What we need to ask is: If the characters in the dota genre are so simple, and they compare unfavorably with the chess pieces in other genres, then how do they provide the illusion of depth? The common argument is that Defense of the Ancients stripped away the tenets of RTS—base construction, unit construction, node-based resource gathering, and a significant range of tactical interaction—to focus on Warcraft III-style hero management. By removing these things and exploring a greater range of concepts within the remaining game systems, the creators of Defense of the Ancients were supposedly able to create a deeper game.1
Of course, this is something that videogame players and journalists have struggled with ad infinitum. This is a culture of media which hails and extols some of our simplest videogames—Pong, Super Mario Bros., Nintendo versions of Tetris, Wii Sports, Journey—as some of the best videogames ever created.2 Well, this laugher is little different: Defense of the Ancients pioneered a deeper, more complex genre by removing game systems. How the hell does that work? The short story is that in the last twenty or so years, there has been a fundamental transition in the consumer perception of depth. The slightly longer story is how this came into being and how the dota genre uses this to its benefit.
In the medium’s early years, designers worked around incredible technological restrictions that encouraged an emphasis on elegance in videogame design, a high degree of depth created through a smaller ruleset. While games such as Super Metroid and Chrono Trigger were heavily marketed on the size of the offering, the general rule was that your limited content needed to play better than everyone else’s. But during the mid nineties, the optical disc became the dominant media format for videogames. There would be a number of changes in the philosophy of commercial game design, but the most notable would be the impact of optical media on elegance. The developers who were once designing games for multi-megabyte cartridges and low-capacity arcade kits were now working with seven-hundred-megabyte optical media. And while Sega’s Saturn and Dreamcast consoles would become the home of countless cutting-edge arcade games, it otherwise became open season for developers to add and retain any content they damn well pleased.
During this same time period, the difficulty level in popular videogames declined by a significant order of magnitude. Easier games were only a commercial detriment in the arcades, where the easy games were quickly mastered and left to the wayside. But in the new world of the PlayStation, where arcades were a declining commercial force and consoles were the king of the market, “easier games” meant “more customers buying more software”. Using the increased storage space offered by the new media, developers began to use additional content as a buffer zone for the playtime that would normally be generated through failure. The one-hour game that could take dozens of tries to beat could now be replaced with an easier game that was ten times longer. Where the technological limitations once acted as a check and balance on the designer’s exuberance, games could now be defined by the breadth and the scope of their content, even if it didn’t lead to greater depth.
Although the best game developers have taken this technology and used it to build more complex, more elegant, and more compelling games,3 most of the industry now champions a model of “complexity through choice”. Where the first-person shooters of the nineties allowed players to carry as many as ten weapons, Call of Duty offers thirty largely similar guns as part of a two-weapon “loadout”.4 Pokémon X and Pokémon Y allow you to plug over 700 different critters into one of the simplest turn-based battle systems in its genre. Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV are almost entirely dedicated to introducing a new toy or game mode in every mission, and do not try to make those toys interesting or cohesive as a whole.5 Borderlands offers billions of possible weapon combinations in order to sidestep its hideous combat and visual design. Basically, the complexity in the core functions—whether running and gunning in a first-person shooter, managing the battlefield in a strategy game, or controlling space in a brawler—are being simplified. You’re being given more choices but asked to use, understand, and master a smaller range of them at any time.
It is the perfect model for the large companies that can throw manpower and resources at a single game, creating disposable choices that can be substituted in and out of the system at the player’s leisure. (Or, as it is commonly known, “downloadable content”.) And in the process, their games have completely transformed the consumer perception of depth. See, understanding and mastery of a well-designed game requires you to understand how all those moving parts interact as a whole. But the “depth” provided a range of choice can fool less experienced players by virtue of how many choices are being provided. So long as these choices are balanced and no weapon dominates, the ruse works well enough. It’s easier to convince the consumer that the number of weapons, skills, and upgrades—rather than the interactions created by those weapons, skills, and upgrades—is what makes a game deep.6
And no genre on the planet sells this ruse better than the dota genre. Defense of the Ancients and the subsequent dota games have become today’s endgame for complexity through choice. Because, once again, that was the option that was available to Warcraft III map creators. When the creators of Defense of the Ancients stripped down the Warcraft III game template to build a game around its hero system, there was no way they could compete with the dungeon crawlers, brawlers, fighting games, and other action titles that feature more complex chess pieces. When confronted with this reality, those creators scaled the number of choices as far as the eye could see. More items, more heroes, more matchups. The more, the better.
Today, the games most synonymous with the dota genre are also the most synonymous with complexity through choice. Defense of the Ancients, League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of Newerth each feature over 100 characters and over 100 items. League of Legends is well-known for its “Mastery” system—a transplant of the World of Warcraft “Talent” system—that allows players to pour skill points into nearly sixty passive skills as they play matches and level-up their game account. Players can also purchase Runes, which provide incremental stat bonuses for various skills. Dawngate features similar systems, but also allows players to choose a “role” before a match, to take on significant stat bonuses in the pursuit of a specific playstyle. While many dota purists despise talent systems, the goal is much the same as a varied character roster or a wide range of items: Give the player more levers to pull, even if the levers lead to incremental and mundane outcomes.
So, just compare the dota genre with the RTS games where you get a handful of factions to choose from. Compare the dota genre with the 30 to 50 characters that comprise some of the most complex fighting games.7 Now, you may argue that this doesn’t stop designers from creating a dota game with a smaller number of characters. But if you are part of a game industry which has hammered home the idea that “choice is depth”, it absolutely does. A dota game with fewer characters and fewer choices—whether Awesomenauts, Demigod, Dead Island: Epidemic, or Heroes of the Storm—will be seen as simpler than its peers, even if the interactions between the characters may be more interesting. And the business model for the dota genre—where the developer gives away the game for free and slowly releases paid content—will encourage developers to add more choices. If you’re not adding new characters and new choices, then you don’t have a business model.
In doing this, the dota genre has done something fairly clever. The player is engaging this range of choice at their own pace, and the average match length in a game like Dota 2 usually runs from 20 minutes to an hour, a very long match length for a versus multiplayer genre. As a result, it may take 100 hours to play all of the characters once. This may seem like a long period of time, but many fans of dota are coming from games and genres where a significant time investment is not seen as a negative. In its heyday, the most committed World of Warcraft players were expected to build their week around the guild’s raiding schedule.8 The genre also appeals to the fans of e-Sports, who accept the time investment as a necessary evil for becoming the best.
But in addition, the dota learning curve is an anomaly. In most videogames, the learning curve is a matter of player input. What weapons can I use? What skills does my character have? What tools are in my toolbox? The learning process remains interesting because the player can engage these concepts at their pace. But in the dota genre, your limited skill set dries up very quickly. You quickly learn what spells the character can use, and you need to wait until the next match to try out a new “build order”. So what happens in a genre where a team of players can significantly stack the odds against the individual? A genre where a couple tenths of a second can mean the difference between success and failure? A genre where there are as often as many as nine other players in the battlefield, each with their own individual roster of skills? The process of learning the game is based predominantly on output. In other words, what can others do to you? What can your teammates do to others?
Instead of having systems in place where players can quickly cycle through the available characters and learn what they are capable of, this range of player output can only be engaged in a team setting, where the value and aims of individuals are going to vary on a match-to-match basis, and where different teams are going to demand different combinations of spells and items. These concepts can only be engaged at the rate which other players are presenting those concepts. As a result, there is not only a ton of content and a ton of different ways it can be arranged, but the meaningful lessons of said content are presented to the player at an extremely slow rate. I may think of this as a poorly-designed learning process, but for everyone else, this provides the slowest of slow burns present in any genre. It can take longer to test drive a dota game than it takes to play and master many of our best videogames. From this web of design choices, we get the perception that if it takes longer to engage dota than other games, then it must be deeper than other games.
There are so many options—and so many ways for them to be arranged—that it may take the player hundreds of hours to simply engage a familiar situation. And with it, you’ll be asked to perform different duties and different roles as you pair with and against different characters. In a League of Legends or Dota 2, the number of possible team combinations and matchups are so vast that no community—let alone any individual—will ever see all of them.9 Throw in all of the items and runes, and you will always see new team combinations, new matchups, and new build orders, because it is simply impossible to engage them all. When you compare the dota genre with the popular videogames of past and present, this range of choices is simply unprecedented.
To this, I simply say: Who cares? Who cares if your dota game has a thousand or a million characters when every one of those individuals is less complex than what can be found in a competing game or genre?10 And who cares if your game has a hundred items, sixty talents, and countless runes when they don’t provide meaningful visual feedback? The interactions created by those parts—where teams of five lead a small number of computer-controlled allies down lanes on a single base map—are less complex than what you can find in competing genres. No matter the billions or trillions of combinations available to the player, dota can never be arranged in a way which will compete with the complexity in those rival action games.
We now have a generation of videogame players running around claiming that bicycles are more complex than cars because they walked into a bicycle shop and saw all the different ways they can customize their bike. But any group of idiots with enough time and resources can build a videogame with hundreds of characters, items, monsters, weapons, whatever. After all, that’s why it’s such an appealing business model for the companies with the resources to create them! I want games that are tanks. I want games that are rocketships. I want complex, intricate machines where every part has to be carefully considered in relation to the others, for the simple fact that they will lead to more complex outcomes than the ones in simpler games. Can they have customizable parts? Sure. But you should only do this once you have built a machine that will be more complex than its competition, regardless of what parts the player is placing into it.
Whether your game is a single-screen Pac-Man clone or takes place in a vast, sprawling metropolis, the goal is to make sure that all of the choices available to the player are interesting. Your game should be defined by the height of its creative powers, rather than the range and scope. And if that means you must create a smaller number of choices so that your time and energy can be allocated to making them good ones, then so be it. That’s the reason that the side-scrolling fighting game, in its best moments, can be as compelling as an open-world game that spans for miles.11 And it’s why games like StarCraft: Brood War and Street Fighter II Super Turbo can remain compelling in the face of the evolution that has shaped their genres. These games may lack the number of matchups and choices found in other games, but people keep coming back to them because they remain interesting.
In building those awesome choices and matchups, the game needs to be built on an series of awesome core concepts. At the end of the day, a game with a proper foundation will allow you to build those complex, well-designed, visually satisfying interactions. But here we are, discussing the genre of shoddy cameras, second-rate aesthetics, poor feedback mechanisms, and lousy character frameworks. Just as polish can’t make a bad game good, a boring framework is always going to yield boring characters, no matter how many tries you have to get it right. And it doesn’t mean a damn thing to me whether the free market is voting for the widest range of choices possible. In the meantime, I’ll take a handful of interesting characters over a cast of clowns that do little more than waste my time.