N3II: Ninety-Nine Nights drops its series’ pretense and affiliation with the Kingdom Under Fire series, and instead uses the scope and grandeur of its inspiration to pursue the role of a more conventional 3D brawler. Though I suppose “conventional” is disingenuous to a game that combines the sprawling armies of Dynasty Warriors with the grit and brutality of a God of War, ending up with something that Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, Untold Legends, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, and countless other “dungeon brawlers” have desperately wanted to be.
Videogames have seen the most exponential growth of any media format in human history, where the combination of new hardware and design theory has allowed each decade of videogames to outclass the previous one. It is difficult to overstate how rapid this transformation has been. In five years, Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty became Total Annihilation, with players throwing over 100 different units and buildings at each other across land, sea, and air. In four years, Wolfenstein 3-D became Descent II, a flight simulator with a twenty-weapon arms system, three-dimensional freedom of movement, and some of the most complex level design in the history of videogames. In roughly a decade, Street Fighter II had given way to the team-oriented engagements in The King of Fighters and Marvel vs. Capcom series, while the Arcana Heart, Guilty Gear, and Melty Blood series would exhaustively explore air combat.
Synopsis: The common narrative for dota’s popularity is a myth that can be debunked with a brief look into the history of Battle.net. The real answer? The genre takes the core impulses that drive players and makes them more appealing. It builds on the bare appeals of many popular computer games. It takes the addictive level-up mechanics and turns them into the central attraction in a versus multiplayer game. It rewards “time played” as the primary vector for early improvement. And in addition, the genre is bound to a distribution model which gives it a huge advantage over prior models and prior games. The end result is a genre with wide appeal that can be distributed around the world with ease. It is important to understand this, because the dota genre (and other games) is waging a full assault on the videogame publishing model, the most important quality control mechanism of the last three decades. The wide popularity that can be achieved with digital distribution will be used to defend these games, and it will be crucial to separate popularity from quality in order to get the most out of this medium.
Synopsis: The reason that dota is held to critical acclaim is simple: The novelty of the experience. Videogames now face a world where documentation and the internet leave few stones unturned, and players are quickly confronted by familiar situations that showcase the optimal tactics. Dota counters this reality with a game model that can not only weather the decline of novelty, but manufacture novelty on a regular basis. By combining a massive range of choice, large team formats, and a persistent development process, dota games assure that players will rarely have to revisit familiar matchups and situations, creating the illusion of a game with “endless depth”. The goal of this development model is to stave off the moment that dota ceases to be novel. If players are left to a familiar matchups, familiar strategies, and familiar situations, they will quickly realize that the concepts and elements that define the genre are terrible. And when it is time to determine where these games stand in history—without developers scribbling corrections in their thesis—they will not hold to scrutiny.
Synopsis: The dota genre has become notorious for its “toxic” community. And in response to the matter, developers have invested significant energy in community enforcement tools that ignore the real problem. Because the genre was specifically designed around a five-on-five team format, and alternative modes are ineffective and uninteresting, the game lacks the sandbox modes that would allow players to learn the game in a “safe” environment. The result is that players of differing skill levels, interests, and commitment are funneled into the same player pool in a genre where players are largely dependent on each other for success. The inevitable result is a community of screaming lunatics, and the culture is best demonstrated in the genre’s emphasis on the game guide, because playing and learning the game on your own accord will subject you to the wrath of those players. But instead of addressing the design flaws head-on, companies choose community enforcement because it is cheaper and easier to build than a properly-designed game.
Synopsis: One of the common narratives for dota is “teamwork”, the idea that the genre presents greater complexity through its team format. But many games that focus on the might of the individual feature excellent team modes. What happened? When Defense of the Ancients adapted the Warcraft III game systems to its own ends, it reduced the number of moving parts and the amount of time you have to make them count, reducing the depth in a prior game model and making it more important to play off your teammates’ actions. Dota has simply dumbed down the lessons of a prior game, and in order to regain that complexity, it must standardize the experience around teams of human players. It is entirely consistent with a videogame market where players view the dominating individual as a design flaw, and consistent with a genre where players constantly feel their teammates are a burden. Dota is defined by teamwork because it fails to provide anything but teamwork.
Synopsis: Videogames typically allow players to learn a theory of design, where you are gaining an understanding of a virtual world and how it operates. The Dota series is a disastrous exception to this rule. Because Warcraft III provided no formal support for many of the concepts that were programmed into Defense of the Ancients, the map has been hounded by glitches and interactions that have compromised the theory. And not only is the theory inconsistent, it is regularly modified in the pursuit of game balance. What could have been an aberration in the history of the dota genre has now become the foundation and backbone for Dota 2, which maintains the broken theory. Why keep it? Not only is the broken theory a means to game balance, it is also a means to depth, where knowledge of the obscure interactions can be used against other players. But this compromises the learning process, where you are learning the game by memorizing small, discrete facts which operate independently of each other. The process of learning the theory is heavily predicated on rote memorization, and it runs counter to the interactivity that makes games so much fun.
Synopsis: The dota genre is commonly praised for “balance”, where the choices and characters available to players remain on even footing as the level of play improves. While the dota game systems force balance through artificial means—where the selection of the dominant choices is turned into a minigame—the more crucial issue is created by the genre’s reliance on the balance update. Because Defense of the Ancients was a “free game” for a platform that encouraged the polish and perfection of a single map layout, the genre uses the balance update in lieu of the other, more interesting options for balance that come with sequels and new content. Not only does the overuse of the balance update compromise the aesthetic integrity of the game world, but it hits the reset button and prevents players from exploring a game to its roots. And the inevitable result of a “balanced” game is one where players have to separate themselves using less interesting and diverse tools, something entirely consistent with the nature of dota.
Synopsis: In order to explain how the dota genre provides the illusion of character complexity, we must briefly discuss the shift in the consumer perception of what depth entails. With the help of large companies that can pour significant resources into disposable choices, most of the game industry now champions a model of “complexity through choice”, where depth is presented to the player through the number of choices rather than the interactions created by the choices. The dota genre is born to this philosophy, offering the player an unprecedented level of choice, particularly in the number of heroes available to players. With the help of an excruciatingly slow learning process, it will take you hundreds of hours to simply interact with all of the individual characters in meaningful situations, and they can be arranged in so many ways that you will never have to revisit a familiar situation. But in the end, not a single individual—or even the confluence of five individuals on two sides—can hide that the millions of possible combinations are less complex than the outcomes and frameworks in competing genres.