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Clash of the DotA Clones

DotA and its legacy:
Clockwise from top right: League of Legends, DotA, Dota 2, Heroes of Newerth, and Blizzard: Allstars.

I just got access to DotA 2’s beta-testing, played around a bit (a lot), and wanted to make a post about how important DotA is, both to me (as a game I’ve been playing in some form or another for 10 years) and to the evolution of video games. I think it’s important to differentiate DotA and its clones from other games because of their humble beginnings, massive fan base, complicated genre-bending gameplay, and exciting future. I’ll begin with an explanation and brief history of the genre, then compare current iterations of the game and discuss DotA’s future and place in videogame history. My experience with DotA consists of thousands of matches back in Warcraft days (2003-2008), a couple of LoL games, over 1500 HoN games (2010-2012), and a few hours in DotA 2 beta. Keeping in mind matches used to average an hour (but are usually only around 35-45 minutes nowadays, that’s a lot of time.

Defense of the Ancients, or “DotA,” originated as a custom map that could be played by Warcraft III players. With gameplay based on the Aeon of Strife map for Starcraft, Dota has passed through the hands of various loving authors, been developed into many different iterations, and evolved from a simple user-created map into a major new gaming genre on its 10-year journey into being one of the most popular games ever. Hopefully, it’s just getting started.

Gameplay: what’s the big deal?

The gameplay of DotA seems straightforward: two teams of 5 player-controlled “heroes” push back and forth in an attempt to destroy each other’s base. The heroes are assisted by wave-after-wave of weaker units (or “creeps”) that periodically spawn in your base and head towards the enemy’s in one of three lanes. The early game is a war of attrition in which players assist their team’s creeps in pushing into the opponents’ defense structures while defending their own. During the mid game, player-controlled heroes kill more of these creeps (and occasionally each other), they become more powerful, and eventually, the balance of power tips in one direction or the other.

the DotA map — bases are in the top-right and bottom-left corners, with three major lanes (top, middle, bottom) connecting them and a central river dividing home turf from hostile.

This is a simplification of course. DotA-style games often have over 100 unique heroes to pick from, with 4 levels of 4 unique abilities each. These heroes fall into a variety of categories more specific than the traditional strength, agility, and intelligence lineup typical of strategy games. Additionally, the order in which you level your abilities and the way you manage your gold in order to outfit your hero with a variety of powerful items are both extremely important in augmenting your hero’s ability to aid in team fights. A good team balances their lineup with a good combination of heroes that work together and can initially split up into a few effective teams of two. Here are a few classes under which DotA heroes fall:

Carry  Gets extremely strong in the late stages of the game
Disabler  Has abilities that can slow or stun enemy units
Nuker  Capable of outputting large amounts of damage very quickly
Initiator  Can effectively start a team-fight in your team’s favor
Pusher  Can push back creeps and destroy buildings rapidly
Support/baby-sitter  Protects a carry’s early-game farm and helps the team with .purchases that benefit everyone

On top of quick reflexes and decision-making skills, survival in a team-fight is very dependent on knowledge of all 400 spells, hero-specific strategy, and good communication and teamwork. A weak link can ruin a team’s chances of winning much more easily than a strong player can carry a team. Games used to last an hour on average, and a majority of players have hundreds of games under their belt, able to draw upon past experience and knowledge in making their every decision. How many people play these games? Many and more—millions of active users play one iteration or another every day.

Mastery of your own hero is only the first step towards DotA success

History: 10+ years in the making

The first version was released as a Warcraft III map by the enigmatic “Eul,” back in 2003, but his map was quickly taken and expanded upon by then-amateur mapmaker Steve “Guinsoo” Feak, who added many of the elements recognizable and beloved today. Although the developers went to great lengths to cultivate an original game, it’s important to remember that, as a custom map created with Warcraft III’s free map editor, Dota’s units look identical to those of the stock game, and it ran on Warcraft’s engine and through Warcraft’s online custom matchmaking . So, Guinsoo also fostered a strong sense of community in the clan “TDA,” in which players could congregate, compete, and most importantly, give feedback in order to improve the game. Because DotA had to be played “inside” Warcraft III, many of Guinsoo’s desired features had to be implemented through community regulation, and impressive innovations and work-arounds were created in order to perfect the online experience. Still, it was difficult to find a good match and there were limited repercussions for “leavers,” or players who left the match or dropped early, often ruining a game for the remaining 9 players.

old dota loading screen

Designed under the limitations of Warcraft III‘s mapmaker, Guinsoo’s heroes were simple but effective, with abilities very similar to those in the stock game. Around 2005, as Guinsoo’s involvement in DotA waned, he handed over the game’s development to “Icefrog,” a reclusive designer who added a plethora of bombastic heroes and creative spells that really challenged Warcraft III’s engine. Icefrog really took the game to the next level in terms of heroes and optimization, and was open to community suggestions. The DotA community thrived–by 2009, the DotA online community had over 1.5 million active members, and the number of actual players was estimated at many more times that–not bad for amateur game designers and a free game. DotA had come into its own and outgrown Warcraft III.

Legacy: DotA’s contributions and iterations

Critics argue over what to call the emergent genre: “DotA,” “Action Real-time Strategy” (ARTS), or “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena” (MOBA), but no one disputes the fact DotA basically created a new genre of gaming, combining many great elements from popular existing genres:

  • the thrill, coordination, and micro-management from action games
  • the planning, strategy, and wargames from RTS games
  • the teamwork and cooperation from online arena games
  • the character-building, leveling, and optimization from role-playing games

I believe DotA’s long-lasting success lies in its complexity and teamwork. Success relies on players initially choosing a good combination of heroes, specializing when necessary yet remaining adaptable if troubles arise. And although communication and teamwork are paramount—a team with a single slow-to-act player is punished, often severely—individual skill often comes into play. As stated before, memorization of the 100 different heroes and their roles, 400 spells, and 100-choose-6 item combinations is necessary to recognize, assess, and counter any scenario. It’s a complicated Rock, Paper, Scissors, and it’s too brilliant a design to be confined to a single game, much less a single map piggy-backing on a 12 year-old game.

However, this complexity is basically the major hurdle that Dota clones are attempting to address. The game’s learning curve is extremely steep and communities are notoriously unforgiving. Although efforts have been made to explain the basics of the game by means of tutorials and tool-tips, the fact remains nothing prepares a user for the vast amount of knowledge necessary to make the decisions required at every moment of play. Only through proper application of knowledge, experience, and a quick memory can a player have a good game. Don’t expect too much help from teammates either these games aren’t intuitive for casual players.

Head-to-Head: the rise of DotA clones and sequel to the original

DotA’s level of customization, engine, and skins were severely limited by Warcraft III, the platform on which it ran. By 2009, the graphics and gameplay were severely dated, and fanbase was dwindling. It was time for evolution. Two games, inspired by DotA’s gameplay League of Legends (2009), and Heroes of Newerth (2010) took DotA’s mantle in furthering the success of the new genre, each with their own pros and cons. Both “DotA Clones” modified the gameplay, map, and a healthy number of heroes from the original roster as well as created a variety of original content.

Because these games weren’t limited to Warcraft III’s engine, the developers have way more authorial control over gameplay, character-design, and community integration, and they both boast impressive stat-keeping (every stat imaginable is kept, from average kills:deaths to wards placed to win rate with individual heroes), game-tracking (every game played in the last few months are available to view and download), and match-making (users are matched with players with similar statistics and teams are balanced before a game is launched).

progression of two different heroes from 2003 to 2012 in 4 different games

By making changes to familiar characters, these three games have created a sort of pantheon of heroes. Names (Butcher–>–>Pudge–>Devourer–>Blitzcrank), appearances, and animations may changes–a scorpion who makes a dust storm in one game might turn up as a lava monster who makes a steam cloud in another or a sea serpent who casts a watery stomp can appear as a beetle who shoots spikes from the earth–but they’re easily recognizable  after you spend some time with them. It’s a pleasure to discover these old friends, and I consider them to be a bit like a new mythology–Romans and Greeks might have had different names for their gods, but the stories were the same. A tanky hero with an area-affect taunt, counter-attack, and a nuke that’s more effective if the enemy has critical health is the same whether he’s a noble legionnaire or a bloodthirsty fel orc. It comes down to preferences for aesthetics and style, because all the major players have great music, voice-acting, and graphics.

So, we have an original, 2 clones, a sequel, and a newly-announced Blizzard game that is a little like DotA meets Super Smash. As to which game is better, I won’t get into which is better because there are many articles on this and I don’t have an unbiased opinion because I love Heroes of Newerth, the obviously better game.  But with a direct DotA sequel on the horizon and player numbers in the millions for these other clones, it’s clear the formula is successful.

simple breakdown of 5 DotA-style games.                                                                                             Keep in mind DotA 2 is still in Beta stage and they’ve promised to eventually include every hero from the original. Also, even though it’s still in beta, it has more active players than HoN (around 50-70,000)

Free to Play: but how do they make money?

Wait—free? Yes. These games are completely free to play, with some restrictions on hero roster (that usually rotate). So how do the developers make money, you ask? The answer is through crafty micro-transactions, or low-cost purchase offers that many players take. If a player wants to use a specific hero for more than just a designated period of time, it’s possible to purchase the fully-unlocked hero for a few dollars. The same goes for less useful options like cosmetics, taunts, and early-access to new heroes.

The micro-transaction plan is catching on, with many games from Dota to the new Tribes to Team Fortress to iPhone apps implementing a free-to-play model. Although they don’t make the big bucks at the start, free-to-play games draw a much larger fan base than expensive ones, and their users continue to pay years after a purchase, oftentimes paying more money than a single $30-50 purchase. With LoL’s community well over 10 million, it’s not too hard to see how this strategy might make a buck or two. Plus free games combat piracy and encourage a much larger legitimate community (especially in Asia)…everyone wins!

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