tone of the universe. Gothmog's turrets and banner feel every bit as efficient as one might imagine and Éowyn's ability to wade into battle and protect her allies feels appropriate mechanically and narratively. It was important to the team that each character plays like you might imagine, and it appears that, for the most part, they succeeded.

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The team has also brazenly confronted the transformation of the MOBA genre into the console space. The game was built from the ground with the limitations and the affordances of the consoles in mind. Whether you play with Basic or Advanced controls, maneuvering your Guardian feels as natural as ever and despite the inability to point and click, targeting with the right thumb stick works surprisingly well. Guardians of Middle-earth maintains a tight control scheme that should come as a surprise to PC MOBA fans expecting poor translation.

Of course some things are lost in the move to the console. Unlike most MOBAs, there is no in-game store to upgrade your Guardians with items mid-battle. Likewise, the actual size of the arena is significantly smaller, fundamentally altering the traditional jungling mechanic familiar to MOBA aficionados.

However, Guardians of Middle-earth more than makes up for these changes in other ways. The loss of an in-game store has two benefits. First, the lack of store frees up Monolith to invest complexity into the battlefield itself. Players can now upgrade towers several times throughout the battle. They can also upgrade their base to start spawning devastating soldiers, like enormous Ents. A variety of buffs and shrines on the map also allow for a form of jungling that sees more use for those in lanes and more options for players to change the flow of battle. Second, it makes the MOBA experience far more accessible to new players who are frequently scared off by the immediate and game-defining complexity in League of Legends and Dota 2.

In fact, Monolith has done an amazing job of making Guardians of Middle-earth accessible to fans and “noobs” alike. An in-game glossary and immensely thorough tutorial system (which you can read about here) make for a more welcoming learning curve. Likewise, the game is one of the more instantly readable MOBA experiences around, an underestimated issue in the genre. The only concern Monolith might have is when those new to the genre meet the stone-cold and traditionally antagonistic hardcore MOBA fans. If both sides are willing to learn, Guardians of Middle-earth promises to be a excellent and important entry into the ever-growing genre.

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