How Monolith aims to bring a MOBA to consoles with 'Guardians of Middle-earth'

The inside story of how Monolith Productions plans to bring the MOBA genre to consoles with Guardians of Middle-earth.

Console gamers can be forgiven for furrowing their collective brows at the acronym MOBA, which stands for multiplayer online battle arena. Like the real-time strategy (RTS) genre, it exists almost solely within the domain of PC gaming.

Monolith Productions wants to change that, and their upcoming console-exclusive MOBA, The Lord of the Rings: Guardians of Middle-earth is their volley into the battlefield. The company's goal is to embrace the depth, strategy, and timing inherent in PC MOBAs, while making it accessible to console gamers.

Polygon visited Monolith's studios in Kirkland, Washington recently to go hands-on with Guardians and to talk about how the team intends to bring a MOBA to home consoles and a user base largely unfamiliar with the genre.

Bob Roberts, a producer at Monolith, explained that the most immediate challenge was to create an accessible ramp into the unfamiliar without sacrificing the depth that the genre is known for.

Unlike on PCs, where players have access to a full keyboard and hotkeys, consoles are limited to the relatively sparse real estate of controllers. Because Monolith is among the first companies to bring a MOBA to consoles, the company didn't have other control schemes to ape. Throughout development, Monolith has had to iterate between the easiest to grasp and the most efficient controls.

Rather than scuttle the functional if confusing design, they rebranded it as the "advanced" control scheme and created a simplified, "basic" control scheme, designed to appeal to the masses.

Its first effort at controller layout used the analog sticks to control a character's direction and funnel their attacks, akin to a twin-stick shooter. The team soon discovered through playtesting that the precision was difficult for newcomers, the very people that Monolith hopes to attract to Guardians. Rather than scuttle the functional if confusing design, they rebranded it as the "advanced" control scheme and created a simplified, "basic" control scheme, designed to appeal to the masses.

Monolith has relied on extensive playtesting to gage the success of both the controls and the gameplay. To that end, the studio has brought in a cocktail of newcomers and hardcore PC MOBA players, the latter of whom regularly helps the studio learn about the game through their understanding of the genre.

In Guardians, each battle pits two teams against each other in a symmetrical map with typically three branching paths, or "lanes" in Guardians parlance. The object is for each player to lead their team and a company of AI-controlled squad mates to the opposite end of the map and destroy the opposing team's base.

The AI characters are relatively weak and effectively useless unless paired with their player-controlled counterparts — the guardians that the game's title refers to. Matches are typically 5v5 affairs, with Battlegrounds mode lasting 20 minutes, and its variation, Elite Battlegrounds, which has no time limit and ends only when one team destroy's the other's team's base. Custom matches that can alter the time limit and the number of lanes are also available.

Before each match, players choose from five general classes. Defenders are damage-absorbing tanks, but relatively weak attackers. Strikers are ideal for regular attacks, but relatively weak. Warriors are the middle-of-the-road class balancing decent health with decent damage. Tacticians are a newer class that Monolith is introducing, and are all about lane control by creating traps like firewalls and catapults for enemies to contend with. Enchanters are built for ability damage with little health but powerful attacks that regenerate over time mapped to the face buttons.

Each character begins the battle at level one, and their actions in battle earn them experience to level up their abilities, each of which can be upgraded four times per match. The influence of players' actions creates the battle. A mini-map the shows an overview of the battlefield and the diaspora of units, which constantly creates opportunities to maneuver between lanes and strike where abilities can be most beneficial.

It's a lot to absorb for the uninitiated, but Monolith's focus on accessibility does much to round the learning curve. There's no better way to learn than to fight, and though the sheer quantity of information presented by the ever-present HUD is at first intimating, the ebb and flow of battle becomes apparent in short order. Skirmishes are unforgiving, and though Guardians teaches by death, it also provides a splash screen during the cooldown period between respawns to explain what led to your untimely demise.

Bringing a PC-centric genre to consoles is a tall order, as the now-defunct Ensemble Studios learned with its Halo Wars RTS, but based on our time at the studio and with the game, Monolith is well aware of the challenge, and the development team is embracing it with open arms.

You can watch our interview below with Ruth Tomandl, a senior producer at Monolith, to peek behind the scenes at the studio and its MOBA, which is headed to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this fall.

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