Why Dota Sucks — 8. Balance

One of the most common praises of the dota genre is that the games tend to be “balanced”, that most abilities and skills are viable for use and remain effective as the level of play improves.1 So, even if people agree that the characters and concepts in the dota genre are simpler than those in rival genres, this lack of complexity can appear to be more elegant and interesting because there are fewer redundant or bad choices. In a game like Diablo II, the thirty skills and abilities available to the character can boil down into a small handful of build orders, with some skills being clearly superior to others. On the other hand, the typical character in the dota genre may only have four abilities, but they’ll be useful in a wide range of matchups, and you’ll be using them regularly. Most commonly, fans of Dota 2 will hold high praise for the range of characters selected and used at major tournaments.2 For this audience, it demonstrates that the game is not only being designed by capable individuals who could come up with the concepts and theory, but understand how to make that theory work in application.

Well, the first thing we need to understand is that the entire design of the dota game model is a series of checks and balances designed to mitigate poor balance. The core concepts in the genre make it easier to balance a dota game than other games. Let’s not forget that characters are bound to a leveling system, and those characters will grow more powerful over the course of a match. You can cut the head off of an unfavorable or poorly-designed matchup by simply being a higher level than your opponent. “But wouldn’t such a system benefit ‘imbalanced’ heroes? The powerful heroes will gain levels faster and then become even more powerful.” Not all characters exist on an equal curve. Some characters are stronger later in the game, and some characters are at their most effective early on. Even if one character is clearly better than the others, the player still needs to work hard in order to gain levels, to kill towers, to wipe out the opponent, and to win the game. Very often, this chain of events requires cooperation and hard work from your teammates. And even if that character is imbalanced, the opposing team can still band together in order to take down that individual.

In addition, the commonly-accepted “competitive” formats for League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of Newerth are defined by a back-and-forth drafting process, where teams take turns selecting their characters, and where a character can only be picked by one player. While other versus multiplayer genres occasionally dabble in this concept—the first-person shooter where only one player can wield the powerful gun, the strategy game where players cannot pick the same leader—this design runs contrary to many games. This system allows the creators of dota games to turn those dominant options into its own game. Instead of watching teams pick optimal choices, players can contest the imbalanced character, and will have to make unconventional character choices during the chaotic draft phase.3

But if something is too powerful, certain draft formats feature a “ban phase”. If you think a character is too strong, the game will let you remove it from the character pool. And to this, I laugh out loud. Yes, players have adopted “house rules” for use with select games, where players overwhelmingly agree that a game is better in the absence of a certain character or tactic, and refrain from using it.4 But these decisions were usually made when the developer was unable to update the game or simply chose not to. And very often, the house rules were only agreed upon after years of play and rigorous debate. Yet here we are with a ban button for characters that one thinks are too powerful, integrated into the genre by its creators and used on a match-to-match basis. Sadly, this scrub du jour of game systems is now considered a crucial element of professionally-played League of Legends and Dota 2 matches. It’s a disaster of an idea, but it’s a means to game balance nonetheless, and should be mentioned here.

The endgoal of these systems is to force variety through artificial means. They help to mitigate the chief drawback of poor game balance, the sense of familiarity that comes with seeing players repeatedly pick the same characters. If the dota genre allowed players to abuse the optimal choices, it is more than likely that most dota games would see very little variety. And the results of the 2013 and 2014 Dota The International most certainly confirm this, with each of the top five most “contested” characters—that is to say, the characters selected or banned the most times—featured at respective rates of ninety-three and eight-six percent.5 That’s correct: The top five heroes were chosen or banned in roughly nine out of every ten games. Much in the way that top RTS players tend to stick with one faction, dota players would be more likely to choose the roles and characters they are the best with. But by creating a system that turns the selection of optimal choices into its own game, you can sell this lazy form of game balance as an element of strategy.

However, understanding these systems only scratches the surface of this topic. Defense of the Ancients was one of the early forerunners to the world of “digital distribution”, in which a game is distributed and updated almost entirely through the internet. The map was originally disseminated through Battle.net, where players join a match and download the map from the host. However, the size of the Defense of the Ancients map file crawled into the megabytes and was significantly larger than competing Warcraft III custom maps at a time when dialup internet was still a thing.6 Later on, players would settle on a second choice. Instead of allowing new players to download Defense of the Ancients through Warcraft III—and stall the start of any match for several minutes—players were kicked out of the match and directed to the Get DotA website, where they could download the map. From this central staging ground, new versions of the map could be quickly disseminated.

Where videogame developers often have to place patches through an extensive testing phase, Defense of the Ancients existed on top of the Warcraft III game engine, and “updating the game” simply meant “updating a map”. This distribution process allowed for rapid development of what players commonly think of as the balance update, where the designers tweak and modify the underlying mechanics that provide the foundation for the simulation. While these balance updates occasionally revise core systems, they more typically alter the individual tools that the player already has available to them. It’s simple, it’s fairly easy to do, and the commercial game industry has widely adopted the process for use on the computer and mobile formats. And within the world of online multiplayer, players now almost entirely expect these updates. 7

But even in a world of constant game updates, Defense of the Ancients and subsequent dota games are now well-known and stand out for their persistent support. The limited documentation makes it difficult to know how many times Defense of the Ancients has been updated, but the number likely runs well north of one-hundred updates. Dota 2 has mirrored the Defense of the Ancients development process. League of Legends received over 75 updates in the first four years of its release. Smite and Heroes of Newerth follow a similar development process. A dota developer who does not provide regular updates might as well consider his game done and dead.8 While not all of these updates are intended to tweak or improve game balance—some being designed to scrape out mundane bugs—they demonstrate the route that is being taken to balance dota games.

So, everything checks out, right? Well, it is crucial to understand why the dota genre adopted this approach to game balance. The answer is simple: Battle.net was a distribution system for maps. It was not a rule distribution system. The rules for the StarCraft and Warcraft III skirmish modes can be used with any map. The rules for Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat, Team Fortress, and Brutal Doom could be used to modify a commercial engine and become the ruleset. But in the case of a Warcraft III custom map, the rules are contained in the map file. If you wanted to play Defense of the Ancients on five different battlegrounds, you needed to make five different versions of the map.9 But what if the ruleset in one version has a serious design flaw? What if these “competing” maps cannibalize each other in the Battle.net custom game listings? The result is that the Battle.net distribution model favored the idea of updating one map until it was “polished” or “perfect”. And because Defense of the Ancients developed a culture of organized competition, having only one “playing field” became easy to digest.

What the creators of dota games failed to understand is that the balance update is just one means to balance. It is not the only option. Remember: Patches only became a regular part of videogames during the mid-nineties, when the internet—and more importantly, first-party online gaming services—could be used to distribute them. Prior to online updates, game developers had one of two options for “balancing” their games. The first was to create a revision point that improves on the original game, whether an expansion pack or a sequel. Some of the most celebrated videogames ever made—Doom II, Descent II, Unreal Tournament 2004, Super Street Fighter II Turbo—were akin to standalone expansion packs, taking existing concepts and content and using them to entirely outclass their predecessors. And in creating a sequel, they could use the pre-release phase to give careful consideration in making the returning characters or weapons more competitive.10

In addition, you could design new levels and environments. It’s an extension of the game design process. Developers have created concepts that they thought would be fun to use in a videogame and they “balanced” those options against challenging and interesting level designs. They would “balance” a Mega Man, a Simon Belmont, a Ryu Hayabusa, or a Ladd Spencer by creating obstacles best suited to their wildly different skill sets. The same rules apply to multiplayer games, where the options only need to be balanced well enough that they can be used in a wide range of interesting and visually engaging environments.11 Developers have often given their player base the tools to create this content, and while I know that I have taken players to task throughout the course of this book, the die-hards tend to be very good at creating this content and will do it for free in their spare time.12

So here’s what happened: Defense of the Ancients was a “free game” that was regularly updated at no cost. Because of this, commercial game designers have struggled with how to build a business model for the genre, and appear to have settled on “create one game, update the hell out of it, and sell the player base downloadable content”. This has eliminated “sequels or expansion packs as a means to balance”. And because Battle.net made the single-map model ideal, and has institutionalized smaller map counts across the commercial dota games, this limited “new maps as a means to balance”.13 In the end, this design process encourages developers to continue tweaking the existing content, and encourages the “balance update” at the expense of everything else. In lieu of superior options, the dota genre has focused on the least compelling means to game balance.

The balance updates presented through new game content—whether presented in the form of sequels, expansion packs, or content updates—feels natural and interesting because it is aesthetically significant. Real life doesn’t come with balance patches. Change in the real world is synonymous with a change in scenery, and games should ideally follow suit. In addition, sequels and new maps act as an addition and addendum to that videogame universe, rather than a substitute or replacement.14 But when you constantly update the mechanical foundation of your game with no corresponding change in visual content, you are compromising the integrity of your game world.15 Instead of providing the illusion of a real world on the other side of the screen, you are saying that your art assets are just a series of placeholders for the mechanical interactions, and that this number crunching is the real star of the show.16

But you may argue that balance updates change mechanics, and since games are defined by their interactive nature, balance updates make for more engaging interaction and a better game. Well, I will admit that in my younger, more formative years, I would have certainly endorsed this balance process as a never-ending process for precisely this reason. I would have told you that as players become more familiar with what remains, it makes sense for the developer to make the final adjustments, resulting in a “finely balanced” game. But if it is the most engaging interaction that you desire, why would you want to play a game where nothing about the rule set is certain? Where a world of new maps is to apply the existing theory and knowledge to new environments, balance patches often hit a reset button on everything that you have previously known about a game, and it will prevent players from exploring a game to its roots. How can one argue that a game is deep when the developers are trying to stop you from seeing how far down the ocean floor really is?

Unfortunately, this is the development process that the business of videogames now encourages. In a world where you bought a boxed retail game, and “the developer got your money and has no reason to care what you think”, it protected the integrity of the finished work. But today, companies have built their business models on a steady stream of downloadable content, and they must maintain the size and morale of their player base in order to maintain the business model. The balance update is the easiest way to maintain this morale, and it becomes a matter of democracy run awry. Not only does the developer need to please the casual player who thinks the new flavor of the month is unbeatable, but also the skilled players whose opinion carries significant weight in a world of videogame celebrity.17 Very often, this means making the balance changes for the sole purpose of balancing a matchup across a wide range of skill levels, and not the changes that make for the best game.

So what happens in a world of endless balance updates? Our natural inclination is not to make weaker things more powerful, but to make powerful things weaker. After all, people only care about “imbalance” if it’s keeping them from winning. That’s why the draft systems in dota games exist in the first place: To ban and limit what’s powerful. So, every time an interesting tool has a chance to shine, it will be yanked away from its players like a child having their hand swatted by a parent. As Seth Killian has argued, the inevitable outcome is that in abiding to the wishes of the players who scream and whine about balance, you will end up with a less interesting game where stronger and weaker players have to separate themselves from each other using less diverse and interesting tools.18 And it is no surprise that dota fits this to a tee, a genre where character skillsets are so restrictive that they can appear to be diverse. You can’t have interesting but superficially dominant options when the profitability of your business model hinges on keeping a wide audience of players happy.

But many games in the dota genre take this a step further because they are being balanced around that single map. It is not just that you have to make the characters equal. You have to make those characters equal relative to the layout of the one map that everybody plays on. In a genre where minor changes to a character’s skillset can have a profound impact, mundane things like the spacing and layout of trees now become important factors that must be considered.19 And in the process, it becomes a cycle which perpetuates itself. You are not only balancing the characters to work on the map, but you are balancing the map to work with the characters. As players are forced to achieve more with less, and as the minutiae becomes more important, game balance will swing in wilder directions as players find the new optimal tactics.20

Now, many players view these constant updates as proof that the developers care about their fans and are doing what needs to be done to make a great game. In reality, it shows something much, much different. Quite simply, a game which has to be repeatedly balanced is not balanced. How can the Dota series be balanced if we are now nearly a dozen years past its conception, and yet, it always seems like someone has to go back and make a correction? And how can dota games be balanced if nobody seems confident enough to stake their reputation on a current version of the game?

You see, a balanced game does not need to be constantly corrected, and the simple fact is that there is nothing wrong with having powerful characters. A well-designed game should be able to persevere in the presence of a dominant strategy because the interactions that lead to the dominant strategy will remain interesting. The goal, as Seth Killian has argued, is to make sure that the weaker choices do not lose to the powerful choices in boring ways. But then again, we’re deconstructing a visually-stunted genre built around a simple, basic control scheme and some of the simplest characters in videogames. When “losing to a dominant choice” is not accompanied with well-designed game systems, quality visuals, or a general sense of immersion, then “making sure the choices are equal”—to create pleasure from human competition as played through an even playing field—is the only thing you have left to fall back on.

But if the creators of dota games do not provide this constant support, and they do not snuff out “imbalanced” tactics and strategies as they appear, then their games will become irrelevant, as players drop that “dead game” and its “stagnant metagame” due to a “lack of support”. In this day and age of game development, the makers of dota games are most certainly not the only people who must give in to this reality. People are whining about game balance in pretty much every genre. However, the developers and creators of other games still have the previous commercial and distribution routes available to them. They can release sequels. They can introduce new maps. Their players can create maps. The dota genre does not provide these options.21 The end result is that the dota genre is tethered to the balance update in a way that rival games and genres are not. So, quite simply, the creators of dota games must strive for a game where everything is balanced. And as a result, a game where nothing is interesting.

Continue to Chapter 9: Dota Obscura