Thief of time: does Dota 2 need faster ways to play?


Three Lane Highway

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

I just played a sixty-minute solo ranked game of Dota 2. We were winning for a long time. Then, as happens often, we stopped winning—they had Sniper, Veno, and Techies, and fighting uphill was a pain in the ass. Around the fifty-minute mark, we killed Roshan with the intention of giving the Aegis to our Slark. Then, our Axe took it. Then, Axe destroyed the sentry wards that Necrophos had dropped so that I could carry them. Then, Axe blinked blind into their base, died to mines, came back to life, and died again without buyback. They pushed. We couldn't defend. The game ended.

Axe threw, I think, because he was bored and kind of a dick. The latter is a tough fix; the former indicates a problem worth exploring.

Bored players are a bigger problem in this patch than they have been before. This is the era of game-prolonging comeback mechanics, Sniper, and pub teams that can't fight uphill. It won't last forever. There will come a time—hopefully soon—when regular Dota gets faster and snappier. I imagine Valve and IceFrog are looking towards the fifth International with a view to ensuring that matches don't run long and cause the whole thing to overrun (while also, y'know, putting the idea of an eight minute victory to rest.)

Regardless, regular Dota will always be a long, demanding game. I've internalised that side of it, as have most players. When you play, you are committing to a game that is likely to last between thirty and ninety minutes and that you're not allowed to quit. Back when I taught the rest of the PCG team to play, this was one of those things that I had to learn to see from their perspective: the notion of a game that you're not allowed to stop playing is totally alien to most people.

I also play a decent amount of Smite and lately I've been playing Infinite Crisis for review. Both of these games—as with the majority of MOBAs that followed the League model—provide surrender options and a variety of game modes, including those that result in shorter matches (single lane variants, and so on.)

For the majority of new players, the length of a Dota match in is an obstacle in the way of enjoyment. Developers of new MOBAs treat it as a problem to be solved.

For the majority of Dota players, however, it isn't a problem. It's part of what makes Dota what it is. That the game is demanding and that it asks a lot from you is a bridge you cross over on the way to getting more out of it than you'll get out of other games—and a lot of players are happy to make that journey. Its complex mechanics require room to breathe, and that 'room' is provided by having long matches. As a player, you're asked to respect that. If you don't respect that, you move on to something else.

The issue with this approach is that it divides players up along binary lines. The reality isn't really like that. Everybody who plays the game—even those who play it a lot—has a different amount of time and patience. Some are more willing to commit energy in the lategame than others. Some will play until it starts to get boring or hard, then throw or abandon in order to move onto the next one. This might be the wrong attitude, but it's sustainable for the players who engage in it. That they are sacrificing the enjoyment of nine other people in order to get their way is only a problem if they agree that it's a problem, and from their perspective it probably isn't (see also: 'dicks'.)

The issue with a purist approach to Dota, then, is that it doesn't account for people who play but don't care about spoiling the experience of others if it suits them. In an ideal world, people who didn't like playing Dota 'properly' would get bored with the game and stop playing: in reality, they show up as that guy who costs you a handful of MMR points every now and then. Even if most players never do this, even if some players only do it once and then quit the game forever, enough people play that it will reliably crop up as a problem for those that stick around.

With that in mind, then, I've started to see the value of 'shortform' modes. They don't really exist in Dota at present—1v1 Solo Mid takes less time, sure, but it changes so many of the game's basic systems and victory conditions that its relationship to regular Dota is limited to a few very specific areas. All Random Deathmatch is more lightweight, but can still take a substantial amount of time.

When official custom game modes finally make their debut, I hope that they'll play a role in offering alternatives that help to draw the throw-happy player away from regular matchmaking. Valve could do this themselves, of course—a 2v2 or 3v3 mode on a single lane would be interesting—but it's far more likely that they'll leave it to the community to build. And, honestly, I think it'd be a success for Dota as a whole if somebody does.

While there are many things about the regular MOBA model that I hope stay far away from Dota 2, the provision of more accessible ways to play is a proven good. It's a rare example of a community-dividing design decision that actually divides the community in the right way: not between serious and casual, but between 'willing to play for twenty minutes' and 'willing to play to the end'. I'd rather players declare the limits of their attention span when they choose a game mode, not when they throw at the end of a long match.

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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.