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.
Synopsis: The characters in the dota genre have been hailed for their complexity and diversity. In order to debunk this, we should explain how the framework for the “chess pieces” came into place. The hero system is a direct transplant from Warcraft III, and technical limitations prevented content creators from making this system more complex. Commercial game developers have since adopted that framework. But in stripping the RTS concepts from Warcraft III and centering the action on the hero system, dota not only compares unfavorably to the RTS games where you control far more moving parts, but to comparable character-action games with more complex control schemes and skillsets. Ironically, it is the simplicity of the characters that provides the illusion of diversity, where the marginal differences become more important when the tools for victory are so similar. In the end, the simplicity is intended to create accessibility, where the range of simple characters assures you will not have to make grand leaps in order to learn them. Where other developers have looked to up to the complexity of a genre, the creators of the dota genre looked at one of the simpler RTS games and chose to make it simpler.
Synopsis: Defense of the Ancients and most of the games in the dota genre use the auto-attack mechanisms common to real-time strategy games, and the concept has wide crossover appeal with the fans of many computer game genres. To understand its role in the genre, you must understand that most dota games line the battlefield with powerful defensive towers, and the goal of the early-game is to control the pace of action in the “farming” phase. Quite simply, the purpose of auto-attacking is to provide an element of skill in this phase. However, much like the free-roaming camera, the auto-attack mechanisms were intended for an RTS genre where you are playing a commander who has indirect control over the action. The end result, once again, is that the player is disconnected from the action because the dota genre should be providing direct control of your character. It is a system where the character initiates attacks, rather than the player. The body of game history and even certain dota games will demonstrate that, within the context of a character-action game, auto-attacking is the inferior opinion.
Synopsis: While there is some limited but consistent praise for the visual direction of the dota genre, one merely has to look at the development history of 3D RTS games to understand why Defense of the Ancients could not provide the feel of an epic war at the ground level. And as developers take full advantage of technological improvements, the dota genre has remained stubbornly committed to the scope and scale of a third-party map in a 2002 videogame. Much of this stems from the lack of narrative cohesion that defined Warcraft III third-party maps, where “excuse plots” and “excuse graphics” were the norm. But in addition, the genre has been held back by a commitment to dota as virtual sport. By using “our game is a sport” to validate the genre, you have restrained the scope of your genre to a single “playing field” in a world where companies are building massive virtual universes. Combine this with the economics of modern game development, and it is easier to build a game about “The League of Legends” than the universe of war surrounding it. In the interim, the dota genre will compare unfavorably with the games which seek to push visual and technical boundaries.
Synopsis: Much like the RTS games that inspired it, the dota genre is most commonly played with a top-down “free roaming” camera that can be moved around the map independently of the participants. The genre features many mechanics that take advantage of the free camera and most dota players favor the free camera. However, the RTS genre was designed for a world in which you are playing the role of an overhead commander, whereas dota asks you to play the role of an individual. The use of a free camera to control an individual breaks the player’s connection to the action on the screen and does it to a substantial detriment. This faulty design choice is countered by an excellent body of game design that shows it is possible to manage RTS elements from a fixed camera perspective. But ultimately, the resistance of the dota community to fixed camera elements has nothing to do with an argument of superiority. Quite simply, it is a fear of change, a fear that a fixed camera would “dumb down” the genre. It is a fear generated by a lack of familiarity with the games that have featured the fixed camera elements and done them well.