Monday, February 11, 2013

Dota 2 (Overview)

OK. So my friend - who has been going on and on about Dota 2 ever since its release - decided to do me a "favor" by giving me a beta access key. Suddenly the pace at which my "games to play" used to get shorter came to a near-halt. Instead my Steam profile tells me that during the past three months, I have played Dota 2 for something like 400 hours. This outcome was not exactly unpredictable; there is a very good reason I have limited myself to single player games for a very long time (the occasional fighting game aside). As you might have guessed, I get engrossed in my games a lot. This is a good trait for a game designer to be sure but it is also a very dangerous trait. It's easy enough to control with single player games because they ultimately end. Either I reach the end, or I get all the achievements - it doesn't matter which, there is always a point where I can put the game away and mark it as "done". The problem with multiplayer games is that they don't really have an endpoint.

In this article I have decided to ramble about random things that pop into my mind. Mostly about Dota 2. I am not going to explain the MOBA concept. Go play one or read a Wiki article. This article is more overview-y. I might do some more detailed pieces about game mechanics. Maybe.

1. Studying as a way to play

I'm a scholar type gamer. Let's face it: my execution sucks. I have never been able to do the really tricky things in fighters even though I have played them for quite a long time and have been somewhat successful on a national level. My reaction time and my manual dexterity are just not up to the task. That is why I play a lot of slow-paced or turn-based games where the advantage lies in knowledge and cunning. I used to be a regular GameFAQs junkie, even reading guides that had no real relevance to my own playing. I wanted to know how others play the games I have just completed; I also wanted to know stuff that the game failed to reveal to me. I used to write guides myself too. I would discuss this stuff with anyone willing to participate. I still do. For a scholar gamer, playing the game is just half of the fun. If I look at my all-time favorite games, they are all games that inspire studying.

Being an extremely complex game, Dota 2 demands study. At first the huge amount of information is just overwhelming. At the time of writing there are almost a hundred heroes in the game, each with their unique abilities and varying attributes. On top of that there's even more items, a lot of them with their own distinct purpose. Sorting all this out takes time and experience, but even more so, it requires studying. I was at about 300 games when I could finally tell what every hero and item in the game can do from memory. I still check details almost daily. But it is not the amount of information that makes studying Dota 2 so compelling. The real complexity is in the way all this information interacts. There are five heroes on each side of a match, and every other hero in the game affects how you should play yours. The beauty of this is that the complexity here is so immense that there is no guide you can read that could cover your situation.

Unlike MMORPG's that have their loathed cookie-cutter builds, these do not largely exist in Dota 2. Therefore even a rather new player like myself is compelled to theory-craft. The fluid nature of Dota 2 can be witnessed by following tournament and league matches between professional teams. The list of most played heroes is living constantly, and new surprising lineups come up all the time. Teams figure out entirely new ways to play some heroes and suddenly those heroes are the new thing. Because everything is so situational, there are basically endless possibilities for a scholar gamer to improve their game simply by studying, theory-crafting and experimenting. When watching pro matches, I find myself constantly trying to figure out why they did what they just did (e.g. why did they pick hero X and not Y).

Because of this constant evolution, most written information is not up to date. It is often useful, but you can usually theory-craft beyond it. Likewise, the most current information comes from watching tournament and league matches, but it is often situational; again with the theory-crafting. The beauty of all this of course that it really pays off. You can easily tell when players have only played the game and never bothered to study it. They go for their standard builds and have very little concern for overall strategy. They choose their heroes based on what they want to play without paying any attention to picks made by other players. They fail to grasp when they have a massive disadvantage in a particular matchup. They even struggle with very basic concepts. Any player in the know will immediately take advantage of this. Although Dota 2 has some degree of technical skill, it is easy to outplay opponents with pure strategy.

It is the studying aspect that really keeps me interested in Dota 2. It also is linked to enjoyability of the game.

2. Goals of playing

Enjoying the studying has a very strong psychological background. The brain is simply wired to reward learning, and Dota 2 is excellent at showing results. At least my experienced rate of improvement has been very high. Reality may or may not agree, but it doesn't really matter to the brain. Another psychological concept that I have experienced is the difference in orientation. On the very highest level of orientation, there are two modes to do things: task-oriented and ego-oriented. The former happens whenever I play with a practice mindset, e.g. learning a new hero, practicing to use a certain skill, trying out a new build or figuring out a counter to a hero I lose a lot to.The latter happens whenever I get too obsessed about my own performance scores or winrates. I am most vulnerable to this when I'm "just playing" with no real goal. Let's just say that when playing a game like Dota 2 you should never ever play for no reason.

Being task-oriented means paying attention to the thing that you have set out to do and simply getting better at it. Basically this means that whatever happens, you will never be disappointed with the outcome. Either you have realized a new flaw or - better scenario - witnessed some clear improvement. Note that this is not the same as playing with "just do your best" mentality. Whatever you are doing should still be aimed ultimately at winning the game. You just shouldn't be obsessed about the outcome: this will only make you cranky and, most importantly, play worse. Whenever someone gest a rage fit in the game, they are very likely playing with an ego-orientation. When you are ego-oriented towards a task, your sense of self-worth hinges on the outcome of the activity. This makes you likely to take a loss personally and blame others in your team for playing poorly.

I have found it really useful to always ask myself "what will I get out of playing this match". It is really easy to become ego-involved in the game if you are "just playing" it. This does a lot to explain the bad reputation of MOBA communities in general (they are considered largely not friendly towards new players; I'll get back to this). Always practice something, and you will always get something out of every game. Although I will very likely never be good enough to play in a serious team (I am playing the "I'm too old for this shit" card here), I nevertheless try to practice towards the goal. Playing occasional matches with four friends also boosts motivation considerably because that is when all your knowledge and skill is really put to use. In public games with random team mates the unwillingness of others to cooperate often results in some weird ways to play the game that are not really viable in real team vs team matches. When it is you and four of your firends you get to practice the most important aspect of the game: effective teamwork.

3. About the players...

What you usually hear about MOBA games is that they are hard games to learn and while you are learning, everyone will cosntantly tell you exactly how much you suck. I also went into the game in a "brace for impact" mode but it turns out this is largely a dated stereotype. True, players do rage from time to time but it is in no way as common as it could seem from the talk. As we just speculated, this raging could happen largely because a lot of players are rather ego-oriented about the entire thing. Another problem with ego-oriented players is that they tend to be rather ignorant too. I think it is essential to make a clear distinction between two types of "bad" players: inexperienced and ignorant players. Although I do not openly flame people, I am not above getting really annoyed at one of these groups: the ignorant players.

I have no complaints about playing with inexperienced players who are willing to learn and communicate. Even if we directly lose the game because of an inexperienced player, there is no reason to rage at them really. If they are someone I know I usually point out later how they can improve their game. I will take an inexperienced communicating player over an experienced ignorant one any day. I don't even rage at ignorant players unless they start raging at either me or another team mate. Well, I don't rage really, just snark at obvious flaws in their play. Still it's not constructive criticism, just a snide remark that their own play wasn't particularly shining either. But I do rage about ignorant players, like right now in this blog. There used to be this joke about how our game design study group gathered weekly to rant about bad players. Let's just face it: I don't like ignorant players in any game. Not very adult of me, but whatever.

I find it impossible to fathom how some people can play a game for hundreds of hours without giving a shit about even the most basic concepts. To me it seems like a big waste because they are not improving at all. Why play a game if you are doomed to suck? Even worse, they don't even realize how bad they are playing. Dota 2 is tricky that way. If you don't stop to think, it is easy to find a lot of explanations how losing the game was not your fault. Your team mates can be noobs, the opposing team has OP (overpowered) heroes etc. At least there is no randomness in this game to blame (there is a clever trick, I might cover it in another post). The problem of course is that when players fail to notice how they failed, they really cannot improve either. It is very hard to admit failure for players who are ego-oriented, because admitting failure hurts their self-esteem.

This is usually when I get told "but we are having fun". To this my response is to find someone else to play with. Still, this casual attitude is more understandable than the attitude of the most obnoxious players. In Dota 2 these are largely ignorant players who think they are good in the game, and their primary reason for playing is to "pwn" (get a lot of kills). Whereas a casual player will just shrug at a loss, this obnoxious type will get on with the raging. Obviously they are not taking the game casually, but they also show no interest in actually trying to improve their game. This is what truly perplexes me. To me it seems like being stuck in an infinite loop of un-fun where over 50% of the matches you play will suck (because you lose). I guess to each his own, but judging by my own ego-oriented streaks, the un-fun part really rings true. There are also the occasional trolls, who I have equal difficulty understanding.

One tricky thing about team-based games is that the development of an individual player's matchmaking rating is always to some degree dependent on their team mates. This is particularly true in Dota 2 because a bad teammate not only fails to contribute anything, they actually hurt the team because enemies get experience and gold for killing them. Although statistically the chance of getting bad teams is equal to getting decent teams, games that are lost in hero selection are not very couraging (it is quite possible to pick a lineup that has no chance at all). Another problem with the matchmaking system is that a lot of matches are rather lopsided. Either your team loses so badly nothing you do can affect the outcome, or your team steamrolls over the opponent with no challenge at all. Both types of games are rather bland. Overall this is a problem that cannot be really avoided when matchmaking among so many players.

4. The hidden lore

What makes Dota 2 hard is that the game is not exactly what it seems like on the surface. Or, rather, it is about many more things than it might initially seem. A very simplistic initial impression might be something like this: you get to choose a hero, then you proceed to farm levels and items to become a killing machine, then you take your enemies out. This is not exactly false, but it is definitely not true either. Let's just walk through over game phases to get some insight into what is not immediately apparent from playing the game.

Hero selection is the very first thing to do in a game. The most commonly played mode is All Pick, where every player gets to freely choose whatever hero they desire (exception: the same hero cannot be picked twice). So you just choose a hero you like and everything is go, right? Well, obviously, no. If everyone does this, it is entirely up to chance whether the lineup makes any sense at all. In truth, every pick should serve some purpose. For instance, there is only limited amount of farm available in the course of the game. If everyone wants an equal share of the farm, no one will come out strong. The problem in picking heroes in public games is that picking a really effective lineup requires communication before anyone picks anything. Why? Let's take a look.

Heroes are divided into several roles. Most importantly, there are more roles than there are players in the team. This means all roles will not be covered. As it should be, most heroes are at their best when played as part of particular strategy. Another important variable about heroes is their time frame. Put simply, this indicates which phase of the game that hero will be the most powerful at. This has very serious implications on overall strategy: a team consisting of mid-game heroes has to play aggressively to secure victory before their heroes run out of potency. There is also another role system, the 1-5 roles. The number means farm priority: role 1 gets majority of the farm, while role 5 gets practically nothing. While this may sound bad for the role 5 player, what it really means that a team should always pick heroes that do not need farm.

On top of all this, counter-picking needs to be considered too. You also need to consider lanes: these are positions that the heroes take at the early stages of the game. Not all heroes are suitable for all lanes so that's another thing that needs to be considered. The trickiest heroes in this sense are those that absolutely need to get into a given lane. If one of those is already on the team, picking another is simply stupid. In a sense All Pick is a stupid mode because there is no forced pick order and, theoretically, the team that picks last has the advantage of seeing what their opponents are going to play. This doesn't really show though, because in public games picking resembles a rather unstructured random process. I highly dislike players who wait and wait before picking and then make some really dumb pick that has no synergy with the rest of the team. Whereas if they had actually picked first, the rest of the team could have reacted to the pick.

So we are not even in the game yet and already there have been a lot of ways to screw up. Welcome to Dota 2. Laning is the next phase. This is a relatively static phase in the game where teams face each other in the game's three lanes, usually 1-2 heroes per lane. It is important to consider who goes where, as we just discussed. Laning two heroes who need farm together for instance is a bad idea, because they will be stealing from each other. Heroes who need farm should instead always lane with heroes who don't. Another thing that can go wrong in the early game is the purchase of starting items. There are a few items that help the entire team, but does not buff the hero who buys them. As you might have guessed, no one really wants to buy these. Someone usually buys the courier, because the little critter is criticial (otherwise heroes would need to run back to base to buy stuff).

There are also wards. They sound rather unimpressive: all they do is sit in a position where you put them and provide vision of the area. The importance of vision seems to be one of the hardest concepts for many players to grasp. Another type of ward is used to reveal wards placed by the other team; they also reveal invisible units in their vicinity. If there are heroes who use invisibility then these wards may get bought, but the more important, vision granting ones often go unbought. It is actually somewhat hard to truly realize the importance of vision at first. I bought wards because my friend told me that it is a thing I should do when playing a support hero. But it really took me quite some time to actually see why wards are important. The importance of vision in a game that features a fog of war may not be shocking news to strategy game folks but somehow it is quite hard to grasp in Dota 2.

But here is the thing: if you have no vision of where the enemy is moving, the only sensible thing is to assume that they are coming to kill you right now. If you don't assume this, you have no way to prepare for it and you die. Preparing for it usually means having to retreat from your farm and do nothing. Both options are really bad. Vision also works the other way around. There is no way to go and kill a "lone" enemy hero if you cannot be sure that his four friends are not hiding nearby (does not prevent people from trying - they usually die). But as soon as you see where they actually are - boom, dead enemy hero. Overall, the fact that you "saved" money by not buying wards is not much of a consolation when the enemy team can just roam freely all over the map killing whoever they want and there is nothing you can do about it. The problem with buying wards is that it should always be done by heroes who don't need farm. If they don't do it, the team is basically screwed because either they go without vision or someone who really needs money has to spend it on wards.

The game still hasn't even started and there are yet more ways that we can have screwed up. Fun times. The next opportunity to screp up consists roughly of the first ten minutes into the game. This is called the laning phase, and it involves killing a lot of creeps (small squads of AI controlled units that march along the lanes to fight enemy creeps). The mind-boggling thing about creeps in the laning phase is that you do not want to kill the enemy creeps as quickly as possible. No matter who makes the kill, everyone in range will get their share of the experience, but the money - the actual farm - goes to however got in the hit that killed the creep. So there is no benefit in killing the creeps quickly. Instead, it hurts your team a lot. There are towers in the lane, and in the early game these things are deadly to heroes. The closer you are to your own tower the better. The lane gets pushed or pulled based on whose creeps die faster, so in fact you want your own creeps to die faster. You even want to finish them off yourself to deny farm from the enemy.

This logic is kind of counter-intuitive, so I get it that not all players grasp it. However constantly attacking the lane creeps is way too common. Yes the whole concept is rather mind-boggling but it's the very basics of the game. Yet it is one of the most common screw-ups (on my skill level). Another thing that has to be kept in mind during laning is: who gets farm and, more importantly, who does not. It is not enough to secure farm for the team; farm needs to be secured for the heroes who actually need it, and at the same time should be denied from enemy heroes who need it. To put it simply, heroes have different bang-for-buck factors. So by taking farm from a hero who needs it more, you are effectively stealing from your own team. It is not as simple as "I get money, we get money". This again is very hard for some players to grasp.

There are several obscure concepts in the early phase of the game too. Fortunately it does get more intuitive towards the end. Not easy, but more intuitive. As we discussed, the team should have some idea when they are at their strongest. If the lineup is heavily early game focused, then they need to start pushing - attacking enemy structures - early. A late game lineup on the other hand will want to keep their structures up while their key hero is farming. A typical late game carry needs to farm 30 or even 40 minutes to become really effective. Basically this means the rest of the team needs to be able to fight one man down. Involving the late game carry in too many fights is risky because they can die and also because they lose precious farming time. They are typically quite useless early on too and will be the focus of enemy aggression.

All this requires quite a bit of knowledge of all the heroes in the game. Another thing the game requires is carefulness, but not too much of it. Because of the way hero respawn mechanics work, dying late in the game causes a hero to be out of the game for a very substantial amount of time. If someone dies solo in the endgame, the rest of the team has to fight 4 versus 5, and if they lose that fight it is usually game over regardless of how the game has been going until that point. Although some people criticize the game because it feels like the outcome is often decided early, this is not accurate exactly because of the way the endgame plays out. Even a great start can be wasted by not realizing the time frame where that advantage is useful, or by stupid deaths in the end game.

The game also has its share of obscure information and exceptions to rules (much like the English language). However this has gone on for quite a bit so let's leave something for another time.


There are plenty of reasons for me to like Dota 2. As far as competitive games go, it is one of the few I can actually play because it does not require too much execution. It also goes very well with my study-heavy attitude towards games because not only is there a lot to study, there is also a lot of room for theory-crafting. What I really like about the game is its context-dependency; basically the answer to most questions about the game start with "well, it depends". Players need to use their own brains to figure out what they should do. Or at least one player needs to, if there is very good team communication. However because the team captain also has to mind his own play, it is far more optimal if all players have a good grasp of what they are supposed to be doing.

It is a game I actually don't recommend if you are not willing to put a lot of time and effort into it. Although the chance of getting yelled at in the beginner level has diminished quite a bit, going into the game with no research is going to be a very confusing experience, involving a lot of dying. The game doesn't have any built-in tutorial because it is still in beta (which it has been for what, two or more years?), but players have written an assortment of guides for understanding the basic concepts and also hero-specific guides (usefulness can vary). If you have the willingness to put yourself into the game, then I think Dota 2 is a really rewarding game. Just keep what I said about playing attitude in mind.

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