Zubon from Kill Ten Rats asks bloggers to review older games, in part for nostalgia, and also to see if we can learn any design lessons from them. I’m going to cheat and review Defense of the Ancients, which is a map mod for Warcraft 3 played over battle.net.
Similar to Counter Strike and Half Life, DoTA has eclipsed Warcraft 3 in popularity online, and has grown to be an amazingly complex game. The pure basics of DoTA are as follow: It’s a 5 on 5 map, with each player controlling a single hero from a choice of 80+. Each hero has 3 base skills with 4 levels, and an ultimate with 3 levels. You gain experience and gold as you kill enemy heroes and NPC monsters, which can be used to purchase items to boost stats or give special abilities (stun, teleport, sheep, lifesteal, ect). The ultimate goal is to destroy the other team’s base, specifically either the Tree of Life or the Lich Kings throne.
DoTA has a brutal, brutal learning curve. Since it’s a pure PvP game, you are directly competing against other players, and if even one player out of the 10 is noticeably weaker, it more or less spells certain doom for that player’s team and turns the game into a beating. This also means that should one player drop, either intentionally or from a bad internet connection, it usually means the game is over, as going 4v5 is very tough at best. As the average game of DoTA takes from 40-60 minutes, someone dropping 30 minutes in can be extremely frustrating. Leagues have sprung up to help reduce players dropping out, the main league being TDA. However, being an extremely weak player can get you banned from TDA, so putting in your time to learn the game in public games is a must. Public games can be decent, but far too often are plagued by players dropping out or otherwise ruining a match.
So with all that going for it, why should you bother with DoTA? For one it’s about as good a PvP game as you can get outside of a FPS. Its fast, requires teamwork, strategy, and a bit of luck. It’s amazingly balanced for a game with so much variety (80+ heroes, countless items that further combine into other items, terrain strategy, etc), and that variety ensures two games are never alike, leading to almost countless replayability. It has great depth, meaning it takes time to master even one hero, and with different game modes (random draft, select draft, captain mode, etc), you will be playing with a large variety of different heroes. Add in that your team will also pick different heroes, as will your enemy, and the complexity quickly skyrockets.
Once you get into TDA games, the level of competition is rather high, which leads to some very competitive and close matches. Often you will see a hero being used in a unique way, or a particularly skilled player dominating with a perceived ‘weaker’ hero. Clan matches, where all 10 players are on vent and have a game plan, are often the most entertaining and exciting matches to play in or even watch. A large community supports DoTA, both with new patches and with very active forums debating strategy, item builds, balance, etc. Once you overcome the initial learning curve, DoTA is a fantastic game to play as a ‘side’ game to an MMO or whatever else you might be playing, as its very easy to hop on and play a game or two whenever the motivation strikes.
For me DoTA remains one of the better examples of PvP done right, without the need to oversimplify everything and make both sides identical. It shows you can have a huge variety of heroes, items, and abilities and still pull off great balance and an entertaining game. Far too many games, and especially MMOs, try to balance by giving both sides identical options, instead of coming up with creative ways to enhance that balance, and this in turn leads to copycat strategy and ultimately a dull experience. If you’re someone who enjoys a fast paced, competitive PvP game, I highly recommend DoTA, even with its brutal learning curve.