In a recent article, which can be read here, Game Informer announced that Valve is creating Dota 2. Creating a Dota 2 is a very interesting move by Valve. For years now, Valve has been a FPS developer. That's what they were, that's what they are, and that's their forte. Meaning, Dota is a very interesting choice for a project, and a huge retooling of their source engine will have to take place, or has already has taken place, to turn the FPS engine into an RTS engine.
Not only is it a huge technical project, it's a dangerous one. They're essentially taking something that's free right now, and trying to turn it around into a retail product. This means, that to some extent, they're going to have to improve the product to make it worth paying for, all while not screwing over the well established gameplay. Those are some big shoes to fill.
Dota-Allstars, a mod/map for Warcraft 3, is essentially the first Dota (action-RTS) ever developed, and to this day it has been updated and balanced with consistent updates. Its gameplay consists of two, five man teams battling it out in an arena with three main combat lanes. Each person controls one unit or hero, with an ultimate goal of destroying the other team's headquarters. To accomplish this, players must use skill, teamwork, hero abilities, and items to kill off the defenses in each lane that hinders their progress, all while defending their own towers. With 101 heroes, each packing different stats and ability, and 119 items, of which each hero can hold only six at a time, the number and variety of matches is tremendous.
The actual minute to minute gameplay is intense and action packed. Single fights can happen in seconds, with spells whipping back and worth between teams, or minutes, with players attempting to snipe their opposition without getting sniped in turn. Sneak attacks and ganks are frequent. Positioning is everything, especially later in the game where getting caught alone can mean instant death.
This is in contrast to the overall gameplay, with games lasting 45 minute or longer. Throughout each game, teams slowly try to out climb each other in item power and levels. Killing NPC creeps will slowly earn players gold and experience. Getting kills on enemy heroes will net players a big boost in experience and gold, helping them get that much closer to victory. This means that staying alive, thus denying the enemy the big boost, is just as important as getting kills, if not more so.
The hardcore community is a major factor to the success of Dota-Allstars. Many community sites, and forums help to contribute to the game. Many small tournaments take place all the time, and major tournament in esports leagues have even gained a minor foothold. With continued support and balance updates, Dota can only get more prominent in the esports scene.
Unfortunately, Dota-Allstars has its problems. The most glaring of which, is the anti-noob smog that seems to hang over every Dota-Allstars player. It takes no work what-so-ever to look in the Warcraft 3 custom games list and find a Dota-Allstars game labeled "no noobs". In game lobbies, a single whiff of noobness means instantly getting kicked from the lobby. It's even worse if a player doesn't know that the Dota-Allstars map can be downloaded outside of Warcraft 3. In 90% of game lobbies, if a player starts an in game map download, that player earns an instant kick from the lobby, making it almost impossible to get the map without visiting the website. Basically, Dota-Allstars players are elitist snobs.
The game itself is hampered by the Warcraft 3 engine. It's nearly impossible to use the in game item interface without first memorizing the items themselves. More powerful items can be created by combining other items, but this information is only presented in tooltips with no indication as to where to buy the necessary components in the multitude of shop menus. This can leave newer player floundering around needlessly, just trying to buy the items they want.
Heroes must be selected to be ordered around, even though there's no reason to ever select anything else. The ability hotkeys are spread all over the keyboard and each hero has a different set of them, forcing players to relearn hotkeys if they play a new hero. Item hotkeys are awkwardly placed on the number pad, making players move their hand needlessly across the keyboard, while simultaneously screwing over laptop users who lack number pads. Yet, none of these problems can be fixed, thanks to restrictions inherited from Warcraft 3.
League of Legends
It could be argued that League of Legends is the true sequel to Dota-Allstars, since the original designer of Dota-Allstars, Steve "Guinsoo" Feek, is also the designer of League of Legends. Like its predecessor before it, LoL is free to play, and despite having a hilarious abbreviation, it improves the experience and gameplay that Dota pioneered, while keeping the core of the game untouched.
Items in League of Legends have been simplified into one shop menu that cleanly displays what needs to be combined to create an item. Hotkeys have been simplified to make them the same for every hero, and can even be remapped to a player's liking.
The arena in LoL is smaller than the one in Dota, helping to speed up games. Players no longer have to select their hero to issue orders, effectively always having their hero selected. An overall summoner level has also been added which carries over from game to game, giving players small bonuses to their hero's stats.
As for the community, an auto-matchmaking system has helped alleviate the anti-noob smog that Dota-Allstars has. The matchmaking system also helps to keep newer players from getting smashed by the veterans, thanks to a skill ranking and matching system that's in place.
Being a newer game, the variety, and number of choices in LoL isn't nearly as great as Dota-Allstars. Currently it only has 60 heroes and 109 items, with many of those being additions after release, and more are being added regularly.
On the not so free front, LoL has an in game shop. Only 6 of the 60 heroes are playable off the bat. Players can pay to unlock more heroes, or earn points by playing games to unlock more heroes for free with some work. Alternate hero skins are also available in the shop, along with experience boosts for a player's summoner level, to help them progress faster.
Overall, League of Leagues is a huge improvement on Dota-Allstars on many fronts, while successfully monetizing the game.
With Valve's anouncement of Dota 2, they have set themselves a lofty goal. There's already a solid, free, but engine challenged original in Dota-Allstars, and a polished, free, League of Legends to compete against. Valve has a mountain to climb, especially if they plan on charging for the experience.
One thing Valve has up their sleeve is IceFrog, who took over maintaining Dota-Allstars after Steve "Guinsoo" Feek left, and who has maintained it since. Valve wisely hired IceFrog to help in the development of Dota 2. This means Valve is able to use IceFrog's expertise and also are able to bring over all the Dota-Allstar heroes exactly as they are.
In fact, according to Game Informer, Dota 2 is essentially an exact copy of Dota-Allstars. All the items and hero skills have remained the same. Even the map is functionally the same as the one in Dota-Allstars.
What is improved, however, is the graphics. Valve is using their in-house engine, Source, for Dota 2, and is even throwing in some improvements, such as new global lighting, and cloth physics. Think Dota-Allstars with a fresh coat of paint.
AI is making its way into Dota 2, which will take over if anyone leaves a match, a la Left 4 Dead. They may also be played against in training matches, which should help out players who are just starting to learn the game.
Along with the Source engine, comes in game voice chat. In team oriented games such as Dota, voice chat is a necessity. Neither Dota-Allstars, nor League of Legends currently have voice chat, forcing people to resort to outside voice clients such as Ventrilo and Team Speak.
Outside of gameplay, Valve is attempting to service the community of Dota 2 even more than their previous games. They're even going as far as to upgrading Steamworks, their game community platform, specifically for Dota 2. While no specifics are available yet, Valve hopes to promote and reward constructive community interaction inside and outside the game with these community features.
Valve is also implementing the ability for the community to make in game guides for Dota 2. They are hopeful that this will help create a favorable environment for newer players. Alongside community made in game guides, they are including a coaching feature. Valve is giving players the ability to have someone coach them through a game, therefore helping them learn how to play correctly, which can be tough without some guidance.
What isn't clear as of this time is how much improvement has gone into the interface. Have they removed some of Dota-Allstars' quarks caused by the Warcraft 3 engine or just cloned it exactly. What also isn't clear just yet is the price point. It could be a tough sale if they try to sell what seems to be Dota with a new coat of paint at a retail game price.
Thankfully, Valve is a highly successful developer, and know what they're doing. If someone can do it, that someone is Valve.
Dota 2 information from Game Informer
This post originally appeared on Lost in Neurons on Thursday, October 14, 2010. As part of a clean out of Lost in Neurons to make it more focused, it has been moved here, where its author feels it better fit.