By Brian “i am guitar” Cordry, Player Manager for Evil Geniuses
Character design is one of the most important aspects of any video game that wants to amount to anything. Much attention has been given to the trend in that triple-A titles that revolve around a single protagonist always seem to follow the same archetypes: the character must be male, white, strong, rugged, etc. I can’t give any new insight on that, but I did want to bring it into a discussion on games that don’t revolve around a single main character. With DotA 2’s The International 4 having just happpened and the League of Legend’s Season 4 World Championships coming up, let’s talk about character design in MOBAs.
League of Legends and DotA 2 are the frontrunners in the MOBA genre by miles. The games share a similar background and the parallels are heavy even today: they are both played by millions, have hugely successful competitive scenes, continue to grow at an alarming pace, and share some very distinct design decisions. Both games, having grown out of the Warcraft 3 custom map “DotA,” inhabit the same fictitious genre: a hybrid of fantasy and steampunk technology, populated by elves, warriors, wizards, and monsters. Although each game exists in its own universe, they ostensibly inhabit the same space in our mind, and so it’s no surprise that their character concepts are so similar. Both games check off a variety of ‘standard’ character themes that we’ve come to expect in the fantasy realm, from the broad to the bizarrely specific. Frost archer? A fantasy staple. Spider queen? Always evil, always present. Pirate? Yes. Wise old talking tree? Yes. Sturdy stone giant? Of course. Dragon-morphing knight? Yep. Troll? Yep. Stampeding centaur? LoL’s version is an evil ghost, but they’re both there. Tavern-dwelling, drunken brawler? The alcohol makes him stronger! Small, mischievous, energetic creature that traverses this fantasy land in some sort of advanced (but not-too-advanced) mechanical walker? That’s pretty narrow, but yes, that character is in both games.
Clearly, these fantasy themes are imbedded in the hivemind of what we westerners view as acceptable heroes. When we log into our favorite game, we want to roleplay as a fierce knight or a powerful sorceress for an hour at a time. That’s what video games are! An escape from the dullness of our everyday classes, jobs, and activities. So how does this drive character design in games that have one-hundred-plus characters? How many characters are catered to fulfilling a fantasy about “what you wish you could be (the lead male)” – knowing that the target audience for both games is typically young, white males – and how many are catered to more niche fantasies? Where does the popularity of either fantasy fall in the grand scheme of things? How do each of these two massively popular games treat some of the fantasies that they have in common?