MOBAs, ARTS, DOTA-likes, and AoS maps... With so many names floating around for our beloved genre, it can be easy to have our conversations get side-tracked by questions like "what counts as a MOBA?"
In this article, I'm going to explore how other game genres are named, how those approaches could apply for us, and why "lane-pushing game" is what worked best for me and this website.
Considering the History
Some game genres have their names emerge from an audience's strong association with an existing concept.
This was the case for Rogue-likes, where the 1980 hit Rogue popularised the combination of permadeath, procedural generation, and a fantasy setting. Similarly, Metroid and Castlevania have established the standard for Metroidvanias.
The "existing concept" doesn't have to be a game. Battle Royale is named after an iconic film, and Warcraft III had an entire sub-genre of "Helm's Deep" maps re-enacting the famous scene in Lord of the Rings.
This was also true for the first decade of our genre.
In 2002, Aeon of Strife ("AoS") was developed as a custom map for Starcraft featuring towers, lanes, and scaling "hero" characters in a cooperative survival-then-conquer format. Around this time, Warcraft III was released with a superior editor and tools compared to Starcraft, and as a result the first wave of PvP games inspired by Aeon of Strife ended up being custom maps for Warcraft.
Several of them paid homage by titling themselves as sequels: AoS GT and AoS Epic are two examples. Others came up with their own names (like "Defense of the Ancients"), but the name Aeon of Strife was well known within those early communities.
To this day, the Warcraft III community still uses "AoS" maps to refer to the genre. However, the name didn't travel well for a number of reasons:
- Many people never played the original Aeon of Strife!
- If it was an early Warcraft map, this might have been different. Being on a separate platform, Aeon of Strife didn't benefit from the (massive) cross-pollination of interest enjoyed by early Warcraft AoS maps.
- In my later years of hosting games in Warcraft, people often asked what "AoS" meant. We'd have to explain each time... which is not a positive indicator of a name's virality.
- Aeon of Strife wasn't PvP, making it an odd torch-bearer for what quickly became a PvP dominated genre.
- English speakers don't have an easy or natural pronunciation for "AoS". It doesn't pluralise well either, adding friction to communication.
The other candidate for a genre-defining entry would be DotA with terms like "dota-like". While DotA Allstars was a huge hit, these terms were never adopted.
The reason is that during the Warcraft era, DotA players didn't need a name for the genre. Allstars was extremely popular, and the only variants of note were AI maps which shared the DotA name.
Players of other AoS maps (particularly their developers) often wanted to differentiate themselves from DotA for both branding and ideological reasons. They and their communities weren't going to adopt anything resembling "dota-like" to describe themselves; that was too mainstream! But this also reflects the reality that many AoS maps simply didn't derive from DotA; they had different ancestors and weren't DotA-likes in a literal sense.
When it comes to "strong association with an existing concept", our genre doesn't have a singular entry to point to. Early games were being developed in something of a primordial soup, a "folk" culture of borrowing ideas and each person experimenting in their own direction. There wasn't one game that unified what everyone did later on, and by the time commercial games started to appear, it was too late to "be the first".
We can leave the idea of naming by association to the side. It works for some genres, but isn't a clean fit for ours.
Considering the Service
When I'm talking about lane-pushing games with non-gamers, reaching for a historic definition isn't the way to go. However, I usually will take a moment to describe how players fit into the ecosystem of the game.
For example, we can confidently say that these games are multiplayer, with teams of similar sizes. The teams compete with each-other for victory in a structured battlefield of limited size.
They are also session-based, so details of the game state in one session do not carry into the next. Every match is a fresh slate.
And for a number of reasons: including virality, facilitation of effective matchmaking, and their business models: these games are universally played online.
Those are all handy things to communicate, and help to narrow down what kind of gaming experience we might be talking about. In fact, the term MOBA ("Multiplayer Online Battle Arena") coined by Riot Games in 2009 was a very sensible term to use in the context of approaching investors and journalists. It gets across all these points, it's catchy, and the success of League of Legends has made it the go-to term for millions.
Unfortunately, the descriptive nature of the term describes the service rather than the gameplay. This service model has only become more widespread: creating legitimate confusion with games like Fortnite, WoW Arena, and Battlerite.
I still use the term MOBA from time to time because people generally know what it means, and if a word communicates then it's doing its job. In a more precise context like game design discussion or academia, I find it unsuitable.
Considering the Action
Sometimes, one word says it all. For shooters, beat 'em ups, and adventure games: the name of the genre is a verb that describes what the player primarily does.
Naming a genre after a verb isn't an exact science. Plenty of games involve some degree of fighting or role-playing without being fighting games or RPGs. It takes familiarity and seeing a few examples to understand what is meant. Luckily, most genres have been around long enough to have plentiful examples, and people end up with a clear idea of what is meant.
For us, the "verb-based" approach is tricky. As a young genre, there haven't been many memorable commercial examples of lane-pushing games: the semi- or successful ones can be counted on two hands. We haven't seen hybrids that challenge what is or isn't in the genre, beyond maybe Battlerite and hero shooters like Overwatch.
If we're relying a verb-based name, it needs to be descriptive. That's tricky too because what we're talking about is already a hybrid genre. Most of what players actually do was inherited from other games!
In 2010, Valve suggested the title of ARTS ("Action RTS"), and it does capture some of the key verbs: real-time, action, and strategy. Yet there's immediate confusion with the likes of Starcraft: which is the face of RTS for many and has abundant action.
We could consider other words: noting that the genre is team-based, tactical, and involves leading an army to victory. Could something like "team-based heroics" work, but with more emphasis on the presence of an army?
The Heroes of the Storm team put forward "Hero Brawler" as a description of gameplay, and for HotS I would agree "brawling" is appropriate. Yet it doesn't capture the broader picture for the genre.
My conclusion is that for a "verb-based" approach to a genre name, there are simply too many words that are relevant to produce something concise and usable.
Considering the Emotion
A less common approach to naming genres is to consider "what feelings does the player experience?". For example, "survival horror" alerts us to the suspense the player will feel, while the "racing" genre conveys a particular type of tension. "Adventure" could count, and the "utsuge" genre of Japanese visual novels emphasises tear-jerker stories.
I think this makes a good exercise. If you have time, I'd encourage taking a moment to think seriously and write down an answer. In this genre, "what feelings does the player experience?"
Players enjoy these games for many reasons, and these aren't easy to unify. My answer was as follows:
Lane-pushing games aim to capture the feeling of being an influential actor at a pivotal moment in an important conflict.
What do you think? Does this capture the feeling you want to experience when playing these games?
I will refer to this as the fantasy of the lane-pushing game. There are three key terms there, so let's dive into more detail:
1. Being an Influential Actor:
This is about the player's feeling of agency; both their ability to control outcomes and their immersion in the fantasy of being in control.
There's a couple of ways the genre facilitates that:
- Players experience the game through a single actor, rather than a party or an army of units. This means we can say things like "I escaped" or "I saved you" rather than "I got out with most of my units".
- The overhead camera gives player a high level of awareness about the impact of their actions. (Alternatively, some players prefer third-person cameras whose perspective makes actions feel more vivid.)
- Heroes are relatively scarce, hence each one is impactful.
- Heroes have generally superior stats compared to other units on the battlefield.
- Indeed, there is opportunity to scale to being absurdly powerful.
- Other units on the battlefield are deterministic: they have predictable and exploitable behaviours. This means heroes should always feel like they're in control.
- Randomness generally has a limited impact on the overall game; player choices are what determines victory.
2. Pivotal Moments:
Here we are interested in the feeling of satisfaction from identifying the correct course of action during a narrow window of opportunity, and knowing that it meaningfully impacts the rest of the match.
- Real-time gameplay is crucial here, as it creates a great dynamism with many opportunities intersecting and competing for a player's attention.
- The low barrier to entry in terms of mechanical difficulty is important: players don't need 200 APM to participate in good decisions.
- Imperfect information means it is easy for players to stumble into tricky situations which require fast and accurate decision-making to solve.
- Complex mechanical interactions make it difficult to identify optimal outcomes quickly. The genre's mechanical depth is so imposing that even in a drafting screen with several minutes of time, choosing heroes is far from trivial.
- Being a team game, the challenge is not only knowing what to do, but reaching a compatible conclusion to the rest of your team. This added challenge can result in even greater satisfaction when things work out well.
3. Important Conflict:
We'll define importance as the feeling of investment a player has in the outcome.
- One baseline measure of investment is time: the more someone has committed, the greater their interest in a positive pay-off.
- The Heroes of the Storm team have been consistently committed to 20-minute matches, to my understanding because it is enough for players to be invested, but not over-invested to the point where losing sours the experience.
- To illustrate more simply, we can imagine how 5-minute matches would not offer players much satisfaction.
- Competitive play increases the stakes. This offers some explanation for the popularity of ranked modes: they escalate the importance of the conflict and make the fantasy more vivid.
- Being a team game sets a standard for player commitment simply on social terms. Single-player games overwhelmingly let their players pause, and certainly don't punish getting up and leaving early.
- The vast number of permutations of heroes means that playing a hero in a given team composition may never happen again. Each match is a unique challenge and opportunity for learning and experiencing the game. Players can't come back and try again later.
- Every choice that a player makes, from the draft screen to each last hit to the final teamfight, is part of the overall story that determines success or failure, opportunity or missed window. This narrative continuity connects players with their outcome.
A Place of Intersection
Each of these three key terms captures something about the experience of our genre, and distances us somewhat from other genres.
The feeling of being a pivotal actor is dampened in the likes of Battle Royale where players can get killed by being unlucky, an RTS where players may not have the opportunity to scale without their opponent surrendering, or Chess where the armies are abstracted.
The feeling of navigating through pivotal moments is dampened in grand strategy games where many decisions are preparatory rather than pivotal, or action RPGs where enemies have largely deterministic behaviours and don't offer longer-term pivotal moments.
The feeling of investment in the outcome can be dampened in arena games like Battlerite which have short round times, or World of Warcraft where there is always opportunity to retry the raid or scenario again later.
To visualise, here's a very rough chart that you'll probably disagree with:
There are always cases where a player will experience all three of these feelings for a given game. My argument is that our genre facilitates and delivers them with high consistency: due to its design and implementation.
Indeed, we could say that the job of the lane-pushing game environment is to present our actors with a continuous stream of pivotal opportunities of escalating importance. Consider in your own time how the battlefield is structured in a way which does this.
Does this knowledge help us arrive at a name? I don't know. I'm drawn back to that word "heroics", as it captures a feeling that I think players find relatable. Maybe "structured heroics", or "strategic heroics" could hold some meaning.
Considering the Delivery
Text-based adventures, visual novels, and card games are named after the interface through which the player interacts and has the experience.
This isn't an easy concept to apply for us, since lane-pushing games inherited the vast majority of their interface from a blend of RTS and RPGs. Even that isn't good to lean on, as SMITE and Paragon have shown the genre can work with a different perspective.
However, there is one "unique" interface item that's gained prominence in the commercial games: the drafting screen. Not many game genres have a dedicated process where two teams of players go back-and-forth to commit to their characters for a full gameplay session.
"Drafted Hero Strategy" and "Hero Draft RTS" capture at least something distinctive about what these games have to offer: the rich depth that comes from boundless hero combinations and interactions.
I don't expect a term like this to be descriptive enough to enter common usage. Games like Magic: the Gathering already use "draft" in their own way, and many older lane-pushing games never implemented drafting screens at all.
While not directly useful, perhaps it is something to keep in mind for future iterations of the genre. Is this an 'essential' feature that we now want to keep?
Considering the Mechanics
Platformers and Tower Defence games are so-called for their distinctive mechanics. These are not verbs that describe what the player does, but rather what the player interacts with.
For our genre, a first answer might be heroes because players sure interact with those! But we need to be more specific, because heroes are everywhere. Hero shooters, hero arenas, and hero defences are all existing genres. Apex Legends could qualify as a hero battle royale, and maybe a hero brawler as well.
Really, we want a mechanic that's as distinctive as the platforms in a platformer, or the towers in a tower defence. Something ubiquitous, that players spend the entire game interacting with....
I first came across the term "lane-pushing game" on the PC Gamer website somewhere around 2012. They've since stopped using it, but at the time it was a category heading for articles about HoN, League, and so forth.
The term stuck with me because it captured something both unique and common to all these games – the lanes! Of course, there are games which use lanes in a very different way: such as racing games or vehicle simulators. "Lane-pushing" gets rid of that ambiguity for me.
Lane-pushing games. Descriptive, concise, unambiguous. I like it.
Should everyone use this name? That's up to you! I'm not expecting widespread adoption. I consider it the appropriate choice for game design discussions, or the kind of analysis you see on this website.
The name also helps because I have a different perspective on lanes. My vision for the genre is that we can have a lane-pushing game without any lanes, provided a mechanic that has similar properties is substituted. I think it's important that such games be considered as part of the same genre, wherever that takes us.
More detail on these ideas will appear in an upcoming article on Pseudolanes. I expect these to be an increasingly important feature of the genre as it evolves, as they are one of our most under-explored mechanics and ripe for innovation.
In the end, most people will stick with MOBA or ARTS, depending on the game they identify with most rather than merits of the names. It's a tribal thing, and is to be expected; you could almost call it an "Aeon of Strife-styled fortress assault game going on two sides" of its own!