Three Lane Highway: true emotional payout and other thoughts on the rise of Dota

Phantom Assassin Arcana

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2.

There's a certain kind of comment I see below these Dota 2 columns that has always made me think. They show up every other week or so, and usually run along the lines of 'I don't get it', 'boring game', or 'who even plays this?' Standard anonymous point-scoring, for the most part. Comments by people who have an opinion and don't care if it's true or relevant. These are bad-faith lines of enquiry: the commenter doesn't care for an explanation, they just want to be seen asking the question.

It's an interesting question, though, and one that has stuck with me. How has this genre of game, unfriendly, competitive, complex, time-consuming as it is, become so dominant? It feels like we've skipped a step: gone straight from 'check this out' to 'I'm sick of cash-in MOBAs' without the exploratory middle-period in the genre's life. That this is the most popular form in PC gaming at present goes largely unquestioned: the reasons why—and the lessons we might learn from interrogating them—have been more elusive.

This, also, from a genre of game that on the surface lacks any of the game mechanics that you might think of when you consider compulsive loops or systems designed for player retention. Your progress in a given game of Dota 2 is reset when the ancient explodes. Any collecting or levelling you might do in the game is purely cosmetic and entirely optional. Your 'score'—your matchmaking rating—fluctuates based on performance and is not intended to be grown beyond the level suitable for you. Indeed, popular as trying to game the MMR system might be, doing so is totally contrary to the system's purpose—unless you genuinely are improving as a player, in which case the system is working as intended.

MMOs are popular because the entertainment value of moment-to-moment play is matched by tangible, measurable progress in areas that are visible to other players: your character's level, their gear, your guild's progress through a series of raid bosses, whatever form it takes. Your play serves a greater purpose, and it's this purpose that keeps you coming back. The same is true for Farmville, for Fallen London, for any other example you might pick: persistent progress brings you back.

I don't believe that the potential to jury-rig a progression system within Dota 2's existing structure accounts for its popularity. Collecting cosmetics, gambling on professional matches and grinding out MMR are marginal pursuits within the hobby, not intrinsic to its appeal. That appeal, then, is something fundamental to the act of play itself—the simple (or not so simple) reality of the game, divorced from whatever hunter-gatherer instinct it might otherwise be tickling.

There are, I think, two principles at work here. The first is what I'd call the genre's 'emotional efficiency'. Dota 2 is, functionally, a competitive micro-RPG that provides opportunities for individual and collective heroism. The emotional 'payout', here, is the feeling that you or your friends have achieved something genuinely noteworthy; that you are special, powerful, skilled, fortunate.

The previous best example of a publisher-popular 'cash-in' genre, the MMO, chases the same feeling across years of player commitment. In this example, the feeling of power comes from toppling a raid boss following weeks of preparation. The problem that MMOs face is that this feeling is ultimately an illusion. The same boss will be defeated in the same way by many other people. The only players for whom genuine heroism is an option are those who achieve world-first raid wins, a tiny fragment of the population equivalent to the number of people who play Dota 2 professionally.

Even though the vast majority of people will never become pro players, each Dota 2 match (or League match, or Smite match) is its own competitive space, distinct from every other instance of that competition that has ever taken place. You will never encounter the same combination of players, characters, items, scenarios twice. Acts of skill or power are legitimate, in this context, because they are unrepeatable. Your heroism is not an illusion because you only get one shot at it.

Furthermore, these games achieve this feeling with a relatively small number of tools—a pool of characters, a set of game mechanics, a single environment—and each instance of the game takes a manageable amount of time to play out before the board is reset. Contrast with the MMO, where offering new opportunities for heroism requires constant work by the game's developers: new areas, monsters, missions, narratives. A lane pushing game can achieve the same thing with a single new character, or with a balance patch. The format is efficient, which makes it manageable for players to consume in vast amounts and practical for developers to create and maintain.

The MOBA is the emotional payout of an MMO in tablet form; minus the years-long social investment, plus the compelling quality of an experience that can be repeated over and over and over in the space of a single day.

The second key principle is that persistent progression mechanics and compulsive loops are not entirely absent—their expression simply takes a different form. You might talk of World of Warcraft being addictive because it combines fixed ratio reward schedules (reliable gold and experience from quests, exploration and farming) with variable ratio schedules (the chance for random loot or lucky wins on the auction house.) The casino analogy feels more applicable here than it does with Dota because the rewards being offered are analogous to the physical rewards most associated with gambling: gold, coveted items. The fixed ratio schedule gives people an incentive to keep investing their time, and the variable ratio convinces them that they'll one day win big. The result is a traditional compulsive loop.

This same combination is present in almost any other game with loot, and that's where you'll find it talked about most often with regard to games—my friend Matt Lees discussed the same subject in this interesting video about the console MMO Destiny. These principles are equally applicable, however, to the psychological processes operating within players themselves. 'Reward' need not necessarily mean gold or items: it can refer to more nebulous things, like the satisfaction of learning or the accolades that follow skilful or imaginative play.

Dota 2 combines fixed and variable ratio schedules in the way it distributes information. Every time you play, you are steadily learning new things about heroes, items, combos, techniques and so on. The amount that the game asks you to learn is vast, but manageably so: there is always the sense that there is more to learn, but not so much that you can't play right away. For the WoW player, their experience is a bar that runs along the bottom of the screen, steadily growing; for the Dota player, it is a feeling—also steadily growing.

All competitive games have this aspect, but the Dota formula is distinctive because of the amount of creative space it provides. It is possible, at every level of play, to be the one exceptional mind that comes up with a silly combo, a play, a draft that wins a game and earns you a story to tell. These aren't high-level or professionally legitimate expressions of skill, but chance wins that make for good YouTube nonetheless. This is how a variable ratio reward schedule can manifest within a competitive context: not in terms of an epic item from a trash mob, but in the eureka moment that produces Blink Armlet Dagon Terrorblade, or the Five Man Bird Bomb.

No other competitive game, I would argue, provides this balance between steady progress and the chance for creative triumph. Only the very best StarCraft players will ever earn the right to define their own meta and win; Counter-Strike players are judged by extreme degrees of finesse within the binary framework of a gunfight. There is absolutely skill and beauty in both of these examples, but they lack the aspirational quality that comes with creative space—space created by Dota's lack of structural grace, by the sheer volume of rules and exceptions that make it so daunting on paper. Its complexity isn't just a ladder that you climb: it's a sandbox for you to make your name in.

These games are interesting because they fall far outside of the format that we'd associate with accessible or addictive games while operating, I'd argue, on many of the same principles. In offering an emotional payout in place of an ultimately-thin sense of progress, they suggest that it's possible for 'compulsive' to be divorced from 'unhealthy'; 'time-consuming' from 'a waste of time'. There an awful lot of people playing these games, and I find it heartening to think that the majority of them are getting something out of it beyond a few numbers on a character sheet.

You might not get why these games are as popular as they are, and you might be justified in sighing next time another major publisher announces that they've bought a studio you like and set them to work trying to beat LoL: but there is a message communicated by this popularity, and it's one that says better things about gamers than any essay on compulsive mechanics or player retention ever will. It's that true emotional payout is everything: deliver the feeling, earn the player.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here. Thanks to Eskil Steenberg for the discussion that helped to flesh out a few parts of this article.

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.