Evolution is a funny thing. It’s ironic that one of the original high fantasies is at the center of a huge leap forward, breaking new ground. Guardians of Middle-Earth is set to bring the MOBA genre to consoles for the first time, but only by understanding why this is so significant can you truly respect Monolith’s leadership and leap of faith.

If you look at the MOBA genre, it’s a lively, growing and innovative sector of the gaming industry that is still so very new. In fact, there are many gamers that live and breathe acronyms like FPS, RTS and RPG that aren’t yet aware that this one stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. For those unfamiliar with genre stalwarts League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients, the style of play takes its cues from real-time strategies (in fact, DotA was built as a mod for Warcraft III)With that in mind, it’s no surprise that MOBAs (at least in their traditional RTS perspective format) have been slow to make it to consoles, where rapid unit selection and issuance of commands get bogged down due to failure of adequate input mechanisms.

Monolith has stepped forward as the first developer to tackle the exciting and competitive genre for gamepad jockeys. Guardians of Middle-Earth, which he had the opportunity to play at E3 earlier this month, is poised to be the introduction gamers new to the genre have been looking for. In order to make sure that the translation works, the studio started with a “strike team” of MOBA aficionados. This group of Ancient-defenders and Legend leaders set forth to address key issues in creating a title for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network: control, camera and game systems.

Earlier this week, during a conversation with Guardians’ Senior Producer Ruth Tomandl and Staff Designer Scott Compton, we learned about how Monolith plans to meet user expectations and defy them at the same time. One of the benefits (and risks) of using a property like Lord of the Rings is the loyal fan base. It’s a burden that the design team has gladly taken on. The world of Middle-Earth is allowing them to craft characters that are recognizable, but also woo those that know every nuance of Tolkein’s original works with the inclusion of very minor characters.

Fellowship members Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn and Gandalf are joined by lesser known heroes and villains Hildifons, Thrain and Gothmog. All told, there will be 20 characters at launch with more to be added from Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit after that movie hits theaters. Characters will play as Tolkein fans would expect. Legolas largely uses his bow, Gandalf is an enchanter and Gollum relies on his sneakiness to overcome foes.

Where Monolith is breaking from genre convention is in its approach to controls. Because point-and-click movement isn’t ideal for controllers, Guardians of Middle-Earth puts you in direct control of your character. In addition to movement and targeting reminiscent of a twin-stick shooter, there are two different mechanisms for activating powers. The “beginner” scheme puts the basic attack on the right trigger with the face buttons dedicated to the four upgradable powers each Guardian has at his/her disposal. Tapping the button triggers the mapped power immediately, but holding it down allows players to prep the power for precision timing.

The advanced scheme cues powers with the face buttons, but puts their activation on the right trigger. Compton and Tomandl told us that this was designed for maximum flexibility. While the schemes are labeled “beginner” and “advanced,” it’s purely a matter of play style. In fact, some guardians are suited more toward one type than the other, but it’s ultimately up to each person, with swapping layouts an extremely easy endeavor. Monolith will even be including recommendations for control style alongside each Guardian’s profile.

Another big change is that many of the skills available to each of Middle-Earth’s champions and antagonists are area-of-effect (AoE) abilities. This applies to many of the basic attacks, as well. For instance, Thrain’s melee basic attack is displayed with a wedge-shaped reticle. Legolas’ is a straight line. Multiple enemies can get caught underneath and damaged. This implementation, while making guardians feel more powerful, created new balancing concerns, that is pushing the team to tweak time and again to make sure that things aren’t lopsided.

One of the ways the team has chosen to put players on a level field is to make three of the four face button abilities available at the start of every match. The fourth, ultimate, ability becomes unlocked much later in the match. This helps gamers get a better feel right away for which progression path they want to take as the game progresses. This also plays into Monolith’s desire to cater to console users.

While Monolith is endeavoring to meet expectations with regard to the source material, they are working equally hard to create an experience that will set their game apart. Instead of 45 – 60 minute matches, like you might see in LoL or DotAGuardians of Middle-Earth games last about 15 minutes (though the team is still tweaking the timing). Along with that, match levels cap at 14, rather than the genre-standard of at least 20.

All of this is in service of getting players in, through a game, and on to the next. Given that there will be 20 guardians at launch, the time commitment necessary to experiment with each is significantly less daunting. Also, since the game won’t be free-to-play, everything is right there in the package once the download completes. Additionally, the death penalty (the amount of time players need to wait to re-enter a match after their guardian is defeated) will be significantly shorter even as it ramps up throughout the match.

Another addition to the genre staples are guardian buffing shrines that can change possession throughout the match.  Players will also have greater control over lanes, with RTS-like opportunity for upgrading grunt units and towers. Everything is about balance. While shorter matches might lead some to worry about a shallow experience, the addition of lane and unit management gives room for deeper strategy.

Given the risk of bringing a PC-centric genre to the consoles, Monolith is making some smart choices to get new players ready to compete. A full tutorial explains the basic of the style and the features that Guardians of Middle-Earth brings to the table. Everything from the basic objectives to life-saving tips (towers will kill you dead quickly) is covered. If players still aren’t comfortable taking on human opponents in a 5v5 battle to the death (or if you just want to try new guardians and loadouts), there will be a challenging AI in place. Furthermore, if you want to play cooperatively with friends against a team of bots, that’s an option that will be available to you. Want to try out some handicap matches? Sure, you can do that. Just dive into the custom match options and mold them to your wishes.

As the call wound down, the team took a question about post-launch support. Again emphasizing that this isn’t the skin-happy League of Legends model, all the pair were willing to commit to was more content. We know that there will be Hobbit-focused characters, but we don’t know yet if they will be free or offered a premium price (my guess is the latter). Beyond that, Monolith wasn’t talking, no matter how much we pried.

We’ve got our eye on this exciting title, which is due for release this fall on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. There was some talk about interest in seeing the game gain acceptance on the competition circuit. As we all know, though, one does not simply walk into the MLG. Guardians of Middle-Earth has a lot to prove, but it’s poised to make it’s mark and bring a new crop of players to the genre.

Want to see what the fuss is all about? You can check out the first gameplay trailer for the title right here: