honvslol.jpg['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's GameSetWatch-exclusive column about communities built around gaming. This week is about the rise of the unaptly-named MOBA genre and the intense rivalry between two of its titles in beta, Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends.]

It is not the first time it has happened with a new game and its community, but perhaps it has never been so obvious: the player-base for Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends is clearly composed of transplants, particularly fans of the Warcraft 3 mod, Defense of the Ancients. While both games’ developers have made it no secret that they have strong links to DoTA, the question still remains as to what difference that makes to the actual players.

But first, a review: Defense of the Ancients and the games it has inspired (including this years’ DemiGod) combines RPG battling with an RTS interface in a tower-defense world. Basically, you are playing an RTS where you control only one character that levels up, earns money and purchases consumable and equippable items. Teams consist of five player-controlled heroes on each side, with computer-controlled towers and creeps assisting, usually in controlled paths called “lanes” by players.

At the beginning of the game, the creeps and towers are much more powerful than the heroes, but by the end it is the heroes that will make the difference for victory, ending the game by destroying the main building in their opponents’ base. The term Multiplayer Online Battle Arena has been coined for the genre, but isn’t widely used (yet), perhaps partially because it doesn’t recognize any of the genres it came out of and partially because it doesn’t sound cool enough to most gamers (really).

Heroes of Newerth more strictly follows the conventions and strategy of the old DoTA, whereas League of Legends is different enough to consider it an attempt to progress MOBAs, making it much more friendly to newcomers while at the same time expanding the possibilities, giving even more complexity and depth to strategy-making than DoTA ever did.

(This is not the point of the article, but in case of contention, one argument: consider that in DoTA, the team with the better kill-death ratio wins over 95% of the time, whereas in LoL that percentage is much lower. Pushing and base-hammering is much more important there. And in LoL, I onced played a game where my team got 12 kills but were killed 44 times, yet still won—impossible in DoTA or HoN.)

Heroes of Newerth has solidified the commitment of DoTA players, while League of Legends seems the best chance for the genre to come out of niche and into mainstream.

As for player communities, there is a stark difference despite the fact that most DoTA players have been eager to try both. Some matches go with little communication amongst teammates or between teams, but the majority has some communication of sorts. The features make a difference, as at this date HoN has in-game VOIP while LoL does not, but most of the communication, even in HoN, is done through text.

In League of Legends, I asked a question at the beginning of the match.

Me: Why are people here not as rude as they are in DoTA?
Me: Always wondered that
Teammate: Really? I’ve seen some pretty rude people here :/
Me: I’ve met my share, sure
Me: Still, on the whole it seems a lot better here
Teammate: Now that you mention it….
Me: Lot less trash-talking, etc.
Teammate: Yeah, good question

LoL isn’t devoid of trash-talking or the blame-game; this is still an online video game. Still, the banter tends to be cleverer and makes more out-of-world references. Everyone is trying hard here, but fun seems to be a bit of the higher order, with less seriousness and more comradery than is seen in HoN.

With Heroes of Newerth, “noob” (or nub) is the word of the day. In fact, it is so much part of the order that the names for lobbies have the option for “pros only,” “noobs allowed,” and “Noobs only,” the first sign that HoN caters to every part of old DoTA norms.

Regarding the differences in player bases, the what is easier than the why: the players are much more respectful and mellow in LoL, with much less cursing, badmouthing, or any other form of disrespect than is found in DoTA or HoN. Curiously, Blizzard’s Battle.net doesn’t keep track of any stats, yet both LoL and HoN do, especially to keep track of “leaves”, as vs. Tower Defense games are usually over half an hour each and the disconnection of a hero upsets the game.

If both games have stats, why are LoL players more preferable?

Though the basics are the same and many of the improvements over DoTA are similar, the differences in game design and features between HoN and LoL are what account for the difference in player bases; this is especially salient considering the fact that many players are trying both games and that the games share much in common. And on either side, it is a team game.

To be fair, both games are in beta and not fully developed, and there is especially much to be seen with what LoL will do. In HoN’s defense, consider one possible factor: HoN uses a lobby system where the players host and start their own games, whereas LoL only has one of its promised options available, which is purely rank-based randomized team-arranging.

You can team with a friend or friends, but your opponents and, if applicable, other teammates, are not chosen or even seen before the game starts. HoN game usually feature drafting, where all ten heroes are chosen in sight of both teams. In LoL, you don’t see the other team’s choices. This could mean LoL is only friendlier because players bear less responsibility and stats are not yet visible. Once LoL incorporates some of the features HoN and DoTA have, the players could become just as anal, booting any player with a losing record, all the time.

Your stats are invisible in LoL: it’s much more okay to lose. Stats can only be seen by friends. In HoN, your stats are a mark of shame or honor everywhere you go. Public channels, private channels, and in the game lobby before it starts, your kills, deaths, wins and losses are all tracked.

Yet, it is a team game where your stats are highly influenced by the competence of your teammates. This is why teammates are more snarky with each other. People want to be accepted and able to have the opportunity to improve. But if your stats suck, you are shunned. It’s unfortunate that this part of DoTA was preserved. LoL may yet preserve it.

Still there are other possible reasons, some of which have been covered in this column. The difference in cultures created by the community managers and forums. The different art styles. The difference in rules and tower power (again, LoL is more about pushing, and HoN is more about the kills, though kills certainly help in LoL).

There isn’t enough room here to show how the game design choices influence the community. But the development of these two MOBAs will hold plenty of lessons in game design and community management/creation. The only ones that are currently verifiable are already known: gamers don’t know what they want and there are drawbacks to giving them exactly what they ask for, and team-based games that are more about showboating and less about teamwork produces more insults.

Even more fun to watch are various beta forum threads about the opposing games; this is one extremely narrow genre with exactly two titles generating console-war like arguments. In other words, we may just have a couple of hit games. And the MOBA genre, or whatever its name ends up being, is on the rise.

If you don’t believe that, consider a brief industry snippet.