Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2 and wizards in general. To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.
Dota 2 Reborn is now a little over a month old. If it was a real baby it would at this point still be busily shitting itself, and it would remain entirely dependent on its parents. You can probably tell where I am going with this. A one month old baby, according to this website about babies that I just Googled, is starting to discover that it has arms and legs but can't yet really do anything with them. It can reach for things, but it can't grasp them.
This analogy is only useful up to a certain point.
It's been a shitty start, for sure. Reborn was not ready to be launched on September 9th and doing so seems to have been a deliberate move on Valve's part to expand their pool of beta testers and accelerate its development. Certainly, they've been quick to patch up serious problems as they have emerged. A few steps have been taken to restore lost functionality—teams, guilds and so on, as lamented once already—and they've been receptive to the idea that players would rather see their friends list on the homepage rather than a six-inch-square panel telling them to buy a hat.
Launching Reborn as and when they did is one of the coldest decisions I've seen Valve make. The community was asked to replace a game they loved with a substantially more broken alternative and offered no sweetening incentive for them to do so. This is the exact kind of disruptive but necessary update that could have had its disruptiveness ameliorated with some capital-C Content: a hero or two, those missing International 2015 Compendium items, a special event. Instead, the last month has felt a bit like the aftermath of a medical procedure. Dota 2 is on the road to recovery, now, and it'll likely be better of for it all in the long run, but Valve's bedside manner leaves something to be desired.
Anecdotally, I've played far less Dota 2 in the aftermath of Reborn than I normally would. Lag and a sluggish, confusing UI have a cumulative deadening effect on enthusiasm. As disappointed as I am to see the death of team ranked ladder play, it's these constant little reminders that the game isn't working right that sap the will to play. A lot of friends report something similar: even if the game is playable, which for many in the UK it reportedly is not, then something of the crisp feel of proper Dota has been lost for the last couple of weeks. Complaining about Reborn has now become unfashionable, at least on Reddit, as opinions on anything tend to become after this amount of time. But I still associate the update with a sense of disappointment, and I doubt that'll ever fully go away.
The upside: this week I completely uninstalled Dota 2, finally doing as a legion of unironic pubmatch assholes have demanded I do over the course of the last three years. Immediately, however, I downloaded it all again, and this seems to have smoothed out my remaining technical problems with the Reborn client. It runs much more quickly, now, and I'm less aware of errors in game. Clearly Valve's ongoing work to fix bugs has a role in this, but I'd still recommend a fresh install to anybody still struggling.
It's time to start rebuilding my relationship with the game. What strikes me is how weird some of the game's new features are. Guilds are gone, but in their place is a regional chat channel that nobody asked for. At home I'm placed in Bristol by default, and at work I'm placed in London despite being only about a mile and a half further east. Neither are places I would choose to hang out. A friend's custom Dota 2 status message reads simply, "regional chat is the most racist and misogynistic thing I have ever seen." I wonder if Valve are playing some kind of long game, here: if nothing else, discovering that the toxic assholes you discover in every game are not in some far-off country but are in fact on your doorstep is a useful counterpoint to the assumptions people tend to make.
The Fall Compendium is a strange animal, also. Ostensibly associated with the Fall Major in Frankfurt, it really has very little to do with competitive Dota. For the first time, sales of a Compendium have no impact on the prize pool of the event in question: Frankfurt is capped at a cool $3m. Inside the book there's almost no information about the tournament, the brackets, the teams or so on. Instead, there's a lot about Compendium level rewards, gambling with coins, spending coins on chests for a chance at exclusive items, collecting lower-level items and crafting them into better items or consuming them for levels in order to get rewards to get coins to get items and so on and so on and so on.
This is all optional and innocuous and only harmful insofar as it's potentially addictive, but it's still a little sad to see the Compendium complete its journey from esports companion to hat directory. I'm more aware than ever that my guilt at spending quite so much on my International 2015 Compendium was ameliorated by the fact that I was putting at least a little money into player's pockets. Lacking that, there's no way I'll end up with a Level 1000 Fall Compendium.
No matter how much I want that golden Rubick cape.
A month after launch, I'm very happy that Dota 2 feels fully playable again. I should stress that. This is, after all, the best game in the world. I've missed it, and missed wanting to play it. It's a lifestyle and nothing will ultimately get in its way for too long, much as years of instability and confusing versioning and arcane lobby systems did not get in the way of the original mod.
Yet I cannot shake the feeling that the game we have now isn't quite the game I used to know. I don't log in for the same reasons, can't do some of the things I used to like to do the most. In the last Game Is Hard, our Dota 2 Q&A column, PyrionFlax mentioned that community features like guilds were removed because only a tiny percentage of players used them.
This is the heart of it, I think, or at least the heart of my disagreement with Valve's current approach. Dota 2 is a game about tiny percentages. It is about intuiting microscopic changes in circumstance, leveraging edge-case mathematics, knowing when to push and withdraw and how to manipulate the complex and exception-laden array of variables at work in every single moment in every single match. The top percent-of-a-percent of players are where they are because they operate at this level. Alliance's historic comeback against NiP earlier in the week is a spectacular macroscale upset resulting from a million microscale transactions. What looks like one big ogre with a little man on top beating sixteen shades of shit out of a volcano is in fact the violent culmination of a complex algorithm. Competitive Dota 2 is the lovechild of boxing and stock market manipulation.
It takes tremendous long-term engagement and talent in order to play at this level. I certainly don't. But engagement is a quality that doesn't always run hand-in-hand with popularity or importance: the way that the top 1% of players play is not popular but it is important. Similarly, the way that small percentages of highly engaged people choose to play Dota is, to me, worth protecting. If the only people using guilds were streamers and their communities, that is still important, I think.
Reborn thinks otherwise. Reborn is all about the bigger pool, the notion that you are more likely to connect with a few hundred assholes in the same city than you are with the small group of people that, however unlikely it may be, have decided to engage with the game more deeply than the average. The Fall Compendium is about how esports are a niche but hats are not, so a digital book about esports should in fact simply be a book about hats.
This approach may be led by player behaviour but it doesn't feel like a service to the community. Reborn has made me realise that these may well be different, and sometimes opposed, ideas. To return to that website about babies: one-month old aren't expected to do much other than react. After a year, however, you would want them to start making their own choices.
Editor's note: the original version of this article called out teams as a piece of functionality that was still missing, but it has in fact been restored in a patch. I missed it because, honestly, it's pretty well buried—but it's nonetheless a mistake to have missed it. I have reworded the article appropriately, and softened my criticism of Reborn as a result.
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