Why chaos is the heart of Dota 2


Three Lane Highway

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

I've been playing Dota 2 for just under three years. In that time, I've seen a few dozen new heroes. I've seen multiple patches turn the meta upside down and force me to reconsider my (ever-fledgling) understanding of this vastly complicated game.

Even so, I've started to anticipate certain kinds of change. Hero rebalances and redesigns are expected, when you play a game like this. Even the addition of crazy new Aghanim's Scepter upgrades has become familiar—a theme of the last few patches, something that is exciting every time it happens but not, at this point, a surprise.

It doesn't take much for a Dota 2 patch to feel like a big deal—new heroes reliably achieve that. It does, however, take something really different for a patch to feel like the start of a new era. Every now and then, Icefrog does something to the game that makes people say 'is this even Dota'. That's how I felt when 6.82 dared to change the map. I didn't expect 6.84 to meet—or even exceed—change of that magnitude, and yet it has.

A lot of this is down to the new items. It's funny—new heroes form the most obvious milestones in the game's history, but items are far less common and a far bigger deal. A new character squeezes into the roster, upsetting some strategies and galvanizing others. New items—let alone nine of them, with substantial changes to existing ones—affect every character and every player. Learning a new hero, no matter how different, is a known quantity. Incorporating new concepts into every single hero you play is something else entirely.

The Dota community is currently dealing with the ramifications of the Lotus Orb, an item that allows you to reflect single-target spells back at their caster. This adds a new dimension to what could be described as Dota 2's substantial 'crazy shit' component: a million new ways for already-complex abilities to interact with one another. Here, via the Dota 2 subreddit, is Tiny's Toss being reflected. Here, also, is Doom dooming Doom. Here are five Snipers sending off 6.83 in the best way possible.

This is highly visible Crazy Shit; it makes for good gifs. Less visible are 6.84's fundamental changes to core Dota 2 concepts. In the era of midgame items that can be 'consumed' to gain a permanent buff reflecting some of their benefits, being 'six slotted' doesn't mean what it used to. This is also the era of farm being given to a character—Alchemist—so he can produce Aghanim's Scepters for other players, a substantial expansion of what it might mean to be a support in a Dota match.

On top of that, you've got the introduction of magical lifesteal and cooldown reduction, concepts that have never been part of Dota despite featuring in more or less every MOBA to follow after it. Figuring out the long-term ramifications of these changes will take months or more: we should expect surprising ideas to fall out of 6.84 for a long time to come.

I've seen some cynicism, in comments and on Reddit. 'We League now'. 'Is this even Dota'. That kind of thing—it happens every time, and its intensity this week simply mirrors the unusual number of new ideas in this patch.

I want to argue that this very much is Dota. In my mind, the process that is about to begin in earnest—a massive, community-wide adaptation to new ideas, new situations and new interactions—is the exact thing that defines the game. Other games might aim for a stable set of game mechanics that sustain entertaining competition in perpetuity, but not this one. Dota isn't stability. Dota isn't balance. Dota is chaos.

Back in January, I wrote an article about why I don't see Dota as a MOBA. In it, I argued that business models have a substantial effect on the type of experience that a game offers. I still believe this: your time with a game isn't just defined by what happens in a match. It's defined by the structure that surrounds that match, what you're asked to pay for and what you aspire to achieve with every game.

In that regard, Dota and League (and all of the games that imitated League) are very different. Consider how important account progression is in the latter: a high-level Summoner account represent months or years of effort, collection, and progression. It's equivalent to a high-level set of MMO characters, and includes a lot of the same ideas: a long-term commitment represented by cooler stuff and fatter, healthier XP bars.

Dota doesn't work like that. At all. You might collect cosmetics, I suppose, but your account level is one of the game's most meaningless numbers. Your time with the game is vaguely represented by your MMR, but that's hardly consistent from player to player. Dota has no MMO-style progression system, and as such it's a vastly different proposition. It's not a MOBA; it's Dota. This doesn't mean that either type of game is better than the other. It means that they offer very different things, and have different obligations to their players. Which one you prefer is a matter of taste.

That's what I argued back in January. The comments were a mixed bunch. A lot of people—hilariously—sent me the Wikipedia list of MOBAs, as if the terminology we use was determined by Wikipedia and not the other way around. Some people simply don't believe that business models influence game design: I'm more sympathetic to that view, even if I disagree with it.

Here's the thing, though: to me, Dota 2 is defined by its ability to undergo vast, sometimes fundamental changes. A Dota 2 match might only last an hour, but the (meta)game of Dota takes years and its most dramatic moments come when Icefrog does something totally game-changing. This isn't just a concern for pro teams. Everybody experiences it. It's what it means to be a Dota player.

Dota is never more Dota than when one complicated and probably broken game mechanic combines with another complicated and probably broken game mechanic to create a totally unexpected outcome. And it's Dota's business model—first free and community-curated, as a mod, then totally free as a professionally-developed game—that allows it to continue to be this way. It requires a development philosophy that values unexpected combinations of game mechanics, and a business model that keeps player investment and game design separate.

Chaos is the soul of Dota, but chaos is undesirable when your game is also a service. XP bars and microtransactions represent an investment of player time and money, and players expect that investment to be protected by a game's developers. MOBAs need to be balanced and fair and reliable as a courtesy to their long-term players.

Dota doesn't.

That's why there's nothing like it, and the 6.84 update symbolises that perfectly. The reward for your years-long involvement with this game isn't measured in progression bars or an expanding roster of characters: it's measured in the number of times you've looked at the patch notes and thought 'this changes everything.' Dota isn't just three lanes and ten players. Dota is crazy shit.

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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.