For all of the design choices in the dota genre, there is an endgame at hand. How did the dota genre earn a reputation for complexity and depth? How has the game found room on greatest games lists? How has it become a figurehead for the “hardcore” in a new generation of videogames?
One word: Novelty.
We’re a little over forty years into the commercial history of videogames. And so far, it has been financed by novelty, the feeling of freshness that comes with original ideas and new situations. Most commonly, this novelty comes in the form of improved hardware, which allows for concepts and graphics that could not have been achieved with the previous generation of toys. But during the last decade or so, there has been an erosion in this contract.1 It’s not just the novelty of improved hardware that has begun to disappear. The novelty and mystery of individual games is on the decline. Prior to the turn of the century, print magazines and the internet dispensed a steady but small and uncertain train of content. You could go an entire generation without knowing about Doki Doki Panic, even if a discerning American child knew there was something odd about “Super Mario Bros. 2“.2 But thanks to today’s internet, a global communications network where people from around the world are in sync with each other, the mystery of videogames—much like the mystery of the world around us—has been in freefall.
Never is this more true than in the world of multiplayer games. Where insider information was once limited to one’s social circle, the internet allows the entire player base to share and catalog the winning secrets. We’ve already discussed the wikis and websites that allow players to crowdsource information, but those are just a drop in the ocean. Replays allow players to watch matches in the game client and scrutinize those details on a frame-to-frame basis.3 Professional videogame tournaments and walkthroughs are disseminated through massive video sharing sites, showcasing the optimal tactics in a massive range of games. Stat-gathering databases, both company- and player-run, catalog a world of data for players to access and exploit. Even those who ignore the documentation are going to copy the tactics used by the players who rely on it. If someone discovers something that shakes the fabric of a game, then it will either be widely copied or dismissed within weeks.
In a world where documentation and theory can be distributed across the planet in seconds, and in a world where games are being cataloged down to the source code, the novelty of a game can dry up almost immediately. And what happens when the novelty of a videogame is gone? There is only pleasure to be taken in what is already known. There is only satisfaction to be taken in things you have already seen and done. There is only satisfaction to be taken in the repetitive elements. Does the game world provide a convincing atmosphere? Do those mechanics provide satisfying audio and visual feedback? Are these games built on an inherently liberating and exciting premise? Does the game present a solid grasp of the design theory that made the genre so interesting in the first place? When the novelty of a game is gone, you must be able to find pleasure in situations which you have already engaged and considered.
Typically, in order to do this, you need to play games which force an understanding and appreciation for the things which define familiar situations. As an example, the older arcade and console titles often asked you to string out a small handful of lives in order to complete a brutal obstacle course, and it was a practice that demanded an understanding of the game systems. But today, “hard” games like Super Meat Boy remove the tedium from death, giving players infinite lives in order to brute force bite-sized levels. Many videogames are now akin to a movie, where you “watch” it once and then move on to the sequel. Even the normally ruthless multiplayer modes have fallen victim to the philosophy. Thanks to accurate matchmaking and the shared accountability in the popular team games, players can become an “average player” by winning half of their games against those who are as clueless as them.
So how the hell do you expect players to develop an appreciation for repetitive elements when understanding them is not a requirement for success? And if you are a company (Riot, Valve) that has positioned your videogame as the electronic equivalent of sport, a game which is ideally played over years and decades, this is a huge problem. Now, no matter how interesting and playable your game is, people will eventually grow bored with it. That is an inevitability. But a world where players view “the same matchup you’ve played a thousand times” as an inconvenience—even if your core concepts are really, really good—only makes this more difficult. How then, do you convince these players to play one videogame for years on end? The answer is simple: You must manufacture novetly. You must build games which can offer new situations on a regular basis. And in doing this, you must hold off that moment where your user base falls victim to a “stale metagame”, or “boring matchups”, or whatever.
And this, my friends, is the sterling achievement of the dota genre! What the creators of Defense of the Ancients inadvertently pioneered was a game model that was designed to defeat the decline of novelty, a game which can offer new situations even as a world of replays, video streamers, salaried players, and tens of millions of players hammer down on it. If players cannot understand the interactions that comprise a matchup, then you must give them as many matchups as possible, as many choices as possible, and change them on a regular basis. As we have gone from chapter to chapter in this book, we have explored what may very well be the longest novelty curve in videogames. Dota is a genre where the seas are shallow enough to stand in. But for the person who never steps out of the boat, it appears to be an endless ocean.
A wide range of choice is a means to novelty. Defense of the Ancients follows in the stead of games like Pokémon and Borderlands, which offer a huge range of choice in the absence of a deep and satisfying construct. The “deepest” games in the dota genre offer over one-hundred-plus characters and one-hundred-plus items to the player, along with a world of runes and talents. It can take hundreds of hours to simply engage all of your options. And in the case of the Defense of the Ancients and Dota 2, you can extend the novelty by wrapping your game rules in sloppy programming, which will result in unintended consequences and surprising outcomes. From this range of choice, you are presented with thousands of one-on-one character matchups, and the internet will never be able to meaningfully catalog or discuss all of them. The developer can then extend the novelty of the experience by turning it into a business model, creating characters on a regular basis and charging players to buy them.
But even if you can master a number of those characters and matchups, the standardization of the genre around large team formats becomes a bombproof means to novelty. There are so many possible team combinations that the player base could never hope to catalog them in a meaningful manner. And because organized and professional matches require teams to go back and forth in selecting their characters, the top players will be forced to explore a wider range of combinations instead of simply playing against the optimal. Even if you have played thousands of games, new novelty will come in the form of lane assignments and team strategies that you have never seen before.
What about the top amateur and professional players? After all, some of them play hundreds of matches every month, and because they’re playing against the best, they may very well see familiar matchups. From here, the balance update becomes a means to novelty. By using this massive range of choice as a base, you can create a surge of novelty every time you update the game. Even if the update only impacts a handful of heroes and items, its impact on the game can be far-reaching, and players will have to discover what these changes have done. This will offer veteran players a breath of fresh air, and for everybody else, it will create the illusion of a “balanced game” with a naturally-evolving state of strategy and tactics. So, even if players could document the ins and outs of the game, the second that the developer hits the reset button, all of that knowledge must be re-evaluated or discarded, because it is now out of date.
There are certainly other factors which are designed to keep players hooked to these games, and certainly other factors that have allowed the genre to become popular. However, the reason that the dota genre is held to critical acclaim is the novelty of the experience. The massive range of choice assures that players rarely have to revisit a familiar situation, and every time the creator updates the game, they are building new novelty within the confines of a comfortable, known commodity. So long as developers continue to provide this persistent support, there will be so much novelty that no player of any skill level or time investment will be able to overcome it. By offering players a virtual world where you are always seeing new characters, new matchups, and new strategies, you will create the illusion of a game with “endless depth”.
This is the genius of “games as a service”, a persistent development process that is intended to be nothing more than a series of distractions. Not only is it intended to offer new novelty on a regular basis, but it encourages players to continue playing a game that they do not necessarily enjoy because the developer has created an expectation that they will continue to try and improve the game. And with it, the goal is to stave off that moment where the experience ceases to be novel. When the creators of dota games no longer provide this novelty, players will eventually be confronted by optimal matchups, a “solved game”, and a virtual universe with few unknown quantities. All of the remaining pleasure will come from familiar situations. When this occurs, one of two things will happen. The first is that players will not understand the repetitive elements, grow bored with them, and move on. Or two, they will recognize that the repetitive elements in the dota genre are terrible.
There is no better example of this than the 2013 Diretide fiasco, in which an annual in-game event that was intended to commemorate Halloween in Dota 2 never surfaced. When it happened—or rather, did not happen—the community lost their mind, flooding social media sites with their displeasure4 and occupying the news in games for roughly a day or two. When players bombarded the Dota 2 MetaCritic User Ratings with zero-out-of-ten scores, the most common complaints ranged from a “lack of communication” on new updates, to “no new heroes”, to “GIVE DIRETIDE”. With a single battle cry, the community rose up and told Valve that their game is not interesting enough to play on its own. And that in order to hold their attention, Valve must continue to bombard these players with new updates, new content, and new novelty.
“But what’s wrong with novelty?” Maybe you have a point there. After all, isn’t “novelty” why we buy new games and hardware in the first place? Well, first off, as we mentioned earlier, the persistent development process can compromise the integrity of a virtual world by saying that very little is ever set in stone. But quite frankly, any videogame—from the ugliest flash game to the most compelling masterwork—can offer me new novelty. Hell, there’s an entire universe out there filled with new and novel experiences that I have yet to explore. I play videogames because I enjoy the hell out of videogames. And it goes without saying that if I am going to spend my time with games, then I want the best games. Period. Any game developer in the era of digital distribution can rearrange the deck chairs on their sinking ship. But only the master craftsmen are providing the games that are worth playing and worth going back to.
And yes, dota is not the only genre that thrives on the novelty of a new experience. After all, you are probably wondering why I am holding these criticisms against this genre but not the roguelikes and strategy games that make liberal use of procedurally-generated game worlds. The answer is simple: In their best moments, those games are really fucking good. And with a couple of changes, they would probably be awesome even if you were playing them on the Civilization equivalent of Final Destination.5 What applies to “complexity in choice” also applies here: Can you provide new novelty on a match-to-match basis? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, you must create a construct and a machine that is worth exploring even when all of the variables are known.
When it is time to determine where these dota games stand—without developers scribbling corrections in their thesis—they will not hold to scrutiny. Players will recognize that League of Legends is one of the ugliest, simplest games to ever hit it big. They will recognize that Dota 2 is an unintuitive game, and just incomprehensible enough that it is not fun to learn through the act of play. They will recognize that Demigod co-opted the Supreme Commander game model for use in a character-action game and is about as exciting as one would expect. They will recognize that Awesomenauts is the side-scrolling take on “baby’s first action game”. They will recognize that Heroes of Newerth is bound to the same limited template as all the other dota games. And they will recognize that Dead Island: Epidemic—as initially competent as it may appear to be—is outclassed by the superior action games which have come before it.
In many cases, the modern game design process is an attempt to avoid the unfavorable comparisons to the older, classic games which have outclassed them. Whether you accept this means of pandering is up to you. But through the coming years, I will spend time with many games that can not only provide that novelty, but an experience that can stand against the very best. I won’t have to worry about whether the game is going to get “patched” and I won’t have to worry about whether its creators are adding new content. When developers move on to create new games and ditch support for the older ones, those games can only be judged by the things that remain. The games that remain compelling at their core—even if they feel a little familiar from time to time—will be the ones that win out. Dota will not.