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The rumors and speculation can cease. Valve is making Dota 2, we've played it, and it's already amazing even though it's not coming out until next year. And we haven't yet laid eyes on Dota 2's biggest innovation: a radical approach to integrating the game's community back into the gameplay itself.
What's a Dota?
Dota 2 takes its name from the Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, a drastic change to that stock real-time strategy title, which pits two teams of five players against each other in highly competitive, 40-minute or longer matches. Unlike most RTSes, DotA has each player controlling a single hero who levels up and stockpiles gold to purchase powerful equipment and consumables. As computer-controlled armies continually spawn and rush the enemy's base, players are responsible for using their powerful heroes to turn the tide of the battle in their favor.
DotA quickly gained massive popularity on Blizzard's Battle.net service, with the growing community utilizing user-created channels and the rudimentary custom game browser to connect players. As mods tend to do, it branched into several variations as time passed. Eventually, one rose to the top: DotA-Allstars, originally created by Steve "Guinsoo" Feak (now employed with Riot Games designing League of Legends). Allstars is currently maintained and updated by IceFrog (who declined to give his real name), who was hired by Valve in 2009 and is now working on Dota 2.
DotA enjoys such unprecedented popularity for a number of interconnected reasons. The game has a skill curve as long and as wide as Counter-Strike or StarCraft; expert players dominate matches with lesser-skilled individuals solely through manual dexterity and hard-won knowledge. Extensive upgrade paths allow players to combine items into more powerful versions, gaining thousands of hit points or powerful life-stealing attacks. Team play is hugely rewarded; though the map is large enough for all ten players to spread out and fight creeps on their own without anyone engaging anyone else directly, late-game play is almost invariably centered around giant 3v3 or even 5v5 team fights.
The mod has benefited from excellent, long-running support in the form of constant updates that add new content or address balance issues. Said balance is good enough that no dominant team composition or strategy has ever taken hold for long. The heroes are varied enough that a match featuring different team rosters can take on an entirely different character from the last.
The enormous following generated by DotA's deep gameplay is unprecedented. Today, years after its release, a third-party site hosting an update can get hammered by more than six million downloads in a day. The mod spawned a new subgenre, commonly referred to as "action-RTS," that contains two successful commercial games in League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth (and the unfortunate flop Demigod) as well as DotA-Allstars itself. Valve Corporation, the company beloved for its Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, and Left 4 Dead series as well as its outstanding Steam digital distribution and matchmaking platform, is making its entry into this still-growing genre next year with Dota 2.
What Does Valve Bring?
Valve's approach to Dota 2 is unusual in that the gameplay itself is remaining almost entirely untouched. "Our first reaction is to assume that [design elements are] there for a reason," project lead Erik Johnson explains. "IceFrog is one of the smartest designers we've ever met. He's made so many good decisions over the years in building the product. He virtually never makes a decision that doesn't have some reasoning behind it and a way to pick apart the logic behind it." This approach means that Dota 2 basically is DotA-Allstars with new technology.
DotA-Allstars' roster of 100+ heroes is being brought over in its entirety. The single map games take place on is functionally identical to the one that you can download for free today in the Warcraft III mod. Items, skills, and upgrade paths are unchanged. Some hero skills work slightly better due to being freed from the now-ancient Warcraft III engine, but Dota 2 will be instantly familiar to any DotA player.
A few things will make significant differences to players making the transition. Dota 2 uses Valve's Source engine, so the game is much prettier. Source itself is getting a few upgrades, including improved global lighting and true cloth simulation. Dota 2's integrated voice chat is a huge step up from having to set up your own Ventrilo server, and the speed of voice communication is very nearly a requirement for a game as team-focused as DotA.
AI bots will take over for disconnected players, and will be available to play against in unranked training matches as well. However, don't get your hopes up for a full-fledged single-player game, though. Johnson says, "Our goal with the AI is just that their experience isn't destroyed just because one person couldn't finish the game."
The visual style is remarkable for retaining the somewhat cartoony feel that the Warcraft III version of DotA-Allstars is built around, while going in a few different directions. "I think there are functional aspects to the art that are pretty significant to the players," Johnson muses. The environment, particularly in the forests that fill in the map between the three lanes that the NPC armies follow, uses a desaturated color scheme to give the colorful heroes and abilities some visual pop. The sizable art team is putting a lot of work into making the shapes and animations of each hero distinct to the point that players will be able to instantly identify any hero they see and quickly gauge the threat level of any situation.
The game will also feature a ton of custom voice work. You'll get amusing lines from heroes as they deny the enemy team last hits on creeps, and champions who have backstory connections will trade quips when nearby.
The bulk of innovation in Dota 2, however, is ancillary to the gameplay itself. Valve is upgrading Steamworks (the company's backend technologies for matchmaking and other gameplay and community-related things) to allow them to create in-game rewards for participating in the Dota 2 community. The idea is to have everything a player does in or out of game tie back into their online identity. Like the improvements to Source, the Steamworks upgrades will be available to third-party developers who choose to use Valve's tools when Dota 2 launches in 2011.
At a basic level, posting useful feedback or participating in constructive discussions on the forums will contribute to your standing in the community in a visible way. Valve doesn't have the specifics on how this will work nailed down yet. Will you get points that contribute to a visible ranking, like a Gamerscore? Will your posts need to be recommended by other community members to count for anything? What counts as a constructive discussion? These questions are all being actively explored at the moment. Valve assures us that the designers have a slew of awesome ideas for how to implement rewards in a way that’s visible to the rest of the community, but there are no details to announce yet. "When we talk about this identity that exists inside and outside the game, we don't think we're anywhere near it with what exists on Steam right now," Johnson admits.
If this was just about getting points for posting comments, though, we wouldn't waste your time by telling you about it. Dota 2 goes much farther than that. Everything from unlocking new skins for your favorite hero to getting a unique title for writing a strategy guide is on the table. Valve has ambitious plans (for which, again, there are no specifics to share) to host everything themselves and provide the best framework for the community to interact with each other. The idea is to reduce the social friction inherent in having to dig around a bunch of different fansites and wikis to find what you're looking for.
Ultimately, two things will make Dota 2 stand out: the coaching system and interactive guides. Read on to find out more.
Riding the Skill Curve
Getting owned sucks. It doesn't matter if you're the victim of a headshot in Counter-Strike, corner trapped in Street Fighter, or swarmed under by Zerglings in StarCraft. Holding the short end of the skill stick in competitive games like these is rough. This problem is compounded in DotA and its clones by two factors. First, matches last around 40 minutes – that's a long time to spend getting your face kicked in. Second, dying not only takes you out of the game while your respawn timer counts down but also directly benefits the other team by giving a big cash bounty to your killer.
At intermediate and higher levels of play, having a poor player on your team who dies frequently is worse than fighting with a man down, as the opposite team gets gobs of gold for picking off the newbie. This has fostered a legendarily newbie-hostile attitude within large swaths of the DotA community. As fun and rewarding as the game is when you're in a match of appropriate skill level – and it can be one of the very best experiences in gaming, without exaggeration – finding those matches has always been a nightmare. It doesn't help that the game is so intense that Valve had to institute a "no talking about the match for an hour afterwards" rule for its internal playtests. The recent commercial titles that more or less cloned DotA have ameliorated this to some extent, but it is still often a huge problem.
Valve believes that the solution to the huge barrier to entry is threefold. The first, obvious solution is to have excellent skill-based matchmaking for both individuals and teams. Valve believes that the work going into Steamworks for Dota 2's release meets that requirement. Second, interactive guides will allow players to do more than just read a guide for their favorite hero that has been deemed helpful by the community at large. Valve plans to allow guide-makers to tie their work back into the game by doing things like highlighting suggested item purchases or displaying useful information during a match.
Finally, a coaching system is being deeply integrated into the game. By logging in as a coach, veteran players can do their part to help out newer folks. Valve hasn't entirely decided on the specifics of how newbies and coaches will be matched up, but once they're together a few things happen. The coach sees the pupil's screen, and gets private voice and chat channels to communicate with them. The coach probably won't be able to take control of anything directly (once again, the details are currently under discussion), but information is power in Dota 2 and having a mentor whispering in your ear can make all the difference in the world.
Of course, the pupil will be able to rate the coach's helpfulness. Being a well-regarded coach will have explicit in-game rewards, just like writing useful guides, posting constructive feedback, or engaging in interesting strategy discussions. If the overwhelming response to Battle.net achievements is any indication, vanity rewards like these will be extremely effective in channeling the community's energies toward positive contributions.
Valve founder and boss Gabe Newell thinks that ongoing service and value creation over a game's lifespan is the new reality of game development. "IceFrog was one of the smartest people we've ever met about doing that, and he was doing it with both hands tied behind his back, so to speak," Newell says. The company plans on approaching Dota 2 with the same dedication that won it the fanatical devotion of the Team Fortress 2 community, pushing out dozens of updates that do everything from adding new hats to fixing balance issues to introducing entire new match types for free.
"I think the interesting thing is us adding a second layer where the community is a service to each other. That's the real shift that we're trying to build here. Valve is going to keep building software around Dota and around the community and around Steamworks for Dota, but we're also going to build this system where the community can bring service to each other and be recognized for it," Johnson proclaims. With a solid backbone of community-enabling systems and Valve's legendary support and technology behind it, Dota 2 has a chance to turn one of the most popular mods of all time into a full game on PC and Mac that compares favorably to any eight-figure-budget console blockbuster.