How VR could change Dota 2 forever (but probably won't)


Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

Virtual reality is coming. Again. It was coming in 2012, and then in many ways it came in 2012, but then it wandered off again, resurfaced in 2014, got sold to Facebook, vanished, and now it's back. Virtual reality! The announcement of HTC's Vive marks a fresh beginning for both the wearable tech industry and the desperately optimistic tech op-ed industry.

It looks like a robot spider's face and sounds like an off-brand tropical juice drink that you might buy from a roadside van in the early hours of a Saturday morning. It will require you to carve out hitherto unheard-off leagues of floorspace, a volume of territory alien to anybody this side of North America's cavernous suburbs. It will smartly account for the possibility that you might wander into a bookshelf, but you will nontheless eventually wander into a bookshelf. None of this matters. Virtual reality is coming, and this time Valve are making it, and everything is going to be fine. You would walk into any number of bookshelves if it meant seeing Alyx Vance's face again.

What, though, does all of this mean for Dota 2? Valve's most popular game is also its most resistant to new technologies. Dota is a hard kernel of old-school PC design, rooted in the medium's past and utterly resistant to change. Its durability is key to its global appeal: you can play it on almost anything. It is Valve (and Steam's) ambassador to gaming markets that will be slower to adopt something as exorbitant as VR: Russia, South East Asia, South America.

Any application of VR to Dota 2 will always be a matter of luxury, not necessity. The game doesn't need it. But it could make use of it, and here is how.

Experience a replay in first person

You're never going to actually play Dota 2 in the first person. Even something simple, like changing your point-of-view using the minimap, wouldn't work. Dota 2's design piles complexity on top of the already-complex isometric RTS, and you can't just strip out those foundations and expect a playable game.

However! Going on a tour of the map in first person would work, and would be of interest to anybody who has ever wondered how their heroes actually experience that space. Extrapolate that out a little further and you've got a novel (if ultimately limited) new spectator mode. Witness your own best plays from the perspective of somebody who was hiding behind a nearby tree. Run into a bookshelf in your living room while trying to get the best possible angle on a pro teamfight.

Perhaps VR spectators could see each other inside the game, rendered as ghosts or perhaps as the little frogs and birds that already hop around the map. You could turn to the guy next to you and exclaim "did you see that?", pointing excitedly at a dynamically-intercepted Roshan attempt and/or a nearby bookshelf. Imagine sharing the experience of live sport with other people within the game itself, feeling the swell of the crowd with every play and encountering, for the first time in a digital context, the uniquely immersive inconvenience of not being able to see very well.

Pretend that Dota 2 is a living board game

Imagine if you could project an entire Dota 2 match—running in real time—onto a flat surface, either simulated or in your actual house. Imagine peering over it, like a god or a terrarium owner, watching these little animated miniatures run about and cast magic spells and yell at each other.

Imagine tracing the course of the river with your finger, seeing where it tumbles off the edge of the map—off the edge of the table—and down to the floor below. Imagine catching the water in your cupped hands and casting it into the air, letting it rain down onto your virtual face, laughing and laughing.

I am stretching this because I suspect that virtual boardgame Dota would actually work. It is not, in and of itself, totally ridiculous, and therefore I would both like it to happen and find it to be of limited utility to this column.

Endure the terrifying life of a creep

Here's a better one: an on-rails melee combat game like those arcade games you sometimes find where you wave a foam bat (see also: 'sword') at skeletons until you run out of money or dignity. Imagine something like that, but you're an actual creep in an actual game of Dota 2. You spawn in a barracks and run with your little brothers and sisters down a long lane, mighty heroes striding to either side. You encounter vile enemy creeps coming in the opposite direction and—swing! swing!—begin to chop at them in immersive first person.

The chaos of battle. The odds stacked against you. A tower at your back, a tower ahead. All of your kills are stolen by colourful characters with more power than you could ever hope to have. Then, as the battle looks won, as you surge forward, low on health but vitally, desperately alive, blooded in battle but never bowed, a shadow looms over you. You turn. There she is. Crystal Maiden. An ally, You think. She swings her staff: there is a bolt of blue light, and then there is nothing. Denied!

Try on cosmetic items before you buy them

Somebody once wrote a desperately optimistic op-ed about how we may one day use augmented reality technology to dress ourselves in the clothes we aspire to buy. I haven't actually read it: I assume that it exists. Nonetheless, I think this may form the basis of a fun addition to Dota 2's item store.

Imagine that you've got a modest sum of Steam-bucks to spend and you're not sure what to splash out on. At present you can preview new sets and you can cycle couriers through their various forms: you can rotate them and look at them and make a decision based on something as mundane as 'what the item actually looks like, on the character that it is designed for'. Yawn.

I'd like to try the items on myself: to be placed in a virtual store with a big mirror and parade around in the latest sets for my own amusement. I would like to attempt to wear some Broodmother armour and experience what it might be like to don Crystal Maiden's arcana cape, floating around with a dog and terrible frostbite. I'd like to try out Legion Commander's Arcana swords, and find out—once and for all—if it is actually possible to see anything when your eyes are on fire.

I'd like to pet the couriers before I buy one, and perhaps go for a ride on their flying variants. Having made my purchasing decision, I'd like to hand over virtual money to the shopkeeper himself, and take my items back to an actual Armory: this may, at last, provide a reason for me to interact with my shelves.

Stand in the player booths at The International

Let's assume that is possible to use a lot of combined camera feeds to place a virtual participant inside a different room in real time. Should this be the case, the natural next step is to give Dota 2 fans unprecedented access to the competitive scene. Valve have been slow to deliver their promise of International 2014 booth audio, so why not overcompensate with the technically unsound and deeply invasive application of VR?

Imagine how muted and awkward the players would feel, knowing that their every word and gesture was being picked apart by thousands of invisible, intangible spectators. Imagine hovering eerily behind your favourite players, listening to them alternately yell the words 'back' and 'nice'. Imagine seeing yourself as their equal despite staggering mounting evidence to the contrary. You think you know back-seat Dota? Not like this. Not like this.

Experience the life of the guy you're about to report

Let's get ambitious, here. Virtual reality could provide new perspectives on Dota 2—allow you to explore your hobby from a different angle. But what if it could make the community itself a better place? What if—and there are no bad ideas in this space, people, this is the future we're talking about—virtual reality could fix people.

I'm going to hypothesise a scenario. You are in a pub game. You are this ready to report somebody. Your mid has no gank. No gank at all! He has feed. For fuck's sake and so on. You type 'nooooooooooooob', and hold down the 'o' key just that little bit longer than you need to, grinding out your frustration like a pointless cigarette stub in the manky ashtray of your personality. You right click the player in question and select report.

But then! Your VR headset flips into a new mode. You are given a vision—a strange sensation, at first—of the same game from the reportee's perspective. You see, vividly, the lack of wards that meant that they could not realibly roam. You see that their opponent in mid was simply really good, better than you could deal with, and that they did their best but found themselves outmatched. I've been there too, you think.

Then, the headset takes you deeper. You see a scene from earlier the same day, because presumably everybody wears cameras on their faces all the time in the future or something. Your midlaner's boss is a total dick. There's a line at the bus stop. The post has been delivered to a neighbour. The pizza they were saving is missing from the fridge. The goldfish is dead.

All this, and all they wanted was a single good game of Dota. Instead, they got you—and all you did was add to the number of things they had to deal with that day. You are experiencing It's A Wonderful Life for the post-social age, if It's A Wonderful Life was a movie where Jimmy Stewart is repeatedly told to kill himself by a chorus of moronic teenagers. You do not get to descend the stairs to a town full of people who love you, in this scenario, but you may experience a moment of separation from the people whose lack of self-awareness, empathy or decency places them a few taxonomic rungs short of that sad, lost, incompetent baby seal whose only recourse is to honk stupidly into a vast empty wilderness that it will never understand. This is, presently, the best that you can hope for.

You are abruptly returned to the report screen. Your finger hovers over the 'submit' button. You close the window. Crestfallen, contrite but wiser than you have ever been, you wander into a bookshelf.

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Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.