Last time, we traced the distant relatives of League of Legends from Kriegsspiel in 1812 through to Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. This time, we get to draw consistently direct lines of influence, and start with a recognizable game rather than end with one. Where the last article ended with fantasy war gaming leading to the creation of the RPG, this time we need to back up a bit, and see how fantasy war gaming developed on its own…
1983: Warhammer Fantasy Battle
Games Workshop began as, well, a literal games workshop: they manufactured traditional board games. Shortly after, they became an importer of Dungeons & Dragons into the United Kingdom, and eventually a manufacturer and publisher of its own, original tabletop war games, beginning with Warhammer Fantasy Battle. While Warhammer would later be eclipsed by its science-fiction spin-off, Warhammer 40,000, it’s nevertheless the bedrock on which Games Workshop established its own place as one of the biggest names in tabletop war gaming.
Warhammer gets a spot on this list, in no small part, because it acts as a bridge. It not only represents a natural development from Chainmail, but is a direct influence for the next link in the chain.
1994: Warcraft: Orcs & Humans
I can just quote Patrick Wyatt, Producer and Lead Programmer, to explain this one:
Allen Adham hoped to obtain a license to the Warhammer universe to try to increase sales by brand recognition. Warhammer was a huge inspiration for the art-style of Warcraft, but a combination of factors, including a lack of traction on business terms and a fervent desire on the part of virtually everyone else on the development team (myself included) to control our own universe nixed any potential for a deal. We had already had terrible experiences working with DC Comics on “Death and Return of Superman” and “Justice League Task Force”, and wanted no similar issues for our new game. (Emphasis added.)
So… pretty cut and dry, really. Blizzard tried to get their hands on a Warhammer Licence, didn’t, but made a game called Warcraft inspired by it. Okay, maybe creating a science fiction spin-off featuring space marines, swarming insects, and
space elves Tau was a little on-the-nose, but Warcraft very much evolved into it’s own entity. The influence of the game might be clearest in World of Warcraft and Hearthstone, but there’s a specific sequel that deserves particular attention…
2002: Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
It’s fitting that there are three main features of Warcraft III that were important:
First, and admittedly least, is the addition of neutral creeps. It’s not a game changer, but it did work its way into the games showing up shortly on this list.
Second, it introduced heroes, units that represented unique characters, with their own stats, abilities, and level progression. Warcraft III is where the two forks in the road meet again—it introduced RPG elements into the strategy game.
And finally, it generously supported modding through the “World Editor.”
None of these developments are ground-breaking. Neutral or passive enemies have been in video games for ages; blending wargames and RPGs is a natural, almost obvious idea, not something Warcraft III invented; and modding tools were, likewise, not a new development (heck, they were in Warcraft II).
What is important is that all of these features were together in the same game. Warcraft III isn’t just the inspiration for the next game on the list, but the underlying structure that made it possible.
2003: Defense of the Ancients
Like the fantasy rules modified the base game of Chainmail, Defense of the Ancients was an incredibly popular mod of Warcraft III. It moved further in the direction of an RPG, with each player controlling one hero and only one hero, rather than masses of nameless troops. As a team game, two groups of players controlled their heroes in order to win the game by securing an objective.
In short, it created the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, or MOBA, or Action Real-Time Strategy, or ARTS, or… whatever, you get the picture. And it wasn’t just the general idea that caught on; many of the specific details, like defensive turrets, jungles, minion waves, etc. continued to pop up in not only other MOBAs, but other games that took a page from the design book.
And so, the end of our journey looms large (and obvious) on the horizon.
2009: League of Legends
Ah, here we are, after a mere 197 years. League of Legends took the idea of the MOBA and polished it into a stand-alone game.
Its success didn’t just spur imitators, but three games that can all claim some connection to its direct predecessor. League of Legends was produced by Riot Games with some of the talent behind Defense of the Ancients; Valve followed suit with Dota 2, which likewise hired talent responsible for Defense of the Ancients; and Blizzard, whose game laid the groundwork for a whole genre of game offered Heroes of the Storm. It also broke new ground in terms of free-to-play business models and became the premiere esport, but perhaps we’re drifting from the topic at hand.
Like any art, game design doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We’re a long way from Kriegsspiel, and I will freely admit I doubt any designer on League of Legends spent their free time reenacting 19th century Prussian war games, but there’s a progression between there and here. A series of game players and game designers that took existing ideas, polished them, hammered them into shape, and added their own ideas in place of others. League of Legends needed to have predecessors, gamers who thought, “What if we simulated a battle as best as we could?,” “What if we added magic?,” “What if we focus on a few particular heroes?” It’s about taking existing ideas and making them your own, by polishing, hammering, cutting, and gluing until it’s something really new. Modern games are just what happens when you do that for centuries.