A few weeks back I was introduced to Awesomenauts and, as is often the case when something shiny and fresh and new finds its way into my cone of vision, I wrote about it with effusive positivity. By recontextualizing the elements of MOBAs in a bright, accessible package, Awesomenauts posited a response to one of the central questions facing the genre: is there a way to make a MOBA that doesn't royally fuck over new players? At the time, my answer was a resounding "YES!" Every bash, every narrow skirting leap, every carefully timed skillshot, seemed as easy as breathing. The hood, of course, remained firmly closed to me at the time: I was just a tourist in Awesomenauts country. I'd unlocked less than half the heroes, I knew little of how the schema of "unlockable abilities" stacked, and the order of operations for purchasing said abilities was obscure to me. I knew little of Awesomenauts beyond its bright, inviting packaging. Now that I've had some more time with it, the veneer has begun to peel for me. Awesomenauts, while more accessible than the average MOBA, actually has a staggering amount going on under its hood.
There are plenty of problems with access to information, dodgy descriptions, uncertain wording, and weird pay-gating, but the biggest issue I have with Awesomenauts' metagame is momentum as game mechanic. In most MOBAs momentum is the guiding principle by which teams win or lose. In DotA a few early successes put your team at a real advantage. A few early mistakes can cost you a game. 40 minute games can resolve themselves in the first five minutes, and the end result, given that MOBA play strongly discourages early concession, is that players are forced to deal with an unpleasant play experience for nearly an hour, knowing they can't win, suffering all the while. Dawngate has come as close to any game I've seen at breaking this by spreading out the economic pressure players collectively labor under, allowing for a severe narrowing of game advantage following a period of prolonged deadlock or inactivity, or even a complete reversal of advantage following just one or two choice late game plays. Awesomenauts endeavors to resolve the problem of the momentum mechanic by compressing it, which actually makes it that much more infuriating.
See, in Awesomenauts the game's pace, and progress as a team, is largely dictated by tower atrophy. It's difficult to reverse the game if you're losing towers faster than the other guys, and while certain heroes can push towers really well, there's no real way to recover from losing a tower. And what's more, losing that tower makes defending your other towers that much more difficult. It's reflective of a tentative mechanic that DotA featured for a handful of versions, wherein tower progress would increase gross economic progress in the game by increasing the gold received dramatically by the entire team that destroyed said tower. It made DotA nearly unplayable for a few versions in the long-long ago, and it makes Awesomenauts games hilariously lopsided more often than not, even without the strange algebra of skill involved.
Playing mostly against AI opponents is, in this case, kind of a strange advantage, since I'm seeing the game not as it is played, but as the designers envision it being played. Momentum in Awesomenauts is everything, gating access to skills, power-ups, currency, and map control. What's more, it's nearly impossible to recover once you start to lose it. There are no late-game heroes in Awesomenauts, just heroes that kill other heroes well, and heroes that push towers well (and a handful of heroes that do both quite well, too). In a sense, this makes sense: games are fifteen minutes, and the idea of long-game play seems a little silly when you think of it in those terms. But it does make for games that are usually decided before they're even half over. Once the first tower falls, odds are the game is already over. If you lose a second tower, you're done, even if you've already pushed back and taken down one of the other team's towers. The game becomes exponentially harder for you to win as the enemy team makes progress. That momentum, which initially encourages pushing and pulling, actually serves to discourage play as time progresses.
This seems to be a feature of many MOBAs, even as they claim they want to avoid it. Some of them seem actively engaged in trying to do so. XAM, for example, has shaped its mechanics entirely around preserving the "core game" of MOBA play (fast single unit micromanagement in the style of an RTS) while actively trying to do things like permit players to make dramatic comebacks and avoid currency-creep, in this case by removing currency from the game altogether and staging play in a series of fast resetting rounds. This is the exception, not the rule. For the most part, by merit of rewarding successful play, MOBAs lend themselves to problems of momentum. Good players mop the floor with bad players and leave those players feeling ridiculous and stupid for even trying to play a round. Awesomenauts doesn't make this problem worse, it just makes it more visible by compressing the problem into a smaller, more concentrated game space.
Which is a god damn shame, because the parts of Awesomenauts that don't orient themselves around that kind of agonizing momentum are absolutely brilliant. Multiple maps, environmental hazards clever players can use to dispatch their foes, asymmetrical movement schemes. Everything new about Awesomenauts is fantastic, which is what makes this vestigial tail of the MOBA genre stand out that much more.
Of course, I write this as someone who just played a staggering amount of Awesomenauts, someone who plays a lot of Dawngate, someone who spent an entire decade of his adult life playing various versions of DotA, and I have no plan to stop playing these games any time soon. That's not because this mechanic isn't infuriating; it's because being on the other side of it, the winning side, is sublime. DotA isn't made for the losing team, it's made to make players feel godlike while crushing their enemies. Or some seem to think, at least. My favorite games of Dawngate (and Dawngate really is superlative at this) are the tense, tight games where two solid teams fight one another and decide the outcome of the game in its final minutes. That kind of tense, intense combat is what really makes me come back again and again to the MOBA genre, even knowing much of my life it will take up. That mechanic seems to exist separate from the peculiar structure of MOBA momentum, and it is, for all its rarity, the one I find myself chasing most often in MOBAs: the excellent matches, where you come away feeling good, win or lose.