So, to date I've tried two generic MOBAs (HiREZ's SMITE, and recently the more interesting Awesomenauts) and even without trying more of the genre, I am immediately and despairingly aware of how ungodly formulaic the concept is. I knew when picking up SMITE that it was a MOBA, but I had never played one. Playing it off and on for a few weeks to a couple months, I picked up the concept, but it was incredibly clear that it was a cut and dried replica of a game I've never played. Awesomenauts, while more palatable, shows that even a better clone with a lot more thought (and fun!) put into it is still a clone. And this is without having played the original!
Let's start with SMITE. It was still in beta when I played it (I don't know if it still is), but given Hi-Rez's track record (I am thinking of Tribes here, but that is a tale for another day), I don't see them really improving on anything considerably. The test map that I played on was immediately and singularly focused on "Two bases, three paths between them, plus extras". In other words, from the point of view of the designers, it was clear that from day one, they were setting out to fill someone else's shoes. The extras scattered through the map, and the extra modifications to gameplay (bonuses to your character from defeating NPC mobs), only heightened the sense that it was "That game, plus."
It amounts to number tweaks: once you reach level X and can defeat NPC mob Y, you can do so at any time in order to gain bonus Z, but it will take T amount of time, which is the fundamental opportunity cost when your opponents can be levelling up, attacking your mobs/towers, or gaining other bonuses. If you are already defending lane A, and you end up spending virtually no time to defeat Y, it is appropriate to do so in order to improve your DPS in the lane. Alternately, if you are jumping between lanes or facing a higher level opponent, it may be an appropriate way to spend time.
The warren of tunnels--well, above ground paths bordered by foliage so think that even the gods dare not cross it(?)--between the lanes seemed similarly grindy. It's instantly clear that running away with the teleport spell is important, and several of the godpowers slow, delay, or psychologically intimidate opponents. You need time X in order to return to base, your opponent moves at speed Y, therefore you need Z distance between you before their ranged attacks can hit you, but they also lose track if you turn a corner, because again, gods cannot see through the dense dense foliage... I might have been convinced that the minimap's line of sight rules were an improvement on the original (which again I still haven't played) if Awesomenauts' didn't have essentially the same (line of sight on enemies, always see friends), and I am going to go out on a limb and say that they didn't chase after HiRez's model. So I can't say what if anything was supposed to be original; it is a skin of the existing game in another engine and little else.
Awesomenauts adds things here and there that make it a fun MOBA, but having seen HiRez's copy, it's clear how the formula doesn't actually get anything more than a gentle tweak anywhere. Which is disappointing to me, because having played two of them, MOBAs are incredibly boring.
Let me take a step back so you know where I'm coming from. One of the things I hate about HiRez is that although they managed to get the Starsiege: Tribes license, and made a decent game out of it (I suppose I can give them that credit), they took out several compelling elements of it in order to make it fit a model. One of the delightful things about Tribes is that players, below the competitive threshold at least, can throw their lives away repeatedly attacking a superior defense. On maps that have a good foundation, the defense can really make interesting and compelling challenges for the opponents. Or, I mean, they can not, and just sort of spam turrets and such, but games that facilitate good defense, without losing balance, are fun. Tribes encouraged defense by making sure the entire team needed to worry about the generator, even when that was not the focus of the mission; as soon as it went down, the entire team had to swarm on the attackers to provide a defensive respite while things got repaired. In other words, offensive actions could change the layout and content of the map. Turret-protected zones became free to pass; inventory stations and vehicle spawners became inert; only deployables remained, which meant that people who had thought ahead became a resource for the team.
The HiRez tribes, however, made a lot of subtle changes that basically meant that you didn't need to think ahead, and indeed your efforts to do so were stymied. Deployables vanish as soon as you change armors, because they are "special abilities" of the armor. And they also don't function without power; only orbital drop items function without power, because they are "map specials," while your deployables are "armor specials", but unlike every other item you have, they aren't powered by the armor, but instead by the generator... okay, honestly, I have no idea what their logic is. They fundamentally do not understand the defensive half of the game, and built it instead about the part they understand.
MOBA games again completely fail to have a defensive half of the game. Your avatar can be "on the defensive", but there is no... no... no anything. In Awesomenauts one of the early characters lets you deploy mini-turrets, but they are not game-changers, they are just ordinary character specials. Each character needs to be balanced against the others, after all, and so you cannot give one person an advantage nobody else gets. It's a tradition of MOBA-style games, and one that makes its way into Tribes as well; the balance is at the character level, not at the team level. If those superbly balanced individuals combine to create something that exceeds the sum of its parts, it is character skill and nothing else... ... ... right?
No, obviously not. The MOBAs I've seen, and HR-style Tribes, and I am led to believe other MOBAs as well, have unlockables, and those unlocked characters/equipment/upgrades change mechanically how you can evolve your character through the round, or in the worst case, it changes fundamentally how good your character is. The battleground is never fundamentally even--which in principle, I don't mind. But the sequence of events to unlock things is clear: play more or pay, and you get more characters, each of which is balanced against the others by some algorithm and a lot of trial and error. So again, in theory, player A equals player B, except where character type and upgrade level come into play.
Why the hell do they need to do that?
In classic Tribes, two players were never necessarily equal. A heavy with a mortar could one-shot a light armor. A light armor with a sniper rifle could take out mediums. A medium with a cloaking device could sneak up on a heavy armor and obliterate them. But you could also stick the cloaking device on a heavy or a light armor (I think), if you needed to, and there are sensors that would reveal cloaked armors, and sniper rifles naturally require focus that leaves you open to being flanked, and... a complicated tactical situation emerges. The more tools you threw in the toolkit, the more interesting the resulting round turned out to be. A radar jammer deployed next to some turrets, in a place where people might be sneaking up on a sniper, means that the first guy who blunders in won't know what hit him. But that same jammer, when it is hiding an inventory station behind enemy lines, opens up other tactical possibilities.
Classic tribes was balanced at the team level, not at the individual level, and it was fascinating. It is in this same sense that I find MOBAs to be incredibly, tediously, boring. When a new player joined a game of tribes, you could immediately begin to wonder: What are they going to do? Who are they going to be? You can take the same person and see different faces of them as the round progresses. The enemy artillary man could also be a good flag capper, but a terrible sniper; the sniper could also go stealth and tear up the enemy base. The defender might be good at nothing, but routinely jumps from task to task as things need to be done. Who are you? What do you do? How will you abuse your toybox today? How can we stop you?
In a MOBA, as you watch, you wonder... what?
What can you watch? What entertains you? What is your own progression as the round progresses? You have what, two, three abilities, which are fixed as the round goes on? Even if you jump between characters, if the characters are fixed, what's so interesting? Are there even any MOBAs like that, which are not fundamentally built on you parking your dick firmly in concrete when the round starts? Sure, you can show your ability to play the one character you are given, and you can see how good that character could possibly be at [task one], [task two], and [task three]. Which, fundamentally for a MOBA, are attacking, defending, and hunting (PCs or special mobs). The battlefield is constant, from the start of the round your choices are fixed, the team assets are constant, you can do nothing but kill mobs, kill players, and destroy assets which cannot grow back. The game never changes.
People like MOBAs, and I am pleased that they do. People also like Tribes Ascend, and I am not (too) ashamed to say that it is also decently fun. But wow, the potential that is lost because people don't think outside of the mold is a little upsetting. I won't criticize Awesomenauts, as it seems like a fun variation, and from what I understand it was the first, and may be the only platforming MOBA, but thinking of how there is an entire genre based around the concept makes my skin crawl. Stop thinking only of yourself, and think about the team you are supporting. Isn't that what MOBA are supposed to be about?