Back in October I wrote a little piece about my first impressions of the Dota 2 beta. This was based on around a dozen hours of play – the equivalent of dipping my toe into an ocean that went all the way down to the abyssal deeps – and at the time none of the teaching functionality such as “tutorials” and “actually telling people how they’re supposed to play the game” had been introduced, and so the only way to learn how to play it was through repeated failure and/or the painstaking help of others. Most people, when they are put in a situation where e.g. a burly man repeatedly punches them in the face, are going to naturally have a reaction along the lines of “I don’t like being punched in the face” and remove themselves from that situation, which is why those first impressions were broadly negative. However, if you’re crazy enough to stick around, eventually you are going to become really good at not being punched in the face.
This is what has happened with Dota. Nearly everything I wrote back in October is still true; they’ve since put in some tutorials that teach basic game concepts, but if you ask me they’re woefully inadequate at preparing people for online matches with other people. The game is still as unforgiving as it ever was. If you tough that learning period out, though, if you have friends willing to coach you through it or just have an inhuman mental resistance to the psychological trauma of crushing defeat, then the game gradually morphs from a brutal, near-sadistic ordeal into something that’s almost beautiful in its complexity and balance. You need to understand what’s going on before you can really appreciate Dota for what it is. It’s not a game for everyone and it still has a ridiculously high barrier to entry, but now that it has passed across the nominal line separating “three-year beta” from “released product” I thought it’d be a good idea to revisit it in the light of my increased experience and perhaps provide a little bit of balance to that first impressions post. That post explains why you shouldn’t play Dota. This post, hopefully, will explain why you should. Or at least why I do.
For this review I have drafted in my old review-crafting partner, Jim. Jim has accompanied me on most of my journey from Dota novice to experienced Dota novice, and even wrote his own first impressions post at around the same time as I did. Say hello, Jim.
Jim: emerges from hidden compartment, waves at crowd Hello!
Hentzau: So Jim, get us started by summarising Dota in 100 words or less.
Jim: Dota is the most serious game alive. You may think that you can bumble about as red dinosaur wizard but, my friend, where are your wards? Why are you stealing my last hits? WHY DID YOU NOT CALL MISSING??? Dota, basically, is about anger management.
Hentzau: Yes, as somebody with an overabundance of anger I can attest to this. I used to get really, really annoyed at people in competitive multiplayer games. Left 4 Dead sessions with me were nothing but a constant stream of swear words punctuated by the odd tense silence. Dota, though; Dota has forced me to take a calmer, more controlled approach to things. In my case it was that or drop dead from apopleptic fury, such is the power of this game to tickle that primal, atavistic part of your brain that civilized society was meant to have firmly put under lock and key. But in Dota it’s more than that. Dota is a team game, far more than any other game I’ve ever played, and getting angry isn’t just unpleasant, it’s outright counterproductive. Games of Dota are mental duels between you and your opponents as much as — possibly more so — than anything else, and as soon as one team psychologically collapses into infighting and mutual recrimination then the other has as good as won.
Jim: I feel like we’re not really selling this yet. This is more an argument for why our computer access should be permanently removed.
Hentzau: I think this entire blog is pretty good evidence for that, to be honest.
Jim: Hoooooo. So I’m going to be positive instead. I think it’s a really neat trick for the game to be honed enough that these random battles we fight with horrible people, they seem like mighty, intense duels that you care about. Why is that?
Hentzau: I think it’s because despite the hundred heroes available for play, and despite the two hundred plus items you can buy for them, the basic aspects of Dota — the things without which you will not win, no matter how hard you counterpick — are the elemental things that you find in every other competitive game on the market, except turned up to eleven. Things like positioning. Coordination. Reconnaissance. Map awareness. Resource management.
Hentzau: And yes, a fair amount of shouting. I should probably stress here that I almost never play Dota without an organised team of five communicating over a Teamspeak channel. I feel this is the way to get the most out of the game
Jim: I have been known to dip my toe into dual-queueing but yeah, the idea of only playing with the great unwashed fills me with fear. Anyway, these aspects.
Hentzau: It’s all basic stuff, but the primary one, the one that I think gives Dota its whole contest-of-titans feel, is the teamwork. In other games I’ve played it’s possible for one person to win a game singlehandedly, simply because their individual skill with the game is so high. That just doesn’t happen in Dota. Sure, that pro player might come out of the jungle at the 30 minute mark farmed to the hilt with a three-level advantage and proceed to lay waste to the enemy team, but he would never have managed to get that far without the rest of the team making the space necessary for it to happen. You might rely on a good player to carry you at the start of the game, or in the middle of the game, or at the end of the game, but you can’t rely on them to carry you for all of it. Everyone has to make a contribution in order for the team to win, and that creates an us-versus-them bond that is thicker than any bodily fluid you care to name.
Jim: It’s very good at involving you in the metagame, too. I’ve never played a game that goes this out of its way to tell me who the best team in the world is, or encourages you to go watch them, or gives you little collectible stickers of their slightly miserable badly-haircutted faces. Okay maybe that last one is less of an incentive. But there is this burgeoning, miasmic cloud of “culture” directly attached to Dota 2 that is designed to keep you involved and learning.
Hentzau: Yeah, I might have dropped the game by now if it wasn’t ever-evolving, and if the professional matches that are woven into Dota’s intrinsic fabric weren’t around it’d be impossible to keep up with the shifting metagame. Heroes who were once dismissed as awful or fiddly suddenly click into place when used in a particular way, and items that I couldn’t see the point of before are unexpectedly picked up by a pro team and end up producing a devastating effect in a tournament game. This all filters down through Dota “culture” from the pro players, down through the spectated games, streaming channels and online forums, to regular chumps like myself. I hear about these metagame changes and it inspires me to try a new hero, or play in a different way with an old one. And because there’s so many heroes in the game there’s every chance this will continue for a good few years to come.
Jim: And, of course, your opponents are going through that same process themselves, so the sides you are arrayed against are constantly shifting and changing like the fashions in a shop window during a time travel sequence. That’s not to say the idea of a metagame was invented here, of course, I know if I searched hard enough I could have got exactly as much “culture” from, for example, Civilization. But it’s that direct fusing into the UI that makes it interesting. Another example of that is with the guides, of course.
Hentzau: Yes, this is the part of Dota’s learning functionality that actually works quite well: when you play an unfamiliar hero you can now load up a player-written guide that will give you recommended skill builds and item loadouts and tooltips telling you how to use everything. Because there’s often several different ways to play a single hero picking the right guide can often be tricky, but once it’s loaded up it’ll keep you from making any stupid mistakes — and because they’re player-created and they’re constantly being updated, the newest ones will reflect the current state of the metagame. It’s this weird informational osmosis; Dota is awful at directly telling you what you should be doing, but once you’re hooked in makes it very easy to keep up with current trends.
Jim: We’re still reluctant to talk about the actual game, aren’t we? All that side stuff is nice but it’s just the information bap for the game burger. What is your best moment in dota in the last month? And why was it awesome?
Hentzau: Jesus, Jim, I can’t remember that far back. I’ll have to go and look at Dotabuff.
Jim: Which, incidentally, is another example of that excellent metagame, you tricky swine.
Hentzau: For sheer hilarity you can’t beat the first time I played Brewmaster in a single draft game (where you’re only given a random selection of three heroes to choose from) and was forced to go mid lane. Going mid lane is a big role in Dota; you get more experience and money than everyone else if you go mid, but your teammates will then rely on you to use that advantage to run to their lane and kill the comparatively-underlevelled enemy heroes there. Your opponents will also send somebody mid, of course, so another part of it is squashing their experience and gold farm as much as possible so that they can’t dash off to gank before you do. It’s a huge responsibility, and giving me the burly Brewmaster to do it with was extra-bad because I am actually the most cowardly Dota player in existence. Any hero that actually requires me to run up and hit people usually ends horribly, so I was quite surprised to find that I not only didn’t screw things up at mid, I actually killed the enemy Invoker after my repeated running away every time he moved forward lured him into a false sense of security. My turning around mid-flee and clobbering him in the face with my beer barrel must have been the Dota equivalent of being savaged by a chicken. One kill isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but I managed to at least turn that temporary advantage into a couple of successful ganks at top lane and give my teammates a bigger advantage. Again, it’s all about the teamwork; I did well at mid but I couldn’t have won the entire game on my own no matter how hard I tried, so I had to find some way of parlaying that into something that the team could benefit from. It’s rare that it comes across in such black-and-white terms, but it pretty much sums up Dota for me.
Jim: I think the ones I best remember are the breathless back-and-forth struggles. A game is generally over, or all-but-over, by 30-40 minutes but one we played last week took a sodding hour and a half. Past a certain amount of time, all caution and strategy gives way to panic and hysteria. Oaths were screeched, ridiculously flamboyant collections of items were acquired and we decided that we needed to pull out the nuclear option. The Divine Rapier. The most powerful weapon in the game, but also the only one that just drops on the ground when you die. So there we were, pushing deep into the base, just about to win when – shock – the rapier carrier gets nobbled. And now the enemy are doing the exact same thing, pushing right up to our ancient with their stolen rapier. We’d resigned to a loss, until a couple of lucky hits knocks *that* guy over and who should stumble upon this fallen monstrous god item but the weakest, crappiest support character in the game.
Hentzau: Cue screams of “Pick it up! Pick it up!” because there’s an enemy player still lurking in the base and you desperately don’t want him to grab it, only to realise that once the support player had it he couldn’t trade it back to a player who could actually do something with it.
Jim: So the game morphed into this VIP extraction mission where we had to keep this fragile guy out of harm’s way while still pushing back the tide into their base. The support, feeling much like this sloth, is just running around making excited noises about being so powerful. Curses were uttered, everyone on teamspeak was yelling contradictory instructions and, well, we kept him alive long enough to complete the win. Mission accomplished. Now while that is an extreme case, that for me illustrated the amount of emergent options that appear during a game. With hundreds of heroes, items and spells, two matches are never going to be the same, and that’s why I love it.
Hentzau: The thing is, though, if you had lost that game rather than won it, would it occupy such a fond space in your memory? Or would it just be the time that NAME REDACTED threw the game by trying to take on the entire enemy team single-handedly and giving them his rapier?
Jim: It does straddle a fine line, certainly. And as much as I want to say I’m not solely motivated by victory, I think that’s the biggest flaw of dota still as an experience. Losing can be disheartening and, because of that intensity we praised earlier, because you’ve invested about an hour of your life, it can hurt more than in most games.
Hentzau: I’ll be honest, for someone as competitive as I am I’m surprised that I enjoy the close losses almost as much as the wins. Losing’s never great, but as long as I feel that everyone played as well as they could and that we put up a good fight I can let it go. It’s the one-sided stomps I hate, where the hero selection has gone wrong or a certain lane is lost repeatedly or everyone just seems to be having an off day and is making really basic mistakes as a consequence. The ones where it is incontrovertibly your fault that you’re losing. It’s hard to keep your cool when that’s happening, but I’ve seen enough games that I thought were dead and buried be turned around into near-miraculous wins simply because we refused to give up and always kept trying that — like I said at the start — it’s done wonders for my general outlook on life. Because what Dota is about, at the end of the day, is resilience. Having the mental fortitude to put up with the game long enough to learn how to play it well, and then keeping both your and your team’s spirits up in the face of great adversity long enough to see what can be an hour-plus contest of skill and wits end with the fiery collapse of an Ancient. Preferably theirs.
Do you see yourself playing this game for years to come, Jim? I know you’ve got something like a million hours invested in Team Fortress 2, but how much longevity do you think Dota will have? And why?
Jim: Valve have certainly got the long-term in mind, here, what with the continuous development, the store, the workshop, all that. It’s clearly settling down for a long stay, and so the game itself is going to lumber on, in some form or another, until everyone loses interest in MOBAs, and I have no way of knowing what’s going to supplant them as the game of the moment for the nerd on the go. How long will I keep playing? God knows, but if TF2 is a good model, I suspect it will be for as long as they are releasing new content and I can gather five hardy souls together.
Hentzau: It’s interesting, really, that Dota has existed for about ten years now, garnering ever-increasing amounts of interest as time has gone on, but I always perceived it as that weird mod for Warcraft III that everyone kept going on about for some reason. With Dota 2 Valve are making a serious push at taking it mainstream, one that they’re putting their full weight behind, and while stuff like the esports infrastructure and the in-game store may seem ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t played it it’s an essential part of what Dota is, right now, and an essential part of growing the genre out of its niche.
Jim: Look, the minute I pay a single penny for this game I’ve played for nine months, that’s when I quit.
Hentzau: Whereas I just bought a cat courier because I had 360 hours in Dota and I felt Valve should get a little bit more of my money in exchange for the service they provide me. It’s already lasted longer than L4D did, and might actually match Counterstrike in terms of the total amount of my free time it sucks up – and I played Counterstrike when I didn’t have a full-time job to hold down, too. I feel it really does have the legs to go another decade as long as development remains active, and that as large as the playerbase is right now it could really explode if Valve play their cards right. As old as it is, Dota is something that still has a lot of untapped potential, and exploring that is going to take PC gaming to new and interesting places. I actually can’t wait to see what Valve do with it over the next year or two.