I’m a little bit wary of adding to the hundreds of posts, articles, forum threads and news sites dedicated to the fine art of Dota; it’s hardly a subject that needs more words written about it when there are so many that already exist that could probably do the job just as well. I’ve played Dota for a grand total of eleven hours (this is nothing) and so this ain’t going to be a detailed analysis of Dota’s gameplay by any means, and if you want one of those you should visit one of the other gaming sites. Before I got into the Dota 2 beta, though, I noticed two interesting things about it:
1) Everyone who has played Dota rapidly undergoes this weird sort of mental break and starts communicating in a bizarre moon language that renders them unintelligible to anyone who isn’t a fellow Dota player.
2) Everyone who hasn’t played Dota consequently has no idea what the fuck Dota is, except possibly that it does something to people that ensures it retains one of the most toxically unpleasant player communities on the entire internet.
So I thought it might be interesting to tackle the subject from the perspective of a Dota dilettante, before I undergo full metamorphosis and become just another part of the Wall. To start I should stress that Dota 2, the Valve-produced remake of the original Dota mod for Warcraft III, is supposed to be built from the ground up to be as friendly to new players as possible. I was – still am – a new player. I didn’t know a thing about Dota before I started save that it involved towers in some capacity. Much of the learning functionality in Dota 2 isn’t present yet thanks to its beta state, but looking at it I don’t see how you could possibly make any kind of tutorial system for Dota that would ensure a new player could play the game without being crushed repeatedly and mercilessly. It is that bad. The entire thing basically acts as an elaborate hazing ritual for new players where they have to undergo a prolonged period of abject humiliation before they’ll finally be accepted as one of the group.
(One minor positive point is that playing Dota has really brought home to me for the first time just what it is like for a non-gamer to be sat down in front of a common-or-garden FPS or RTS. They flail around pathetically, not understanding the UI or the controls or basic game concepts like “Push button to shoot gun” while anyone who is familiar with games looks on with an aghast expression on their face and wonders how somebody so stupid manages to dress themselves in the morning. If you ever see anyone mocking somebody for not knowing how to play video games I recommend you teach them a little bit of humility by sitting them down in front of Dota for a couple of sessions so that they can finally comprehend just how hard video games are if you have literally no experience with them whatsoever.)
Dota is an evolutionary offshoot of the RTS genre that got trapped on an isolated plateau in the Amazonian basin for ten years and has been evolving into its own distinct thing all throughout the last decade. Despite its shared heritage with RTSes Dota is just so alien that there’s very few touchstones present in mainstream gaming culture that a new player can use to orient themselves. The only thing I’ve experienced which is even remotely comparable is Starcraft league play1, which requires you to learn all about the metagame relationships between different unit types before you can even think about progressing up the league tiers, but even that only has about 40-50 units grouped into three distinct factions. In terms of the knowledge base you need to play the game effectively Starcraft II is a child’s paddling pool compared to Dota. Dota is a versus matchup between two teams of five heroes each. There are eighty different hero types in Dota 2 at the moment — more are being added all the time – and an opposing team can be made up of any possible combination of those eighty heroes. Each hero has four different abilities and can carry up to six shop-bought items out of a selection of two hundred, many of which confer new abilities on the hero or even change their existing ones.
This is why new players are so totally, completely screwed when they’re starting out in Dota. Just learning what all that shit does is going to take, at minimum, about 50-100 hours by my estimate. Learning how and when to use it well is going to take far longer, and until you do your team is going to wish you were dead because bad players in Dota don’t just drag their own team down, they actively help the enemy team through a mechanic called “feeding”. The ultimate goal of the game is to batter down the enemy defences and destroy their ancient (hence Defence Of The Ancients, or Dota), but the static tower defences you start every game with are very powerful compared to a level one hero. The only way heroes are going to get strong enough to start taking down towers and gradually work their way towards your ancient is by killing stuff (or by standing nearby while stuff is killed) which gets them money and experience. There’s constant streams of weak AI units (“creeps”) being generated by each side’s base structures which are what heroes eat to make them stronger in the early game, but creeps only get you a small amount of experience and – even worse – you only get an equally small cash bounty for killing them if you personally are the one who delivers the killing blow.
So the early game consists of hitting these creeps, gathering experience and trying to get last hits in so that you can get money as well. You hang around near the back, you try not to run in and expose yourself too much, you level up a couple of times and you start to feel pretty good about yourself. “This isn’t too bad,” you think, and you start to wonder why other people find Dota so intimidating. While you’re basking in this false sense of achievement there’ll be a bunch of unintelligible coded messages being spammed in teamchat — “ss bot”, “ss mid” and so on. You have no idea what these mean but they’re fairly regular and nothing bad happened yet, so they can’t be that important, right? You’ve made it this far without slipping up. You can do this. You can do this.
And then the five-man gank squad charges out of the fog of war. Your blood turns to ice. They’re coming for you. How did they know? How did they know? You try to run, to get back to the safety of your base, but one of them throws out a giant meathook that pulls you back to the centre of their formation. Then another imprisons you in a fucking minature wood. Then they all start beating the shit out of you. Then you die. And when you die, a little message pops up saying who killed you and how much gold they looted from your horribly-mutilated still-twitching corpse. One of the few things I know about Dota is that somebody once went to the trouble of analysing one of the professional Dota tournaments that are so popular these days, and one of the things they found was that if one team got just a 10% advantage in the amount of gold they had after twelve minutes that team went on to win the game in 93% of cases. That statistic is based on the performance of professional teams but it broadly translates across into everyday matches pretty well, so never mind the experience bonus they just got for killing you, and never mind that you yourself can’t gather experience and become stronger when you’re dead and waiting to respawn; by letting them kill you early and take your gold you’ve basically just handed them the game on a silver platter. They now have an advantage that springs directly from your own personal ineptitude and inexperience, and because this is going to be just the first of many, many ignominious deaths where you say “What the fuck is he doing? I didn’t know he could do that!” you had better get used to being on the losing team for a long, long time.
This is the mechanic known as feeding. New players who die a lot feed the enemy heroes and make them stronger, and if there’s a team with a feeder player playing against a team without a feeder player than the team that doesn’t have the millstone of you hanging around their necks is going to win regularly and consistently. Your teammates will know it too, and they will hate you for it. This is why Dota is so unfriendly to new people; not only is there a huge knowledge base that new players have to absorb before they can play effectively, but you’ll be worse than useless to your teammates until you do. It doesn’t even matter that you might start to improve slowly after three or four matches of learning the basic game mechanics, because to hear them talk about it (or more accurately to hear them hurl abuse at you whenever you make a mistake) every other Dota player is the best Dota player in the world and was born knowing everything there was to know about Dota because they assimilated that fucking information while they were still in the womb. They don’t tolerate failure. Sure, they might also die a lot, but that’s because you were feeding the enemy team the whole time, not because they were shit at all. At times it does seem like the Dota community is 100% composed of assholes, and that’s because playing this game turns you into an asshole. I’ve even felt the first twinges of rage myself when an enemy hero on low health slipped away because my lane partner was too busy shopping to help me kill him. The community reflects the game, and the game is absurdly unfriendly in almost every single mechanical aspect that matters.
It does get to the point of parody at times, like you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing happen in front of you is real. Even adhering to normal gaming conventions can lead you to do the Dota equivalent of farting loudly at the dinner table. For example, last night I was running back through the thick woods separating the creep lanes when I spotted a teammate fighting one of the groups of neutral creeps that can be found loitering within it. I play a lot of multiplayer games, and in every single one of these games when a teammate is fighting something – doesn’t matter what it is – you help them out. Even if they can handle the situation on their own two people will deal with the problem faster than one, so it’s almost always a good idea to lend a hand for a couple of seconds. So I went over there and starting hitting the creeps, almost without thinking, only to have him start shouting at me over team voice chat about stealing “his” creeps. I was later informed by a friend that it’s apparently appalling Dota etiquette to attack a creep that somebody else is already fighting despite it making perfect logical sense to me (after all, somebody on our team is going to get that money). Even helping somebody in this game can get nasty words thrown in your face if you do it at the wrong time. It’s baffling to me, it really is.
This is what you’re letting yourself in for if you’re thinking of getting into Dota and you don’t have a decently large pool of like-minded friends you can team with who won’t get too pissed off when you inevitably fuck something up. It may be compelling and strategic and tactical but it is also impenetrable and unfriendly, and not even in the way that Dwarf Fortress in impenetrable and unfriendly. At least when you screw up in Dwarf Fortress nobody else is around to see your mistakes. When you screw up in Dwarf Fortress there’s nobody shouting “l2p nub!!!!11” into team chat every single time a dwarf dies. And when you screw up in Dwarf Fortress you can at least spend ten minutes in a wiki learning what you did wrong and how to avoid it next time. There is nothing that will teach you how to play Dota except the bitter, bitter experience of repeated failure and death drawing the crude admonishments of your teammates. It is an awful black hole of hate and despair and humiliation, and you should avoid it at all costs lest it suck you in too.
1. Not that other RTSes don’t also have detailed metagame elements, but in my experience they have a more leisurely pace than Starcraft II and allow a larger margin for error.