Valve's Next Game
Dota 2: from mod to full-production sequel.
If you've never played DotA, also known as Defense of the Ancients, trying to figure out how it all works can be confusing. This is especially true if you're hopping in with people who've been playing for years and have a fondness for lashing out at those less knowledgeable. It's a game type that grew out of Blizzard's Warcraft III community and has enjoyed widespread popularity since, spurring other developers to produce their own versions like Riot Games' League of Legends. Now that Valve's making a sequel, I think it's safe to say the spotlight on the sub-genre will be brighter than ever.
To prevent confusion over capitalization, I'm just going to write Dota for the rest of the article. According to Valve's senior project manager Erik Johnson, "When people talk about DotA they say Dota. It's kind of a word, at this point. For us it's just a word, or a brand name."
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The game works sort of like Diablo mixed with a competitive real-time strategy game mixed with a game of tug of war. At the beginning of a match players are split into two teams and the ultimate objective is to destroy the other team's base. To do so you'll control one unit, a hero, who utilizes a handful of special attacks and spells. The abilities differ wildly between the huge number of heroes, meaning you can head into battle as a tank, a damage dealing caster, or any number of other variations. Knowing your hero and how to effectively work with your teammates is key to victory.
You'll also need to manage streams of automated creatures, called creeps. These beasts spawn from both bases at regular intervals and it's up to you to fight alongside and through skillful play turn the tide of battle, eventually scything your way into the heart of the enemy base for the win. You'll also be gaining gold, experience and leveling up the whole time, giving you the opportunity to power up hero skills and also buy new equipment and items to further augment your abilities. It's a lot to process all at once.
For the sequel, Valve brought on Dota curator IceFrog to lead design. "It was apparent really early on that whoever was behind doing all the work on [Dota] was a really smart game designer," says Johnson. "I emailed IceFrog and asked him to come out here and we just wanted to meet him and pick his brain a little bit and we hired him on the spot…It was clear as day that he knew how to build games really well."
At Valve, the goal is to avoid fiddling too much with the underlying formula. "There's the core gameplay," says Johnson, "the actual game rules for how you play Dota. We'd be pretty hard-pressed to improve on that. I feel like IceFrog's done such a good job at that and it's something that his level of experience is so much higher with that community that it probably doesn't make a lot of sense for us to go in and change a lot of that, so the core gameplay is the same."
So what does that mean? It means the number of creeps that spawn in a wave won't really change, the way items and equipment works will be simliar, the structure of lanes will be the same, and a lot of the included heroes will be returning from the original. "It's going to be most of the heroes that you're familiar with from Dota. Over time there'll be new heroes that are added to it just like IceFrog's adding to Dota all the time. [Dota] is the game that people are used to, that all 20 million of those people are used to playing. There's this big investment in your skill in Dota…and we don't want to throw that away. We want them to be able to do all the fun things they could do before. It just doesn't make any sense to us to start from somewhere new right now."
When jumping into a game, the "peak experience," says Johnson, will be a five on five game. Though those looking to play three versus three can, if they so choose, "I think that the most fun people can have in terms of how the map is laid out, it's all built around five versus five."
Instead of trying to make major adjustments to gameplay, Valve is concentrating more on infrastructure, art, and providing helpful tools to newcomers so they can figure out what's going on. This includes detailed statistic tracking, a replay system where you can review matches, a matchmaking system to pit players of similar skill level against each other and offering more convenient ways for the community to interact. Valve also plans on implementing a coaching system where a rookie player can be helped along by a veteran. "We want to have a system where a very experienced player can choose to adopt a less experienced player and teach him the ropes, and that's built right into the experience. And then that coach gets rewarded in some way. There's some obvious work we have to do in terms of malicious coaches and things like that and we think we have a pretty good plan for that. But we want a new player to come in and say 'Hey, I need a coach' and probably have a list of coaches and some data about those coaches and have them say 'I'd like this person to coach me.' If they accept, they're your wing man."
That being said, Valve is conscious of the potential imbalance of having players with coaches mixed in against those without. "We don't want it to be a competitive advantage to be coached. We're not going to build something where every player wants to have a coach in every game because it's another set of eyes while playing."
Players with competitive mindsets that tend to enter into tournaments represent another sector of the community Valve has in mind. "Tournaments are tricky because there are a lot of organizations out there that already run tournaments and are really good at it. We definitely don't want those people to not be able to do that. We don't want to own their business and make it more difficult for them to run a tournament. It could be that there are tournaments and things like that we organize ourselves, but we probably want to build in things that make it easier for those guys to run their tournaments also."
If you're reading and still a little lost as to what it all means, it seems Valve is building in extra features to get you used to the mechanics without having to use a coaching tool or getting pummeled by other players in live matches. "A full blown single-player campaign, that's not going to happen, at least with this product. Building an entertaining way for you to learn how some of the core concepts of the game work that's something that definitely will."
It sounds like a lot of the work being done on the game right now is related to building the look of the world. "The existing Dota community is in love with Dota, and they're in love with it in all ways. So we need to build art that they can identify with and be in love with also. We go out and have a small group of people outside giving us feedback on how we're accomplishing that. At the same time this is kind of Valve's first fantasy-based game, which is super fun for the artists. We're trying to build a world as we're building Dota 2…There's a functional aspect of seeing what's going on, which is a huge part of Dota. It's a game where you have potentially 10 people creating 20 things in five seconds on your screen and being able to parse this quickly is one of the big challenges. It's one of the things we're iterating on like crazy when we play test internally."
"When we sit down and think about what should the hero look like you take a look at all their abilities. Does this hero do a lot of physical damage? Does this hero do a lot of magical damage? What are their signature abilities and how should that come through in how the hero is constructed and colored? And then there's also, how does the community perceive this particular hero? They have really strong opinions and they've built up lore around all these heroes and so we have to be sure to satisfy that also. In terms of how the art looked in the previous game, that doesn't really factor in."
Valve's also working on building a more cohesive fiction for the game world, which Johnson says will come across during play. "It'll come through in how the players talk, like who their voice actor is. In the game there are heroes that fictionally have a relationship with each other so from time to time they may say something to someone else that's kind of one-off. We're building that up that way in the game. We'll see how the community reacts to that. So far it's been really positive."
Valve is quick to mention Counter-Strike as a point of comparison for what it's doing with Dota 2. "Early on with Counter-Strike we felt it was a very inaccessible game. Clearly we were proven wrong. I can remember coming into work and there were so many more people playing this mod, cstrike, than any other mod in the history of Half-Life, and I was like 'We gotta play this thing.' And then you join the game and friendly fire is on and you can't tell your teammates apart. The difference was one had a little bit of exposed skin and one had sleeves. So everyone's just shooting each other, but people are having a blast. We looked at Counter-Strike so hard and we were totally behind it and excited, but we didn't get it for a year. Clearly the data said it was accessible because everybody was playing it and new people were coming in all the time, but it violated a lot of our rules about what we thought accessibility was."
"I think Dota has a lot of similarities to that case where a lot of game designers will look at it and say 'This is the least accessible game I've ever seen.' But then there's 20 million people playing around the world so, how'd that happen? We think making any attempt to make the game less hardcore, easier, or less complex would actually be a huge mistake because the game design itself relies on a bunch of those things to reward people for their skill."
Valve still hasn't determined any kind of pricing structure, so no definite word yet on whether post-release content will be free or not. Though Valve is notorious for delaying projects, Dota 2 for now is scheduled to be released in late 2011.