Defense of the Ancients. DOTA for short. It’s a strange beast. I’ll begin by describing the basic premise because I’ve known plenty of hardcore gamers that didn’t know what it was.
It began life as a mod for the RTS game Warcraft 3. Instead of having a hero unit commanding an army into battle, and permitting the player to command all units from above, DOTA simplified the strategy and made the focus the hero. Your base will continually spawn an army of grunts, usually called creeps, the enemies’ bases will do the same and, taking control of your hero and only your hero, you must help push forward against the opposing army to reach and destroy the enemy base. Each hero is equipped with their own abilities and it often ends up like TF2 on steroids, with over a hundred different characters each with differing abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Balancing all that must be a nightmare. Defeating enemy heroes and creeps earns you exp and you can level up your hero to have a greater impact on the game. As it happens, this concept became a huge success and has become a genre in its own right. One of the problems facing it though is that nobody has any clue what to call it or what it really is, so that’s something I want to explore now.
One of the first games to follow in DOTA’s successful footsteps was Demigod. This was soon followed by the now wildly successful League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth. All these three have a very similar play style. In contrast to DOTA’s top-down RTS perspective, these three had a third-person RPG perspective, but the gameplay was very similar. They play more akin to something like World of Warcraft than an RTS. So can you call it an RTS when it’s essentially the same game? Probably not, and there are a few ideas out there on how we can define it. The simplest one is DOTA-like. As far as naming convention goes, it’s not without precedent, after all we have roguelikes, named for the game Rogue. But even then, the genre has come a long way since its origins and something like, say, Monday Night Combat, whilst the fundamental mechanics are there, doesn’t really bear all that much resemblance to the W3 mod.
League of Legends coined the descriptor MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. That strikes me as a rather broad description. It’s a title that fits equally well to League of Legends, Unreal Tournament, Smash Bros or even Mario Kart. They’re all multiplayer games involving battling other people online, often in an arena of some kind. What else can we call it? Valve, with their upcoming DOTA 2, have pushed the name ARTS or Action-RTS. As for what kind of action-to-strategy balance DOTA 2 brings, I couldn’t say, as it’s still in closed beta and naturally everything’s pretty hush-hush. With the kind of fortune I couldn’t have planned, I’ve landed an invite today so I’ll be able to find out shortly. As I’ve already mentioned, I feel RTS is a bit of a misnomer for the genre now, broadly speaking, but equally there’s exceptions. Having had the privilege of being introduced to Carbon Games‘ AirMech at PAX, I’ve seen that strategy doesn’t need to be completely absent. AirMech combines the usual infinitely spawning creeps with the ability to buy more advanced units and then, because your avatar can morph into a jet plane, pick up the units and ferry them about the battlefield strategically. Crazy 300 actions-per-minute Korean pro-gamers will be restricted by the plane’s movement speed, so strategy elements are held back to a pace that the normal human brain can handle, but without sacrificing them altogether and turning the game into a World of Warcraft battleground or a simple team deathmatch.
Sometimes though, you do just want to chill out and blow stuff up. Uber Entertainment‘s Monday Night Combat and newly launched free-to-play Super Monday Night Combat are great for this. It’s a third-person shooter, really, when you’re playing it. A lot more tactical than your typical shooter fare these days and a lot less lethal in combat, making teamwork and strategy a lot more profitable, but if you’re not a god among gamers you can still dive in and make a dent. The creeps, towers and bases are all there and all work like you’d expect, but it feels so much more like you’re playing TF2 than Warcraft 3.
On the whole, it’s pretty trivial to take any two of these games, view them side-by-side, say they’re pretty much the same and bundle them all up under a single label. If absolutely pressed to, I’d still go with DOTA-like because that’s where it all started, and anyway there are hundreds of different roguelikes, all uniquely different, they still all get thrown in a big pile together. No, it still doesn’t adequately convey what the hell I’m talking about, but I’m content to explain it over and over again ’til we all know that it’s a genre. A rich, diverse genre that’s still in it’s infancy. I’m certain Eul never anticipated all this when he first sat down to make a fun variant of Warcraft 3, and I’m equally certain developers will continue to surprise us by trying exciting new things with it. It’s something I very much look forward to seeing where it goes.