Three Lane Highway: why Dota 2 might not be a MOBA

Clash of Heroes

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2 and related games. Art this week is Clash of Heroes by Kunkka.

I started playing Dota 2 because somebody needed to. It was that simple, at first: here was a new and popular game in an ascendant genre, and nobody in the PC Gamer office played it. We looked for writers online but found nobody suitable. The problem wasn't just confined to our walls. Many of my colleagues in the UK reported something similar, and the solution we found was to collectively set about fixing this gap in our knowledge. I stuck with the game long past the point where I knew enough to cover it for the magazine and website—this column is the product of that prolonged engagement.

The origin of my hobby was a desire to learn what a 'Dota' was and why people liked it. I more or less did so, and I've developed that understanding over time since then. Sometimes in fairly convoluted directions, as regular readers of this column will know. Lately I've realised that my understanding of the genre is entirely coloured by having learned Dota 2 first. Now that I'm experimenting with other games, I've come to the conclusion that Dota 2's particular business model is fundamental to my experience with the game, and to many of the conclusions I've reached about it since. So fundamental, in fact, that I've come to think of Dota 2 as occupying a subgenre by itself.

Recently I've been playing Smite, which I wrote about last week, and Heroes of the Storm. I've had access to HotS since the earliest days of the technical alpha, and played it intermittently at every stage of its development to date. I like it but don't love it: I appreciate its value to people looking for a light and accessible way into the genre, but having been swimming in the deep end for so long I don't see myself investing a considerable amount of time into it.

In its closed beta incarnation, however, I've become more aware of how alien I find the game's business model. As Blizzard refine the account-wide unlock systems and progression mechanics that surround the core game, I'm more conscious of the levels I don't have, the modes I don't have access to, the characters I need to grind for or buy; the amount of content that I can't quite get at. In a way, I'm surprised at how surprised I am. I understand, on paper, that all of this is a staple of the genre, and that the expectations of many players have been set by League of Legends—for whom all of this is fine. I never played League, however. I started with Dota 2. And I find this way of structuring the game deeply offputting.

When I finally understood what Dota was, I understood it in terms of steady personal growth along two skill axes: personal skill and, relevant to this article, knowledge. The game was a vast open resource, a complicated web of characters, skills, items and contradictions, something I traced a different course through every time I played. Understanding every character seemed paramount, so I played every character. I picked a path through the roster based on gaps in my knowledge, rather than personal preference or success rate. This is how I ended up as such a generalist player, with no particular role or hero that I'd say I was very good at. In some ways, I wish I had focused more closely on something specific. In others ways, it has helped—particularly when it comes to drafting.

Nonetheless, my experience of the genre was fundamentally grounded in the notion that it was a library that I had free access to. A mountain to climb, but with full freedom of movement. It's only now, playing Heroes of the Storm, that I realise how important that feeling was to my continued investment.

In Heroes, characters are unlocked with in-game gold or real cash. They cost different amounts and new characters tend to cost more. You can complete daily quests to earn extra gold, but you're still looking at a substantial grind to unlock everything. Beyond that, each character must be leveled up through play to gain access to the full range of passive traits—Heroes' equivalent to Dota 2's items.

Imagine if Valve adopted the same model for Dota 2. Let's say that the full hero pool was still technically free, but you needed to unlock new characters with in-game experience. Let's say that after you unlocked Juggernaut, you were restricted to a 'newbie-friendly' set of items—Phase Boots, Vladimir's Offering, Desolator. After three games you unlock the right to build Power Treads, Aghanim's Scepter, and Mjollnir. This would likely make for a more manageable experience for new players. It would, however, turn Dota 2 into a different type of game.

Not a worse game, necessarily! This is not a qualitative judgement, but a question of design. Bumping into Heroes' paywall—seeing a hero I don't understand, wanting to test it against other players and being unable to do so—has made me starkly aware of how philosophically different these games can be from one another. Heroes of the Storm sets out to be entertainment, and it is entertaining in a way that an MMO is entertaining. You level up and get new stuff. You always have something tangible to work towards. You are encouraged to invest deep in a single character, a favourite, and worry about the others only if it suits you.

This is anathema to how Dota 2 is best learned. In the Dota 2 community, serious novices set off on the A-Z challenge and decry pub players who lock Pudge every game. Breadth is valued, graft is valued, because the game is work. And it's not work that returns an easy reward, either—getting better at the game is noted by an incremental bump to your winrate, not with a whole new character to play.

It was utterly vital to me, in these circumstances, that Smite offered a 'pay once' option—a generous way to circumvent its god-purchasing system with a single £30 purchase that unlocked everything, forever. If Hi-Rez didn't provide that option, I don't think I'd be playing the game. Because it has this option, Smite occupies a weird position between both sub-genres. When you download it, it's a game in the League of Legends tradition. If you buy the Ultimate God Pack, it becomes Dota 2.

I've long argued that comparing these games is unhelpful. What I'm considering, now, is whether it'd be more useful to think of Dota 2 and League of Legends as occupying different conceptual spaces entirely. That argument would go: Dota 2 is characterised by an overwhelming plurality of things to learn. League is defined by a process of personalisation and selection, both in terms of character choice and in terms of MMO-style progression through the summoner system. These two divergent threads only recombine at the very highest level of play. For everybody else, these may as well be different genres. Neither is better, necessarily, but the division highlights the deep influence that business models have on the types of games we receive.

I've always been uncomfortable with 'MOBA', as a descriptor. It's clumsy, non-specific. It never felt right for Dota 2, whose proposition has always been slightly different to that of its relations—at least for me. I wonder if this is how we redefine our terms, then: Dota 2 simply isn't a MOBA. In a MOBA, you level up your account and unlock new characters for gold or cash; you pick your favourites and participate in an ecosystem of who-owns-what. Dota 2 is, well, Dota. It's propelled by different business interests—driving investment in Steam—and offers a different experience. It's the messy open source equivalent to League's proprietary software. It's Unix to League's MacOS. You could start comparing those things, if you want, but approximately fifty percent of the internet would rise up in arms against you.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

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.