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Move over, Starcraft: MOBAs taking strategy gaming by storm

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League of Legends - Riot Games

Playing a real-time strategy game like Starcraft can be harrowing. Quick, build some workers! Hurry up and get them mining gold! Where's your barracks? Where's your army? Have you been scouting? Oh, look, a battle has broken out! Go manage your units, but don't forget to tune your economy! And watch out for ambushes in those places where you're not paying attention!

You can hardly be blamed for not wanting to jump into such an overbearing mental challenge. Real-time strategy games are about the spectacle of battle, but they're also about multitasking under pressure. You probably get enough of that at work.

So what if a game automated all that stuff about economies and armies? What if the armies just marched straight at each other's bases, which is where they want to go anyway? What if you only had to deal with one impressive hero who does cool stuff while the battle happens around him?

That's the idea behind what's fast becoming a serious player in strategy gaming: multiplayer online battle arenas, also known as MOBAs. The movement was first made popular by a fan-made modification for the 2002 real-time strategy game Warcraft III called Defense of the Ancients, and in less than ten years, it has revolutionized strategy games so much that someone had to come up with an entirely new, awkward name for the genre.

The most popular MOBA is a game called League of Legends. Developer Riot Games has been so successful that they've quadrupled in size in the last two years, and they show no sign of slowing down, with nearly one hundred positions open and a recent $400 million investment from an overseas telecom company.

Related: League of Legends Screenshots

The secret of League of Legends' success is mostly that it's a very good game, carefully built so that it's easy to pick up and play. But there's even better news.

"Payment in League of Legends is optional," says Riot Games president Marc Merrill. "Many of our top players do not spend money in League of Legends, as all of the playable content can be accessed by simply enjoying the game."

How can Riot Games be so successful if they're just giving everything away? The trick is that League of Legends features over 70 playable champions, and every week, a handful of them are free to everyone who downloads the game and sets up an account. The following week, a new set of free characters is introduced. If you grew attached to a character -- and you probably did -- you can now pay a few dollars to unlock him or her. Alternatively, you can earn in-game money by playing your way to unlock characters. It takes a long time, but it's technically an option. This helps make League of Legends one of the least money-grabby games as far as the free-to-play model goes.

Furthermore, League of Legends is constantly updated.

"Every two weeks we release new content, including champions, game balance fixes, and improvements," says Merrill, noting that a brand new co-op feature was just added to allow players to fight smart AI champions. "That constant stream of updates is an important factor in keeping our community engaged, and reaching new players." The result is a community that Merrill says exceeds one million active players.

But what if you just want everything in one self-contained package? Gas Powered Games' Demigod is easily the most visually spectacular MOBA, built from a flexible 3D engine that shows off some amazingly animated demigods, including a giant with a castle on his back, a scantily clad woman in a man-eating flower, and a magical cow riding a pyramid. While League of Legends is the 800 pound cartoon gorilla, Demigod is the belle of the ball.

Or if you'd rather play your hero as if you were in a first-person shooter, the excellent Monday Night Combat is available for the Xbox 360 or PC, offering a MOBA experience with a distinct sense of style.

And soon, the genre will go back to its roots. Erik Johnson, senior project manager at Valve, says that their upcoming Defense of the Ancients 2 won't be reinventing any wheels.

"We'll be creating the world and characters from scratch," Johnson says, which brings to mind's Valve's renown for doing the same thing with games like Team Fortress and Left 4 Dead. "But we'll also be investing heavily in features for [our online sevice] Steam that make playing a game of DOTA 2 -- and interacting with the community -- a lot more interesting experience than what exists today."

Is Riot Games' Merrill worried about such a formidable competitor? On the contrary, he's sort of thrilled.

"The way we see it," he says, "new developers entering the MOBA genre is a huge sign that we're doing something right. We've been growing this genre for years, and we're excited to see Valve's game."

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