As much airtime as we may give to the mechanics and systems in videogames, what people have to understand is that games are simply not about “gameplay”. There’s a common adage that “graphics do not make a game”, but videogames are a hell of a lot more fun when the action on the screen looks awesome. Part of doing badass things is looking like a badass, and clever use of art and narrative can transform good or even average game systems into something worth taking a look at.1
So far as I have been able to gather, there is scattered praise for visuals and sound in the dota genre. Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that League of Legends is one of the most hideous videogames to ever hit it big.2 But Dota 2 is merely building on the stylized visuals in Warcraft III and enhancing their character with a laborious range of art assets and voice acting efforts. And then there’s Demigod, where massive underground caverns and ancient temples provide a wonderful take on the dota template. But you see, these developers are only exploring the visual concepts that were laid out in Defense of the Ancients. And in a fantasy medium where anything is up for the imagination, are the concepts really that interesting to begin with?
Answering that question requires us to once again fall back on Warcraft III, and to understand a little about offering the consumer a game worth checking out. As we mentioned in the last chapter, your game needs to demonstrate things that cannot be achieved on other platforms and in other genres. Consequently, the real-time strategy genre is a simulation of war, whether traditional military, science fiction, high fantasy, or elsewise. In the early history of the RTS genre, games achieved this sense of war by using 2D renders of 3D game models. This was a way to showcase “3D graphics” without the technological demands of the 3D rendering process.3 But by the end of the nineties, the consumer interest in true 3D worlds was being sated by other genres and platforms, and RTS developers felt the pressure to play catchup.
Predictably, emulating the scale of 2D RTS games in a 3D format would place a considerable strain on the computer technology of the time.4 In order to get 3D RTS games working on the typical home computer, developers held back the scope and scale of their established formulas, thus holding back the scope and scale of war. Warcraft III would be one of many games in a trend highlighted by Homeworld, Warzone 2100, Command and Conquer: Generals, Age of Mythology, and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. In doing this, Blizzard maintained many of the concepts associated with traditional RTS games, but in order to get the game working in a true 3D engine, they did it in a game model with fewer participants and fewer moving parts.5 6
Because of this, there is a criticism of Warcraft III which is often overlooked. As a tradeoff for the adoption of 3D technology and the smaller armies, Warcraft III has a relatively insubstantial notion of the words “chaos” and “destruction”. As a simulation of war, the game can feel very lacking. Nobody is going to confuse it with Total Annihilation, Supreme Commander, Cossacks: European Wars, Rise of Nations, or the Wargame series. Sure, Warcraft III has some cool moments, great use of color, and some powerful-looking abilities. But unlike the devastating wizardry found in a Sacrifice, the destruction tends to be very localized and is typically unbefitting of an “epic conflict”. The Warcraft III visual design was at its best when playing to its “role-playing strategy” moniker, alternating the smaller, simpler battles with moments of discovery in the course of exploring the unknown portions of Azeroth7 and Kalimdor. Predictably, the Warcraft III visuals were at their best when they were playing to the strengths of the Warcraft III game systems. And this is the art direction which Defense of the Ancients standardized for use in the dota genre.
But what makes dota compelling escapism in the first place? Fans of dota may argue the appeal of their genre is in working together with a team of human beings to achieve victory, but that is not a theme unto itself.8 The inherent appeal of the dota genre is much the one found in the lawnmower brawler, the world of Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors. It is about becoming a powerful champion, directing your forces into the heat of battle, and letting the world know that you mean business. And we know this, because that was the appeal of Aeon of Strife! But when Defense of the Ancients codified the dota genre, it standardized the genre around visual concepts that were not intended to provide the feel of an epic war as witnessed at the ground level. Even as game developers create their own dota games using their own game engines and their own programming tools, and even as technology surpasses the Warcraft III game engine, its limitations continue to define the visual direction of the dota genre.
Perhaps this did not stick out when Defense of the Ancients was launched in 2002, during a time of relative infancy for the 3D videogame. While the lawnmower games were already building a reputation (and notoriety) for their on-screen enemy counts, they were only getting a couple dozen enemies on the screen and doing it at the expense of all other visual fidelity. But this is a medium which is defined by technological progress. Even late-generation PlayStation 2 games like Demon Chaos, which used some clever programming to get thousands of enemies on the screen, were beginning to up the ante. Shadow of the Colossus was presenting players with gigantic bosses that had to be scaled, solved, and conquered like any other environment. And if you compare the sixth generation of videogames (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox) to what has followed, the most immediate improvement is the scope and scale of the concepts. Larger battlefields, more monsters, bigger monsters, and more satisfying visual feedback, all in the pursuit of more complex games with more moving parts.
With game developers taking predictable advantage of boosts in the hardware, the medium has entirely upped the bar for visual presentation. The Ninety-Nine Nights and Dynasty Warriors series are getting hundreds of enemies onto the battlefield and pairing the carnage with visually-detailed backdrops. The Hitman and Dead Rising series are managing huge, detailed crowds for use in their own genres. The Grand Theft Auto and Crysis series are taking breathtaking leaps in the complexity and fidelity of both organic and man-made environments. The Total War series features detailed skirmishes with thousands of individual participants. Which is nary to speak of the gains made in the RTS genre, with Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars, Supreme Commander, and Planetary Annihilation demonstrating massive armies in both 2D and 3D formats. The Wargame and Men of War series are hosting detailed, fully-destructible environments that wilt under the ground and air assault. And today, first-person shooters like Massive Action Game, Planetside 2, and ArmA III are getting hundreds of human participants into multiplayer settings without a hassle.
Here we have games throwing incredible simulations of war and civilization at the player, delighting their audiences and pushing consumer technology to its limits. So, the question is: Why, exactly, would I give a shit if a dota game is throwing a few dozen soldiers and five-man teams down a corridor of small, static environments? Then again, I suppose this was expected from an action genre which is so committed to its RTS roots. Why provide players with an incredible sense of space if your camera is confined to a small, fixed view with no outward orientation? Why provide players with sprawling, open environments when your character’s field of vision is often determined by the “fog of war” mechanics present in RTS games?9 Why provide players with detailed interactions and high-quality art assets—the kind that can only be appreciated in close-up camera angles—when the dota genre is being played from a fixed distance above the ground? But even if these limitations were not present, it is clear that the genre has favored a low-poly “stylized” art approach with a smaller number of on-field participants. As it currently stands, the dota genre lacks the detail and technical muscle of competing games and competing genres.
I think there are three games in the dota genre that can demonstrate the lack of visual panache. The first is Smite. The premise is that you’re not merely playing as a powerful champion, you’re going a step above mortals. You’re playing as the gods. Sound cool? Well, the game does nothing to actually justify the premise, and looks like most of the MMORPGs that you’ve played in the last decade. Smite amounts to little more than a conventional dota game that uses a fixed camera perspective. When I think of gods going to war with each other, it’s difficult to argue that there is a more underwhelming means to this presentation. As games like Populous, Black and White 2, and the God of War series have shown us, gods don’t poke and prod their way around battlefields, they destroy them.10
The second game is The Lord of the Rings: Guardians of Middle-Earth, and memory yields us a number of games that conveyed the events of Middle-Earth with more intrigue. While The Lord of the Rings: Conquest is an otherwise unplayable mess, its sense of scale is at least comparable to other lawnmower brawlers. The Lord of the Rings: Battle For Middle Earth II significantly builds upon the moving parts in its middling predecessor, providing an impressive sense of scale that compares well with many high-fantasy RTS games. Even a brawler like The Lord of the Rings: War in the North provides some marginally compelling ground-level action. Certainly, the scope and scale of these games will merit unfavorable comparisons to the cinematography in the trilogy of movies that are based on the books.11 However, the war and chaos to be found in these games—games that occupy the dreaded “licensed videogame” territory—are far ahead of anything found in Guardians of Middle-Earth. And with it, the other dota games that Guardians is based upon.
The last game is DC: Infinite Crisis. Just like Guardians of Middle-Earth, Infinite Crisis compares unfavorably with the similar games which bear its motif. Even if many superhero games also fall victim to the malaise of licensed videogame development, many of them have at least tried to inject the most appealing moments of these characters into a game worth playing. The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, the various Spider-Man games, and the well-reputed Batman Arkham series are at least trying to provide videogame players the things those superheroes are are synonymous with. Whereas injecting these characters to a dota game—the genre of rigid movement systems, low on-screen enemy counts, and restrictive map design—feels criminal.12 Why would I ever want to be Batman or Superman in Infinite Crisis when I could be Batman in the Arkham games or Superman in Superman Returns? The action to be found in those games is way cooler than a dota game which uses a comic book license as a visual placeholder.
Fans of dota may argue that Smite, Guardians, and Infinite Crisis are hardly the face of the genre. However, these games help to confirm its restrictive nature. It is not merely that the visual design is restrictive, but that the visual direction leads to restrictive mechanical concepts. The worlds of comic book heroes and high fantasy are being retrofitted for the mechanical trappings of the genre.13 So, the creators of dota games claim that their characters are “heroes” or “champions” or even “gods”, but when it comes time to present these actions on a screen, there has been very little to back this up. Where other developers pushing the visual and technical boundaries of the medium, the creators of dota are entirely content with what its game model represents, how it functions, and what it looks like.
But hey, what was to be expected when nobody was even thinking about what their new genre was? Aeon of Strife and Defense of the Ancients emerged from a culture of map development where creators had little control over visual direction. While support for imported game models existed in Warcraft III—and most were of very poor quality—the common practice was to rearrange the Blizzard art assets. Where some games merely have “excuse plots”, Blizzard third-party maps had “excuse graphics”. A Pokémon Tower Defense or a Battle For Helms Deep did the same thing as Defense of the Ancients, matching the Warcraft III art assets against narrative concepts in public domain and copyrighted works. The goal of these creators was to turn the existing Warcraft III models into something playable, and very often, it was done at the expense of whether it made sense. On the way there, Defense of the Ancients borrowed its backstory from unrelated media, whether the public domain, Japanese animation, other videogames, or Warcraft III itself.14 Like many Warcraft III maps, Defense of the Ancients was just bad fanfiction, and it damn sure shows.
Since then, the job of justifying dota—explaining what dota actually is—has been left to commercial game developers.15 Riot Games went with the explanation that “The League of Legends” was set up in response to the endless wars on the continent of Valoran. The League acted as a simplification of war within a carefully controlled arena that acts as a way to settle political disputes.16 Demigod chronicles the gods’ attempts to find a half-mortal champion worthy of joining their ranks, and is performed through a process akin to a game or sport. And unsurprisingly, Valve purged the Defense of the Ancients universe of the copyrighted names and backstory when they created Dota 2.17 Valve settled on the story that the “Mad Moon” which held the forces of good and evil in balance was destroyed. Which, for some reason, leads to a “war” where waves of “creeps” head down “lanes” in order to fight each other.
But that’s not how narrative works in videogames. Even if your narrative amounts to an excuse plot, your excuse plot can’t be retroactively enacted, because that narrative arc is the means to cohesion for all the visual and mechanical elements in your game. And just as designing your game for a free camera does not make the free camera inherently interesting, merely providing a narrative does not make it the best possible narrative. Quite simply, some concepts and ideas are going to be cooler than others, and they’re going to lead to cooler moments in the course of playing a game. Now, we can always debate what the coolest concepts will be, but let’s be honest: The world of endless conflict surrounding The League of Legends sounds a hell of a lot more interesting than The League of Legends. The world of Demigod sounds a hell of a lot more interesting than the god-sport. The chaos of these worlds—which exists entirely outside of what is being presented in these games—sounds a hell of a lot more interesting than the stability and order that has become the foundation for the genre.
Much of the confusion stems from that unhealthy obsession with e-Sports, and it is a culture of competition that doesn’t really care about graphics. That may seem like a broad brush, but this is very often the case. In these circles, the thrill of videogames is the thrill of competition, to compete with others and to see where you rank within that universe. Discussions of visual design usually boil down to transparency: Do the graphics quickly and effectively convey critical game variables? If flashy graphics become an obstacle to that goal, then very often, they must be marginalized or eliminated. This means playing on less detailed graphics settings in order to more easily isolate those game variables, and this is well-documented in the Quake III Arena and StarCraft II communities.18 The lack of concern for the visual elements in the dota genre is no different, and is something which spills over in the genre’s approach to map design.
For those who are familiar with Counter-Strike, another game series with a robust tournament scene, it may seem at times that “Dust2” (de_dust2) was the only map ever made for the game. Much in the way that Dust2 is almost entirely synonymous with Counter-Strike, games like Dota 2, Heroes of Newerth, and League of Legends are defined by their use of the three-lane layout popularized in Defense of the Ancients.19 However, most players are content with playing this one map over and over.20 The reason is simple: Where I view the genre as having more in common with Diablo and Dynasty Warriors, the competing train of thought views the dota genre as team sports, and many players view the battlefields in their games as little different than a chess board or a football field. If you view your universe like it’s a sport, why would you need more than one battleground to go to war in?
Well, first of all, computer code can codify game rules with fine detail and then disseminate those rules as though they are any other form of mass media. The word-of-mouth and governing bodies that allowed sports to flourish during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were far more primitive in their distribution.21 Sports confined themselves to a neutral layout as a means to accessibility and standardization. Even if many famous playing fields were defined by their inconsistencies—where basketball’s Boston Celtics would try to trap and funnel opponents towards the “dead spots” on the floor of the Boston Garden—they were closer to a necessary evil than an intended outcome.22 Whereas the “playing field” in most dota games is not neutral by design, and is a world of winding backwood layouts less like a basketball court and more like the jungle gym at a Chuck E. Cheese.
What has been lost in the confusion is that videogames can do things sports cannot. Games can do certain things better than sports, and this is why designing your videogame to be a sport tends to be a complete disaster. By the nature of their distribution model, videogames can feature dozens and even hundreds of playing fields, and talented designers can use those playing fields to build a universe quite unlike our own.23 And if you look at the games which have used “sport of the future” as a premise—including but not limited to Unreal Tournament, Quake III Arena, Deathrow, and Monday Night Combat—the creators of those games never once said “Our game is premised on a sport or a competition, so let’s restrict our game world to a single playing field!” These games used a wide range of venues to provide narrative and visual character for that universe. Developers attempted to explain why the player was fighting in a spaceship, a stadium, or an abandoned parking garage, all as part of an initiative to create a world worth exploring. In the end, these games used “our game is a sport” as narrative backdrop for the goal of building an awesome videogame universe.
So, within the context of sports, “one map” may be a standardization. Within the context of videogames, “one map” is an unquestionable and thorough regression. By arguing that your game is a spectator sport, and by arguing that the maps are “playing fields” similar to the ones found in real sports, you are arguing that the scope of the game—your universe—is so limited, that it can be contained and walled off by a single set of screaming, cheering fans. And if you would argue that dota is appealing precisely because it is a team sport, then what I would tell you is that a game that looks and plays like N3II: Ninety-Nine Nights or Supreme Commander can be that sport. But on the other end, the dota genre has not provided players with a sprawling, compelling universe.
But other than the molded and defined expectations of its audience, what is stopping the creators of dota games from taking the leap forward? Well, again, the purpose of commercial dota games that followed Defense of the Ancients was to make money. And yes, all commercial games exist to do this. However, the last half-decade has seen a consumer exodus from the games which intend to push technical and visual boundaries in favor of cheaper, simpler projects that are less likely to destroy a developer or require the backing of a large publisher. With competition from free videogames and the internet, people are giving second thoughts to the routes that allowed companies to pour tens of millions of dollars into a game. Right now, it’s a hell of a lot easier to win people over with the next Minecraft than a game which pushes technical boundaries but limits its audience in the process…even moreso, if your genre has its roots in a “free game” like Defense of the Ancients.
As a result, it’s a lot easier to build a game about “The League of Legends” than the universe of war surrounding it. Why would a publisher take a financial risk on a dota game that pushes boundaries when it will not look like other dota games and will not appeal to the sensibilities of the typical dota player? Why would Electronic Arts throw down a “Triple A” dota game when they can create a comfortable offering like Dawngate and throw the E.A. marketing machine behind it? Why would companies look to create massive, open battlefields when that scope could potentially compromise the game as a real-world spectator sport? And with the dota genre finding a huge audience outside of the industrialized world, why take a risk that your visual powerhouse will not run on the computers at a Vietnamese PC bang? Certainly, that is a difficult economic reality for the dota genre, but at the end of the day, your game can only be judged by the game.
The end result is a genre which is bound to a dysfunctional narrative and visual mediocrity. It is now competing against the grand leaps that are being made every single year. And again, this does not mean that all visually groundbreaking games are great or even good.24 But with each passing year, videogames will continue to up the ante for art design, using better hardware to more fully realize the creative vision, and showcasing a range of visual concepts that will allow for the more complex game mechanics that players desire. It’s a range of concepts—scope, scale, and war—that dota has a long way to match up to.