Previewing DOTA 2: The Birth of a Genre Part II

In the past three weeks the Action-RTS genre has exploded. Going from being a relatively minor player in the gaming and competitive gaming scenes to a a video game arms race on par with the peak of the Cold War. Here's how it happened...

A couple weeks ago we dove into DotA and the Action-RTS genre it spawned. We wanted to get an understanding for how a genre manifests in a time when people think everything has already been thought of. At the time we had some vague knowledge of Valve's sequel being unveiled at GamesCom as well as a pair of recently successful new entries into the genre to look at (HoN and LoL). Oh how things have changed... In the past three weeks the Action-RTS genre has exploded. Going from being a relatively minor player in the gaming and competitive gaming scenes to a a video game arms race on par with the peak of the Cold War. Here's how it happened. Free-to-play game League of Legends sends shockwaves through the gaming world when their publisher Riot Gamesannounced they have surpassed the 15 million accounts milestone as well as sporting 4 million monthly users and 1.4 million daily users. This announcement moved League of Legends from "game to watch" to "bona fide mainstream hit." The only real competitor (excluding the original DotA mod) of LoL in the open market, Heroes of Newerth, made it's own play by changing from a one time pay-to-play model to the League of Legends style of free-to-play with a micro-transaction system. The shift marks an admission by HoN's publishers, S2 Games, that LoL has become the dominant force in the market, and that they are lagging well behind. This announcement is also a validation of the micro-transaction system League of Legends uses to turn a profit. With HoN and LoL - as well as Team Fortress 2 with those pesky hats - showing the power of micro-transactions outside of casual games we should take note that this could well be more than just a trend in the genre. The micro-transaction profit model may well follow in the footsteps of post launch DLC (downloadable content) and become the next major trend in video game monetization. In Cold War terms this day might well be the Cuban Missile Crisis of gaming news. The long quiet Dota 2 blog which had been inactive since the original announcement of Dota 2 last October exploded with the revealing of a sixteen team tournament at GamesCom which was to be played for - pause for dramatic effect - ONE MILLION DOLLARS! Talk about a bold marketing play, right? This announcement is a monumental one for gaming across the board. The International (the tournament's name) is far and away the largest e-sports payday to date. Those less cynical about it being a marketing ploy wondered if this could mark a major shift in the success and viability of professional gaming. If so, players might soon be able to treat gaming as a full time job and a potential career even, and for game makers it could mean more focus on hardcore competitive mechanics and features in future games if tournaments and sponsors can become a source of profitability. The most prestigious and successful gaming series in North America Major League Gaming (MLG) officially announces the addition of League of Legends to its pro circuit halfway through the season. This move places LoL on the same level as MLG's other competition games which are all juggernauts in gaming already - Call of Duty, Halo, and Starcraft. Now the action-RTS genre is getting as much press as the historically prominent FPS, RTS, and RPG genres. Are we looking at the gaming version of mutually assured destruction (MAD)? Refusing to concede the pro scene to a competitor (let alone a competitor whose game isn't even out yet) Riot Games fired back at Valve's million dollar tournament with the biggest salvo yet. Riot announced season two (their name for the competitive game year) of LoL will boast a total prize pool of FIVE MILLION DOLLARS. Investing this much into tournaments ensures a healthy competitive scene for as far as the eye can see, but it is important to note that the five million is for the whole season/year. Riot plans to spread this money over countless tournaments on the local and international levels to stimulate their competitive scene. It's yet to be seen if any tournament will have the weight of Valve's The International which boasts not just a million dollar grand prize but a total pool of 1.6 million USD for the single tournament. The International tournament kicks of in massive fashion. As reported by the English shoutcaster for the tournament Tobi "TobiWanKenobi" Dawson day one of the tournament saw sustained concurrent viewership of over 1.5 million people. This is a monumental achievement considering 10,000 viewers has generally considered quite good for a game stream with 100,000 viewers being a major accomplishment. If there was any doubt about size of Dota 2's market before this day they've passed now. Dota 2 will be massive, like it or not. Remember what I said before about the one million tournament being a bold marketing ploy? Well I was wrong. Lead developer IceFrog announced The International isn't a one time stunt. According to him it will be returning for years to come, and the prize pool will be "at least as big as" the 1.6 million USD of this first tournament. It will be interesting to see if they include any other form of support for the competitive scene financially beyond this tournament. Blizzard announces a "completely rebooted" version of their internal Starcraft 2 mod based around the DotA concept that they showed at BlizzCon last year. This could mean one of a couple things. Either they made a bad game and had to get rid of it, or else they saw how big the genre was and decided to put more work into differentiating their product. Either way it looks like another big name publisher is betting substantial resources on the growing popularity of the genre. The Preview Now that we all know just what's at stake lets dive into the game. The International served as more than just a an unveiling. For those committed to watching most or all of the tournament there was a plethora of new information to glean from watching the games. The number one question on everyone's mind is, "Is it really like DotA?" In short, yes, but that hardly explains the game. What matters is how does it compare, not just with the original, but with the competition too.

Gameplay

Abilities and game mechanics have been crossed over from the original DotA in an impressively faithful manner. Since the DotA to Dota 2 differences are modest let's look at how they compare to the other big player in the genre, League of Legends. The games on the surface are very similarly in basic format. You have two teams of five heroes who progress through the game farming, ganking, and team fighting in an effort to destroy the other team's base. The differences in game style begin become apparent as soon as the game starts. As you will be able to see League of Legends has staked its flag firmly in the "casual but competitive" market, and DotA 2's aim is to stress rewarding depth of gameplay that accompanies its high skill cap. The difference could be seen as similar to how Halo compares to Call of Duty with Halo representing the more accessible casual but competitive arcade style game, and CoD catering more to the hardcore with an unusually challenging learning curve and ultra high skill cap. Neither is necessarily superior, but personal preference and playstyle will weigh heavily on which game is better suited to your gaming desires. The first clear sign of this difference is in the early game (laning phase) when creep killing and accumulating gold are of the utmost importance. Dota 2 allows for players to "deny" their own creeps and towers by killing them when they are low health to prevent the opposing player from getting the last hit and gaining precious gold. This element of strategy was left out of League of Legends because it was considered barrier to entry for new players (and less poetically as their site used to say because "killing your own units is weird".) Not including it has helped make LoL more pick-up-and-play friendly than it's competitors. Valve believes the mechanic is valuable because it maintains the ultra high skill cap that makes DotA compelling to so many people. Furthermore Valve believes the advent of skill based matchmaking and their unique coaching system (we'll look at that in a bit) will keep denying from demoralizing new players because they won't be up against more skilled players who utilize the mechanic and they'll have help learning how to do it. Another element which can be traced back to the RTS roots of DotA is the ability to control and micro multiple units independently in Dota 2. League of Legends has again forgone this feature ostensibly because they wanted to remove more barriers to entry. Where I can understand the removal of denying for this reason it is less understandable here. Dota 2 shows how these skills can make micro heroes rewarding to play but are not a barrier to entry because if you can't micro you simply don't play a micro hero. A big difference between LoL and Dota 2 is how the base structures work. In both games there are buildings in the base (called Barracks or Inhibitors depending on the game) which when destroyed make your minions many times stronger and are an important element in achieving victory. In LoL the minions become more powerful but the base structure can respawn if enough time passes allowing for a team to turtle their way back into the game. In Dota 2 the structures are destroyed permanently. The more powerful minions are relatively easier to kill than their LoL counterparts but they must be dealt with indefinitely and losing one or more can make most games unwinnable. For the casual player (and maybe even in general) LoL's system is superior because in DotA and Dota 2 it takes considerable strategy and coordination to overcome the deficit - something lacking in many games. There are a number of other small features which add lots of depth, complexity, and variety to Dota 2 which are not present in LoL for whatever reason. For instance, in Dota 2 you are able to "body block" opponents. This is the practice of using one unit to obstruct the movement of another in order to aid or prevent escape. It is a difficult but rewarding tactic you can see in action here. Many of these mechanics have to do with how the Lol and Dota 2 maps differ. So we will look at that next.

The Map

One interesting element of the Dota 2 map is different terrain heights. If you are on higher terrain than your opponent you will have more vision and the advantage in a fight because while attacking uphill your enemy is more likely to miss an attack. This element makes positioning of vital importance in any engagement. It also factors into warding since higher terrain vision is obstructed unless you are on it. Placing wards on key high terrain areas can grant important vision where the enemy thinks they are hidden. This is most comparable to League of Legend's grass which makes you invisible to all units not in the grass allowing you to surprise enemies. Important Grass locations are warded often similar to high terrain spots. Another interesting component which differentiates the Dota 2 map are the trees. Where the LoL trees are a fixed part of the environment only there for aesthetic appeal and pathing, they serve many purposes in Dota 2. Trees are all destructible allowing for creative players "cut" new escape paths and hiding spots into the terrain if you have one of the heroes or items that can destroy trees. The trees also provide a number of narrow paths which can be used for juking enemies. These spots are another relatively high end mechanic as their locations and applications take time to learn and execute properly. While not being necessary to be a successful player these spots again add depth to an already rich gameplay experience. Every two minutes on the Dota 2 map a powerup will spawn at one of two locations at random. They are most comparable to League of Legends red and blue buffs. However, Dota 2's powerups (called runes) are considerably stronger than red/blue buff and facilitate a great deal of the early game action as teams try to control the runes. This leads to fights for them as well as a great deal of ganking stemming from acquiring one. The runes importance wane as time goes on because map control and other factors begin to weigh more heavily on the course of play. A final major map difference is Dota 2's day/night cycle. A seemingly aesthetic element has been given a tangible effect on the game. In the night players have a smaller vision cone which makes ganking easier. It also factors into several hero's skills including heavily into one hero whose skills are designed specifically around the day/night cycle.

Heroes and Items

This is often where fanboys of both games get most ferocious. Both seem to think the other game is filled with overpowered heroes (champion is the LoL term). In truth, both games seem to be well balanced as their thriving competitive scenes can attest. The differences are notable though. League of Legends is balanced around more spamable abilities with relatively low mana cost. Dota 2 follows DotA in having stronger individual abilities which tend to have relatively longer cooldowns coupled with higher mana costs. Where LoL encourages the arcade style element of using your abilities early and often, Dota 2 again stresses strategic play. Most skills in DotA are designed with hero killing or survivability in mind and with very few geared towards farming creeps. This differs from LoL where all heroes have four skills and a passive (simply four skills in Dota 2) of which one is often geared towards assisting farming. Dota 2 has received criticism for being a direct copy of DotA. Some have been disappointed by Valve not bringing in any new game mechanics or heroes out of the gate to augment the current roster and every hero using mana. Comparatively League of Legends sports a number of unique champions who use energy, heat, and rage instead of mana. These champions provide a good change of pace from the norm. While Dota 2 will not launch with any heroes like this IceFrog and Valve have stated not to worry. After launch they intend to continue iterating Dota 2 like DotA has for the seven years prior. IceFrog has said to expect the introduction of new unnamed mechanics through the redesign of existing elements (heroes and items) and through the introduction of new heroes and items into the game. Despite not having the full contingent ready for The International they do plan to launch with the complete 105 hero roster currently available in DotA. These heroes do offer a remarkable variety of gameplay styles despite being all mana based. A great deal of the variety in Dota 2 comes from the items. This is one area where League of Legends lacks from this writer's viewpoint. LoL relies on pregame champion augmentation through runes and masteries to customize champions. These RPG elements are enjoyable but provide only passive changes to a champion and often follow a few pre-established builds. Dota 2 looks to a wide selection of items with active abilities (of which it has more than three times as many as LoL) to augment heroes in each game. These items allow for a wide variety ways to play any given hero and provide a great deal of the variety from game to game beyond which ten heroes are in the game.

Presentation

In lieu of a great number of new game mechanics being presented at launch Valve has gone all out with additional game features to set their game apart from the competitoin. Dota 2 is going to be a pioneering game in the inclusion of spectator capabilities. The International has already shown off many of the impressive features. Though day one of the tournament definitely showed some growing pains in the streaming system, by day two everything was running smoothly. By launch the features will include the already displayed ability to stream multiple shoutcasts of a single match live through steam, viewers can also stream in-game data from the plethora of in-game stat tracking elements Valve has built into the game, and the most impressive feature which is announced but has not yet been displayed is Valve's plan to allow an unlimited number of players to personally spectate ongoing games with their own camera controls. Logistically this is impressive because you are talking about syncing up hundreds, thousands, or even millions of computers together without affecting the connections of those playing the game. If Valve can pull through on these features it could propel e-sports and especially Dota 2 to a whole new level of exposure and interactivity. The ability to watch high level games going on at any time promises to also be a great learning tool for new players. Another tool Valve has promised to include to help players learn beyond a tutorial is a coaching mode. In this mode new players will be partnered with a volunteer veteran player who will follow through the game with them and assist them in learning the game. How Valve intends to incentivize this feature is yet to be seen, but hats and achievements come to mind. If this feature takes off it could be a great counter to the high learning curve criticism of the game which kept the similarly styled Heroes of Newerth from ever taking off. In terms of artstyle, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. The game features a style which would seem to be a middle ground between the high end, detailed, and dark graphics of HoN and the brightly colored, cell shaded, but more cartoon-like look of LoL. Animations are also clear and visually impressive, but at the same time you can tell a definite focus of the development team has been to keep animation sizes down and utilize particle effects as well as quick fade times to prevent team battles from becoming a "chaos of colors" and overwhelming animations - another criticism of the genre in general. Soon the game's full beta will be in our hands and we will get a clearer sense of how all of Valve's efforts have coalesced, but for now The International has left the gaming world buzzing the name Dota 2, and deservedly so.

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Phil loves a good debate. Don't expect him to shy away from starting the conversation. Follow him on Twitter @MrTallgeese if you're of a like mind, or if you just want to troll him relentlessly.