|Valve's New Game Announced, Detailed: Dota 2|
The rumors and speculation can cease. Valve is making Dota 2, we've played it, and it's already amazing even though it's not coming out until next year. And we haven't yet laid eyes on Dota 2's biggest innovation: a radical approach to integrating the game's community back into the gameplay itself.
What's a Dota?
Dota 2 takes its name from the Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, a drastic change to that stock real-time strategy title, which pits two teams of five players against each other in highly competitive, 40-minute or longer matches. Unlike most RTSes, DotA has each player controlling a single hero who levels up and stockpiles gold to purchase powerful equipment and consumables. As computer-controlled armies continually spawn and rush the enemy's base, players are responsible for using their powerful heroes to turn the tide of the battle in their favor.
DotA quickly gained massive popularity on Blizzard's Battle.net service, with the growing community utilizing user-created channels and the rudimentary custom game browser to connect players. As mods tend to do, it branched into several variations as time passed. Eventually, one rose to the top: DotA-Allstars, originally created by Steve "Guinsoo" Feak (now employed with Riot Games designing League of Legends). Allstars is currently maintained and updated by IceFrog (who declined to give his real name), who was hired by Valve in 2009 and is now working on Dota 2.
DotA enjoys such unprecedented popularity for a number of interconnected reasons. The game has a skill curve as long and as wide as Counter-Strike or StarCraft; expert players dominate matches with lesser-skilled individuals solely through manual dexterity and hard-won knowledge. Extensive upgrade paths allow players to combine items into more powerful versions, gaining thousands of hit points or powerful life-stealing attacks. Team play is hugely rewarded; though the map is large enough for all ten players to spread out and fight creeps on their own without anyone engaging anyone else directly, late-game play is almost invariably centered around giant 3v3 or even 5v5 team fights.
The mod has benefited from excellent, long-running support in the form of constant updates that add new content or address balance issues. Said balance is good enough that no dominant team composition or strategy has ever taken hold for long. The heroes are varied enough that a match featuring different team rosters can take on an entirely different character from the last.
The enormous following generated by DotA's deep gameplay is unprecedented. Today, years after its release, a third-party site hosting an update can get hammered by more than six million downloads in a day. The mod spawned a new subgenre, commonly referred to as "action-RTS," that contains two successful commercial games in League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth (and the unfortunate flop Demigod) as well as DotA-Allstars itself. Valve Corporation, the company beloved for its Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, and Left 4 Dead series as well as its outstanding Steam digital distribution and matchmaking platform, is making its entry into this still-growing genre next year with Dota 2.
What Does Valve Bring?
Valve's approach to Dota 2 is unusual in that the gameplay itself is remaining almost entirely untouched. "Our first reaction is to assume that [design elements are] there for a reason," project lead Erik Johnson explains. "IceFrog is one of the smartest designers we've ever met. He's made so many good decisions over the years in building the product. He virtually never makes a decision that doesn't have some reasoning behind it and a way to pick apart the logic behind it." This approach means that Dota 2 basically is DotA-Allstars with new technology.
DotA-Allstars' roster of 100+ heroes is being brought over in its entirety. The single map games take place on is functionally identical to the one that you can download for free today in the Warcraft III mod. Items, skills, and upgrade paths are unchanged. Some hero skills work slightly better due to being freed from the now-ancient Warcraft III engine, but Dota 2 will be instantly familiar to any DotA player.
A few things will make significant differences to players making the transition. Dota 2 uses Valve's Source engine, so the game is much prettier. Source itself is getting a few upgrades, including improved global lighting and true cloth simulation. Dota 2's integrated voice chat is a huge step up from having to set up your own Ventrilo server, and the speed of voice communication is very nearly a requirement for a game as team-focused as DotA.
AI bots will take over for disconnected players, and will be available to play against in unranked training matches as well. However, don't get your hopes up for a full-fledged single-player game, though. Johnson says, "Our goal with the AI is just that their experience isn't destroyed just because one person couldn't finish the game."
The visual style is remarkable for retaining the somewhat cartoony feel that the Warcraft III version of DotA-Allstars is built around, while going in a few different directions. "I think there are functional aspects to the art that are pretty significant to the players," Johnson muses. The environment, particularly in the forests that fill in the map between the three lanes that the NPC armies follow, uses a desaturated color scheme to give the colorful heroes and abilities some visual pop. The sizable art team is putting a lot of work into making the shapes and animations of each hero distinct to the point that players will be able to instantly identify any hero they see and quickly gauge the threat level of any situation.
The game will also feature a ton of custom voice work. You'll get amusing lines from heroes as they deny the enemy team last hits on creeps, and champions who have backstory connections will trade quips when nearby.
The bulk of innovation in Dota 2, however, is ancillary to the gameplay itself. Valve is upgrading Steamworks (the company's backend technologies for matchmaking and other gameplay and community-related things) to allow them to create in-game rewards for participating in the Dota 2 community. The idea is to have everything a player does in or out of game tie back into their online identity. Like the improvements to Source, the Steamworks upgrades will be available to third-party developers who choose to use Valve's tools when Dota 2 launches in 2011.
At a basic level, posting useful feedback or participating in constructive discussions on the forums will contribute to your standing in the community in a visible way. Valve doesn't have the specifics on how this will work nailed down yet. Will you get points that contribute to a visible ranking, like a Gamerscore? Will your posts need to be recommended by other community members to count for anything? What counts as a constructive discussion? These questions are all being actively explored at the moment. Valve assures us that the designers have a slew of awesome ideas for how to implement rewards in a way that’s visible to the rest of the community, but there are no details to announce yet. "When we talk about this identity that exists inside and outside the game, we don't think we're anywhere near it with what exists on Steam right now," Johnson admits.
If this was just about getting points for posting comments, though, we wouldn't waste your time by telling you about it. Dota 2 goes much farther than that. Everything from unlocking new skins for your favorite hero to getting a unique title for writing a strategy guide is on the table. Valve has ambitious plans (for which, again, there are no specifics to share) to host everything themselves and provide the best framework for the community to interact with each other. The idea is to reduce the social friction inherent in having to dig around a bunch of different fansites and wikis to find what you're looking for.
Yeah, so, lots to digest. Basically one of the most awesome mods in the world is now gonna be remade into a proper standalone game by the most awesome developer in the world. Do you really need to know more? Well, now that you've realized it's gonna be awesomest awesome of course you do. The reveal article linked above is hooge, SO GO READ IT!