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.
Even if the games, the companies, the players, the trends, and the distribution models change from year to year, it is indisputable that there is more capacity to do great things, and with it, to create better games. And yet, in roughly the same time that a variety of genres went from proof of concept to their apex, the dota genre has gone from Defense of the Ancients…to Dota 2. Much as the katana has been mythicized as the ultimate sword in the face of constant warfare and technological improvement, dota has been held as the ultimate genre in the face of a rapidly evolving medium. Any of the flaws that have been discussed in this book could be enough to keep any other videogame from being worth your time. Yet here we are, with an entire gallery of awful choices that now define a single genre.
So, I hope this book has succeeded in deconstructing a controversial and polarizing genre, opened your thoughts on the topic of games, and introduced you to points of interest that you may not have previously considered. In the long run, I hope this book leads to an insightful discussion of the genre. (If that doesn’t happen, then I can assure you the discussion will be very entertaining.) By this point, you should realize that this book is not so much to give an opinion on dota—as marketable and inflammatory as it may be to say that dota sucks—but to show you how I got to that opinion. I provided this opinion because I want videogame players to be progressive and open-minded about their interests. And that means keeping yourself honest, as a way to become more informed about the topic and to get more enjoyment out of the games you love.
But I am also concerned with the discourse in games writing, game discussion, and game criticism. Outside of the occasionally talented and committed individual, this is a circle of discussion that has completely failed everyone. And, quite frankly, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of writers who embrace the game journalism slaughterhouse in the pursuit of a quick buck. I’m tired of writers who think videogames are a platform for their unrelated emotional outrage. I’m tired of videogame players who think “personal preference” is carte blanche to defend their bogus talking points. And I’m tired of videogame players who feel that criticism of a beloved game is equal to a personal attack. This book is my way of showing you that game criticism can be done better and it can be done well.
Obviously, I believe that the current cast of dota games deserve nothing less than the trash bin. But if you have been paying attention, and you are familiar with the games that I hold to high regard in this book, it should be obvious that I think the premise of the dota genre is an awesome idea. There’s few things cooler than walking onto the battlefield, staring down armies who fear your mere presence, and giving them a formal introduction. That is why the dota genre does such a wonderful job of disappointing me, and it’s not unlike the way I feel about the Dynasty Warriors games and their countless derivatives. The concept of dota is awesome, but its creators have gone about the concept in the worst possible way.
The good news? Some developers have expanded on the baby steps that were taken by games like Monday Night Combat, Dead Island: Epidemic, and AirMech. Those games adapt concepts in the dota genre to more interesting systems for combat, strategy, and movement.1 As slow and painstaking as this evolution will end up being, the goal is to continue moving upward. And I will tell you this: Give me a dota game with the combat of a God of War, a Bayonetta, or a Devil May Cry. Give me a dota game with the visual flair of a Kingdom Under Fire II or an N3II: Ninety-Nine Nights. Give me a dota game with the vast armies found in the busiest real-time strategy games. Give me a dota game with the devastating magic in a Sacrifice or a Black and White 2. Give me full control of the battlefield as Brutal Legend and Guilty Gear 2: Overture have. Give me these things, and you bet your ass I will line up to play them.
Actually, hold that thought.
In concluding this story, we must understand that there is no “making dota better”. Remember what I said at the beginning of the book: I want to make games better, not dota. The dota genre is fatally flawed. That’s because other genres are identified by a concept. Fighting games feature close-range combat between two or more participants. First- and third-person shooters are focused on shooting things. Because of this, these games can offer an incredible range of ideas while remaining in the same classification. But in this case, dota is identified by its mechanics, the strict adherence to a ruleset conceptualized in Aeon of Strife and then expanded in Defense of the Ancients.2 Dota is identified by the very specific things that dota does.
This means that AirMech is not a dota game just because it features elements familiar to dota. It is a spiritual successor to Herzog Zwei that incorporates elements of Defense of the Ancients. Titanfall is not a dota game because it features disposable computer opponents and strict six-man team sizes. It is a first-person shooter with dota elements, a game that has more in common with Call of Duty. Bloodline Champions is not a dota game simply because it uses a skill system similar to the one found in Defense of the Ancients. It is merely a top-down brawler with ideas that are familiar to the dota genre.3
There is an uncomfortable reality in the world of videogames that some genres are simply better than others. And as technology continues to improve, as game developers deliver better experiences, the theory will become reality. The best possible stealth game will be an action game featuring stealth as a supporting feature. The best possible Diablo clone will use the lessons of 3D brawlers as a base for dungeon crawling and loot gathering. Consequently, the ideal “dota” game will have more in common with today’s third-person action games than Defense of the Ancients. And in order to build that game, you will have to throw away most of the theory that we now associate with dota. Much in the way that Resident Evil ceases to be “survival horror” as it places a greater focus on action, and much in the way that Xenoblade Chronicles abandons its turn-based roots in the pursuit of an ambitious open-world action game, the changes that would be necessary to make the best dota game possible would end up being something which is not like dota at all.
In other words, once you turn dota into something that doesn’t suck, it stops being dota. And that is why dota sucks.