Three Lane Highway: why I am deadly serious about the phrase "wizard-'em-up"

Chris Thursten at

Three Lane Highway is Chris' sometimes earnest, sometimes silly column about Dota 2. It runs every Thursday on PC Gamer.

Are you interested in language? I think you should be, but then again I would say that. I peddle language for a living. Don't freak out, but I'm doing it right now. My rent is paid by the notion that some sets of words are of greater value than others. That's kind of a terrifying thought, really, but it's no more terrifying than the alternative: that in the future we will communicate about videogames by honking and pressing 'Like' buttons in a branded metaverse that we access by consenting to give over fifty percent of our brainpower so that Big Data can cloud-compute a solution to free will using our frontal cortexes.

I digress. I'm going to use this week's Three Lane Highway to talk about words. If that's not of interest to you, that's cool. I'd appreciate it if you'd still honk and push the 'Like' button, though.

There was a story that used to knock around the PC Gamer UK office about the provenance of the term 'first person shooter'. Before it came along, 'Doom clone' was the preferred term. This was the language of players, defined and propagated by enthusiast magazines. 'FPS' was the invention of game publishers who didn't want their game to be thought of as a copy. Imitation might be fundamental to the creative process, but nobody wants to own up to their influences at the point of sale.

'FPS' eventually broke through the defenses of buzzword-adverse magazine editors to become the standard phrase, but that's because it was a basically accurate description of the genre. It only became problematic when it emerged that we didn't really have a word for first person games that weren't shooters. That took a while, though: for a long time, 'FPS' served its purpose perfectly ably. Buzzwords are fine if they mean something.

This story is useful because it has a lot of parallels in the formation of the term 'MOBA'. Prior to 'MOBA', games that followed after the Defence of the Ancients/Aeon of Strife formula were 'Dotalikes'. This posed a problem for Riot and anybody else attempting to build a game in the same genre. Changing the terminology became a marketing necessity for them just as it had for Doom clone publishers in the late 90s. I hate to think about how much time this process must have taken when the result was a phrase as flatulent, ugly on the page, and vague as 'MOBA'.

This is not a League of Legends vs. Dota 2 argument. They are both great games, and Riot had the right to come up with a new term. That's not the nature of my problem with 'MOBA'. My problem with 'MOBA' stems from its lifelessness and lack of precision. Also, the fact that I can't hear it without thinking about this entirely terrifying kids' TV series from a couple of years ago.

Put it this way: Planetside 2 is a multiplayer online battle arena. World of Warcraft is a multiplayer online battle arena. Dark Souls is a multiplayer online battle arena. If you take the component parts of 'MOBA' at face value they could refer to more or less anything, and therefore they refer to more or less nothing. Discomfort about using somebody else's marketing term is one reason not to say 'MOBA'; the other is this fundamental lack of meaning.

But wait! You might say, if you were a rhetorical device. Isn't meaning more about usage and context than some notion of inherent correctness? If everybody agrees on what 'MOBA' means, does it matter that it doesn't stand up to scrutiny?

I think it does. Words attract meaning through use, yes, but they also shape the patterns of thought that surround their use. Imaginative language encourages imaginative thought and vice versa. I'd argue that the popularity of the term 'MOBA' contributes directly to the notion that these games can or should be stamped out conveyor-belt style. 'MMORPG' encountered the same problem: it was a simplistic descriptor that became incontrovertibly associated with a simplistic creative process. The term was not exciting, creative, or especially accurate: it had become one of Orwell's ready made phrases, a bad usage that "anaesthetises a portion of one's brain."

Finding a phrase to replace 'MOBA' is an opportunity to zoom in on the things that are exciting about this genre. It's an opportunity to frame games like League and Dota by what they achieve, not just what they are. The phrase 'action RTS' is dry and doesn't paint a clear picture of what you actually do in the game. 'Hero brawler', which is what Blizzard are going with for Heroes of the Storm, actually fares a little bit better: it points out a specific and universal game element (heroes) and attaches it to a situation (a brawl) that has a bit of colour. The best we could come up with at PC Gamer UK was 'lane-pushing game', but I'm not sure that's terribly exciting either.

This is why I ended up referring to Dota 2 as an isometric wizard-'em-up in PC Gamer's review last year. It was a joke, sort of: a way of abdicating responsibility for calling the genre anything. Then afterwards I realised that I liked the phrase—that at the very least it reflected something of the feeling I got from playing the game. It is absurd, but the things you do in Dota are absurd too.

These games aren't remarkable because they are multiplayer online arenas, or because they combine action and strategy: they are remarkable because the situations they create are utterly arcane in a way that encourages deep investment. They're remarkable because they create communities of people who are uniquely able to discern incredible stories from the interaction of complex, unintuitive game mechanics. This is as true of Dota 2 as it is of League of Legends, SMITE, or Heroes of the Storm. These are eldritch, uncanny forms of entertainment. They are wizard as all hell. They include wizards; they have a wizardish quality about them; they encourage wizard-like behaviour in their players. Wizards.

You could pick another, safer word, but I don't think you should. These aren't 'safe' games—they're laden with risk and nonsense and we should celebrate that in the way we talk about them. Put it this way: when some publisher rocks up and announces that they're making this or that beloved franchise into a MOBA, everybody rolls their eyes. It's easy to make a boring MOBA. I am arguing that it is very difficult to make a boring wizard-'em-up.

I don't expect history—or the industry—to go with me on this one. But you, the reader, have a choice. You can choose to live in a world where 'wizard' is a verb. I understand some of the reasons why you might not want to do that. I imagine they are perfectly fine reasons. I just sure as hell don't agree with them.