Three Lane Highway
Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.
It's been ten months since Valve released the Source 2 toolkit for Dota 2 custom game mode developers. It's been seven months since they confirmed that something big would be arriving in 2015, a project that accounted for the lack of Diretide and Frostivus and the ever-slowing rate at which new heroes arrive. Despite the warnings, however, I'm taken aback by just how important Dota 2 Reborn feels. This isn't simply a major update: it's practically a new game. Valve's mysterious alt-text writer might have joked that we're back in beta, but we really are. Two years into the life of Dota 2, we're at the cusp of a change that they could probably get away with calling 'Dota 3'.
In detailing what I think the major changes to the hobby are going to be, I'm going to gloss most of the serious connection and technical issues that are an undeniable problem with the current beta. Let's assume that, given a few months, Dota Reborn works the vast majority of the time.
Even so, Dota 2 is going to gain a scrappy new identity. That stunning new UI disguises a fundamental change in the type of game that it is. At present, your experience is curated by Valve. Old Dota 2 demonstrates the developer's commitment to the original mod, with every menu, mode and system trending towards more Dota, more of the time. Lots of people want this, and for them the game doesn't need to be any more than that. You play Dota 2 because you want to play Dota. That makes sense.
With Reborn, Dota 2 is becoming a game development platform. Classic Dota dominates three quarters of the UI, but that 'Custom Game' tab will ultimately represent an offering far, far bigger than it. The notion that you play Dota 2 because you want to play Dota will become a thing of the past: you might play Dota 2 because you want to play Bomberman. You might play Dota 2 because you want to play a kart racer, or a survival game, or solve a puzzle. Although the majority of custom games will be derived from Dota's basic systems, they're not committed to that: the potential for divergent experiences is huge.
Similarly, the potential for negative experiences is huge. Most custom game modes will be bad. Lots of them won't work. The ones that work well will still be impacted by the lack of skill-based matchmaking and the ready availability of the abandon button: there's no way they can be seriously competitive as Dota is without a bit of curation from the community. This isn't a problem, in and of itself. It means the return of low stakes Dota, of negotiating lobbies, of rough placeholder models and design experiments that go nowhere. The return, in short, of the golden age of modding—with all the inconsistency and homebrew jank that this entails.
This is a huge tonal change for a game defined by its singular focus and high production values. In becoming a game design sandbox, Dota 2 doesn't just gain a whole bunch of new ways to play—it becomes messier, easier, more inviting to more people. If you ever wondered how the game could get bigger, this is it. Right now, despite this being an opt-in beta that doesn't work half the time, the player population for Skillshot Wars is equal to that of the Marvel Heroes MMO. Pudge Wars has more than double Evolve's player base. Overthrow's playerbase would be enough to put it in the top 30 games on all of Steam.
Dota 2 custom games are going to be utterly massive. You will have friends who play them and don't touch Dota itself. The ideas expressed within this game over the next few years are going to spin out into full games in their own right; possibly even genres. It's happened before.
I've been thinking about the effect this is going to have on the community—aside from it simply getting larger. I suspect we'll see a lot of anger about AFK lobby hosts, quitters and so on. In that sense, Reborn might give an already fractious group of people new reasons to shout at each other.
As a counterpoint, however, today I had one of the nicest interactions with a Dota 2 stranger I've ever had. I loaded into an Overthrow match, on the map that divides players into teams of two. During hero selection, my randomly-assigned teammate admitted that they'd never played it before and had no idea what to pick. I said that I was in the same position. We talked back and forth about combos we might try, settled one, and played. We lost but it didn't feel like a big deal. It was fun, and, more importantly, it wasn't taboo to say that you didn't know the best way to play.
The Dota 2 community is enormously elitist—a sign of weakness is tantamount to blood in the water. Nobody wants to admit their mistakes, everybody wants to blame somebody else. This is a community with a widespread working knowledge of the Dunning-Kruger effect, for heaven's sake.
Custom game modes disarm that by creating a scenario where everybody is new again. Because it doesn't 'matter' in the same way that traditional Dota is seen to, it's okay to ask questions. It's okay to clown around. Even if this is only the case for a handful of popular modes, it's enormously healthy for the community as a whole. Will it lead to nicer Dota players? Too early to tell. But it does make playing with assholes optional, and that's a quality-of-life improvement on par with anything else Valve are doing with this update.
This time next year, Dota 2's going to be unrecognisable. Hell, the genre is going to be unrecognisable. Imagine being the developer of another me-too MOBA right now, watching a Dota 2 custom mode blitz past your concurrent player records in a single day. You'd just stop, wouldn't you?
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