Valve's main goal with Dota 2, says producer Erik Johnson, was “to build a sequel to a game that 20-odd million people around the world are playing”.
That's Defence of the Ancients, a free player-made map for Warcraft III. It set out the template for a strange genre of game that's since inspired a series of massive commercial releases. League of Legends alone has over 11 million active players, more than World of Warcraft.
Dota 2 sticks to the template closely: two teams of up to five players each pick a hero, and control it from a top-down perspective. But there's already a war going on, between computer-controlled soldiers called creeps. Players are far more powerful, so creeps mainly provide easy kills to boost their experience and gold.
Each hero picks and improves skills as they level up during the game, and spends money earned from their kills on magical equipment and potions. In other words, there's a very short-term RPG unfolding on top of this RTS battle. And that progression is vital, because both team's bases are protected by devastating static defence.
Early on, assault is impossible. As heroes level up over the course of a game – which is typically 30-45 minutes – they can start to make a dent in enemy defences by grouping up and taking down gun towers.
It's slow for an action game, fast for an RPG, and more focused than an RTS. Valve call it an action RTS. “It pushes how well you can think about the state of a very complex system moment to moment,” says Erik. “How well you can make good decisions moment to moment.”
Playing it, it's funny how similar the feel of Dota 2 is to Warcraft III. Valve are sticking closely to Defence of the Ancients, and DotA wasn't even a mod: it just gave new names and values to the combat mechanics of Blizzard's game. So while Dota 2 is gorgeously presented and visually crisp, normal attacks still involve two creatures standing next to each other playing swiping animations while health bars go down. It might be an action RTS, but it doesn't feel like an action game in the way the fluid carnage of Diablo III does.
It's a long, hard game of attrition and tactics. There's always an enemy force ahead that you can't handle, and it's about biding your time, improving your character and defending your territory while you look for an opportunity to push. Killing an enemy hero is a huge win, so players often dance around each other amid the fray: eager to dish damage but skittish about getting trapped. Denying the enemy experience and gold is so important that some players kill their own creeps and defences before the enemy can, robbing them of the payoff.
What makes that complicated dance particularly interesting is the diversity of the heroes themselves. There are already more than sixty to choose from, and there'll be many more before launch. Each has a small set of skills that define your role on the team. The arachnid Broodmother, for example, can spin huge webs on the battlefield that render her invisible and heal her. She can push steadily into enemy territory, making it harder for the enemy to hold and safer for her and the spiderlings she can hatch. The zombie Lifestealer, meanwhile, is a scrappy tank-killer: almost all of his skills involve chomping at enemies to restore his health while he drains theirs. His ultimate ability lets him burrow his whole body into any non-hero unit and eat them from the inside out - gaining all of their health and ambushing unsuspecting enemies.
The huge variety of playstyles and the complex systems they fit into earned DotA some fans at Valve. “A group of people in the office were playing DotA a lot,” says Erik, “and initially became a fan just of the game. And then we went through some update cycles as customers of IceFrog, and we became pretty big fans of his.”
IceFrog didn't invent the genre, or even DotA. He took over maintaining the game from Steve Feak, who left to make League of Legends. But it was the happy feedback loop that he'd created with the DotA community that impressed Valve.
“In a lot of ways [it] kind of mimics the way we think about building audiences over time,” says Erik, “where you're continuously delivering value to your customers, continuously changing the game, making it more interesting and adding content. So part of it is this lifeline to the developer that we've done over the years, with Team Fortress 2 and Counter-Strike.”
So they hired IceFrog to develop a sequel with a team at Valve. It's a game completely unlike any other they've made: it's their first fantasy game, their first strategy game, and their first RPG. But they're not interested in diluting any of those things to make it appeal to a new audience – for now, at least, Valve are primarily interested in making something for the DotA community.
That doesn't mean it'll be the same game, of course. “Part of our job is figuring out how to recognise when consensus is reached within the community, and also recognise when it's time for us to take risks,” says Erik. “It could be that it's going to take some amount of time for the community to be comfortable with a particular change.”
Some of those changes won't be to the game itself, Erik says. “There are a bunch of things outside the product that are very challenging for a DotA 1 player right now. Like how to get in and play a match with a bunch of your friends against similarly skilled opponents. That's one of the problems that we're going to solve.”
Dota 2 is intensely teamwork-heavy: if one player on your five-man team is well below your skill level, their deaths will give the other team a steady stream of experience and gold that can turn into a huge lead. So most DotA-type games have a reputation for being unwelcoming to new players. Jump into a random game, and your learning experience might be ruining a whole 40-minute game for up to nine other people.
As well as adding better matchmaking, Valve plan to incentivise the community to address this problem themselves. “We want a build a structure where the community can self-police things like that,” says Erik. “We're right in the middle of generating all the data on how that's working, and we'll see how that goes. We think it's a solvable problem.
“[Putting] a new player into a position where they can have a bunch of fun learning the game is something that's important to us. And we have loads of ideas of how to do that. Some of them rely on people having friends that are playing already, so they can coach them or teach them the game within the product, and we think that's one way to do it. There's a way that we can put the new player into a really safe place. There are bots that they can play against to learn the game that way. And there's matchmaking: we want new players to be learning at the same pace as other players.
“How does the community interact with each other so that everyone stays civil? We're kind of testing that out now, where players have the ability to report other players in the game for a variety of things that they're doing, good or bad.”
Understanding the game is important, but getting good at it doesn't have to be. “We don't want Dota 2 players to have this goal of moving up in skill as much as they can,” Erik explains. “The goal of DotA is to have really entertaining matches.”
The current build of Dota 2 does little to explain itself, but it's still a game you want to get into, simply because it's gorgeous. The battlefield is shaded in pastels, lush grass and grey rock painted with the same low-contrast palette. The heroes are big, colourful, diverse characters with sharp outlines and distinctive shapes. There are already 63 to choose from, so being able to tell them apart is understandably a priority. Adding new ones is one of the main ways DotA games typically evolve after release.
“There's a really strong functional component to why the game looks the way it does, because DotA is a game where you're looking at your own hero the entire time, which is different from all the firstperson shooters,” Erik says. “So we wanted to make the thing that you're looking at interesting – something you want to spend 45 minutes looking at, thinking it looks cool.”
“On the functional side, when things happen in Dota 2... in the span of five seconds you could have 20 different elements on the screen, of varying importance. And we need to be able to have players understand what's going on and be able to visually break down what's happening at any given moment.”
It's set in the same world as DotA 1, which gave new names, abilities and backstories to characters that used Blizzard's Warcraft III art. It wasn't a fully realised fiction, so Valve have been fleshing it out with comics and new histories for each hero.
“This is the first fantasy game that we've made at Valve,” Erik says, “which I'm sure a lot of the artists on the team are really excited about... so we wanted to have at least a fresh take on fantasy.”
“We didn't want to do the typical Northern European fantasy look to the game. While there are elements of that type of fantasy that we think are interesting, we want to pull from sources from all around the world and try to make those all fit together. So there are elements of Eastern fantasy in the game, and South American fantasy, and all different parts of the world – DotA is a very international product.”
While a lot of Dota 2's hero characters look fresh, it's not hard to tell which Warcraft III characters some of them were originally based on. Pudge, for example, is a fat, stitched-up zombie recognisably similar to the Abomination – and sure enough, he used that very model in DotA. The Dota 2 version has the same concept, shape, and the same two weapons in the same two hands. Even if it were an unrelated game, parities like this would be suspicious. When you can also trace such a clear causal line from Blizzard's art to what has ended up in Valve's game, it just seems wrong.
Blizzard are working on their own version of DotA, featuring a motley crew of characters from all their major games, from Siege Tanks to Orcs. Both games will inevitably be compared with League of Legends, the hugely successful free-to-play DotA game from Riot. But Erik says Valve don't see it as a direct competition. “My impression of the League of Legends community is that they're very happy and they're big fans of Riot, the developer that's delivering the value to them. Like all games, their fans are extremely attached to that product.”
It is also a rare example of free-to-play done right: players can pay for access to new heroes, but these need to be balanced for the game to work in the first place so they're not getting an outright advantage.
Valve say they haven't even decided how Dota 2 will make money. “The hard thing with any game is how to build a product so a bunch of people out there want to spend their very limited entertainment time playing it,” Erik explains. “Once you have that, figuring out how to provide value and generate revenue is easier.”
Right now, Dota 2 is still a hard game to get into if you're not an experienced DotA player, but it's a beautiful rendition of it for those who are. It'll be interesting to see if Valve can figure out how to make it accessible and appealing to new players. It's a complex, tactical game, but they're among the best in the industry at making the tricky seem intuitive.