April 2, 2013 at 12:36 PM ET
With the meteoric rise of free-to-play and social gaming alongside the console market, PC games can occasionally seem like the last vestige of truly “hardcore” gaming—appealing only to the gearheads who enjoy building their own desktop towers from scratch to play endless hours of “StarCraft 2.” But since 2009, a new hybrid genre of PC games known as “multiplayer online battle arenas” (MOBAs) has attracted millions of players to games like “League of Legends” and “Defense of the Ancients” (DOTA). Despite their popularity and impressive profits, however, most MOBAs have only managed to attract cult followings that enjoy their arcane fantasy aesthetic and the steep difficulty of online multiplayer gameplay.
That’s where Warner Bros. and Turbine come in. Last week at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Franciso, the two companies announced a new MOBA built around the cartoonish and eclectic lore of DC comics. Known as “Infinite Crisis,” the new MOBA has many features that have come to be standards of the genre—an isometric viewpoint, powerful hero characters, and fast-paced, team-based combat built around an objective to capture different areas of a level.
At first glance, the main thing that separates “Infinite Crisis” from an established MOBA is the comic book aesthetic—instead of playing as a giant skeleton or wizard; gamers can now play as Wonder Woman or Batman. But that’s also why a comic book-branded MOBA has real potential for success. Almost all successful MOBAs are free-to-play games, meaning that developers and publishers need to come up with enough different ways for players to spend money through microtransactions that are unique and interesting enough to not make gamers feel as if they’re constantly being hit up for cash. And as the name “Infinite” implies, comic book lore gives developers more than enough costumes, characters, and superpowers to keep players busy for the indefinite future.
“The most important part of a MOBA is the characters,” Jeffrey Steefel, an executive producer at Turbine working on “Infinite Crisis,” told NBC News. “This is where the genius of the multiverse comes in.”
Steefel would not comment on the business model for the new game except to say, “We’re not gonna surprise people.”Most successful MOBAs are monetized by offering players access to a rotation of free playable characters and then charging for additional features such as additional heroes, special costumes, or in-game abilities like taunts.
Turbine has only announced 12 characters for “Infinite Crisis” so far, but Steefel said that the game could add “hundreds” of additional characters before Turbine and Warner Bros. ever had to worry about repeating itself.
NBC News had a chance to play “Infinite Crisis” last week at GDC with some other reporters, and the lighthearted nature of combat with comic superheroes (and supervillains) went a long way towards making “Infinite Crisis” a more accessible game than its predecessors. I played a match as Wonder Woman fighting against other iconic DC characters like Nightmare Batman (think Batman but as a vampire), Gaslight Joker (a steampunk version of the “Batman” villain), and Doomsday. While the combat quickly descended into chaos, a helpful “recommend” feature helped guide rookie players to outfit characters with the best powers and stay competitive. There was still a lot of frantic button-mashing involved, but being able to pick up a car and hurl it at opponents helped show the payoff players get from choosing one character or ability over another. Seasoned genre players will need to spend more time with “Infinite Crisis” to see if it has the same tactical depth and strategy as their favorite past MOBAs, but Turbine has already done a good job appealing to the uninitiated—something that’s far more valuable for Warner Bros. than just trying to create another “League of Legends” or “DOTA.”
As far as new features, Steefel noted that most of “Infinite’s” initial gameplay would offer incremental improvements such as destructible environments and more diverse levels than are currently offered by other games on the market, but Turbine wanted to make sure the core MOBA paradigm was intact before trying anything too ambitious.
“It’s not a trivial thing making a MOBA,” Steefel said. “But there’s still room for more choices for players.”
Turbine said that it expects to release “Infinite Crisis” to the general public around September of this year following several rounds of beta testing. In the meantime, fans of the comics can apply for a spot in the game’s closed beta on its website.