The history of the video games industry can be seen as one of massive wills and egos and every-more-complicated projects. Massive teams of artists, engineers and testers produce multi-million dollar projects that rake in (if they’re lucky) more than a Hollywood blockbuster in half the time. But a surprising number of small games-created by individuals or small teams of fans in their off-time-have become dominant forces themselves, without the help of a corporate PR machine or millions in disposable income.
Years ago, fans of the Valve Software first-person shooter Half-Life took it upon themselves to create a modification of the game, creating a offense-defense tactical game-within-a-game called Counter-Strike. It proved so immensely popular that Valve took the game under its wing and it can now be purchased as a standalone game, still incredibly popular even though Half-Life has been relegated to gathering dust.
In 2002, Blizzard Entertainment released a real-time strategy game called WarCraft III. It was a good game in its own right, but what perhaps unexpectedly extended its shelf life were the bundled map-making tools. With this “World Editor” players could create new terrain, characters, and scenarios with a level of customization virtually no other game offered out-of-box–players could create new skins and spells for the game’s powerful hero units. Soon Blizzard’s Battle.net multiplayer service was filled with custom games that rose in popularity by the will of the community.
Many of these games were well-crafted and fun to play, but a few came to dominate the custom game listings more than others and become the reason that people still logged on to WarCraft III. One was a translation of an earlier StarCraft custom map called Aeon of Strife. This new modification, dubbed Defense of the Ancients by its creator “Eul”, became incredibly popular. It featured two teams of players, each of whom picked a unique hero with special abilities. The objective was simple: bash through computer-controlled units, defensive towers, and player heroes to destroy the “Ancient” embedded in the enemy base. The multitude of strategies players took to accomplish that task provided the replay value.
When Blizzard released an expansion to WarCraft III, The Frozen Throne, they also updated and expanded the capabilities of the World Editor, but Eul did not update the scenario. Other mapmakers tried to capitalize on the success of DotA, creating various versions–DotA Rumble, DotA Outland–but they all fell to a flavor called DotA Allstars, created by Steve Feak aka “Guinsoo”. Guinsoo’s improvements increased the complexity and depth of gameplay: players could now combine stat-boosting items via “recipes” into better and better items as the game progressed. Another addition was a powerful boss-like character that took entire teams to defeat for rare loot.
By 2004, DotA Allstars was so popular that it had its own clan and website. Guinsoo eventually handed over the reins of development to another pseudonymous editor, IceFrog. IceFrog continued with development, adding new heroes, fixing bugs, creating new gametypes within the scenario, and developing new game mechanics. Millions of players downloaded each version. Entire tournaments devoted to the game sprung up. Swedish musician Basshunter wrote a song about DotA that made the charts in a half-dozen European markets. Gamasutra writer Michael Walbridge wrote that DotA was likely “the most popular and most-discussed free, non-supported game mod in the world” (1); in some parts of the world it had replaced Counter-Strike as the most popular game in internet cafes.
Ultimately, even a good mod can only keep a game alive for so long. WarCraft III was an older game by the time DotA took off in a big way, and now the graphics look positively garish. More importantly, IceFrog kept on running into obstacles trying to work within the limitations of the dated game engine.
While Allstars had subsumed any other WarCraft-based version, that didn’t mean developers didn’t try to recapture the spark. To date, several “DotA clones” have been produced. Gas Powered Games produced Demigod, S2 Games produced Heroes of Newerth and Feak created his own standalone version with Riot Games called League of Legends, yet none have had the same success as Allstars.
Valve Software, however, is hoping to succeed where others have met with mixed success. It may have an advantage in that unlike the others, the recently-announced DotA 2 is a straightforward sequel. Every one of the currently 100+ heroes in the latest versions of Allstars will make their appearance in DotA 2, combined with distinctive voice talent and a fresh coat of graphic paint no longer bounded by a years-old engine (2).
The biggest opportunity for change, however, is that an entirely-standalone program for DotA solves enormous hurdles created by the WarCraft III custom map mechanic. With Allstars, players who didn’t have the luxury of computers networked to a local area network had to search Battle.net for random games. Ingenious players created tools that sorted players based on their location to reduce network latency, and “banlists” to kick players that would ruin the game experience for others, but getting to play a decent game of DotA was (and still is) hard work–if one person was disconnected, the teams were unbalanced and an entire hour of gaming was ruined.
From what’s been announced, Valve’s biggest contribution will be improving the meta-game. Dropped players will be replaced by computer bots, and the community will be brought to a centralized forum. Players will be actively rewarded for participating in the community, and a coaching system aims to break down some of the well-founded sentiment that DotA is hard to master and ruthless in treating newbies.
Ultimately, it’s uncertain whether Valve’s approach of creating the shiniest of the DotA clones and trying to monopolize the community will be successful. But regardless, DotA’s impact has already been cemented in helping foster the “action-RTS” subgenera and creating a new breed of competitive gameplay. DotA 2 might just elevate the game to a new level (3).
* (1) Walbridge, Michael (June 12, 2008). “Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution”. Gamasutra. Retrieved October 16, 2010.
* (2) Biessener, Adam (October 13, 2010). “Valve’s New Game Announced: DotA 2”. Game Informer. Retrieved October 16, 2010.
(3) Graft, Kris (October 14, 2010). “Action-RTS Developers See Dota 2 as Profile Raiser for Genre”. Gamasutra. Retrieved October 15, 2010.