I’m going to try and answer this question without diving into the meat and potatoes of the game, so I’m not going to go off about how last-hitting adds a great moment-to-moment challenge to the early game or the impact of good ward placement. But I am interested in its place in the industry, and what keeps drawing me back to it after over 450 matches.
First of all, Dota 2 gives you everything it has to offer right up front. There are no hidden cards here. It’s one of the things I love about it, and one of the things that makes it so intimidating to new players.
One of the trends in modern games that kind of bothers me is extraneous RPG elements tacked on top of games. I mean I get why it works; it gives the player a carrot on a stick to keep chasing and prevents them from getting overwhelmed with choices right up front. But at its worst it’s a way to hand-hold the player to control their pace with the games, ensuring that they’ll have to spend a certain number of hours to get through the content and to manipulate them into continuing to play for that carrot, possibly passed the point where they’ve stopped having fun.
I’m not opposed to those mechanics on principle; my favorite games are single player JRPGS, but it’s when those mechanics become content locks on skill based games that I get wary.
I feel like I need to clarify further though because Dota 2 is totally coated in RPG elements, from character leveling within a match to account levels. I don’t have a problem with any of that, and it’s not really what I’m talking about. What I’m really talking about is stuff like the weapon unlocks in Call of Duty’s multiplayer; the account leveling outside of the game-play that tries to mirror the player’s skill arc with tangible unlocks.
Theoretically this should work by giving the player new tools that they wouldn’t know what to do with at first anyway. Keeping elements that the player isn’t ready for out of his sight, and then doling them out one at a time so the player can get used to using and understanding each one in turn.
I find this is generally not how it actually works.
It’s particularly egregious in something like Call of Duty which is annualized. It’s just a time tax on experienced players, forcing them to put in hours before they can get to the base content they expect to have access to and in a world where Counter Strike still exists, it’s something I’ve never had the patience for.
Competitive multiplayer games are an often overlooked progenitor of procedurally generated “rogue-likes”, and this problem exists there too. The idea of carrying some progress over through playthroughs of a rogue-like is an element that I really don’t care for, unless it’s purely cosmetic. When it really goes wrong you get something like Rogue Legacy.
The problem with Rogue Legacy is that beating it isn’t an accomplishment, it’s an inevitability. In theory rogue-likes are skill based and very difficult. You walk into an unknown, unknowable, dungeon and have to try and make it through. As you play it and die repeatedly, you learn about the dungeon and the game. You start to figure out its rules, its elements, you become better simply through play. Spelunky is a pretty pure form of what I think makes the genre work. In Rogue Legacy the upgrade system fucks up that arc. Now as you learn the nuances of the game, your character also literally gets stronger. The game gets easier as you get better at it. By the time you beat it there’s no accomplishment unless you do so surprisingly early. And that’s all the more frustrating to me because of all the other things it gets right. Rogue Legacy bends over backwards to allow you to beat it. Spelunky forces you to change, to improve.
Video games struggle with the idea of pace and it’s a problem that I think mostly stems from the industry’s misguided penis envy over the movie industry. Movies are paced in a very particular way because of how that medium is limited by the speed of the human body and the particular lengths of time that movies are allowed to work within. Games aren’t limited that way. Just look at books, which are interactive in a limited way; the ability of the reader to read and turn the page can change the pace of a book. If you read a book faster, it’s a quicker read. In a similar way, players determine the pace of a game. I think this a fact that a lot of developers either don’t understand or just resent. It’s a fact that makes heavy cutscene or dialogue use in games so frustrating; the control of pace is taken out of your hands. There are other reasons, but I think that’s the main one.
The big thing about the pace issue is that while it bugs me, plenty of other people are fine with it and I can’t criticize them for it. That’s because my point is that a player instinctively knows what pace they want to play a game at, or has a particular pace at which they’re going to learn the nuances of a game, and if the game happens to line up with that pace then there’s no conflict.
My problem is with developers, and not just because I feel like they’re designing games to waste my time (which is already pretty egregious) but also because their use of RPG elements to control the pace at which you gain access to content is too often about manipulating the player into playing for longer than they might otherwise. They tap into the completionist aspect of players and put something shiny behind a wall of hours of playtime. That kind of reward that you really want, but once you get it, you realize that you have no desire to play the game anymore, at all, because you’ve played past the point of actually having fun. It’s that kind of bullshit that makes players sick of and resentful towards games that they previously loved and put a whole lot of hours into. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into enough times to recognize and be wary of.
It’s a corruption of an element of games that existed as a reward for the most dedicated players. There it was just a bonus, and often game breaking, like unlocking Super Sonic after collecting all the chaos emeralds. There it was a bonus. Now it’s a business model. The entire Free-to-Play industry is based around it. It’s exploited by corporate executives to try and turn video games into slot machines.
Again, Dota 2 totally has this, but it exists in a parallel space to the game. It’s all cosmetic and has no effect on how you play the game, so I’m fine with it. Whereas I’m really not okay with the way League of Legends(LoL) does it. Even though you can buy all the heroes in LoL with the in-game currency, there’s still that upfront tax of time. You don’t really have access to the full game until you’ve put in a certain number of hours. The game locks you out, and not just by locking out heroes, but with the Mastery system as well. You can’t really play the game until you’ve put in a lot of hours playing the game.
MOBAs are extremely complicated so that’s basically true of Dota 2 as well. You’re playing the exact same game, you’re just probably not very good at it at first. So on the surface there’s maybe not that much difference here, especially for players new to the genre,
It’s not just that there’s a wall, it’s what that wall teaches players. The experience wall in League of Legends tells players right up front that they need to grind out a lot of games before taking the game seriously. And it’s an idea players were very familiar with because it’s ripped right out of World of Warcraft. It puts an emphasis on artificial goal posts rather than on the game itself.
With Dota 2 there’s no grind in the same way. One of the best features of the game are the in game character guides written by the community. The best of which not only tell you which skills and items to get, but also why you’re getting them. Playing Dota 2 is about learning, and there’s a lot to learn.
There are an amazing number of meaningful choices to make over the course of a single game: Team composition, the pairing of payers with heroes, the order of getting skills, item purchases, ward placement, positioning on the field, and when to use the strongest abilities, etc.. And that’s also what makes the games so compelling to watch.
My point is that Dota 2 is designed to encourage the player to start learning the nuances of the game right away. Whereas League of Legends’ design tells the player not to worry about the nuances of the game at first. Dota 2 wants you to understand the game, League of Legends just wants you playing.
League is much bigger than Dota 2 and one of the biggest games in the world, so obviously there is merit to their choices. But I don’t think that Dota 2 could have succeed if LoL hadn’t had this tax on new players. MOBAs should be too time intensive for two giants to exist side by side, but here we are and I’ll be really surprised is any of the other MOBAs we’re going to be flooded with really take off.
So what makes Dota 2 so great? It’s that it encourages its players to not just play it, but to learn its nuances. It taps into not only what makes games like Spelunky and Street Fighter great, but also the spirit of speed-running games. The experience of the skill curve towards mastery of a game. That feeling of legitimately getting better at a game through play. It’s what the video game industry was built on, but it’s also something that’s been obscured with the way games try to control and manipulate players now, as well as our fickle cultural obsession with the latest games. The best games are worth spending time with, worth understanding. So many modern games tack on so much extra crap that just distracts or gets in the way of play. So I’m all the more affectionate towards games that get it, that don’t waste my time, that want me to learn their tricks. Dota 2 gets it. It’s free-to-play, but it’s also worth playing.